Dave Stringer is ‘one of our own’. He has lived all his life in Norfolk — and gave all but four years of his entire playing, coaching and management career to Norwich City.
He played 499 games for the club, was voted player of the season as the club won promotion to the top tier for the first time and he played in City’s first two Wembley finals. He coached the first group of City youngsters to win the FA Youth Cup and then had five seasons as first-team manager, taking the side to two FA Cup semi-finals and to fourth place in the top tier.
His chapter in the second volume of the Tales From The City trilogy was the first opportunity he’d had to tell the full story. He did so in a matter-of-fact tone — but the achievements he recounted were anything but modest. We reproduce that chapter here, with the permission of Adam Leventhal, for the publishers, and Mick Dennis, the editor.
IT MATTERED BECAUSE I CARED
BY DAVE STRINGER
My father negotiated my first professional contract with Norwich City and got me a very good deal: £15 a week basic, £7 10s (£7.50 now) for every first team appearance, £4 for a win and £2 for a draw. If the team got in the top eight in our division, and if I played sufficient games, there was £750 at stake — but that was to be shared among the whole team!
Before my father intervened, I’d been ready to snap their hand off for the £12 a week they were offering, because I just wanted to play football for my local professional club.
I was 18. I’d left Alderman Leach School in Gorleston at 15 and started an apprenticeship in engineering. Football was what I wanted to do, though.
I used to go and watch Yarmouth Town, who played at the Wellesley, like they do now. They were in the Eastern Counties League and they used to play the A teams of clubs like Chelsea and West Ham.
At Alderman Leach with me were Peter Simpson, who went on to play for Arsenal and Mike Bailey, who played for Wolves. Peter and I actually had a trial for Arsenal at the same time, because we played for the county together and both got invited down to London. Peter got taken on and I didn’t.
But I was in the Gorleston first team at 16, and then started playing for Norwich City B team. But it was only when I was picked for the England Youth team, that Ron Ashman, who was the Norwich manager at the time, decided to offer me professional terms — and my father struck that hard bargain on my behalf.
This was 1963, and if I’d stayed in engineering and become fully qualified, I’d have probably been on £12 a week. So professional football was good money, but not out of sight of working men.
I’d been a centre forward in schools football, scoring lots of goals. But Gorleston made me a fullback, and that is what I was when I became a pro at Norwich. There was a lot to learn as a young player, and I didn’t get into the first team until near the end of the 1964-65 season, when I was 20. Norwich were in the second tier — they had never been any higher than that — and Ashman gave two or three of us our debuts in a game at Coventry, but we lost 3-0 and it was a bit or a rude awakening for me.
I was excited, of course, and wanting to show I was capable of playing at that level. But as a young player in a big match for the first time, you sometimes take more notice of the occasion than the game. So I can remember the atmosphere, the crowd and so on, but the game went past in a flash. As I got more experience, I learned to concentrate solely on the game, and it didn’t matter how many people were there or anything other than the game itself.
I played three matches in the remainder of that season, but wasn’t picked at the start of the following season. You have to remember that there were no substitutes at all, so you were either in the team or not a part of it at all.
Then Phil Kelly, a Republic of Ireland fullback who was in the team at that time, suffered a bad knee injury: cruciate ligaments, which was a career-ending injury at that time. Freddie Sharpe, who was ex-Tottenham, got into the team but didn’t do too well, so for the game against Cardiff, I was given a chance. I grabbed it, and from then on, my aim was to play well enough to keep in the team.
There were some good players in that team: people like Ron Davies, Terry Bly, Mal Lucas, Gordon Bolland, and in goal was a twenty-something called Kevin Keelan.
It was a good side, but the club had never really looked like getting into the top division. Ashman left, Lol Morgan came in, but the highest we finished in that period was ninth.
To tell you the truth, I was getting itchy feet a little bit, because I wanted to play at the top level. I had the ambition to play at the highest level I could but it seemed as if I was running out of time to do that and that the club was just plodding along.
It was when Ron Saunders came, at the start of the 1969-70 season, that the club changed, and so did my career and life. My attitude didn’t change, but Ron’s attitude matched mine.
He was what the club needed at that time: someone to pull it up by the bootstraps. He did exactly that. He was a no-nonsense man who didn’t mess about at all. Either you did it his way or you were out.
For the first pre-season, he was in shorts and stripped to the waist and he looked the part: fit and strong. He sat on the ball in the middle of the group and he said, ‘Right. I want to get this team into the First Division. Those who don’t want to come with me, I’ll see in my office after training’.
So we thought, ‘There’s going to be no messing with this one’. And I thought, ‘You’ll do me’. I thought he was someone I could look up to and respect.
His face had a jutting chin and he looked like he was carved from granite. And when he played in some of the games in training, he was a tough man.
He drilled and drilled and drilled the team in the way he wanted us to play. We were so fit that we ran teams off the park. They couldn’t stay with us. We got the ball forward quickly and the back line got up field as fast as we could, so of course the opposition forwards had to come with us. In fact they did more running trying to catch us up to keep onside. We made them work hard. So when the ball was coming back the other way, they just didn’t have the energy to go forward.
To get us that fit, the training was really fierce. Pre-season, the amount of work was amazing. For example we would probably do 100 exercises on our legs only, going around the outside of the pitch. We would jump over sticks while carrying weights, and that sort of thing.
The fashion then was for flared trousers, but Stephen Grapes, a young winger some of you will remember, couldn’t even find a pair of flares that would go over his thighs because they blew up so that they were like tree-trunks because of all the work Ron made him and the rest of us do.
I have never felt so fit in all my playing career. We did have some players with skill and craft, men like Dougie Livermore, Kenny Foggo, Jimmy Bone and David Cross, but our play was based on our fitness and those sort of players had to work hard as well.
I had moved to centre back under Lol Morgan. And it was Lol who bought Duncan Forbes. We didn’t play similarly, Duncan and me. Our personalities were very different, too. But the similarity between us was that we didn’t want to lose — at anything we did. If you played table tennis against Duncan it would go on for ever. He would just keep getting the ball back and wait for you to make mistakes. He was so hard to play against, and he was like that as a footballer. Forwards playing against him just thought, ‘Oh for goodness’ sake, give me a rest.’
He was strong in the opposing penalty area as well, and we both scored goals. He would say himself that he wasn’t blessed with the greatest of skills but he stopped those who were skilled playing and he was very effective. When he became captain, he was effective at that too, because he was a natural leader.
This was the era of 4-4-2, so every team had two up-front. Virtually every team played like that and Duncan and I would pick up the two strikers. Normally the opposition had a little and large situation: a big, strong striker, and a small, nippy striker playing off him. Duncan always liked to pick up the big feller who would be working down the middle and who was going to be fighting for the ball. So I would then have to mark the player running off the big centre-forward. I had to do my job when the ball came through the air, too. I had a fairly good leap and although I was 5ft 10, which was not big for a centre-back. I was happy playing on the right or the left of Duncan, depending on where my man was going.
When Ron Saunders came, he said it would take him three years to get promotion, and he was right. The first year was sorting out what he had, and getting players in. The second year was drilling us into a side, and the third year was to go for promotion. And that is what happened.
A testimony really to the way he did things was that, years later, we all met up again for a testimonial. The 1972 promotion team all played together again and it was like a jig-saw. We all fitted in. We all knew each other’s game, still. We knew each other’s deficiencies but we knew each other’s strengths as well. It was remarkable.
We won promotion at Orient on the Monday night and went to Watford on the Saturday needing a draw for the title ahead of Birmingham. We drew 1-1 and I got the goal — although I should have had three. Kenny Foggo kept putting the ball into the same place and I kept getting my head to it, but two didn’t go in. The third one did, though and the film is still on YouTube.
Millwall, who had run us close all the way through, missed out on promotion, but the top three teams didn’t lose at home in the league all season, which shows you it was tight.
I’d had eight seasons in the second tier. I’d begun to fear that I wouldn’t get a chance in the top tier. But now, Norwich City were going up into the top division for the very first time, and my goal won the title, which finished off a special season for me.
The following season we got to the League Cup final — the club’s first appearance at Wembley — but I think that took something away from our performances in the top tier.
The match that sticks in my mind in the run to Wembley was the Chelsea semi-final. We went to Chelsea and beat them 2-0, which surprised a lot of people, and then, for the second leg at Carrow Road, the ground was packed.
It was a terrific stadium for night games. There were terraces on three sides in those days, and there were 35,000 people plus there. When we walked out that night, the excitement the supporters had — the chance of going to Wembley for the first time — was palpable. You could feel it. The air was electric and, as a player, you couldn’t fail to be excited. I had played 400 games or so by then and so I wasn’t nervous, but I was definitely excited.
It is hard to describe the feeling. I looked forward to games like that. I wanted to be out there, play and do well. And the ultimate enjoyment would be if we worked hard and won the game.
We were leading 3-2 on the night and 5-2 on aggregate. Terry Anderson, David Cross and Paul Cheesley scored our goals, and we thought we were on our way to Wembley. But then this blanket of fog rolled in from the River End and it did get really bad, so the ref, Gordon Hill, took us all off five minutes from the end.
He told us he was going to see if the fog would lift enough for us to finish the match and I said to Chelsea’s David Webb, ‘He can’t call it off now. We’ve almost finished. Surely we can play the last few minutes.’ Webby said, ‘Don’t say that. There’ll be another bonus for another game.’
We were off the pitch for 17 minutes and the Chelsea fans were singing, ‘Come on the fog!’ Then the ref took us back out, but after only two more minutes he gave up and abandoned the match.
It was a nerve-wracking wait for the game to be restaged, because I thought the situation had given Chelsea another chance. They would be used to us, and our style, and they would get another crack. But when the game was replayed, we won 1-0.
Playing at Wembley that first time was a terrific experience. There were two months between the semi-final and the final, and all that time there was the build-up in the media. Then playing at Wembley, which was every player’s dream, was really special. The manager led the team out, then came Duncan, then Kevin, the goalkeeper, and I was third in the line of players. The Norwich fans were at the tunnel end, so we walked out to a cauldron of noise. It was something that, as a child and then as a footballer, that I had always wished for.
But we lost the final, 1-0 to Tottenham, which is something I do look back on with disappointment. And we didn’t win a single game between the semi-final and the final, which left us near the foot of the table.
In the end we scrambled to safety at the end of the season, and I scored the goal that kept us up. It was against Crystal Palace, at Carrow Road, in the last but one game of the season. It was the final match of the three-game Easter period, and it was between them and us for one of the relegation spots. We were drawing 1-1 with minutes to go and I flung myself at a corner and that was what kept us up. Staying up was a great satisfaction. We had spent so much emotion and energy that season.
But we struggled the following season, Ron left, and in came John Bond.
As people, Saunders and Bond were two different personalities completely. Ron was very starchy. He didn’t let anyone take any liberties. In fact, he didn’t really let anyone do anything. So we couldn’t believe the freedom John gave us. He was very open and outgoing.
Part of his gambit, to raise the club’s profile, was that he wanted to be in the limelight and take the club with him. So he told us it was perfectly fine for us to talk to the Press, which is something Ron wouldn’t tolerate.
John’s training sessions were a different style all together to all the fitness work and drills Ron had insisted on. John wanted more flair in the play, and where Ron had made us very regimented, John wanted us to express ourselves and use our own initiative. He wanted us to see things in our own mind and play that way.
I think being so rigid under Ron was our downfall in the top division because we needed more flair to open teams up, combined with our discipline and work-rate.
John brought a lot of players in. He’d come to us from Bournemouth and virtually transferred the Bournemouth team up to Norwich. But he had the advantage of inheriting players who had the Saunders discipline.
He was able to add players like Ted MacDougall, Phil Boyer and Mel Machin, who had all been brought up with him at Bournemouth, and people like Martin Peters, who had been schooled alongside John at West Ham.
John and Ken Brown, his number two, had played alongside Bobby Moore at West Ham and had played the Ron Greenwood style, but I never thought playing under John would be difficult for me, because I enjoyed the way we were playing. And the manager was happy that Duncan and I should be the no-nonsense rock on which the team was built. He told us to play if we had time, but to defend without taking liberties when we needed to. The people around us were able to express themselves because we were doing the job we were.
John Bond couldn’t keep us up in that 1973-74 season, but the following season we won promotion again and went back to Wembley — and faced Ron Saunders.
We had three good seasons in the League Cup. We went: final, semi-final and then final again. But Ron’s record in those three seasons was even better: final, final, final. He took us to Wembley, then did the same with Manchester City and then completed the hat-trick with Villa. And, sadly from our point of view, he won it with Villa, beating us 1-0.
We beat Manchester United over two legs in the semi but we disappointed ourselves in the final. The truth is that each time at Wembley we didn’t perform. We were better than we showed on the day, which was horrible.
But this time, reaching Wembley did not seriously detract from our League form and we earned promotion and started the 1974-75 season back in the top tier.
I turned 30 two months into the season, but I was still very fit and thought I’d got a few more seasons left as a player.
I was up against some good players, of course. John picked me in centre-midfield one game at Anfield to man-mark Kevin Keegan. Thanks very much.
In 1976, after 13 years and 499 first team appearances at Norwich, I joined Cambridge United. I knew my time at the top was coming to an end, and I wanted to play regularly. It was a good move for me geographically, because I didn’t have to move house. But I didn’t go there for a holiday. I took playing for them as seriously as I always did, and we had two promotions in my four seasons there.
I was allowed to train some of the week at Norwich. When John left to become manager of Manchester City, he took some of the coaches with him. But Ken Brown became Norwich manager and asked me if I would come back and take over the youth team. I jumped at it and I loved it.
In the 1982-83 season we managed to win the FA Youth Cup, and that was one of the best experiences I had at Norwich: to take those boys, help them develop and then win a major national trophy with them. We played some very, very good football. The only game we lost all season was away in an international tournament. Domestically, we were unbeaten, and it was a source of great satisfaction
There were 10,000 at Carrow Road for the first leg of the final, against Everton. We won 3-2. There were 15,000 at Goodison for the second leg. We lost 3-2. They won the toss for the right to hold the decider at Goodison, and there were 20,000 there. Young Paul Clayton scored for us, and that was the only goal.
It had been a marathon final, which made winning even better. Our team was captained by Mark Crowe and eight of them went on to play in the first team, including Jeremy Goss, Tony Spearing and Louie Donowa.
I stepped up to become reserve team manager, but I was reluctant to do that because it had been so rewarding working with the youth team.
Then, in May 1987, Mel Machin, who had been number two to Ken, left to manage Manchester City. For the 1987-88 season, Ken made me and David Williams joint first-team coaches and I have to say that, from the start, that didn’t feel right. David was a very good coach, but neither of us really knew who should be doing what.
The results didn’t go well, perhaps because the instructions to the players weren’t clear. In the October, Ken was asked to step down as manager and I was thrown into the top job.
It was a volatile time. The chairman, Robert Chase, was very unpopular with supporters, and when I took over it was difficult to get the players away from that atmosphere and back on the right track.
The first thing we did was set the demarcation lines. I was manager. Dave Williams was coach, Mike Walker was reserve team coach and Keith Webb was in charge of the youth team. We all knew our jobs and what we should be doing.
At the time I took over, Steve Bruce was being sold to Man United. I didn’t know anything about it until I got the job and Sir Alex Ferguson was ringing me every day and Steve was knocking on my door every day.
So it left me needing a centre half and trying to get us out of the mess we were in. A board meeting was held at the Maid’s Head hotel, away from the club. I told them we needed someone who would score goals. They asked me for a name. I told them, ‘Robert Fleck.’ We’d had scouting reports on him from Scotland and so the chairman and I went up to see him playing for Rangers, and we brought him back to Norwich with us on the plane the next day.
At his first training session, Flecky was such a bubbly character, and was zipping around so much in five-a-sides that the other players wanted to show they were as good as him. It lifted the whole situation.
I got John O’Neill from QPR as a replacement for Bruce, but he got injured in his first game in a tackle by Wimbledon’s John Fashanu and never played again. Flecky got injured, too but we turned the season around and had three consecutive wins over the Christmas and New Year period. We won 2-1 at Derby and then beat Chelsea 3-0 and West Ham 4-1 at Carrow Road. That settled us down. There were 21 teams in the top division that season, because it was in the middle of a restructuring. We finished 14th.
Then we got in a few more players. For the next season we bought Andy Townsend, Malcolm Allen and Andy Linighan: decent players. We already had Ian Butterworth, and the boys from Spurs: Mark Bowen, Ian Culverhouse and Ian Crook. And we had Dale Gordon, Ruel Fox and Robert Rosario.
In that 1988-89 season we reached the FA Cup semi-final and finished fourth in the top division. In the semi-final, we lost to a Pat Nevin goal against Everton at Villa Park but our disappointment was put into proper perspective by the Hillsborough disaster that happened in the other semi-final on the same day. In the League, we really thought we had a chance to finish even higher, but the teams who finished above us were Arsenal, who took the title by winning at Anfield, Liverpool, who won the FA Cup, and Nottingham Forest, who won the League Cup.
Fourth place was the highest Norwich City had ever achieved at that time, and when I was asked to contribute to this book, I looked at some of the games on YouTube and thought, ‘What on earth was I worried about? We played some brilliant football’.
I was lucky to have Dave Williams coaching. I gave him carte blanche on the training pitch while I got on with the other bits of being a manager, and I think that was something I needed to do: give him responsibility and the opportunity to prove his worth.
He was a very good coach, and we thought the same way about lots of things. He wasn’t a yes-man. He was someone who would give me an argument if he thought it was necessary. But often I would say, ‘I think we should make this change for Saturday’ and he had already been thinking the same way.
I did find it stressful, though. The responsibility of it all was hard, because I loved the club and wanted it to do well. If I didn’t care it wouldn’t have mattered, but I did care about the club and everyone involved. I wanted to make sure that the people working with me were properly looked after, and so that was a responsibility as well.
At first, I found it very, very difficult to cope because of the situation when I took over and all the animosity towards the chairman. I definitely lost sleep, and I was travelling all over the country looking at teams and players. I worked as hard as possible.
But after time, I became so used to the stress that sleep stopped being a problem, but I still took all the responsibility very seriously. I didn’t take it out on my wife and children or anything like that, but I did retreat into a world of my own at home. At the dinner table the conversation would go around the table but stop at me. I would be thinking about something involving my job.
I used to put players’ names on pieces of paper and put them down in formations on the dining table — and my daughter, Louise, would come in and blow them all away, which was a bit of light in all the constant thinking about the club.
I look back and think that I did not do badly, and we reached the FA Cup semi-finals again in 1992. This time we were at Hillsborough. Our opponents, Sunderland, were in the division below us but, again, we lost 1-0.
And as the 1991-92 season came towards its end, I knew it was time to step down. I think the players get too used to a particular manager saying the same things, and they needed a bit of a change.
I went to see the chairman and said, ‘I’m going to resign at the end of the season.’ We’d had a bad League season, but we made ourselves safe, so I went to him before the final game and told him the team needed to hear a new voice.
Mr Chase tried to persuade me not to go. He wanted me to stay. But I had made my mind up. He called a press conference for the next day, but said that, at any time right until the conference started, I could change my mind.
I didn’t. I had worked hard at a very stressful job and had given everything to the club and what was important to me was that it had not ended in failure. When I said, ‘I’m resigning’, I felt such a sense of relief. It was like someone taking a weight off the top of my head.
I think if I had gone on it would have been too long, and I would not have got the response from the players that Mike Walker got when he took over as manager.
I never left though. I was asked to help develop the new training ground at Colney, so I went around the country, and abroad, looking at other set-ups. I held meetings with architects and so on. Then I came back into the club as assistant director of the academy, and did a lot of the coaching —which is what I enjoy.
I retired in 2002 but, on occasions, the board have asked me for an input on appointments.
I am proud that I was never sacked. I served the club in a long career and in a wide range of roles and I think I had a very successful and satisfying career.
When people say to me, ‘Don’t you wish this or that?’, I tell them that I have no complaints about my time at Norwich. I had so much enjoyment, fulfilment and, in lots of ways, success.
The thing that lots of people say is that if I was playing now I’d be very comfortably off but that doesn’t bother me. I lived in a particular era and can’t change that. Players like Terry Allcock and others of his era might think my generation were better off than they were. You just live and play when you do and that doesn’t bother me one bit.
Before this book comes out, my wife, Linda — a Gorleston girl, of course — and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. We still live near where we both grew up, and I am grateful to Norwich City that they gave me the work that meant we didn’t have to move away or traipse around the country moving every couple of years, like some players.
I have no regrets at all about my playing career. I played all those games for Norwich, stayed in the team for all those seasons, and the success came at the right time — when I was beginning to think I might have to move on to get to the top division. It was great to do it with Norwich. It is my home club. I still have that affection for them now. I get more nervous watching them from off the pitch then I did when I was involved.
Now on match-days I do a little work with guests in hospitality at Carrow Road. In that role, it helps me that I have seen the club grow and seen the ground grow. I was there before we’d ever been in the top division. I remember the fire that destroyed the main stand. The ground is unrecognisable from what it was like when I stood on the terrace at the River End to watch games.
Norwich City has grown from quite humble beginnings, really, to be the place and the club it is now, and when I talk to the guests about it, I have the full history in my mind. It’s easy for me because, I suppose, I am a part of that history.