Throughout football’s shutdown, Mt Football Writer has been publishing weekly chapters from the trilogy of Tales From The City books. Here is our final extract.
With Project Restart just days away, it is particularly apt that we can retell the ‘Tale’ of Norwich City’s greatest ever reboot. From their lowest point for half a century, City clambered back up the divisions, led from the front by a man whose own rise was every bit as remarkable. With the kind permission of Adam Leventhal for the publishers and of editor Mick Dennis here is Holty’s tale...
IT STARTED WITH A TOOTHACHE
BY GRANT HOLT
Norwich was the best time of my career. The journey the club had was incredible: a brilliant thing to be part of. All the factors that went into it – the ingredients that came together, as Delia might say – created something special. And as well as what we achieved, it was the best time of my career in terms of how I played. I think my all-round play was at its best at Norwich. And, of course, I scored a few goals!
But some of my best memories aren’t about me scoring. They’re about the group of lads we had there and great moments we shared. For instance, the day in May 2011 when we won promotion to the Premier League by winning at Portsmouth was unforgettable.
QPR were already sure of going up. The other guaranteed promotion spot was between us and Cardiff. They were playing at home to Middlesbrough in the afternoon, live on Sky, and our game at Fratton Park was in the evening. If Cardiff won, as pretty much everyone expected them to, it would put them two points ahead of us by the time we kicked off. So, if we didn’t win, we’d go into the last game of the season in third place. We were in a hotel in Hampshire and had a team meeting at midday, and the manager, Paul Lambert, said to us, ‘Nobody watch the game. It doesn’t matter what Cardiff do. We’ve just got to concentrate on what we are going to do. So nobody watch their game.’
We all went upstairs. I usually roomed with Adam Drury or Russ Martin, and it was Adam that day. We both looked at each other and said, ‘Of course we are going to watch the game!’ So we put the TV on, sat down and Leroy Lita scored for Middlesbrough after three minutes. We both jumped up and yelled and you could hear muffled cheering from all the other rooms.
Adam and me went to the door, opened it quietly and both stuck our heads out – and everyone was doing the same. Every door all the way up and down the corridor had a couple of Norwich heads poking out, grinning like mad because of the goal, but worried in case one of the coaches had heard the noise.
We went back in the room and sat down. Middlesbrough’s second went in and this time you could hear all the Norwich lads cheering. Nobody could even try to keep it down that time.
We had to put our gear on and go down to get on the bus to go to the ground, and by the time we were all on the bus Cardiff were losing 3-0, and we all knew that if they lost and we won, we’d be up. We could be promoted that night! The bus was very quiet. It wasn’t usually, but that day it was. Normally we would laugh and joke – not too much, but we were all mates and there would be banter. But that day the bus was really quiet because the realisation had sunk in. We were all thinking that for the first time, it was in our own hands. Win and we are Premier League.
I was sat at the back. I was the captain and a senior player but I felt like a little boy. What people perhaps don’t realise is that a lot of players in that squad understood that the only way they would get into the Premier League would be by promotion. I was one of those, definitely. I’d had my 30th birthday the month before. No Premier League club would buy a 30-year-old striker. The only way I would get there was if I went up with a team, and I knew that chances to win promotion don’t come around very often, and so I sat there on the bus and knew this was very likely my only chance.
I don’t mind people talking about me having been a tyre-fitter, because it’s true. You do get a bit fed up with the same old story being trotted out all the time, though, but on that bus to Portsmouth I was thinking about where I’d come from and that now I was in touching distance of the Premier League and all that meant. It would be the chance to have my family come and watch me at places like Anfield. I had two kids and another one due any minute, and I could be going into the Premier League – and with a good team and in good form.
By the time we got to Portsmouth’s ground, the Cardiff result was confirmed. They’d lost 3-0. As we pulled up outside the ground, the Norwich fans crowded round the bus, and they were going, ‘Come on! This is the day! You can do it.’ And I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I know! But you’re not helping!’
The Portsmouth manager, Steve Cotterill, had been on Sky during the coverage of the Cardiff game saying, ‘We can beat Norwich to keep this race alive’. A few years later, when I was at Villa on loan, Paul Lambert told me he’d heard that – so he must have been watching the Cardiff game too! – and he’d thought of using it in his team-talk to us, but when he looked around at us in the dressing room and saw that we were all tense, he didn’t know what to say to get us right. That was the first and only time he didn’t know what to say to us.
Then, just as we were almost ready to go out, Wes Hoolahan said something daft – the sort of thing he did, nothing too bad, just a joke of some sort – and the manager ripped into him. ‘You! You haven’t achieved anything yet. Nothing. Get your mind on the game!’ It was like a safety valve blowing, and it kind of broke the tension and lifted us. When I was at Villa Paul explained, ‘I had to have a go at someone. I decided it was going to be Wes or you and then Wes gave me the excuse.’
On the way out Wes was saying, ‘Why has he had a go at me?’ and he was angry, which always made him play better.
In the first half, I had a chance. But as I turned to hit the ball, a defender gave me a tug and so I miss-hit the volley. I turned around waiting for the penalty. Nothing. So I thought, ‘Oh, is it going to be one of those games?’
Zak Whitbread went really close with two headers. Wes had a shot blocked. It was 0-0 at half-time. One of the things the manager said during the break was, ‘Get Foxy (David Fox) on the ball more. And, as any Norwich fan will know, five minutes into the second half, Foxy did what he did best – sent over an absolutely spot-on centre from deep on the right and Simeon (Jackson) did what he did best – anticipate the cross, get a jump on his defender and dive to head in at the far post.
I was so pleased for Simeon. I knew what he brought to the team, and when he got a lot of goals in the run-in, and the only goal that night at Portsmouth, I couldn’t have been happier, seriously. There will be some who won’t believe me when I say that I honestly didn’t want to get all the goals but that was the way we all felt: it was always about the team. If you look at any interview that year from anyone you will hear that we always talked about the team, the squad – and that was genuine.
But I had to let the team down later that night – because I couldn’t go out celebrating with them after we’d won. The boys all went out in Southampton but my wife Fay was expecting our third child and we had an appointment the next day for a scan. I couldn’t miss that. So I got a lift back to Norwich with one of the directors. I got 28 voicemails from the team calling me names for missing the drink-up. Russ Martin doesn’t drink but he’d said that if we got to the Premier League, he’d get bladdered. So even he was out having a drink, but I was missing.
We had flown down to Portsmouth, so our cars were up at Norwich Airport. The director took me there but all the cars were parked tightly and, because we’d expected to all fly back together, Elliott Ward had blocked me in. Typical defender!
I got a lift back to my house, we had the scan the next morning, and then went to the airport when the team were due to land. What a state the boys were in! Me and Fay were there about 50 minutes because everyone wanted to talk to us but none of them was making any sense. But if any team I’ve played with ever earned a night’s celebration it was those lads. They were a special group.
I very nearly wasn’t part of it, though, because when I joined the club at the start of the previous season, I almost called the move off.
I’d had a good season at Shrewsbury but we’d lost in the play-off final to a Gillingham team which included Simeon Jackson. I’d been in the PFA League Two team of the year, been Shrewsbury’s player of the year and scored 20 league goals. But the chairman, Roland Wycherley, had said, ‘If we don’t go up and someone comes in for you with the right price, I’ll let you go’.
I must have received 30 calls from clubs and agents. Paul Lambert, who was still at Colchester, tried to sign me but the money wasn’t enough for Shrewsbury. Then Norwich came in and offered an amount that Shrewsbury were definitely interested in. They’d bought me for £170,000, which was a Shrewsbury record, and Norwich were willing to pay £400,000, so the move was on if I wanted it.
I had never played Norwich at any level and never been to the city. But I’d played with Sammy Clingan at Forest, and when he joined Norwich I had spoken to him about the set-up. I played with Gary Holt at Forest, too, and he told everyone Norfolk was a great place to live. I knew the football club got big crowds and I’d read that they’d sold all their season tickets despite going down to League One.
So my older brother Steven, his son and me travelled down to Norwich by car for me to meet the manager and chief executive. The fee had been agreed, and there was no problem agreeing my money. Bryan Gunn, the manager, told us that people like Wes, Adam and Gary Doherty were staying – very good Championship players. I was more than happy to join. But the medical was a problem. I’d broken my toe and I’d just had an ankle operation.
So instead of it all being sorted and me going home, we had to hang around while people talked about my ankle and toe. On the third day, I was up at the Colney training ground and said to Bryan, ‘I can’t sit in the Holiday Inn for another three days or hang around the training ground. Shrewsbury have started their pre-season, and I need to be training.’
He said, ‘There’s still an issue with the ankle. The club are not sure.’ I said, ‘Look. This has to be my last day in Norwich. I either go back to Shrewsbury and say I failed me medical or you get it done today.’
So I think he spoke to Delia and Michael and they decided to go ahead despite whatever the medical had said. Delia told me later her mum, Etty, had watched the play-off final on TV and wanted Norwich to sign me. Thank you Etty, you are obviously a good judge! And so I was a Norwich player.
We had a decent pre-season, then, boosh, we lose 7-1 at home to Colchester. To this day I feel sorry for Michael Theoklitis, the Aussie goalkeeper who had joined from Melbourne City and whose debut it was. He didn’t have the best of games, which I suppose is an understatement, but he hadn’t been tested pre-season and then the disaster sort of gathered its own momentum.
Paul Lambert had got Colchester really up for beating us (of course!) but we actually dominated the first 10 minutes. Then, the first thing Theo had to deal with was an under-hit, lobbed back pass from John Otsemobor. Theo ran out, jumped up, but punched thin air and the ball sailed over him. Kevin Lisbie had a tap-in.
That probably slaughtered the keeper’s confidence. And then a few minutes later, he had a soft shot from Lisbie but dived and just parried it out straight to Clive Platt for another soft tap-in. Then the pressure on everyone in the home team – with the crowd and the media and everything – meant that we all got sucked into thinking, ‘we need to do something quickly’. So we started going for it but made more mistakes. And suddenly it’s half time and we’re 5-0 down. It was the lowest I’ve been during any match at any stage of my career.
Bryan had a right go, which he was entitled to, but some of the lads were in shock, and although we did a little bit better in the second half, we still conceded two more. Theo probably contributed to five of the goals and he was never going to recover from that. Mind you, I’d love to meet the two fans who charged out of their seats onto the side of the pitch and chucked their season tickets at Bryan Gunn – because what a year they missed.
It was quite a start to my spell at a new club, and although I got a hat-trick in a 4-0 League Cup win at Yeovil three days later, Bryan was sacked. We got a draw at Exeter and then I learned that Paul Lambert was going to be manager when we were on the bus going to Brentford. I got a text message from a mate saying Paul had got the job. I was happy with that, because I knew he had wanted me at Colchester, so I figured he’d want me at Norwich.
Paul watched us at Brentford – we lost – and so his first league game in charge was at home to Wycombe. In the build-up to the game, I learned a lot about the new gaffer, and I think that was the match when he, the other players and perhaps the fans got an idea what I could do.
The Wycombe game was on the Saturday. After we’d trained on the Friday afternoon I went to see a doctor. I’d been hit on a tooth. I think I’d gone to head the ball and got a bang off someone and the tooth was quite achey so I went to a doc and I got some ibruprofen.
But it got worse and worse and although I did get some sleep in my hotel (the Holiday Inn next to the ground), I woke up at about 11. It was agony and I’d got no pills left. The side of my mouth was pounding and pounding but the hotel reception weren’t allowed to give me pills. I couldn’t get to sleep so I left the hotel at two in the morning and drove to a petrol station and got a packet of Anadin Extra, and took loads. I still couldn’t get a wink.
I was too polite to ring anyone at that time of the morning, so I waited till about half-seven and rang the physio, Simon Spencer. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and thought I looked like the Elephant Man because the side of my face was so swollen.
I had an abscess. The physio rang the doc, who called me at eight and said he couldn’t get me anything until ten, when the Boots near the ground would have something ready. So I went over to Boots and got some more pain-killers and got them down me as quick as I could, but by then the manager knew, of course.
He rang me and said, ‘What’s going on?’ and told me he was in the ground and I should go and see him. I was still in agony. My face was still sticking out and it was still really hurting. So there I was, in a state, and in the manager’s office for the first time – and that was when he told me, ‘You’ll just have to dig in. I need you to play, because I am making you captain’. He said he’s seen something in me at Shrewsbury, which was why he’d wanted me at Colchester and now it was why he wanted me to be captain.
I couldn’t speak, because of my mouth, but that was how I learned. So that was it. I played. I captained the side. We won 5-2 and I scored two of the goals. I got the first and the last. The first, after about 15 minutes, was from a Simon Lappin free-kick from the left. I made my run, used my strength to get ahead of a defender, and knocked the ball in. The last was about 20 minutes from the end, a decent finish from a Cody Macdonald pass. I had a chance to complete my second Norwich hat-trick before the finish, but the goalkeeper blocked my shot with his legs.
Still, I think that was the night the fans sort of began to realise what I might bring to the team. They didn’t know the story about my abscess though. The manager did, and the lads did, and I believe they appreciated me that night. With all that had gone on, for me to get a couple of goals – and to play well in other aspects of the game – convinced the manager and the other players that I might be an asset.
The new manager was brutally honest with us all. He said, ‘Look, you’ve been relegated. If you don’t want to be here, I don’t want you here. But if you are ready to stay and play, we can go on a journey. I am going to go with the model I did at Colchester. We will be a group. Nobody will be more important than anybody else, and we’ll achieve things together as a group.’
And what we discovered was that Bryan Gunn had brought in players who were unbelievable at getting a unity. Everyone bought into the Norwich way. It helped, I think, that it was a city in the middle of a rural county stuck out on the side of England. Once you were there, you were there, and there was none of this bunking off to somewhere you used to play, or some other big city or anything like that.
Lambert was brilliant at getting the best out of those players: the very best.
On the Thursday before that Wycombe game he had set up a session where we had three teams and we played a series of 30-minute games. Beforehand, Lambert said to us, ‘I don’t’ care who you are, where you’ve been or what you’ve won. The people who play best in these games will play against Wycombe.’
For the Wycombe game, he dropped eight – men like Gary Doc, Wes, Michael Nelson, Darel Russell. It was a shock to them and to the rest of us. Korey Smith got into the team on the strength of what he did in that practice before Wycombe. He hadn’t looked ready before that day, but he did well in that session, and Lambert kept his word – picking the players who had taken that opportunity.
By the end of the season, some of the eight were back in the team – but they had to earn selection. And nobody could ever know he was definitely in the team. You could play well for six games, score goals or whatever, but then he’d drop you for some reason – so we were all always on our toes.
And when he made tactical changes – like playing with five at the back, with three centre-backs and two wing-backs, which he did once – the lads believed in what he was doing.
And it didn’t matter who played where. If we were playing a diamond system and attacking, and I went out wide, well, someone else would go up top and I’d stay left midfield for a few minutes. Or if Russell Martin was galloping up-field from right-back, someone would cover. We just filled in for each other.
And another thing was that all the players – all of them – really pulled for each other. We tried to help each other, to make each other look better. That isn’t how it is at some clubs sometimes, but that was how it was at Norwich then.
The diamond system, which we settled on eventually, was definitely to make the best use of Wes, who played just behind the front two. But having Chris Martin alongside me upfront was also important in that system because he could latch onto a ball and get a goal and so defenders had to keep an eye on him as well as me.
I am not sure the Norwich fans always appreciated what Chris was doing. Perhaps it was because the club hadn’t paid a big fee for him, and that he was a lad from down the road – that he was not someone called Martinovski from somewhere abroad – or what, but I certainly appreciated the way he could find room and get a shot away and on target.
In the League One season, he was fantastic. Remember the win at Colchester, when we got revenge for the result on the first day of the season? Chrissy was unplayable that day.
The Colchester pitch was a shocker. We thought the game would be off, but the ref said it was all right, and so Chrissy said, ‘I’ll show them what the pitch is like when I put my first tackle in.’ He was like Paul, determined to make a point. And we were all the same. We wanted to get them back for what had happened at Carrow Road.
All week we had been thinking, ‘We are going to embarrass you like you embarrassed us.’ We knew there would be a few tackles flying about but we wanted to show them that we weren’t intimidated by them or worried about their pitch. So when we kicked off Chris hit this lad with a tackle and the two of them went another 25 yards in the mud.
The first goal came because of the conditions. I absolutely wiped out a lad who had caught me a few moments before, the ball shot away on the mud and Chrissy ploughed after it. Being the strong, determined lad he was, there was no stopping him.
There was no stopping any of us that day. We won 5-0. Chrissy got two, Gary ‘the Doc’ Doherty got one, Oli Johnson got one and I scored the last in the final moments of the game.
Which brings me to another local derby: in the Championship, against a certain team from Suffolk.
I didn’t know until I did it that nobody had scored a hat-trick for Norwich against them in the League, but actually I started terribly that day. My touch was off and then I nearly got myself sent off. I’d been saying to the lads, ‘Let’s not do anything stupid,’ but I could probably have been sent off for an early foul on Jack Colback. The only thing that saved me was that he jumped up and there was a free-for all in which, another of their players, Grant Leadbitter, tried to give me some back. Perhaps the ref didn’t want to send two off so early, so he just booked me and Leadbitter.
So I stayed on the field, and got the first goal when I chased a ball and nicked it from Darren O’Dea. They wanted handball, but it was nowhere near me hand. I just pushed it away from him and went. And I knew what I was going to do before I got anywhere near the goal: I opened up and hit the ball in the corner. I had never heard a roar like it at Carrow Road.
They equalised quite quickly, but when I got a chance for our second I knew exactly what I would do again. Two days before the game, we’d been working on team shape and Henri Lansbury – an unbelievable passer of the ball – had played a ball when he saw my run. But I hadn’t scored, because I tried to dribble the ball around Big John Ruddy, which was a daft thing to try. On the Saturday, against Ipswich, I made the same run and Henri found me with the same pass. I saw the keeper coming and I just smashed it early and it went in through his legs.
Before half-time, I caught Damien Delaney in possession. He fouled me to stop me going through on goal and got sent off, and in the break the gaffer said, ‘We will score more goals.’
We did. The next one, in front of the Barclay, came when Wes gave the ball to Chrissy and he jinked between about three defenders before setting the ball up me to hit. There was a mass of bodies, but as the ball bounced up I decided to side-foot it with a bit of accuracy. I hit it as sweet as anything and I was off celebrating straight away because I knew it was in. Then ‘Wesley scored another one’ to get himself a line in my song!
That win over Ipswich was in the November. It kept us up in the promotion-chasing pack and gave us belief and momentum. David Fox was dictating games. Elliot Ward was dominating at the back. And things grew and grew. By the time we had the return game at Portman Road, four games from the end of the season, we were in with a serious chance of going up.
By then I had ankle trouble that would eventually need surgery and I was operating at about 70 per cent. I didn’t score, but we won 5-1 and the feeling was even better than getting a hat-trick in the first game. Ipswich and their fans had wanted to stop all our promotion talk, but instead of being derailed, our promotion push had gathered pace. It was a brilliant feeling.
From my two seasons with Norwich in the Premier League, I’d single out scoring at Anfield in the first season as the top personal moment – because I was really annoyed that I didn’t start!
Paul Lambert had told me, ‘Look, it’s a different level and it will have to be different players and different systems for different games.’ But I hadn’t had a minute at Old Trafford three weeks earlier, which really griped me, and now he hadn’t picked me at Liverpool. But then, when he sent me on at 1-0 to them, I had a feeling that we could get a goal.
We had talked about getting crosses in early in the Prem. So when Anthony Pilkington got a chance, I knew he would sling the ball in and I was already moving. Pilks’s centre was heading for the area between the penalty spot and the edge of the area but out of the corner of my eye I saw the goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, come off his line. I thought, ‘You won’t get that!’
Jamie Carragher was behind me and Martin Skrtel was in front of me. Skrtel was watching the ball. I nipped in front of him so now I was in front of both defenders and the goalkeeper was still trying to get there. I knew I just had to win the ball, and get anything on it. As it was, it went in like a rocket.
My uncle Geoff is a big Man U fan so he’s not fond of Liverpool. He was in a pub in Carlisle raging because I was on the bench. Apparently he said, ‘When Grant gets on he will score, and I am going to take me top off and run around all you Scousers’. He kept his word.
I should think the regulars at that pub were delighted that Liverpool thrashed Norwich at Anfield the following season. I played all 90 minutes this time, but couldn’t score – and that sort of sums up the campaign for me. Chris Hughton was manager, and he picked me more often than Paul Lambert did in the Premier League, but the football was a struggle.
I won’t slag Chris off at all, because he is one of the nicest men I have met and he gave me a new deal when he took over, but I knew by the end of that second season in the Prem that I had a decision to make. Norwich bought Ricky Van Wolfswinkel in the summer and I did not want to be a bit-part player. I didn’t want to be on the bench and be a focus for discontent. I didn’t want to be living on past glories at the club. I didn’t want to taint what I had at Norwich.
So I went to Wigan, but was on loan at Villa when Norwich turned up at Villa Park in April. By the time I got on as a sub, Norwich were losing and I can tell you that the Villa players were shocked that the away fans gave me a big reception. Then, in December 2014, I was at loan at Huddersfield when they went to Carrow Road and got thumped 5-0 in the Championship and I can’t begin to put into words what it felt like to hear Norwich supporters singing my name again.
Norwich fans are special and I am really, really proud they took to me. During my time with the club I learned that there was an amazing story about how Norwich got the money together to pay £400,000 for me. The club had just been relegated to League One and season ticket holders were due a price reduction. One of the directors, Michael Foulger, said that if any fans gave up the rebate, he would match their contribution pound for pound. That money, from the fans and from the director, was what funded my move.
So, as well as thanking Delia’s mum, Etty, I need to thank Mr Foulger and the fans for the best times of my career. There were people behind the scenes too, like Val Lemmon who was PA to the manager for 25 years. When I was there, if I needed something, Val would sort it out. Then there were the chefs, physios … so many people who make a football club. We shared something special, and it was good.