The last 18 months has undoubtedly been a rollercoaster of emotions for City fans, with the adrenaline-fuelled joy of a Championship-winning season making way for a slow, soul-sapping Premier League campaign that ended in the most depressing of ways.
For this family of City supporters, the emotional rollercoaster was all the more intense because we were also dealing with the ill health and subsequent death of my father, Ian Anniss, a man whose enthusiasm for, and love of, Norwich City had been such an integral part of my life for 42 years.
It was in December 2018 that Dad phoned me with the news that he had been diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. When the full extent of his illness was revealed in February 2019, it felt like my world had come crashing down. Suddenly, and for the first time in my life, I had to contemplate the mortality of one of my parents. I have said this before to friends, but I have never felt as scared, empty and desolate as I did on that day.
As was his way, Dad didn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself, but instead vowed to fight the cancer. He was booked in for chemotherapy and hormone treatments, and in our meet ups and twice-weekly phone calls spoke little of the creeping and intensifying pain, his deteriorating health or the cancer itself. Instead, conversations often focused on politics, what I was up to – in the early stages of his treatment I was rushing to finish writing a book he had long talked about wanting to read, which was eventually published in November 2019 – cricket and, more often than not, Norwich City.
Born and raised in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, my dad had been a City supporter from a very young age. Although his first experiences of football were being taken to watch Yarmouth play by his grandfather, then the Bloaters kit man, Dad switched allegiance to City after his father, a Royal Navy sailor, took him to Carrow Road for the first time in April 1958. He saw a rousing 5-2 win over Newport County and from then on, he was hooked. Over the 62 years that followed, he followed City when he could, attending matches with his uncles and, later, younger cousins.
Although he moved away from Norfolk in the late 1960s, ending up in Sheffield with my mother, Marion, in 1970, his love of the Yellows never dimmed. When I came along in 1978, he adorned my cot with an array of yellow-and-green soft toys including a Kermit the Frog figure wearing a miniature City kit, and a knitted footballer made by my mum in tribute to the late, great Justin Fashanu. For the record, I still have “Justin”, as I was raised to call him, in a box at home.
Some of my strongest early memories of Dad revolve around football, whether kicking a ball around in the back garden (or on Gorleston cliffs when we headed to Norfolk to visit relatives) or standing on the side lines of windswept council pitches while watching him play on a Saturday afternoon. He continued playing football at a low level into his early forties and would delight in telling us about his success in the Welsh lower leagues while at university in Swansea. By a great twist of fate, he once faced a Newport County reserve side that featured the very same goalkeeper who had been between the sticks at the first match he’d seen at Carrow Road eleven years earlier.
There are naturally plenty of other childhood memories of Dad that in some way feature Norwich City. I fondly recall trying to pick him out in the crowd (and failing, of course) while watching the 1985 Milk Cup final on television, the times he told us tales about legendary City players of the past (not to mention how his junior school class was stopped so that they could all listen to the 1959 FA Cup semi-final replay on the radio), and of course the sheer joy my brother and I felt when we were given our first Norwich replica kits in 1989.
By then, we’d already been taken to numerous City matches. Sadly, my memories of the first match we attended at Carrow Road are a little bit hazy, but I think I was six or seven. It was a game under lights, and we sat in the top tier of either the Barclay or, more likely, the River End. I could not tell you who the opponents were or the result, but I distinctly remember the sensory overload I felt walking to the ground and entering the stadium; suffice to say, I was hooked. In the years that followed, we generally attended a match or two a season, mostly away fixtures in Sheffield.
Although my brother Simon and I both briefly flirted with supporting other teams – Sheffield Wednesday specifically, which made some sense given the city we grew up in – there was never any danger of us growing up anything other than committed Norwich supporters. This wasn’t easy in the Steel City, but to us it was a kind of badge of honour; a strong link to his Norfolk roots and an extended family that included the EDP’s then Norwich City reporter, David Cuffley.
It’s worth mentioning David, and some of Dad’s other cousins, Peter, Adrian and Josephine, as they are all City die-hards and long-term season-ticket holders. Over the years, he attended tons of matches with them and would regularly talk to them on the phone, and more recently via WhatsApp, for what seemed like hours; a big chunk of these conversations were always focused on the team’s latest travails, whether good or – as they have been more often than not in my lifetime – bad.
When I left home at 18 and headed south to go to university, my love of Norwich City, and my interest in the club’s performances, undoubtedly intensified. This was the era before mobile phones, so communication was trickier; when I did get hold of Mum and Dad for the weekly call, a portion of the conversation would always be dedicated to Norwich chat.
When I graduated and began working as a poorly paid magazine staff writer, this continued, with my occasional trips up to Sheffield timed to coincide with City matches in Yorkshire or the East Midlands. On one memorable occasion in the early to mid 2000s, Dad helped the Northern Canaries supporters’ group to organise their annual meet-up. He booked them a room at Hillsborough Arena, a community sports facility a stone’s throw away from Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium. This was significant, because he had written the successful National Lottery grant application that helped get the facility built a few years earlier.
It was special for him to gather there with fellow Norwich supporters, in the presence of Delia, Michael, then CEO Neil Doncaster and the legendary Ron Ashman. The latter led the singing of On The Ball, City, which is a slightly surreal memory that I will never forget. Somewhere, there is a picture of Dad with Delia, smiling the smile of someone who had definitely enjoyed a pre-match pint. It’s a rare photo because in it he is wearing a replica shirt; he only owned a handful of those throughout his life.
In the time that has passed since Dad’s cancer diagnosis in late 2018, I have thought a lot about my relationship with both him and the club. What I realised is that the two are intrinsically linked. Whatever was happening in my life, I knew that football was something that I could always talk to him about; a shared passion and interest that we could discuss for hours, usually over pints of real ale or a late-evening single malt whisky.
There were other shared interests – similar political views, music, cricket, Rugby League – but nothing as long-lasting or significant. I know that my brother and I are not alone in this, as most football supporters are introduced to the game by their parents, or in some cases grandparents. Tribal loyalties are passed down through generations, binding grandparents with grandchildren, parents with sons and daughters. In some ways I was lucky that my mum’s side of the family didn’t try and persuade Simon and I to follow their team, Leeds.
Dad passionately disliked “Dirty Leeds”, but then who doesn’t?
Given what has happened to us as a family, it seems particularly significant that at one of the final matches my dad attended at Carrow Road, in April 2019, he was able to introduce his grandson, my nephew, Oscar, to the maelstrom of joy and pain that is Norwich City.
Of course, since Oscar was not even one at the time, he will not remember it (or having his picture taken with a cooing, baby-talking ‘Super’ Mario Vrancic), but that trip to Carrow Road will live long in the memory.
Knowing that time was running out for Dad, the rest of the family decided to club together and organise a hospitality trip to a game as a 70th birthday gift. We pushed the boat out and went for the club’s top package, which included a stadium tour – his chance to sit in the dugout, stand on the hallowed Carrow Road turf, and loiter in the dressing rooms three hours before kick-off – as well as the usual posh seats and food beforehand.
It was a wonderful day, topped off by a 4-0 victory over QPR, and I have particularly fond memories of Dad talking excitedly with Dave Stringer afterwards. It turns out that Dave’s mother lived for years on the same road that my dad grew up on in Gorleston! I’ll also never forget the look of sheer wonder on Oscar’s face when he peered out across a full Carrow Road for the very first time.
In Dad’s honour, and with my brother and sister-in-law’s blessing, I intend to take Oscar back to Carrow Road, this time in the cheaper seats alongside City’s more vocal supporters, when he is old enough to appreciate it. I look forward to regaling him with tales of great City sides of the past, teaching him the words to On The Ball, City, and buying him his first replica shirt – it’s what Dad would have wanted.
In the time since that glorious, sun-soaked day in the Norfolk sunshine, we haven’t had much to cheer as a family. By the time Project Restart came about and City began their record-breaking plunge towards relegation, Dad was fighting his final battle. While he still could, we continued to talk about City and, post-lockdown, even watched a few of the televised games together on my frequent visits to Sheffield. But in truth, neither of us were that engaged with football, and the pain of relegation barely registered in the way it normally would. In the face of terminal illness, sport becomes inconsequential.
As he entered his final days earlier this month, I wondered aloud whether my relationship with football would ever be the same. It’s not that I’ve lost interest or that I don’t care – deep down, I know I still do – but rather that I can’t envisage following City without him. Somehow, it seems like a piece of the jigsaw is missing. I’m sure others have felt similar before and will do in future, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Since he passed away a few weeks ago, I have slowly begun to take more interest in City again, though I still instinctively think, “I wonder what Dad makes of this,” every time I see the club announce a new signing or notch up a pre-season victory.
I will miss talking tactics with him – he was a qualified coach (Howard Wilkinson, in his pre-managerial days, was his assessor), and one of the smartest readers of a game I’ve come across – and of course moaning about the team’s latest defensive shambles (which, as we all know, has pretty much been a constant for as long as I can remember).
I will miss going to games with him, too, and meeting up with distant relatives in the pub before and after the match to complain bitterly about the latest scapegoat, the management or (as has seemed more frequent in recent years) the unrealistic expectations of fellow City fans. I know that those relatives are just at the end of a telephone line, and no doubt we will exchange many messages before, during and after games, but it’s not the same, and simply never will be.
As a new season approaches, I find myself filled with a mixture of hope and dread; hope for better City performances and a possible promotion push, and dread for how my relationship with the club could change.
Without him beside me in the stands, on the settee or on the other end of a telephone, will Norwich City even matter to me?
Whatever happens, I know I will always remain a yellow, and his grandson – and what would have been his second grandchild, who is due to enter the world in a matter of weeks – will be brought up as a Canary.
It’s what he would have wanted, and the most fitting tribute I can think of.
Matt Anniss is an author and journalist based in Bristol with Yorkshire and Norfolk roots. He grew up supporting Norwich City from afar in the Steel City of Sheffield.