Common decency has prevented Norwich City fans talking ill of Glenn Roeder, who died this week at just 65. But it is the nature of football that he will be remembered by those supporters for one moment in his 15 months and 65 games as manager.
Just over a year after his appointment he faced questions from the floor at the club’s AGM. “How is it that you can’t see what’s going wrong, when we can all see it from the top tier in the Barclay?” asked an exasperated fan. Roeder responded: “I must have missed your tenure as England manager.” That provoked a chorus of booing and jeering. Roeder apologised. But the damage was done and was irreparable.
That was in November 2008. He toiled on in the job, with increasingly grim performances and appalling results, until the following January, but nobody associated with the club – save his closest colleagues – forgave him that scornful remark towards someone whose love of the club was palpable.
But let us all be decorous enough to look beyond that comment now. To do so, we need to remember the circumstances in which Roeder arrived in NR1 1JE.
Peter Grant resigned as manager with City bottom of what is now called the Championship. Defeat away to fellow relegation candidates QPR – the fifth reverse in six matches – was the final straw for him.
Three matches under the guidance of caretaker boss Jim Duffy were all lost. Enter Roeder.
At his job interview he stressed that he saw City as an opportunity for him to succeed after near misses at West Ham and Newcastle; as he put it: “I’ve hit the post twice and I want another chance to score.”
It wasn’t only results that were bad at Norwich at that time in 2008. Insurance magnate Peter Cullum had the unquestioning support of the Eastern Daily Press editor of that time, Peter Franzen, in attempt to buy control of the club. Superficially, his offer of £20million to “spend on new players” seemed tantalising like a route to more than mere survival in tier two.
So Roeder walked in when there was enormous pressure on the board and on majority shareholders Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones.
I knew Roeder reasonably well long before he pitched up at “my” club. I’d even played football against him in a match between the Press and FA staff at Bisham Abbey during his spell as an England coach under Glenn Hoddle. Roeder carried the ball out from defence during the first half and went past me by deploying his trademark play: the “Roeder shuffle”, in which he waved a foot over the ball in mid stride, leaving his opponent unsure which way he was about to go.
Decades later, I reminded him that he’d “done me” with the shuffle. He said: “You must have been a player, then Mick, because donkeys weren’t quick enough to fall for it.” That remains the kindest thing anyone ever said about my footballing ability. The fact that he was joking didn’t matter.
When he was manager at West Ham, I was football correspondent and a columnist at the Daily Express, and saw a lot of Roeder. That was the period when we now know his brain tumour was first diagnosed, although it was reported that he had suffered a stroke. He took time off work, during which West Ham were relegated from the Premier League. When he returned to the dug-out, there was one disgusting incident in which a Hammers’ fan shouted about hoping he died of cancer soon.
Soon after Roeder took over at Norwich, my Colchester-supporting brother bought tickets for my wife and I in the front row of the main stand at Layer Road for City’s visit. Our seats were among home fans. Obviously I wore no identifying colours and vowed to do nothing to make my affiliation with the away team known. But Roeder “did me” once more. He spotted me, waved cheerily and called out: “I’d forgotten you were a big Norwich fan, Mick Dennis.”
Hey, ho. Norwich got a point thanks to a 90th minute own-goal and the Roeder revival revved up. Remember that “The Great Escape” poster produced by the EDP? It had Roeder’s head superimposed on an image of Steve McQueen astride a motorbike. It captured the mood of hope and achievement against the odds that Roeder had enabled. Nobody seemed to care that, in the film, McQueen didn’t actually escape on that motorbike.
City did though. Under Roeder they clawed their way to 17th and were secure before the last game of the season: at Sheffield Wednesday – the fixture in which Dion Dublin ended his career with the entire ground giving him an ovation but in which Darren Huckerby was denied a similar send-off, at least from Norwich, because Roeder had not told him he wasn’t getting a new contract.
There was definitely an abrasive, confrontational streak in Roeder but plenty of good judges had told me down the years that he was a fine coach and the City squad definitely needed refreshing that summer.
Roeder had made long-term club servant Bryan Gunn head of recruitment, with an office at the training ground and a brief to use his contacts in the game. Here is what Gunny wrote about that summer in the first volume of Tales From The City:
‘Glenn’s signings included Wes Hoolahan and Sammy Clingan. We brought in two centre-backs, John Kennedy on loan from Celtic and Dejan Stefanovic from Fulham for a million. We thought we had the makings of a decent team, but we looked a bit short of goals. In an attempt to solve that, on the last day of the summer transfer window Glenn signed Antoine Sibierski, who had played for him at Newcastle, on loan from Wigan.
‘Both the centre-backs got crocked. Kennedy suffered bad ankle ligament damage and then an old knee injury flared up as well. He returned to Celtic. Stefanovic ruptured his cruciate knee ligaments after 12 games and never kicked a ball for us again. But it was the Sibierski deal that really hurt us. He only scored twice in 16 games and then got injured. I don’t know if we had to pay all his wages or half of them, but he was on £25,000 a week at Wigan, so signing him and then not being able to use him made a big dent in our budget for not much return.’
Many fans who have commented publicly since Roeder’s passing have said stuff like, “don’t forget he got us Wes,” as if that was all he did. Frankly, that would be a pretty big “all”. But I think he was extremely unlucky with the injuries to those two centre-backs.
The 2008-09 season kicked off at Coventry, and up in the away end, I thought it was one of those games when the result (a 2-0 home win) didn’t tell the story. I thought we looked more than half-decent and that Kennedy and Stefanovic looked capable of being a formidable pairing, in the mould of Forbes and Stringer, Jones and Powell, Mackay and Fleming … Hanley and Gibson. It wasn’t Roeder’s fault that they turned out more like Sicknote and Sicknote.
The conventional wisdom is that Roeder relied on too many loan players, but he felt he needed to improve the quality and couldn’t afford to buy players of the calibre he felt was required. So he borrowed some.
Meanwhile, Gunny’s scouting missions also became shaped by the club’s lack of funds. He was told to look for “value” in the lower divisions and, in November 2008, the same month as Roeder’s gaff at the AGM, spotted “a bit of a lump” he liked the look of playing at Lincoln for Shrewbury. The name Gunny put in his little black book was “Grant Holt”.
On that same day, Norwich won 2-1 at Nottingham Forest, despite playing for 70 minutes with ten men after Gary Doherty was sent off. But wins were few and far between and draws were even more scarce. Mostly there were defeats.
The third round of the FA Cup brought a little respite with a trip to Charlton. The Londoners went ahead through Jonjo Shelvey but City earned a replay with a 70th minute equaliser by Arturo Lupoli.
Yet the following Saturday City slipped to a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United and the mood was as bleak as the weather was chill on the evening of Tuesday, 13 January, 2009, when the Cup replay against Charlton was staged.
That night, my wife and I were guests of the majority shareholders. As I’ve explained countless times, we buy our own tickets home and away, but always say, “Ooh, yes please!” on the couple of times a season when Delia’s PA rings with an invitation for the posh seats.
City went out of the Cup with barely a whimper. It was as bad a performance by Norwich as any I have seen: without belief, listless … hopeless. Roeder’s desperate shuffling of the pack was demonstrated by the fact that Wes only joined the debacle as a 67th minute sub for Carl Cort.
And the fact that Cort started the game told its own story about City’s limited means. He had scored one goal in a season and a half when Norwich picked him up from Marbella in the Spanish second tier.
Fans demonstrated outside the ground afterwards. It was all bleak beyond words.
But I had to find some words, and I am sorry about one I chose.
Roeder was sacked the next morning, and I knew I’d had a unique, privileged, close-up view of the build-up to that sacking and so it was my professional duty to describe what I’d seen.
In print, I called the demonstrating fans “a mob”. It was my “I missed your tenure as England manager” moment, because there is an implication about violence with the noun “mob”, which was unintended and inaccurate.
But some of what I wrote about that night was, I still think, insightful. Here’s a precis, with the ‘m’ word omitted:
‘… about 200 supporters gathered outside the main entrance to vent their anger and frustration. Upstairs, behind windows on which the blinds had been pulled, Fay Roeder heard it all.
‘Around her sat a sad-eyed group of family and friends, perched on comfortable chairs which, that night, were anything but comfortable. The Roeders’ adult daughter sat on the arm of one chair, her body language evoking support and protection for her mum, her words defiantly proud of her dad.
‘Other people in the room, Norwich City’s inner sanctum on match days, were dotted around in twos and threes. Some were seated, some stood nursing long-cold cups of tea and coffee.
‘There was a lot of silent head-shaking and, when folk spoke, they kept their voices mournfully low. They avoided eye contact with Fay as the chants drifted up from the street: “We want Roeder out! We want Roeder out!”
‘Upstairs in the lounge a senior member of staff told the Roeders’ daughter that, when she was ready, he would escort her to her car via a discreet exit so that she could avoid the crowd. Michael Wynn Jones, Delia Smith’s gentle, donnish, 67-year-old husband, was told that his car had been moved because, if it had remained outside the directors’ entrance, it might have become a target.
‘Delia herself was not present. The TV cook had a writing deadline and an early-morning appointment in London the next day.
‘It was a good game to miss. Norwich gifted an early goal to a team who had not won for 18 matches, and then could not muster a single first-half shot. At half-time Roger Munby, the Norwich chairman, stood at the front of the directors’ box, where the players could see him, and made an ostentatious show of encouragement. A knot of supporters abused Munby, faces contorted with rage.
‘I happened to be near Munby’s wife. She shuddered involuntarily as she saw him insulted and muttered: “He doesn’t deserve that.” Norwich were marginally better in the second half. Next to me in the directors’ box, Wynn Jones’s mood fluctuated between impotent fury and fatalistic despair. Later, in the lounge, he looked utterly forlorn.
‘He repeatedly telephoned his wife but the line was busy. He suspected she was talking to her mother, the remarkable Ettie, who goes to home games whenever Delia does and has some extremely forthright opinions when they lose. Wynn Jones and Munby talked in whispers and then disappeared somewhere. Neither of the other directors – businessman Michael Foulger and chief executive Neil Doncaster – was present in the lounge. An emergency meeting was obviously taking place. Presumably Delia had been reached by phone.
‘The next day at the training ground, Munby and Doncaster arrived at lunch time. They were not there to try the pasta. Roeder and first-team coaches Paul Stephenson and Adam Sadler were sacked on the spot.’
Roeder never worked as a manager again. His only employment came in roles as a football advisor at Sheffield Wednesday and then Stevenage.
The brain tumour first diagnosed when he was at West Ham eventually became debilitating. He must have realised he had a life-shortening condition for many of his final years. It is possible he knew that as soon as the tumour was discovered.
Many in the football world have paid fulsome tributes. All of them speak of a proper football man.
What I think now is what I thought in January 2009: Glenn Roeder was an elegant player and then an outstanding coach. He took the reins at Norwich at an incredibly difficult time, made a good fist of it at first but then found the task beyond him. Perhaps it was beyond anyone.
Although it is a miracle that more managers don’t snap back at fans – it must be very tempting – he was clearly wrong to reply as he did at that fraught AGM. Supporters of any club in the land would have wanted answers given the results, and the demonstration after the Charlton game was completely justified.
But, ours is a family club, and Roeder’s family are hurting again this week and we can, all of us, sympathise.