The Coventry game hadn’t long kicked off, but instead of settling down to follow the match, I was standing in the doorway to the lounge, on the phone, trying to get through to the ward at the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital, sort of half watching, half concentrating on the seemingly endless ringing at the other end.
Dad had been in for over 24 hours and we were desperate for an update.
All I really remember about the first 20 minutes on that February night was the rain and the weird glare of the floodlights from the soaked threadbare St Andrews turf. It was at that point the other phone rang and I found myself talking to a very kind consultant who explained he’d been with Dad and wanted to relay what he’d just told my father.
The world stood still as he reeled off his concerns about cancer in more than one place, his doubts about a good long-term prognosis and difficulties around treatment. Even now, it’s all a blur.
The football in the other room was forgotten. I rang Mum and my sister and shattered them with the news, and then summoned up the courage to call Dad, hoping he’d maybe answer.
“Good win that” were his words when he answered.
I looked at the time and realised I’d completely forgotten about the game, but here he was giving me the update on the performance just after receiving a terminal diagnosis – he called it “a double whammy.” All he really wanted to talk about was the football, so we did.
It was like the good old days, just for a minute or two.
Dad had given up going to Carrow Road regularly a few years ago. One of the family would always be able to get him a ticket, but after the Lambert era he announced he’d had enough of the walking and the cold and his attendances dwindled. His last game was the mad last-minute mayhem of Millwall. Before that though, his love affair had begun in the early ’50s, until 1969 when he introduced five-year-old me to a lifetime of obsession.
Those early days were spent in the South Stand with Grandad, Uncle Bert, Uncle Cyril, Uncle John and a collection of cousins, and latterly in the old River End – one of them holding my hand and someone carrying the stool that Grandad made for me to stand on.
I remember being among a sea of giants as the crowd swayed and ebbed with the games. Just a kid with his dad and a mutual love for their club; it was a proper football education.
One by one though, the older relatives faded away, but the love of Norwich City never did. Now we’ve moved on almost 50 years since that first promotion together, it’s been a journey worth traveling for all its highs, lows, and laughs.
Dad was always a fiery type – a boxer and goalkeeper in his time – and he could fall out with anyone at a moment’s notice. There was even the famous verbal spat with Nobby Stiles, and the day he almost chinned a Coventry fan for abusing Kevin Bond, who subsequently scored a thunderbolt.
Back when you’d regularly find away colours in the River End, he’d always be unable to contain himself, leaving me to spill the beans about his latest outburst to Mum after he’d managed to wind someone up to the point I’d be thinking of disowning him. It never came to violence, but football crowds seemed so different then, and he loved letting his passion sweep him along.
As the years passed and work made it difficult for me, then season tickets made it more complicated for families to sit together and we ended up dispersed around the ground, with Dad in the upper Barclay with my sister, brother in law and his grandson.
Even then, we’d see him from our seats in block K gesticulating at the ref. We’d still meet before the game for a pint, but physically, his fire had started to die down, until he left it to us to do the pilgrimages.
Now we’re having to face up to the fact that we are at the end. We don’t know exactly how long we have, but he knows, we know, there’s only one course for this to run.
That’s why, before the Rotherham game, when the hospital offered the opportunity to visit him as an exception during the Covid restrictions I jumped at the chance to go and see him.
The staff had been brilliant with Dad and us. They knew he was feeling isolated when he was most in need of company, but it was a great morale booster and a huge privilege to be allowed in. The benefit of a Saturday visit was that the game was on iFollow. Even with the limitations of hospital WiFi, it was the only excuse we needed.
So there we were, just like we’d been in 1969, watching the football together. Except this time, figuratively, it was me holding his hand.
We’ve had the difficult conversations about the future.
“I just hope I get to see us go up” were his words.
In the intervening weeks, City have rolled imperiously onwards while others faltered trying to keep pace. Dad had struggled though. In and out of hospital for procedures and unplanned surgery, while time slowly runs down, he’s found it difficult to keep up the interest from hospital with the snippets I provided for him.
It was all a bit too difficult at times. I remember shedding tears at Wembley in 1973 and him consoling me, and again when we sold Kevin Reeves, but on that occasion, Dad just grinned in an understanding sort of way.
There have been plenty of tears too in these last few weeks, but when we caught up again by phone after the 7-0 drubbing of Huddersfield, he’d seen the highlights and wanted to know if we’d be promoted at the weekend if results went our way. No time for tears now, just the uplifting feeling that football can give you when everything is going your way.
I reassured him that it was possible and that the mathematics were on our side, but we’d just have to hope for now that it happened soon.
And that’s what it’s only ever been about. Hope.
We’ve spent a lifetime together hoping City would do well, and here we were hoping he’d be home from hospital to see the results unfold in our favour over the next few days.
Well, on Saturday Dad, they did it. And you were home, and there to see it when we were worried that perhaps you wouldn’t be, and for a moment we were right back where we started, chasing the infinite game that Stuart Webber speaks of; the belief that your club can scale the heights and that no matter where we fit into the cycle of success or failure, we hope to see more ups than downs.
I’m glad we got to have that chat about Brentford and Swansea dropping those vital points and the prospect of winning the title by Tuesday, and I’m glad you can get to watch it in a stress-free way, and just enjoy the football.
I’m sure that somewhere else right now in the county there are other dads and lads going through their first promotion together, and I hope their journeys are as exciting and enjoyable as ours have been.
Whatever time we’ve got left in our particular roller coaster, one thing never changes – our love of a football club that just won’t stop believing in itself. Saturday was a good day.
On the Ball, Premier League City!