As I write this, it’s thirty years since the opening day of the very first Premier League season
‘A whole new ball game’ was how Sky Sports opted to brand the game and league at the time, showing, even then, their wish for football to have had its very own reset to year zero on the day.
Norwich City, founder members of the new league, had muddled their way into its freshly painted atrium. But only just.
We had, some might say with typical élan, tripped and fumbled our way to a very unsatisfactory (though how we would laud it now) finishing position of 18th at the end of the previous season; not enough to avoid the drop now but, back then, two places and three points above the relegation places.
Instead, Luton Town, now at the beginning of their magnum opus of a tale to non-league football and, nearly, all the way back again, Notts County and West Ham all missed out on the freshly laundered riches that were to follow.
How the fortunes of Luton and Notts County might have differed if they had managed to hang on and it was us and an always-nervous Coventry City who had dropped out of the top league instead.
We so nearly did. In truth, we should have done.
One win out of our remaining twelve games, a bout of end-to-end pandemonium at Carrow Road against Everton on March 31st was (although we didn’t realise it at the time) the match and win that eventually secured our place in the Premier League the following season.
Thus, just as we can all give a respectful nod in the direction of ex-Canary Andy Linighan, whose winning goal in the 1993 FA Cup final saw us qualify for the following season’s UEFA Cup by virtue of that win (Arsenal, who had also won the League Cup would have entered the UEFA Cup instead of us, Linighan’s winner saw them elevated into the much missed European Cup Winners Cup, with us ‘promoted’ in their wake), then perhaps we should also afford the same courtesy to Darren Beckford?
For it was his two late goals against the Toffees that earned us the three points and, ultimately, the survival that went with it, rather than the sort of potential long-term fate that attached itself to Luton and Notts County at the end of that campaign.
Talk about fine margins. This one was minuscule.
But there we were. Football’s new dawn, live matches as well as its return to the BBC and Match Of The Day, which was, for me, still a half-decent watch back then, with Des Lynam in the chair and a rather less irritating Gary Lineker accompanying Alan Hansen – the Gary Neville of the day – as their two in-house pundits.
Not that the three of them wouldn’t have been tipping Norwich to go down at the end of that inaugural season. It felt a safe bet and, to be honest, a fair one.
Dave Stringer, still only 47 at the time, had decided to step aside as the club’s manager, leaving the door open for former Liverpool and England stalwart Phil Neal, who’d previously enjoyed mixed fortunes as Bolton Wanderers manager before his dismissal, which was announced at the same time as Stringer made his announcement.
Neal was chairman Robert Chase’s number one choice for the job and was hastily invited to interview. His pending appointment was, at the time, greeted with a fair amount of ‘meh’ by most City supporters, underwhelmed by both his achievements at Bolton as well as his perceived playing style.
As ever, City fans were only too eager to point out possible alternatives, one of which was persuading the extremely popular Stringer to stay on. There was also Joe Jordan, who’d come very close to breaking the Scottish duopoly with Hearts as well as Phil Holder who had greatly impressed at Brentford, and Lou Macari, who had done the same with Stoke.
All were seen as young and progressive managers who would jump at the chance of managing Norwich City, in particular Jordan who had made no secret of his wish to manage in England.
But no, Neal it was. And, with everything signed, sealed and not quite delivered, Norwich prepared to welcome the man who had recently guided Bolton to a 13th place finish in the old Division Three.
Except for one thing. Chase, it is now widely believed, had not only expected but demanded that, upon appointment, Neal relocated himself and his family to Norfolk.
Neal, on the other hand, and given his acceptance of the precarious nature of football management, understandably so, wasn’t just reluctant to relocate, he told Mr Chase that he was unwilling to do so.
So the two of them shook hands and went their separate ways.
Now unable to present his first choice, Chase had to make a managerial decision in a hurry. And, in doing so, opted for City’s then reserve team manager Mike Walker, a man whose only experience in a similar role had been at Colchester United from 1986 to 1987, during which time he’d led them to the top of the league before, rather surprisingly, being sacked.
He’d spent the subsequent five years very much in the background at Norwich, an obvious advantage being that he got to know the club, its management, staff and players very well indeed.
Including the chairman.
His appointment led to the famous line that said that he ‘…wasn’t even a household name in his own household’, but it was, as things turned out, an inspired choice by Robert Chase who, for all the flaws we still see as part of his tenure, did some very good things during his time at the club – the appointment of Walker being one of them.
What did the players make of his appointment?
Darren Eadie- “… he’d muck about with you on the way to away matches, play-fighting with the players at the back of the coach. He gave the players some slack but we respected him, he had the balance of being your mate and having the authority exactly spot on”.
Jeremy Goss- “Mike Walker was terrific in every sense of the word. He believed in me, he gave me a chance; he trusted me and he knew my character. I was fit, I was strong and he knew I would never give up”.
John Polston- “He told you like it was – if you played well, he told you, if you played badly, well..”
Ian Butterworth- “We all knew Mike well. Most of the players got on with him OK, and we knew how he worked. So it was a smooth transition – he already had our respect and it progressed from there”.
Rob Newman- “We didn’t need Mike Walker or Dixie (Deehan) shouting at us, or showing us what to do. We knew could do it and we got on and did it. We had a squad of good players, clever and capable lads … if someone was struggling, you helped them out because you knew it might be you struggling in the next game – then you’d want your mates to help you out. That was the basis of the great team spirit we had”.
Looking back at that time, Walker’s appointment, and just some of the quotes from his players at the time, it is now very obvious his appointment and partnership with coaches John Deehan and David Williams was a genuine ‘lightning in a bottle’ moment for Norwich City – a time where, as unlikely and improbable as it seemed, and entirely by chance, something rare, special and, ultimately, spectacular was about to happen.
That chemistry is alluded to by Polston – a rare mix of a fine man manager teaming up with an equally capable couple of coaches and master tacticians.
We didn’t realise it at the time of course, but if Phil Neal had decided that he did, after all, want to move to Norfolk, then none of what followed would have happened.
A sobering thought indeed.
Part Two to follow…