Mysoginist, ageist, defamatory … take your pick. Many of the opinions expressed about Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones since Norwich City’s AGM were appalling. And even most of those who managed to remain civilised and decent were still profoundly wrong.
Ah, but I am their friend, so my views can be glibly discounted by the critics. So let me tell you why Smith and Jones are my friends so that you can at least understand the rage I am in.
I am not their pal because once or twice a season they invite my wife and me to be their guests at matches – nice treat though those directors’ box visits are.
The friendship which is approaching its 26th year has been nourished and sustained because Delia and Michael have been unfailingly kind, generous, solicitous and thoughtful.
At the start of 2002, the newspaper I worked for changed my role in such a way that I felt impelled me to walk away from the best-paid, most rewarding job I ever had.
The Guardian wrote about my leaving the job, and on the day the story appeared, Delia and Michael both phoned me, on separate moments in that black day, to check how I was. I lied and pretended I was fine. In truth, I had pitched headlong into a mental health crisis.
Their considerate words were extremely helpful. Michael (a veteran journalist himself) gave me some especially sound advice as well as gentle support.
On another occasion, Delia began a conversation but stopped and asked what was wrong. She had sensed that I was in a fog of fear. I told her a family member was very ill. She said all the right things and a few days later I received a card with a picture of a lit candle on the front and, on the back, a handwritten note. D & M were leaving for a driving holiday in France and she would light a candle for my loved one at a church in every village where they stopped.
As you probably know, she is a devout Christian, and whatever your or my views on that, she was committing herself to praying for someone I love and that was a beautiful thing.
Those are just two examples of their friendship. They have continued down the years.
So, to see some of the stuff said – allegations, assumptions and character assessments – from people who clearly don’t know them at all is enraging.
Some are so wide of the mark as to be very funny – like the ones about the wanting to “cling on” at Norwich to enhance their social life. That’s an outstanding gag.
The last time a MyFootballWriter column confidently made that assertion I told the author that his timing was the best part of the hilarity because Delia and Michael were dining with (the now late) Queen that week.
Delia has a copious and diverse throng of friends. While in her company I’ve met some head-turningly famous pals, quite a few of the great and good – but mostly just ‘ordinary’, nice folk.
Yet in a recent thread on Facebook, one woman said Delia obviously only wanted to stay on to ‘hob-nob’ with directors of other clubs. That’s another belter.
In boardrooms throughout the land on matchdays, the artificial bonhomie between two groups supporting rival teams is seldom very convincing – especially after the match. Delia gets around the awkwardness by being polite but concentrating her attentions, not on “the other lot” but on the guests she has invited to sit at her table.
Let me nail a few more idiotic suppositions:
1) Delia and Michael are apathetic. They don’t really want the club to be in the Premier League, because they are happy enough bobbing about in the second tier.
Michael’s first game at Carrow Road was in April 1955. He was 13. The team were nearing the end of an entirely unremarkable campaign in the Third Division South. They eventually finished 12th of 24 clubs, winning 18 games and losing 18, scoring 60 goals and conceding 60. Yet Michael was smitten.
All these years later, defeats still hurt him. See the pain in his eyes after a bad mauling and you would know.
He first took Delia to Carrow Road in 1969. They acquired season tickets in 1972 to celebrate Norwich City’s first ascent into the top division. When they bought control of the club, they kept the season tickets as a safeguard to ensure they could still go to matches whatever happened. They have them still.
In 1978, on the day of the FA Cup Final, the executive broadcaster of BBC TV’s morning kids’ show, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, ruled that everyone in the outside broadcast segment should wear a rosette of one or other of the finalists: Arsenal and a team from Suffolk. Delia had a blue rosette pinned on her. She said, live on air, “I am a Norwich supporter. I don’t really want this rosette.” She has never been to Portman Road, other than to watch Norwich.
Some of those who dig out the picture of her in that blue rosette every year or so are Binners. But there are some City fans who must know the truth by now yet wilfully repeat the lie that she once was a Scummer.
Delia and Michael are proper City supporters. Until very recently they went to every game – and if you think someone doing that doesn’t hate losing, you can’t go on many of the long away trips.
They have reluctantly conceded that winning the top division is unlikely, but Delia tells every new manager: “I want you to win one of the cups for us.”
2) They treat supporters with contempt.
That allegation came from people who heard what they wanted to during the interviews after the AGM.
Delia said 80 percent of our fans are the best in the world, 20 percent whinge – but she forgives even them because they are just passionate about the club and don’t know all that goes on behind the scenes.
Leave aside whether her percentages are awry, where is contempt in that? Honestly, where? There’s exasperation, certainly. But I have never, ever heard her express contempt for any living soul, let alone supporters of the club she cares about.
3) She didn’t save the club when she took it over. Geoffrey Watling did.
Nope. Watling bought Robert Chase’s shares, but that money went to Chase. It didn’t go to the club, or the bank who were refusing any more credit. So the club went to Delia and the £1million she and Michael stumped up kept Norwich City alive.
4) If they really loved Norwich, they should hurry away and let the Attanasio family get on with it.
Really? You want owners who say, “Stuff it”, and scuttle off without ensuring they are making way for the right people? You think that they are taking all the current sh*t for the sake of three more years in charge?
The truth is that Delia’s biggest fear is that whoever succeeds her turns out to be a wrong un, or sells the club on to a wrong un. So there will be a period of working together and building trust.
That’s good, because Mark Attanasio says he wants to take things one step at a time.
3) By phoning to express support for David Wagner, Delia undermined new sporting director Ben Knapper.
That suggestion, put to her and her husband by Anglia TV’s Andy Ward after the AGM, bemused them both – and anyone who has paid attention to how Delia operates.
Knapper will decide on Wagner, Delia won’t interfere. But meantime, on a human level, Delia will act considerately towards the current head coach.
At the surprise lunch to mark the 25th anniversary of Delia and Michael buying the club, Nigel Worthington’s wife told me that when her man was sacked, Delia rang her to offer help in any way she could.
The room was filled with managers she’d sacked but could tell similar stories of Delia’s compassion. She hadn’t ducked out of sacking them though.
5) The club should say something – anything – to rally the fans and let them know what is happening.
What is happening, is that an era is ending.
Delia and Michael have relinquished absolute control of the club and want to hand the decisive role to Attanasio – in three year’s time unless that timescale proves unnecessary. Also, according to Attanansio, Knapper is putting together a long-term strategy. When that plan is in place, I’d expect Knapper to take a view on Wagner. It would be bonkers to do that now, put someone else in charge, and then have to decide on that guy’s suitability.
So what do the critics expect a statement about? A vote of confidence in a head coach who might still be sacked? An announcement that he might still be sacked? Details of a plan before it is finalised?
I haven’t tackled the desirability of being ‘self-funding’. The only task I set myself here was to dispel ludicrous myths about Delia and Michael.
Frankly, most other owners would have shown a lot more frustration and some real anger.
But in football it is perfectly acceptable for supporters to be vilely abusive week after week, yet it is a cardinal sin for those whose responsibility it is to take the tough decisions to utter the mildest disappointment with fans.
At both Watford and Bristol City, attempts to get a “We want Delia out” chant going were snubbed. One bloke tried at Vicarage Road, a group of four or five younger men tried at Ashton Gate. The former had no takers at all; the latter got maybe three joiners.
Considerably less than 20 per cent of us.