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Monday, February 18, 2013
He was the last significant football figure to taste both sides of the great divide that separates Canaries and Tractorboys. A divide threatening to widen come the summer.
As things stand, Joe Royle isn’t sure how Norwich City fans now feel about the man named their player of the season in 1981 – who went on to manage Ipswich Town for four, ultimately troubled years.
Royle’s playing career at City was something of a brief renaissance before a knee injury wrote off his 1981-82 season and eventually saw him hang up his boots, if only metaphorically speaking.
In reality, he was lacing them back up in his tracksuit before the summer was out having taken charge of Oldham.
But with either the ball at his feet or team selection in his hands, Royle made his mark both clubs.
“I don’t know if Norwich fans have forgiven me really; I certainly got a bit of stick when I came back as Ipswich manager, which was to be expected,” laughed the 63-year-old former Evertonian.
“I do keep in touch with a couple of my old friends and players like Neil Adams and Mike Milligan. They both live in the area and they both love it, quite rightly so. We loved living in Poringland, I’ve got to tell you. Once Norwich touches you, it is a nice place to play.
“It’s always slightly puzzling to me the animosity when the clubs are 40-odd miles apart. It’s not as if they live in each other’s city. But they are both wonderfully run clubs with nice supporters, and I really mean that. I wouldn’t deny one for the other.”
It’s probably a view that can only be held by someone who has been on the inside at both ends of the East Anglian football argument. With Norwich and Ipswich currently sitting 25 places apart in the domestic ladder, fans’ views may have softened too.
And each have a twinge of relegation worry in the air. For Norwich, sitting on 29 points brings a Premier League fear only fledgling and hopefully fleeting.
“I don’t want to upset fans, but realistically you are not going to win the Premier League so it is great to keep the carrot of Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal all coming to Carrow Road,” said Royle.
“I know what a good place Carrow Road is when it’s full and when it’s up for it with ‘On the ball, City’ and things like that. I loved my year playing there, I really did.
“You can never say there won’t be relegation issues to come, and the worry is of course nine games without a win. But they should have enough.”
As for Ipswich, their Championship season has been more than one to forget – rather a case of one to remember, if only to ensure it never happens again. From appearing doomed in autumn, the survival chance they now have is one they cannot turn down.
Royle oversaw four years at Portman Road from November 2002, a time when Town fought through administration while still twice making the play-offs.
At the time, failing to book promotion was seen as a failure. Now, such promotion opportunities for the Championship’s longest serving club would be welcomed in a heartbeat.
“Ipswich at the moment are having a hard time of it and I don’t really want to see the two clubs fall two divisions apart,” admitted Royle. “I would like to see at some stage in the future the East Anglian derby back again, and I would love that to be a Premier League game.”
That is a thought for another season at least. For now, it’s about taking stock of the current top-flight landscape.
And Royle’s recent pundit duties would prove useful for those of a Canaries persuasion, having taken to the Sky Sports panel at Old Trafford for Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Everton – City’s next two opponents.
“They are tough games for Norwich,” said Royle. “They are not in the best of runs but it was a good draw against Fulham, and another clean sheet will do them the world of good.
“I saw Norwich earlier on in the season at Everton and they looked a good outfit. I remember thinking – and I mean this as a compliment – that they weren’t particularly nice.
“Traditionally Norwich sides have been nice and have always been open and Corinthian in their attitudes, so I was impressed. They got about the game, made it hard for Everton to play. Alex Tettey was rummaging around in midfield breaking things up and they looked a handful.
“I have got great admiration for Chris Hughton.
“His record is good as well though, let’s get it straight: Being a nice guy and making yourself popular is one thing, but having a good record is another and his record at Newcastle quite seriously didn’t deserve what happened to him. He did a very good job at Birmingham as well.
“It was a hard job at Norwich to take over because Paul Lambert had done so well but I am sure they will be OK, I really am.
“The one thing Everton have struggled with his scoring goals when they are on top. It is 12 draws this season, so you could say at the moment a draw would be good for Norwich having got a draw at Goodison Park. A draw then at United would be good too, because that would take them over 30 points and in a strong position then to stay up.”
Not that Royle expects Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to go easy on anyone, despite their seemingly unassailable 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League – and regardless of Norwich’s superb 1-0 win at Carrow Road earlier in the season.
“You won’t get them admitting it’s over, that’s the sure,” added Royle. “I saw Sir Alex for dinner last week and his energy and desire to win is certainly unquencha ble. He is still very competitive and reminding me that Everton cost him the title last year.
“He is a good guy and a good friend, but there are no favours with the man. You might catch a game when he plays one or two of his up and coming players but there are no weaknesses. He had six internationals on the bench the other night.”
It was iconic Norwich manager John Bond, who died last year, who brought Royle to Carrow Road – although things didn’t pan out as planned. “Bondy signed me and very quickly lost faith – that’s what he told me after two or three games, that he had made a mistake,” laughed Royle. “Then he went to Manchester City and he caught me in a car park when we played them, and he said he was pleased to see that I had returned to some kind of form.
“He was a key man at Norwich in so much that he took them on to a different dimension. Norwich had the occasional cup run years before, but they became a respected top-flight side under Bondy. There was a great coaching school too with Mel Machin, John Sainty and John Benson.
“There was a great feel to the place and I’ve got to say the training and the coaching was as good as I had.”
Back living in Ormskirk north of Liverpool, Royle was in Norwich before Christmas – sharing the Archway sporting dinner and stage at the Mercure Hotel with another former Canary, John Hartson. And Royle admitted stories of the Welshman’s fight for survival from cancer made it an “emotional night – certainly it was good to see him again”. A successful two-month spell back in charge of the club where Royle made his name was his last managerial outing, coming in 2009.
But Jimmy Greaves labelled football “a funny old game” for a reason. “I’ve tried for a couple of jobs but I can’t seem to get an interview. With tongue in cheek, perhaps my CV is too good. And with a little more modesty, maybe the perception is I’ve either retired or I’m too old,” he said.
“I’ve still got my marbles, I’m still coherent and I’ve got a lot of experience. So for the right club I would get back in. But I’ve dragged my wife around the country to 12 different houses and we’ve got three grandchildren now, and one on the way, so I don’t think I’m going to get us too far from them.
“But football continues to surprise me, so Joe Royle working in football again? You never know.”