May 23 2013 Latest news:
Friday, March 30, 2012
There have been plenty of good days covering the Canaries in this job over the past eight seasons or so. Sunday, May 15 2005 was not one of them.
That was an unforgettable afternoon for all the wrong reasons. An idyllic Spring day in west London appeared a fitting backdrop for the thousands who descended on Fulham’s quaint if outdated Craven Cottage to celebrate City’s Premier League escape. Not to participate in a footballing wake. A defeat so painful, so complete, it is only with hindsight one can fully appreciate the ramifications that shook the club to its foundations. Reverberations that in reality accompanied City all the way down into the depths of League One. The sustained success of the Paul Lambert era will never fully exorcise the demons for those who witnessed it first hand or watched from afar in a ‘Survival Sunday’ that chillingly lived up to its billing.
This weekend’s first Premier League return since that surrender should be a cause for celebration. Not introspection. Look at the ‘big’ clubs languishing in League One and to a less extent the Championship right now; trading on their histories and former glories. That could have been Norwich City; forever looking backwards not forwards.
Nigel Worthington’s squad that dragged the Canaries out of the second tier in 2004 will forever be sadly remembered for those 90 minutes in west London. It casts an indelible stain. One, in truth, they don’t deserve. Reaching the Premier League was a tremendous testament to the work of Worthington, his coaching team and a set of players who had the same fighting spirit and unquenchable desire that binds Lambert’s men. Merely reaching the Promised Land took a herculean effort. Another came in prolonging Norwich’s bid for safety as long as they did that season.
Worthington’s side had to win four of their last six games to become more than a passing footnote for the television executives on that infamous May day. Which only served to deepen the sense of hurt. To get so tantalisingly close but let it unravel in such dramatic fashion.
We all have our own memories of that afternoon. The images that flash through the mind when you think of Craven Cottage. I remember the wonderful sense of anticipation outside the ground. Norwich fans were everywhere. That first away league win of the season, and with it safety, seemed probable not just possible. Momentum was with the Canaries. Fulham had nothing but pride to play for. We all play that game. Journalists, supporters, no doubt even Norwich’s players. Justification through cold reasoning that can lead to only one outcome.
Except Fulham did have something to play for. And momentum lasted all of ten minutes until Brian McBride opened the floodgates. There was no need for ears pressed towards radios to find out information from around the country. The story was unfolding before our eyes. I remember one packed stand behind a goal. Green and yellow-tinged energy from a magnificent turnout. I remember Delia sat amongst the maelstrom. I also remember the numbing shock with each Fulham goal; the sense of paralysis. The dawning realisation of the ramifications. A season’s-worth of effort equating to a limp final hurrah. But there is one part of that day I recall above all others.
It came after the final whistle. Stood in the tunnel area waiting to interview Robert Green and Craig Fleming. Two honest professionals acutely aware of what fate had befell them. They could have declined offers to speak to the media. They fronted up. Answered questions I didn’t want to pose. Questions not even the most pessimistic traveller who headed south that morning would have felt possible.
Football is only a game. The events surrounding Fabrice Muamba’s recent tragic case bring that into sharp focus. But right there and then it felt closer to Billy Shankly’s oft-quoted aside about life and death.
Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since for the Canaries. But that day next to the Thames should never be forgotten as City prepare to return this weekend.