Why Norwich City owe a debt to the non-league game

Friday, August 19, 2011
2:04 PM

Away from the glitz and the glamour of the Premier League is a football world spinning on an altogether different axis.

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Bereft of the sports science departments, the army of dieticians, nutritionists, medical personnel of all shapes and sizes to tend to every niggle and strain.

One where hardy bands of volunteers spin any number of plates from gateman, front-of-house, to putting up the nets, making the tea, marking out the pitches. In a former guise I turned up to cover a King’s Lynn game only a couple of seasons ago at ground that shall remain nameless which was in serious doubt of going ahead. Why? They had run out of paint to mark the lines on the pitch and were awaiting an urgent delivery of the white stuff from a neighbouring club. True story.

Imagine that scene at Carrow Road as Sergio Aguero emerges from the away dressing room for his pre-match warm-up. Sorry old son. No game today. Time to get back on the air conditioned coach taking you back to the airport for your first class flight.

Norwich City is not just Premier League on the pitch this season. They also possess an infrastructure to match off it. From the superbly atmospheric match day experience to the training facilities at Colney.

Yet City’s success in reaching this footballing utopia – allied to their mammoth task in trying to stay there – will in large part owe a debt to non league football. In all its wonderful guises.

Paul Lambert hailed a lionhearted effort from Steve Morison at Wigan. Bloodied but unbowed. The big Welshman typified Norwich’s collective will not to freeze on their big day.

A day long coming for those 4,500 hardy souls who made the trip north after the debacle of the club’s previous top flight exit at Fulham in 2005. No need to reprise that particular horrorshow.

It’s inclusion here is to underline one fact. In September of that same season which ended in abject misery for the Canaries, Morison signed for non league Bishop’s Stortford after failing to make the grade in the professional ranks with Northampton.

Imagine the disappointment for a young footballer. That moment in a manager’s office – in Morison’s case, Colin Calderwood’s – when he had to listen to the dream turning sour. Morison finished his first season outside the professional ranks as Stortford’s top scorer.

The start of a prolific spell which took him onto Stevenage and a springboard back into the Football League at Millwall.

Morison took the final step on his footballing road to rehabilitation when he ran out at the DW Stadium. 75 minutes later, he’d done enough to dispel any lingering doubts in his own mind he belonged at that level.

Norwich is not the first club nor the last who will benefit from the experiences of young men who emerged stronger for early setbacks in their career.

Les Ferdinand was a powerhouse of a striker who played with distinction for QPR, Tottenham and Newcastle along with amassing 17 England caps. The same Ferdinand who also once graced Wisbech Town’s famous old former home, Fenland Park, back in the 1980s in an FA Vase semi-final playing for Southall.

The era of football academies may have lessened the richness of this particular seam, but they are still out there.

Cody McDonald has been heavily touted with a move throughout the summer after his scoring exploits last season in League Two at Gillingham.

The 25-year-old’s lack of involvement since his return tells its own story. Should City decide to cash in, you can guarantee they will make a handsome profit on the original deal that brought him from Dartford.

Morison’s Wigan strike partner, Grant Holt, famously wore a t-shirt with the self-deprecating message ‘Unibond Premier to the Premier League’ during the final day celebrations after City had clinched promotion back in May.

Andrew Crofts spent time in the Conference with Wrexham. Russell Martin with Lewes. Anthony Pilkington briefly travelled even further down the football ladder when he turned out for Atherton Collieries of the North-West Counties League before being picked up by Stockport.

All five scaled their footballing Everest last Saturday. Little wonder they possess the hunger, along with the talent, so coveted by Lambert in his player recruitment drives.

When you’ve had to pay subs, or your own fines, crammed in the back of cars or a battered minibus to go to away games, you tend to appreciate the good times even more.

Speak to Morison, watch him play and there is no trace of an inferiority complex, no sense he should not be on the same pitch as opposition players who perhaps have enjoyed more privileged football upbringings.

Morison and a good number of his Norwich team mates had to come up the hard way.

Frankly, City’s odds of surviving and then flourishing in the Premier League are all the more favourable for having them on the payroll.

I’ll refrain from trotting out ‘when the going gets tough’ cliché. Anyone digesting the national media coverage of Delia’s yellow army last weekend will have already had their fill.

Suffice to say, at times this coming season City will find themselves on the back foot, many miles from home, playing in front of a baying crowd who sense blood. Do you want a Morison or a Holt or a Crofts filling every inch of that yellow jersey?

I think we all know the answer.

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