Host of poor decisions sealed our fate

PUBLISHED: 10:00 04 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:15 10 September 2010

Sarah Hall

For the first time in 50 years, Norwich City Football Club is facing up to life in the third tier of English football - and many a Canary fan is left scratching their head as to how things have got so bad? On the face of it, the Canaries have massive potential.

The Canaries trudge off the pitch at the end of the match against Charlton, leaving supporters distraught at their drop into the third tier of English football.

For the first time in 50 years, Norwich City Football Club is facing up to life in the third tier of English football - and many a Canary fan is left scratching their head as to how things have got so bad?

On the face of it, the Canaries have massive potential. Week in, week out 25,000 fans fill Carrow Road, the third highest in the Championship, yet next year this is a league they will not be in.

Angry supporters have put the club's demise down to a plethora of reasons, such as poor decision-making by the board, a lack of ambition and a string of mediocre signings.

Chief executive Neil Doncaster wrote in his column for our sister paper the Eastern Daily Press before the Charlton game that "whatever the fates have in store for us on Sunday, the future is bright next season."

But that's not a view shared by many fans, after a season which has seen the Canaries slump to nine defeats at what was once dubbed Fortress Carrow Road.

So, how has a club which was beating the likes of Manchester United and Newcastle in the Premiership just four years ago fallen so fast?

Tim East, a member of Norwich City Supporters Trust, said: "The mantra of prudence with ambition has led us to this disgraceful state of affairs, where we don't own half the players and the ambition bit seems to be downwards instead of the now unattainable Premiership.

"What have this board achieved? From mid-table mediocrity in the Championship when they took over, one year in the promised land, and then a steady decline to League One.

"Their manager appointments have been less than successful, from Rioch's days, Hamilton, Worthington, (who was not their first choice and, as luck would have it, was quite successful), followed by Grant, Roeder and now Gunn. Their judgements must be called into question."

For some fans, the malaise began not long after what remains the club's greatest achievement. After finishing third in the Premiership in 1992/3 and beating Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup in 1993/4, manager Mike Walker left to join Everton.

Despite assurances to the contrary, chairman Robert Chase allowed star striker Chris Sutton to leave for Blackburn Rovers and, following relegation in 1994/5, a broken promise to up-and-coming manager Martin O'Neill that cash would be available for players saw the Northern Irishman quit in 1996 on the eve of a clash with Leicester, the club he then led to the Premiership.

Apologists for what has happened since, say Norwich fell out of the Premiership at exactly the wrong time, just as clubs were raking in millions of pounds from Sky and Champions League coverage, but many question how the club ended up saddled with millions of pounds in debt when so many star players had been sold for millions of pounds, yet the club's signings remained bargain buys.

Chase was accused of spending money on the club's infrastructure and on development land around the ground, rather than investing it in the team.

Angry protests saw Geoffrey Watling wrestle control of the club from the deeply unpopular Chase and then Mike Walker returned, appointed after Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones had become majority shareholders in 1996, failed to replicate the success of his first spell, but many fans felt he was hard done by when he was sacked by the board after keeping Norwich up. For a board later accused of waiting too long to sack managers, many considered Walker had been dumped too soon.

Ex-Arsenal boss Bruce Rioch fared little better and a string of bizarre continental signings by Bryan Hamilton left Canary fans once again glancing over their shoulder at other teams struggling at the foot of the Championship.

When the board wielded the axe again in 2000, it was Nigel Worthington's turn to take the hot seat and, more by luck than judgement, according to many fans, the board picked the right man for the job.

The former Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday man, whose only previous managerial experience was an unspectacular stint at Blackpool, led the Canaries to an unexpected play-off final in Cardiff at the end of the 2001/2 season. Although Norwich lost on penalties, a return to the Premiership seemed within reach.

The following season was an anti-climax and in 2003/4, with the collapse of ITV Digital's deal with the Championship meaning cash was in short supply, another mediocre season looked on the cards.

But, in what looked like an attempt to prove a point to the board, Worthington played youngsters clearly not ready for first team football in a Carling Cup defeat at Northampton and the board were forced to take a gamble and splash out on some loan signings.

The arrival of Peter Crouch, Kevin Harper and a chap called Darren Huckerby helped Norwich win the Championship, finishing with 94 points and a goal difference of +40.

More than 50,000 people packed into the centre of Norwich to see the team hoist up the Championship trophy on the balcony of City Hall. But, as the Evening News's own David Cuffley pointed out in his column last week, mistakes made after that moment set the Canaries on the road to their current position.

It was around that time chairman Roger Munby and Mr Doncaster started talking about "prudence with ambition" and following the model of Charlton in not overspending, yet managing to compete in the top flight. Fans who can still smile after this season might allow themselves a wry grin at the fact Charlton will be playing in League One next season.

When, following promotion, Worthington decided to sell inspirational defender Malky Mackay some supporters thought it was a good piece of business for an ageing player whose lack of pace would surely have been exposed by the likes of Thierry Henry.

But in hindsight, the beating heart of the team had been ripped out and big name international signings such as Thomas Helveg and Mattias Jonson struggled to make an impact.

However, perhaps a bigger mistake was the failure to sign a striker. By the time Dean Ashton was signed for a club record £3m in January 2005 it was too late to keep Norwich up and the dreadful 6-0 defeat to Fulham on the last day of the season sent the Canaries down after just a season.

Worthington never recovered and, in the view of many fans, the board procrastinated in replacing him. When they did, in October 2006, former player Peter Grant returned to Carrow Road, with no managerial experience whatsoever.

He lasted just a year and, with Norwich again staring relegation in the face, former Newcastle manager Glenn Roeder was appointed to keep the Canaries up. While some who sat through some of the turgid displays earlier this season might be hard pushed to remember how he managed it, he did succeed in staving off relegation, with Ched Evans an inspired loan signing, and Worthington's final buy Dion Dublin becoming a Canary folk hero.

But, with City's wage bill spiralling, Roeder presided over a massive clear out and dispensed of fan favourite Darren Huckerby's services in a way which bordered on contempt.

With the club's 2007/8 wage bill of £6.8m some £300,000 less than the money the Canaries make from season ticket sales, Roeder turned to loan signings.

Some truly bizarre ones followed, including Portsmouth's untested teenage striker OJ Koroma and Tottenham youngster Troy Archibald-Henville, who Roeder admitted later had been snapped up simply because someone at Spurs told him he was good. He never played and returned to London with the Canaries still paying his wages.

Meanwhile, Academy products Michael Spillane and Chris Martin were farmed out on loan to Luton, while the goals Jamie Cureton scored at relegation rivals Barnsley saw Roeder's decision to loan him out slammed. Despite a few impressive results - a 5-2 victory against champions-to-be Wolves and the 2-0 win at home to Ipswich, Roeder's Canaries were struggling and, following an AGM where Roeder turned on fans who dared criticise him and a 1-0 home defeat to bottom club Charlton in the FA Cup, the Londoner was ditched.

While all this was going on, Andrew and Sharon Turner walked out on the club, taking anticipated investment with them, marketing manager Andrew Cullen, credited with ensuring season ticket sales continued to flood in, quit for MK Dons and the Peter Cullum affair left a bitter taste.

While Delia had said she would effectively hand over the club to a Norwich supporting investor, Cullum's approach, which remains shrouded in mystery over what he actually put forward, was rebuffed.

Canary goalkeeping legend Bryan Gunn, former Sheriff of Norwich, ex-head scout and club ambassador became manager, aided by two other players from City's glory years - Ian Butterworth and Ian Crook.

John Tilson, chairman of Norwich City Independent Supporters Association, said: "For me, the situation we find ourselves in started when we held up that trophy at City Hall in 2004. From the adulation Delia received, along with other individuals such as Neil Doncaster, I think they saw it as a rubber stamp that they could do nothing wrong.

"Yes, they had more than doubled the number of season tickets being sold, but I think they saw the full houses at Carrow Road as a ringing endorsement that they were doing everything right, when they weren't.

"Under-investment, under-achievement by some very average players and a succession of average managers has followed.

"No Norwich City fan ever wants to hear the words 'prudence with ambition' again. They haven't lowered the debt. They might have slowed down its increase and, as for ambition, I don't think there's anyone in that boardroom who even knows how to spell it."

Not many fans blame Gunn for the situation the Canaries ended up in this season, but an awful number of them are already asking if he is the right man for what will be an incredibly tough job trying to get back up next season.

Ü What do you think went wrong at Carrow Road? Write to Evening News Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email eveningnewsletters@archant.co.uk

Ü Is it time for a shake-up of the Norwich City Board? See pages 6 and 7.

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