My Norwich City Story #2: Ruel Fox – in his own words
Watch and read the second edition of our EXCLUSIVE new Canaries documentary series, as figures from the club’s past tell their Norwich City Story. Next up: Former City, Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion winger Ruel Fox – in his own words.
- Ruel Fox (1986-94: 219 appearances, 25 goals)
- In the beginning…
Norwich was the only team that really wanted me at the time. Long and short of it, I was playing for my local team - Whitton United, in Ipswich. I'd been playing for them as kids, doing the normal Sunday league, Saturday league football. Had a few trials for the Suffolk district.
I had a friend of mine who lived directly across the road from me, called Louie Donowa. I used to be always pestering him every day, 'come on - get me a trial, get me a trial, get me a trial'. In the end I think he got that sick of me knocking on his door, that he decided to take me down for a trial.
At the same time I then got contacted through a manager and the Suffolk FA, saying that I had trials at Ipswich. So I had to divide between the two. I went to Ipswich for the first two weeks. They seemed interested but didn't want to actually tie me down or say anything. So then I thought, well why not? I'll go up to Norwich. I went to Norwich and within two days they said they wanted to sign me. So the long and short of it is Norwich paid more interest and they wanted me more perhaps than Ipswich did at that time, so I decided to sign.
I wouldn't say I was an Ipswich Town fan. I love football. So when you look through the tables, I was a Manchester United fan and also a West Bromwich Albion fan. You look at players in your position and at that time it was Steve Coppell who was playing for Manchester United - and then there weren't many black players around at the time, so I think West Brom had a few: Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson, Remi Moses I think was playing. So playing football over at the park, you attach yourself to a player and pretend to be them. So West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United - they were my two favourite teams.
It was just loads of fun (life in the youth system). I think I was quite fortunate. Even as it is now, Norwich was a family club. A lot of clubs say they are family clubs, but they don't perform their duties of what you would think of a family club. It's looking after their players, making sure their families are comfortable with the players being here.
At that time, I think we had quite an influx of Irish players and players from all over the country coming in. We all used to just stay up the road, at somewhere called 'The Stacey House' for digs. So we had digs where you had Scottish players, Irish players, all sorts of players, all staying in the same digs. So it was important the club made you feel comfortable, and they did. They looked after me. When I was a schoolboy we had a coach who sadly passed away recently, Ronnie Brooks, and he was like a father figure to me. I didn't grow up with a father so he was my first contact with a kind of father figure I could go to and speak to. If I felt I was getting a bit homesick, even though I was just down the road, he would make sure he would get my brother to come up and see me or vice versa, my mum would come up or he'd let me go home for extra days. You remember those things, so it was quite easy for me to settle in because we had a good bunch of players around me.
It was great for me and great for Louie because he taught me how drive a car and everything like that. When I first came here I was 13 years old, so I was a bit naive about it. I was coming out of an environment where I was quite comfortable and we were very multicultural in Ipswich, and coming here it was slightly different. It wasn't so cultural. There weren't a lot of black players here so I used to get a little bit of stick here or there, so it was important to have a… Dale Gordon was a great influence for me, and Louie. They both looked after me while I was growing up, plus a lot of the senior players. So they made it a lot easier.
I hark back about players who used to after me: Robert Rosario. Big, burly striker. Good looking bloke. Stunning guy. So whichever way it was, he looked after me on the pitch and he always looked after me off the pitch! He was great. We were around the same youth set-up when I was in that team.
- Kick it off
I think it was Ken Brown who gave me my debut. I loved the guy. Another who when I first went there, he was brilliant. He used to take me in his office and have a little bit of banter with me, and at a young age. So I'm always grateful to people like that.
Ken Brown would always look out for me. Always ask me how well I played in the youth team. He'd always say, 'I'm going to come and watch you this week, so make sure you're performing'. So we had this again, like a father figure thing where we had this bond. He'd come up to me all the time and even when I got to my pro contract, which was quite early for a pro at 17, straight away he put me into the first-team changing rooms. You had your sections - a youth-team changing room with the apprentices where you would have to go to the door, knock on the door, get their boots, clean their boots and you didn't really have any contact with them. So at 17, he put me into that first-team changing room and again, it was great for me.
He was the one who gave me my debut and I think it was against Coventry City. I don't remember much of it - I just remember running around. You hear the fans, you're sprinting around, you get a few touches of the ball. But looking back at it, I think it was a good game for him to give me my debut.
I played against one of the old left-backs who used to be here, Greg Downs. I think he was on his way out so I think it was ideal. He had someone like me who was young and quite quick running at him. So it was a good debut for me.
On one hand you're excited because my progression was quite quick. I went from Sunday league football here, went to youth team and like I said earlier, usually you go through a progression where from 16 to 18 and 21, you go from youth team to reserves. And I didn't really play any reserve games - probably two or three at 17, and went straight into the first team. So for me, it was a big transition.
They were saying to me yes, you're doing well and we'll put you ahead of everybody in your youth set-up, getting a few games - and then I was being pulled out.
At the time there wasn't such a thing as rotation but I can understand thinking about it now, it was probably a case of he was trying to rest me. But it was frustrating for me because I felt I was doing everything correct yet at the same time, you've got to remember we still had Dale Gordon and other players here. The time Dale Gordon left and went to Rangers, I started to get more regular games.
It was frustrating because I didn't get an explanation. I felt I was playing well. I probably would have left before the first Premier League started - the 1992-92 season. I might have left just before that. And even before that, I was playing for the Norwich City youth team and Ajax approached me. I had a couple of opportunities to leave then, but decided to stay. Thankfully.
- The greatest ever
It was probably something that takes a long time to repeat, what we achieved (1992-93). I mean the Premier League had just started then as well, so everyone was excited about it. The cameras, there was all new Sky Sports, everything else, the interaction with the players was a lot better. So for us looking back at it, it was fantastic - but at the time of it, we never even looked at it as something special. You do now you're retired and all that but the way we played, the excitement of the league and Sky, it was a brilliant season.
The season before we weren't too good. Dave Stringer had left and the job came to Mike Walker maybe by a slight accident, in a way. He was goalkeeper coach and reserves manager so for him to get pushed into that, for us players it gave us a chance then as he was quite open with us. It reminded me of Ken Brown, Ronnie Brooks and my era. No disrespect to any other manager, but we all suddenly had this…he started to bring his reserve players in and it had that feel of players having a chance again. And the season was fantastic for us.
Eight points clear at Christmas? I know - ridiculous wasn't it? People say it was similar to how Leicester were (in 2015-16). I get reminded all the time and when you look back at it, it was. But at not one time did we think, and it sounds weird, but we never thought we were going to win it. I mean, we were more concerned about going on these runs because we had a bit of a win bonus, so we knew if we kept winning the concession would be we would get more bonus money.
The money we were on was good, but it wasn't fantastic. So for us it was just a case of going out and having fun. Every time we went out there. And then the next week we won again, and we won again. Then it just takes on a rhythm of not fearing anyone - it was more that teams were fearing us all the time.
The win bonus wasn't a lot. Saying that, us as footballers say it wasn't a lot but to normal people, I won't disrespect them to say I didn't appreciate the money. But put it this way, sometimes the bonuses were bigger than the wages because, again, we used to be able to sit down at the beginning of the season with the club captain, a few of the senior players or the ones who were important, and they would sit down with someone from the football club to negotiate what bonuses you got.
They probably said, 'they'll never get top five' - so our top-five bonus was bigger than a lot of our wages. So when we got into the top five, it was happy days for us! But obviously for the club, they were probably thinking, 'Jesus, we can't wait for them to lose a few games'!
Me, Lee Power, Chris Sutton. We were like the Bostik boys, they used to call us. We used to always hang about together, so we'd be the ones who were giving out the stick at the football club. Off the pitch we virtually lived together. We spent a lot of time… and it kind of helped on the football pitch.
Towards the end of the season every game was a pressure game and every game we went to, Sky cameras were following us. It was all fun and games. We were conceding a lot of goals but we were scoring more than the other team, and I think we had Aston Villa here (Carrow Road). John Polston got the winning goal but again, Villa had loads of chances and they should have beat us off the park.
Then after that game we had Manchester United here and we got a bit of a lesson in football I think, that day. They had Kanchelskis, Giggs, Cantona, Ince for god's sake. I mean, I can remember a few times they were just breaking on us. It was just a classic counter attack. We'd played them at Old Trafford before that and lost it by a single goal, but this was the one where we thought, you know what? Maybe people will stop telling us that we're going to win this league. We realised and we starting to think, well if we finish second or if we finish third... which was where we finished in the end.
We watched the FA Cup final but again, and it sounds weird, we weren't even concerned about it. We weren't thinking we wanted to finish in Europe. It was a case of we are just so happy to be finishing in a high spot. So obviously we watched the game but we didn't know the ramifications of it and if they won, we weren't even looking at those scenarios. All we were thinking about was us having finished in the top three - and that was great for us. So Europe, that was just an added bonus.
- We're all going on a European tour
By then, we had already seen what the Premier League had to offer. We weren't under pressure, but we had done so well the season before that teams were fearing us by then. Some of us were getting a bit established, we were getting consistent game time. Chris (Sutton) was a young lad just come into the team, Efan Ekoku we signed. So everything started to flow really nicely. And then we had Europe, so we needed that squad as well.
These European teams didn't really know anything about us because they probably looked at our record and thought, two seasons ago they were nearly relegated. So for them, I don't think they really took us too serious.
Because of the old Olympic Stadium, and don't forget it had a track around it, the atmosphere wasn't that good anyway. It was full up and we could see our fans clearly there but again, it just felt like a normal game for us. We went there just thinking it was going to be a jolly up. We were going to go to Germany, have a laugh, get a few signed tops, swap with a few players and then come back. So I think it was more that the other teams kept underestimating us and we were just thinking we'll just keep going until we blow up.
The home leg against Bayern Munich was brilliant. Because of the season we had before, the support - it's always been brilliant and that was probably one night where the hairs on the back of your neck stood up. It was quite emotional, especially after the game. Once we got back in the changing room and then we all realised, there were a few tears. You know, you've got your joy there but you sit there and the adrenaline is starting to drain from you - and then you get a little emotional because you think, you know what? We've just beaten Bayern Munich, who had never been beaten at their ground up until the time (by an English side), who probably still fancied beating us here. The world-class players they had there, worth more than us on paper by far.
Then it was one of those ones where we were slowly hitting our peak - and by the time we played Inter, we were now on a different level. I think we're talking about fitness levels and everything else here. Don't forget that even though our fitness levels were good, we were always playing catch-up at those times compared to the European teams because they did things differently.
They had fitness camps, and that showed up in those games. We stuck with them through most of the game, then it got to around the hour mark and you could see they were getting fitter and fitter, and we were slowly dropping. You look back now and there's not a lot you can do about it. It wasn't a case where we weren't trying hard enough. I think it just came down to quality and fitness in the end.
- Breaking up is never easy
All of a sudden the emphasis was on Norwich City Football Club then because it was a case of hold on a minute. We've now given you something that you never expected - what are the next steps for the club? There was going to be interest from other clubs, which was how it ended up being. There were going to be clubs looking at who they thought was going to be the higher profile players. So it was a case of Norwich City either broke their pay structure or they went to buy someone way above their level, and it coincided with them saying, 'look - we are at our peak, this is where we are, we can't go any higher because we want to keep the structure'. Which was a brave and a fair point for them to make.
I thought it was quite premature (Mike Walker's exit) but again, I wasn't there when he was having conversations with the chairman (Robert Chase). I remember I was coming out in the press at the time and so were quite a few of the senior players, because we knew at the end of the day we had a few senior players here who probably had two or three more seasons in them. So for me as a player, in the middle, 26, I was coming to my peak. I wanted to see the (new) Mark Robins and Efan Ekoku coming in. I wanted to see a progression and some more quality players come in because you have to remember that at that time Mark Bowen, Ian Crook, Ian Butterworth, Bryan Gunn, Rob Newman - all these players were coming up towards their 30s.
So for us we were looking at the bigger picture and the club was probably thinking, we can't afford to be buying up to five, six, seven players - which is probably a conversation the chairman had with Mike. So it then ended with him getting an offer from Everton and trying his luck there.
It was quite brief. John Deehan was Mike's assistant and he was the one who came in and told us. He said Everton had approached him, he's gone up to speak to them and that was quite a brief conversation. We looked at it, we were in shock - but at the same time we had Dave Williams there; John Deehan, who had a big input for how the club was developing and who got in the team. It wasn't a case of Mike running the whole set-up. Dave and John had a big input as well. So it wasn't panic stations but it was disappointing, obviously.
Straight after that, again I wasn't kicking up any fuss. I was happy where we were. We had a great set-up here, we were a great family. All the players hung out together. We were quite comfortable, as I was as well.
So I hadn't heard anything - and then I was at home one day. I remember coming in to train, driving in and I got a call from the chairman at the time, Robert Chase. He said, 'just to let you know we'd like to offer you a new contract. Would you come in?' And I thought, well that's strange. I've just signed one.
So I went in and then all of a sudden the story comes out and he said, 'Oh and by the way… We want you to sign the contract but Newcastle have come in for you'. So it was kind of you're telling me one thing, and now you're telling me another thing.
It was kind of fair enough. He gave me the choice. He said 'they've come in for you, they've made a substantial bid which we might accept - but if you don't want to go, let us know. But we would like you to sign a new deal'.
So I said I was happy with the deal I've got. Not being big-headed, I was one of the highest paid players there anyway, so I don't think they were going to give me any more money than I was getting anyway. So it was a case of, do you want to speak to Newcastle? And I thought, well he's almost given me the choice to do it - so that's how it ended. I went from going to training and turning round, going back to Ipswich, packing my bags and getting on a plane to fly out to Newcastle to go and speak to Kevin Keegan.
It just happened so quickly. I didn't even get to say goodbye to everyone because again, it happened so quickly I was almost in shock. Obviously I phoned my mate Chris Sutton and a few others say look… But he told me to keep it quiet because initially I was only going up there to talk to them. So as far as I was concerned, nobody knew about it - and the only time I knew that they had obviously let the story out was by the time I had got to Stansted, all the press were there and everyone was phoning me saying Robert Chase has said you've turned down a contract and you want to go talk to Newcastle - which was a little bit of an exaggeration, but it happens in football.
I ended up going there, speaking to Newcastle and because the offer was so big and they sold the club to me, a massive club, I didn't end up even come back to get my gear. I just stayed up at Newcastle. So that was quite a strange way to leave a club.
- Legend status
I was just coming towards the end of my career (early 2000). I was umming and ahing whether to retire because I'd been quite fortunate. I'd played at the highest level, I'd never really had any injuries, I didn't really need to stop. I'd just kind of started falling a little bit out of love with it. I had an up and down time at Tottenham.
So I got a call from an ex team-mate (at Norwich) Gary Megson. He said, would you like to come up (to West Brom) and I said I wasn't sure. He ended up persuading me to go up there, sold the club to me and told me what he was trying to do with the players, and that he'd like to have me there as an experienced player.
So me going up there, it then reminded me… I'm going to West Bromwich Albion! The key factor for me going there was the fact I was a fan of them growing up, one of my idols was Cyrille Regis - and when Gary told me Cyrille Regis was still part of the club, that he was still helping out, it was a no-brainer. I got straight in the car, drove up there, sorted out signing for West Brom and straight away, first question was, 'Where's Cyrille Regis?' I just wanted to meet the guy. I'd even brought an old West Bromwich Albion book for him to sign. So it was a great ending I would say, to my footballing career.
Growing up as a young man like I spoke about earlier, there's no beating around it - there was a lot of racism around. I was a black player and there was racism here; there was racism wherever I played. We were a minority then when it comes to football. I remember being 13, 14, and getting abused all around Norwich when I used to play all the time. But I brushed it off in a way because it was a case where I let my football do all the talking - plus my brother used to come along and fight everyone on the pitch, which got me in a lot trouble and got the club in a lot of trouble. But I had people looking after me in a good way.
So for me, looking up to someone… Everyone has their idols and there weren't a lot of black players playing at the high level until I then used to see Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham - great player, Laurie Cunningham - Remi Moses and all that. You get attracted to it.
I was fortunate enough to have the yellow and green-stripe tops as well that they used to wear, so for me it was great to meet someone that inspired me to play football - and that was the first thing I told him when I went up to West Bromwich Albion.
I'm very proud of it (being in the Norwich City Hall of Fame). Very proud. For a lad off the Ipswich estate… I still go back there now. I'm still part of the estate now, because I'm quite a humble guy. I'm not really into all this glam and everything like that. I've still got my same friends from school. So for me to be accepted at such a big club as in the hall of fame, I'm quite proud. It's proud for me.
I'll give you an example. Norwich is the only club I come back to regularly and watch football, and keep an eye out for them all the time. I know I said at the beginning I'm a supporter of football, West Brom and Manchester United. I live in Ipswich - so I watch out for their results and it's a shame the way they're going. But it's just great to be recognised as someone who's done quite well, I would say, at a football club. So I'm very honoured and humbled.
They (Norwich) tried to get me back a couple of times. I think just when I was leaving, between me going to West Brom when I left Tottenham. But I just thought to myself, returning back to a club is a big thing because the players, the club, the fans - they remember you as the player you were, and I was thinking hold on a minute. I'm not the same player! I'm not going to be tearing up and down the wing. I was 32, 33 and I was thinking you're going to get a different type of player.
I just felt that I'd been here from childhood for nearly 10 years. I felt that I had done enough at this club and in some capacity, I would have probably liked to have come back in some form - but at the time, I just felt the timing would have been all wrong.
- Restaurants and retirement
Rubbish! I'm better at eating than I am running a restaurant. I had a restaurant in Ipswich. It was all right and don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it at the time. Looking back, there's no point in having regrets - but it's not something I would go back into, put it that way.
I started at Whitton United as a kid and got discovered there. I now run my fitness boot camps at Whitton United Football Club. I've been chairman at Whitton United Football Club since I retired. I still play for the veterans' team with Kieron Dyer; Titus Bramble plays for them. So we've got a bit of a decent vets team as well. I love it. I'm a humble guy. I'm always going to be an Ipswich guy. I'm from Whitton estate. I still live there now and I go back there all the time. That's where I feel most comfortable.
I miss everything about football. There's not a particular person but you miss the actual football. You miss the actual community of football. You miss the players, the banter - because it's a community. When you are around players you are almost like robots. You come in, you're told what to do. You're kind of spoilt, in a way. And it's hard to adjust to it when you first retire.
As you have probably seen, there have been a lot of quite sad things with mental health and all that - and I put it down to the same category as when people are in the army, because you are used to being around your own type of people all the time. Even though it's fun and everything, all of a sudden it's almost like you are starting your adulthood again when you leave football; you've got to start adjusting. For me, I would say it's not so much who I miss. It's more the actual environment of football I miss the most.
I wouldn't say it's a regret but I would have loved to see if we could've pushed on any further because like we did and Leicester did, it's nice having that recognition of doing well and people saying you've got a great set-up in the team - and we proved a lot of people wrong; people who were spending 10 times as much money as us. So it would have been nice to have seen whether we could have had a little try for another season before we all started to break up as a squad.
Newcastle was a brilliant step up for me. You had Kevin Keegan there, Terry McDermott, so the type of football they were playing was Liverpool-style football, which was attacking, entertaining, you never got asked to defend once. So I was more than happy with that.
I played with some great players like Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley at Newcastle - and then I went to Tottenham and played with David Ginola, Les Ferdinand and Teddy Sheringham. The names go on. So when you're playing with that and you're getting the recognition, you can't regret it.
My message to the Norwich City fans is I've always been appreciated, even though I'm from the other end! I wouldn't say where. You've always accepted me, you've been great from even when I was a child up until adulthood. I've always been made welcome here, so I'd like to say thanks to all the fans, I love you a lot and hopefully we'll have a lot more successful seasons at Norwich City.
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