Tale of the unexpected at Hillsborough

PUBLISHED: 14:18 04 May 2007 | UPDATED: 10:16 14 September 2010

DAVID CUFFLEY

Norwich City's season ends on Sunday where it began back in August, with a trip to Yorkshire. More than 2,000 fans will make the trip north for the Coca-Cola Championship game against Sheffield Wednesday. The fixture also marks the 25th anniversary of a very famous afternoon at Hillsborough for the Canaries.

Norwich City's season ends on Sunday where it began back in August, with a trip to Yorkshire.

More than 2,000 fans will make the trip north for the Coca-Cola Championship game against Sheffield Wednesday.

The fixture also marks the 25th anniversary of a very famous afternoon at Hillsborough for the Canaries.

In 1981-82, Ken Brown's team mounted an amazing late charge into the promotion race with 10 wins in 11 matches and needed a point from their final game against the Owls to return to the old Division One at the first attempt.

Some 10,000 fans were there to celebrate as City made it into the top flight - but not quite in the way they expected.

It is doubtful whether Norwich City fans have ever been in such jubilant mood after a defeat as they were in the Hillsborough sunshine on a memorable May afternoon 25 years ago.

Ken Brown's team had just booked their return passage to Division One, 12 months after being relegated - the second time the club had regained its top-flight place at the first attempt after John Bond's team achieved a similar feat in 1975.

This time, the Canaries did so in spite of losing their last game 2-1 at Sheffield Wednesday in front of 10,000 travelling fans on a nerve-shredding afternoon in South Yorkshire, made all the more dramatic by two goals in the last four minutes of the match.

Needing a draw to be sure of promotion, City went behind when Andy McCulloch scored on the hour, but seemed to have secured the point they needed when Keith Bertschin headed an 86th-minute equaliser.

But they reckoned without Owls striker Gary Bannister heading a last-minute winner from Mel Sterland's cross, and the intervention of the Milk Tray man . . .

Greg Downs, left-back and player of the season, recalled: “At the time of the second goal they actually had a fan on the pitch. We called him the Milk Tray man because he was dressed all in black, if you remember the advert.

“It was a nothing ball into the box and I think Dave Watson and Steve Walford stopped, and there was this fellow on the penalty spot who had run into the middle of the players.

“If Gary Bannister hadn't headed it in, he probably would have done.

“The referee gave the goal, of course, and it all went crazy. Supporters ran on the pitch and it was a bit scary, to be honest, because some of them took big swings at one or two of us. Sheffield Wednesday had been up there all season but fell away and were out of it by the time we went there, so they weren't too happy.”

City still went up because Leicester, the only side who could have beaten them into third place - with a midweek match still to play - were held to a goalless draw at home to Shrewsbury.

Brown, who was in his first full season as City manager, had not spotted the pitch intruder, but tennis international daughter Amanda had.

He said: “We were all disappointed because we thought we may have missed out on promotion. Amanda was at the game and when I saw her, she was in tears. She told me 'Dad, it wasn't a goal because there was someone on the pitch'.

“I said 'Don't be silly' but later, when we knew we'd been promoted and went down for the TV interviews, I think it was Gerry Harrison showed us the replay and she was absolutely right.

“I thought they were going to show us that the ball was out before the guy crossed it, but instead there was this fellow right behind the player who headed it in, waving a flag or scarf or something.

“I often wonder what the repercussions would have been if we hadn't been promoted, and whether we could have registered a protest.

“It's amazing that it's 25 years ago - but that's the most significant thing that stands out about the game.”

City had been in the bottom half of Division Two in mid-February after a 2-0 defeat at Oldham, but then took 40 points - 13 wins and draw - from 16 games before the Hillsborough finale.

For Downs, now 48, promotion completed a total turnaround in his fortunes. He had been left out of the side for three months when Brown signed former Scotland international Willie Donachie from Portland Timbers, but made such an impact on his return that he won the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy as player of the year.

He said: “I was getting very frustrated because I was being taken all round the country as 13th man and still playing for the reserves, so I was probably doing more travelling than anyone.

“We played Luton on Boxing Day and that was when I came back in the side, but when we lost 3-1 we were about 16th in the table.

“But it was the first season with three points for a win. Martin O'Neill came back from Manchester City and I remember we had a scrappy 1-0 win at Barnsley when Keith Bertschin scored, and things started to work. The team had always been capable of doing that. We went on a hell of a run and went to Hillsborough needing a draw.

“It was one of the highlights of my career - football's all about success and getting promotion means a great deal.”

Bertschin, whose equaliser, a header from Dave Bennett's cross, was his 12th league goal that season, had not even expected to be in the country for the last game.

He said: “The way negotiations were in those days, you were allowed to play all through the year and I was off to America before the end of the season to play for Jacksonville Tea Men.

“But I remember we won 1-0 at Bolton when Martin O'Neill scored and then we had 11 games to go and we went on a run.

“All the lads in the dressing room said this would mess up my trip to America because each time we had a game we got another win and it all culminated in the game at Sheffield Wednesday.

“I remember that with a few minutes to go I equalised, but then they scored a winner. It was terribly disappointing at first until we found out what had happened to Leicester.

“It was just very confusing at the time. There was the elation of thinking I had scored the goal that won us promotion. It was a bit back door-ish but we deserved it.

“We had a terrific trip back from Sheffield. We deserved to go up and were a bit unlucky on the day.

“I went more or less straight from that game to the plane to America, so I missed out on the open top bus tour and the players' trip to Jamaica. I was a bit torn but it was a great opportunity to play in America and I was there almost until the beginning of the next season.”

By coincidence, Bertschin, now 50, has been celebrating promotion again this week with Birmingham, where he is reserve team boss.

He said: “I have won promotion before with Birmingham as a player, so I have seen it from both sides of the fence.

“We also went up through the play-offs under Steve Bruce, against Norwich, and that was heart attack material.

“This week has reminded me of being with Ken Brown and Mel Machin at Norwich. You have to maintain a certain distance but we've had a good bit of fun with the boys.

“Those 25 years have gone in a flash. But I adored Norwich, I loved the people and still get a lump in my throat when I think about it. I have very, very fond memories.”

t Football League Division Two

Hillsborough, Saturday, May 15, 1982

Sheffield Wednesday 2 (McCulloch 60, Bannister 90), Norwich City 1 (Bertschin 86).

Sheffield Wednesday: Bolder, Sterland, Williamson, Smith, Shirtliff, Taylor, Megson, Shelton, Bannister, McCulloch, Curran (Simmons).

Norwich City: Woods, Haylock, Downs, McGuire, Walford, Watson, Barham (Jack), O'Neill, Deehan, Bertschin, Bennett.

Attendance: 24,687

Referee: A J Hamil (Wolverhampton).

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