Boosting Norwich City crowd potential would turn back the clock
A vision of Carrow Road playing host once again to regular crowds of more than 30,000 was conjured up by Norwich City’s top brass at Tuesday night’s annual meeting.
The main aim of the Canaries’ seven-year plan is to re-establish themselves as a Premier League club. If and when that happens, they believe they must have a stadium capable of holding the current average top-flight crowd of about 35,000.
Less than 18 months ago, with City kicking off in the third tier of English football for the first time in 50 years, such an idea would have been dismissed as coming from what Captain Mainwaring used to call “the realms of fantasy”.
But with Paul Lambert’s team fourth in the Championship table with 20 matches remaining, two points off second place with a game in hand, even the most cautious fan has to acknowledge that they are among the genuine contenders to rejoin the elite in May.
It is still a big “if” and, in a sport where fortunes can change almost overnight, City’s hopes of long-term success do seem to depend enormously on hanging on to the current management team.
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A seven-year plan makes some dangerous presumptions, for as the Canaries have discovered more than once in the not too distant past, even looking seven weeks ahead is a precarious business.
But one needs only to look at the Blackpool fairytale of the past three or four years to realise it is perfectly possible for a club to move quickly up two divisions and compete with the elite, with Ian Holloway’s team probably four wins away from securing a second season in elevated company.
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According to the Canaries’ own calculations, promotion this season would put them well ahead of schedule in their long-term recovery plan, but as chief executive David McNally told shareholders, with just one Premier League season bringing in a guaranteed �90m, now is as good a time as any to go up.
Increasing ground capacity by any significant amount is unlikely to be a priority, nor financially viable, while City remain a Championship club. Adding 8,000 seats to the current ground would cost the small matter of �20m, they claim, and they would only press ahead with such a plan after two consecutive seasons in the top flight.
But City say they are confident of filling those extra 8,000 seats if it is Premier League football on offer and it makes sense to be prepared and look at the options.
It is easy to forget that, despite its still relatively bright and modern appearance, half of the existing Carrow Road stadium is at least 25 years old.
The Norwich & Peterborough Stand, still the River End to many of us, has been in use more than 30 years, opening in the 1979-80 season. The Geoffrey Watling City Stand was opened in 1986 as a replacement for the fire-damaged Main Stand, and even the double-decker Barclay Stand has seen nearly two decades’ service since replacing the old covered terrace in 1992, when the stadium first went all-seater.
When the Jarrold Stand opened in 2004, it was said it had been built in such a way that another tier could be added if desired. But the City Stand on the opposite side of the ground, dwarfed by the rest, seems to be the prime target for redevelopment.
Chairman Alan Bowkett admitted: “The obvious route is the Geoffrey Watling Stand and whether you throw another layer on it, or you take it down and rebuild I don’t know.
“I think probably the sensible thing to do is bite the bullet, take it down and build a new stand but it means 18 months, possibly two years, without revenue. Then what do you do to the people in the Geoffrey Watling Stand, who tend to be the people who have been supporters for many generations? So it’s difficult.”
Attendances at Carrow Road over the past decade have been a source of envy and wonderment for visiting clubs, managers and journalists alike and City will always be indebted to the forward thinking of former sales and marketing director Andrew Cullen and his team for attracting a whole new generation of fans with a policy of affordable family football – something the current administration believes the club can no longer justify.
“One of the biggest problems with affordable family football was that the only ones who couldn’t afford it were the football club,” said McNally earlier this season.
Nevertheless, the legacy of that policy is there for all to see. City’s current average Championship home gate is bettered only by Leeds and Derby and the 1,000 extra seats installed last summer enabled them to set a new all-seater record for the stadium with a crowd of 26,532 for the derby against Ipswich in November, the biggest home attendance since 1984.
Topping the 30,000 mark, if that day comes, would take the Canaries back even further to the attendance levels of the 1970s.
One has to go back nearly 34 years to the last 30,000-plus crowd at Carrow Road, when 31,088 watched City lose 1-0 to Ipswich on Easter Saturday, 1977.
Go back a little beyond that to City’s first season in the former Division One and there were 13 home attendances of more than 30,000 in all competitions.
The home league average was a club record 28,652, peaking with 36,922 for the last game against Crystal Palace, though the capacity was 10,000 higher than today with the ground terraced on three sides.
It is that level of support the current board believes the Canaries can enjoy once again if the momentum built up over the past 18 months can be maintained.
• NORWICH CITY ATTENDANCE LANDMARKS
Feb 16, 1935: Crowd of 25,037 at The Nest for FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday. The ground was deemed unsafe, leading to the move to Carrow Road.
Aug 31, 1935: First match at Carrow Road against West Ham attracts 29,779.
Apr 28, 1948: Record home league gate of 37,863 for City’s game against a Notts County team including Tommy Lawton. Record still stands for a league match.
Jan 12, 1950: FA Cup replay against Portsmouth watched by new record home crowd of 43,129.
Mar 30, 1963: Carrow Road record broken by gate of 43,984 for FA Cup quarter-final against Leicester. Record still stands.
1972-73: Thirteen home gates of more than 30,000 in one season, the highest 36,922 for visit of Crystal Palace.
Apr 30, 1975: Last 35,000-plus gate at Carrow Road, with 35,999 for final home match of the season against Aston Villa.
Apr 9, 1977: Last 30,000-plus gate, with 31,088 for the Easter Saturday visit of Ipswich.
Nov 28, 2010: Crowd of 26,532 for 4-1 win over Ipswich, an all-seater record for Carrow Road and the biggest home gate since 1984.