Chris Goreham: Was this the game that changed everything for Norwich City?
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2002
How good were Norwich City when you were eight years old?
It’s a crucial time in every football fan’s life. The heroes that are created in those formative years will remain immortal forever.
So it was with great excitement that I pulled out the ‘Through the Decades’ section from this very newspaper last week. There was a match report from a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Coventry in April, 1991. They were all there: Gunn, Culverhouse, Bowen and Butterworth at the back, Dale Gordon on the wing and Robert Fleck up front. In fact, Dave Stringer’s Norwich were so good in those days that they could afford to leave the great Ian Crook on the bench. I eagerly folded back the page ready to show my younger colleagues in the office, at least the ones who aren’t working from home, just how amazing ‘my’ Norwich City team was.
Then I noticed the headline. The main thrust of the report wasn’t about the seemingly never-ending talents of that set of players. Instead, it focused on the fact that the crowd at Carrow Road had dipped below the 12,000 mark. The Canaries were watched by 11,550 people in a top-flight home game when they were in the middle of one of the most consistently successful spells in their history. It seems ridiculous in this day and age.
It just goes to prove the extent to which nostalgia is coloured by rose-tinted spectacles. I knew that sell-out crowds were a rarity when I first started going, but Carrow Road still seemed like the most electric and exciting place on Earth to me. My memory has conveniently airbrushed out most of those empty seats.
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It’s interesting to consider why a Norwich City team in the top division can fill the ground week after week now, but couldn’t in the early 1990s. There are several reasons for it. Football grounds hadn’t been particularly nice places to go in the 1970s and 80s and there’s no doubt that the arrival of the Premier League less than 18 months after that 2-2 with Coventry and all of the riches that came with it gradually changed the landscape. Football became fashionable.
The Canaries have been looking enviously up at that top table more often than they’ve been sat at it over the past 25 years, so we can’t underestimate the marketing work that went on when Andy Cullen was at the club in the late 1990s when the team usually struggled on the pitch but managed to build bridges with the community and repair some that might have been damaged by Robert Chase’s spell as chairman.
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The pivotal moment was the defeat at Cardiff in the 2002 play-off final. That adventure was unsuccessful, but memorable. That yellow wall at the Millennium Stadium seemed to mark a turning point in the public pride that the city and the county of Norfolk could take in its football club. There hasn’t been a dull moment since, but the sizeable crowds that still packed in to Carrow Road during that League One season proved that a bond had been built that was stronger than simply hunting glory.
I still feel fortunate to have grown up with a Norwich City team that was one of the best and at least there was no problem getting a ticket in those days.
This unexpected trip back in time has given me two more painful reality checks that bring home the fact I am not as young as I once was. Being able to remember things that feature in the EDP nostalgia section is a sure sign that my days as a young man about town have gone. Perhaps of more concern is the realisation that the number of times I go to the trouble of actually leaving the house hasn’t really changed since the official government lockdown began three weeks ago.
It turns out I was already pretty much living within those rules.
A football free Easter weekend seemed particularly strange.
It’s this time of the year that big issues start to really get decided. Saturday afternoon matches are finishing in daylight with the clocks having sprung forward and it’s not that long before midweek games can start without the need for floodlights.
It’s certainly a far cry from Easter 2019 when Norwich City’s promotion push seemed to take a stumble. We knew that, if results went our way, beating Sheffield Wednesday at home on Good Friday or Stoke away on Easter Monday would be enough to clinch that place back in the Premier League.
Both matches ended 2-2, but left City fans with feelings at the opposite end of the soccer spectrum.
Mario Vrancic’s incredible late free-kick against the Owls sent Carrow Road into the sort of chaos barely seen since the days of Simeon Jackson, but the full-time whistle on the Bank Holiday Monday was greeted by players collapsing to the ground as if they had just been beaten in a cup final.
We needn’t have worried, of course. What we didn’t know was that Leeds were about to lose at Brentford and put the Canaries on the verge of the big time.
It also created one of the stand-out memories from last season. The final whistle in the Leeds game sounded just as my BBC Radio Norfolk colleague Rob Butler and I neared Corley Services on the M6 on the way home. The mood had changed and all those fretting fans we had recorded at the game would not be topical enough to broadcast on the radio the next morning.
So we stopped at Corley, found some Norwich supporters and ended up interviewing a man who was wearing a replica City shirt, but had his entire face covered by a rubber mask in the shape of a horse’s head.
The video was used on that night’s late edition of Look East and suddenly the four hours of live radio we had done that day had been upstaged.
That’s what Easter on the road with Norwich City should be like.