Dixie completes a rare hat-trick with Canaries

David Cuffley A study of the career records of Norwich City players reveals a small but significant band of men who narrowly missed out on notable milestones. Defender Dave Stringer, the very definition of local hero, was left stranded on 499 first team appearances when he joined Cambridge United in the autumn of 1976, more than 11 years after making his senior debut for the Canaries.

David Cuffley

A study of the career records of Norwich City players reveals a small but significant band of men who narrowly missed out on notable milestones.

Defender Dave Stringer, the very definition of local hero, was left stranded on 499 first team appearances when he joined Cambridge United in the autumn of 1976, more than 11 years after making his senior debut for the Canaries.

Full-back Mark Bowen, who won more international caps while playing for Norwich than any other player in club history, ended nine years at Carrow Road on 399 games after boss Gary Megson stubbornly left him out of his squad for the final seven matches of the 1995-96 season, after which Bowen joined West Ham.

Striker Robert Fleck, his City career split into two spells, bowed out on 299 appearances - and the small matter of 84 goals into the bargain - when he was sold to Reading for �50,000 in March 1998.

Another member of what we might call the '99ers was welcomed back into the fold this week when John Deehan began his third stint with City as chief scout in new boss Bryan Gunn's management team.

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Deehan's days as a striker with the Canaries between 1981 and 1986 brought him 199 senior games and 70 goals, putting him seventh in the list of the club's all-time highest scorers.

His second spell with the club, between 1992 and 1995, was one of extraordinary highs and painful lows.

As first team coach under Mike Walker, he helped steer City to third place in the first FA Premier League season and memorable UEFA Cup dates with Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, but his 15 months as manager, after Walker quit to move to Everton, ended unhappily when he resigned with the Canaries sliding inexorably towards relegation from the FA Premiership.

That period was, happily, a distant memory as the 51-year-old breezed into Carrow Road this week to start work for the third time around.

Although the Solihull-born Deehan's career has included spells on his own doorstep with all three Birmingham clubs, most recently as a scout at St Andrew's, there is no doubt that being back at Norwich puts a twinkle in his eye.

He said: "You always remember your first club. I was an Aston Villa supporter so that club's very dear to my heart, but I'm a Birmingham lad and I've ended up working for Birmingham City with some very good people.

"But this football club is, I think, unique. Because of the geographical position I think probably there's only Plymouth that you can compare it with.

"You've got to make a commitment to come and work at this club or play at this club and I think the majority of people, 99 per cent who have made that commitment, will not regret it. You can tell by the amount of former players that live in the area, the managers that stay here in Norfolk at the end of their careers." Deehan believes the bond between players - and between players and fans - is much stronger at Norwich than elsewhere, partly because of that isolation.

He said: "If you play here, you've got to live here. In doing that you can get quite a tight bond with the players and you can all understand what the heartbeat of the football club is about.

"If you went out last Saturday night in town and you were a Norwich City supporter, I'm sure the place was pumping.

"In the previous game where you might have got beaten, you'd probably find it was a little bit more negative. That's the flip side to living in the area.

"Your finger's on the pulse all the time, you know what your supporters are thinking. That was what I always thought when I was here."

Deehan was back at Carrow Road last May after making the shortlist in the striker category for the "Greatest Ever" event staged by the club.

Chris Sutton and Iwan Roberts were voted into the final eleven, while men such as Terry Allcock, Ron Davies, Robert Fleck and Ted MacDougall missed out - as did Deehan.

But one could argue that his achievements in four and-a-half years as a City player tend to be a little overlooked.

Deehan arrived in December 1981 on loan from West Bromwich Albion, scored four times against Ipswich in a friendly at Wellesley Road, Yarmouth, scored again on his debut against Luton, and the deal quickly became a permanent one for �175,000.

City, relegated from Division One the previous May, were struggling in mid-table but it proved to be one of two key signings by manager Ken Brown - the other was the return of Martin O'Neill from Manchester City - in turning City's season around.

Deehan's 10 league goals helped his new club climb from 13th to third and a dramatic return to the top flight.

"Dixie Deehan: Goal Scoring Machine" became a familiar message on the electronic scoreboard over his next three seasons as the club's top scorer.

His 70 goals for City included no fewer than 10 against Watford, whose former manager, Graham Taylor, once said that he would like to strangle him.

But 1984-85 was a bitter-sweet campaign, marked by Milk Cup triumph at Wembley, followed by relegation and exclusion from Europe in the wake of the Heysel Stadium disaster.

The next season, Deehan was no longer an automatic choice in attack as the Kevin Drinkell-Wayne Biggins partnership prospered and, after suffering an ankle injury, his versatility was perhaps his undoing as he was asked to operate in deeper roles in midfield or defence, including even a spell at left-back.

But it still came as something of a surprise in the summer of 1986 when, still only 28, and having just helped City back into the top flight as Division Two champions, Deehan was deemed surplus to requirements by Brown and joined Ipswich Town in a swap deal that brought midfielder Trevor Putney to Norwich.

As he said at the time: "I didn't expect to be used as bait."

It was six years before Deehan returned, after coaching spells at Manchester City and Barnsley, to play his part as first team coach in City's most successful league season and their European adventure.

His elevation by chairman Robert Chase to the post of manager in January 1994 proved a less happy affair. In 15 months, City won just 12 of their 56 league games under Deehan, but at times his squad was being sold from under him, with frequent departures in the goalscoring department. Five front men - Ruel Fox, Lee Power, Sutton, Efan Ekoku and Mark Robins - were sold in less than 12 months, with disastrous results.

With five matches remaining of the 1994-95 season, Deehan resigned, though those present on that Sunday night, 24 hours after a 3-0 defeat at Newcastle, suggest he was given little choice.

Such an experience could have put Deehan off management for life, but he went on to guide Wigan to promotion and held further posts at Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Northampton and Lincoln, as well as scouting for Bolton and Birmingham, before he took the call from Gunn last Monday that paved the way to another Canary comeback.

He joins a club in a much more difficult position than in 1981 or 1992, but Deehan, one suspects, has not lost his sense of humour in the intervening years.

Two summers ago, while Lincoln were playing a tour match in France, their director of football dashed on to the pitch at the final whistle to plant a kiss on both cheeks of the assistant referees, both young ladies.

Back in his days as first team coach, the Norwich team bus became stuck in London traffic on their way to play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It might have been a cause for panic but legend has it Deehan grabbed the driver's microphone and played tour guide, delivering a commentary on the sights of the capital. City went 2-0 down soon after their late arrival, but still fought back to win 3-2.

No one expects the rest of the current season to be a bundle of laughs as City try to claw their way to safety, but after the events of the last three years at Carrow Road, we can all do with a bit of light relief.