FA Cup run brought good times

FA Cup hero Jimmy Hill will team up again with some of his fellow Norwich City giant-killers when he returns to Carrow Road at the weekend for the 59ers' 50th anniversary reunion.

FA Cup hero Jimmy Hill will team up again with some of his fellow Norwich City giant-killers when he returns to Carrow Road at the weekend for the 59ers' 50th anniversary reunion.

The former Northern Ireland international admits he can hardly believe the enduring interest among Canary followers in the exploits of the Division Three team that came so close to reaching Wembley half a century ago, beaten in a semi-final replay by Luton Town.

For Hill, 73, it will be his fourth return to Norwich in a decade after attending the 40th anniversary events in 1999.

"It's great, of course. I have always been a Norwich fan since the day I left and it's nice to go back again, especially to meet the 59ers," said Hill, who flies in from Majorca on Friday afternoon in time for the evening reunion dinner, where he and former team-mates Roy McCrohan, Terry Allcock, Terry Bly and Sandy Kennon will be among the special guests.

"I went back previously for the Hall of Fame and the Greatest Ever event last summer, but this is a wee bit special for us," he added.

"It should be a nice function and then on Saturday there is the Norwich Union event and the match and I'm looking forward to that."

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Hill, an outside-right converted to inside-left by manager Archie Macaulay, was a revelation with the Canaries, scoring 66 times in 195 games after signing from Newcastle for �3,000 in July 1958.

Nicknamed "Tiger", he not only played a key role in the famous run to the FA Cup semi-final in his first season with the club, he was also joint top scorer with 16 goals in the promotion campaign that followed in 1959-60, scored in the second leg of the Football League Cup final win over Rochdale in 1962, and helped City into the FA Cup quarter-finals again in 1963, before a �25,000 move to Everton later the same year.

But for Hill, born at Carrickfergus and a winner of Northern Ireland caps at five levels, his five memorable years at Norwich almost didn't happen, thanks to a persistent injury to his right ankle.

He broke down soon after joining the club, came very close to joining Mansfield and was out of Macaulay's side for two months before winning a recall for an unappetising FA Cup first round tie at home to Isthmian League side Ilford in November 1958. It proved to be an extraordinary turning point.

"We were nothing special when we played in the first round against Ilford. We were even 1-0 down at half-time but we came back to win 3-1," said Hill, who scored City's equaliser.

Hill equalised again in a 1-1 draw at Swindon in round two before a 1-0 replay success earned a glamour home tie against Matt Busby's Manchester United. It was then that City's stunning 3-0 third round win at snow-covered Carrow Road sparked off nine and a half weeks of FA Cup fever.

"With the Manchester United game, I think we were very fortunate it was played on snow," recalled Hill.

"They didn't adapt to the conditions at all. We adapted well and we really went for it and of course Terry Bly got two of the goals.

"After that our confidence was sky high. It wasn't there in the games before that.

"But remember, we had a lot of skill in the side. Bobby Brennan was one of the best players I ever played with in terms of pure football, Matt Crowe and Terry Allcock were good footballers and we had good, hard defenders like Barry Butler, Ron Ashman and Roy McCrohan, who were very experienced.

"Our confidence stayed high in all those matches and in our league games, too."

Indeed, it is easy to overlook the 16-match unbeaten run in Division Three that ran alongside City's remarkable FA Cup exploits, which ended with a 1-0 defeat by the Hatters in a semi-final replay at St Andrew's. It was a bitter blow for players and fans alike, but Hill remembers the series of matches with pride.

"I wouldn't say it was heartbreaking because, to be honest, we had done so well," he said. "We were disappointed, there were a few tears in people's eyes and not much was said, but coming back to Norwich and seeing the fans took away a lot of the disappointment.

"I never looked back and thought about the fact I didn't get to Wembley. We were beaten, it had to end somewhere, but we couldn't be too disappointed when we had done so well."

But Hill firmly believes the FA Cup had much greater significance 50 years ago.

He said: "It was the big glory competition, much more so than now. It was every player's ambition to play in an FA Cup final.

"The Cup has been devalued now by managers making a lot of changes and playing younger, junior sides. The Premier League and the Champions League have taken over, and what Norwich did then would be like being in the top four or five of the Premier League now.

"I can't remember the detail of matches apart from the Manchester United game - and Tottenham equalising in the last minute at White Hart Lane.

"But I do remember that the fans were absolutely fantastic.

"I read an interview with Neil Warnock, the former Sheffield United manager, and he was asked about his memories of the FA Cup. He said what he remembered were Norwich supporters coming to Sheffield for the quarter-final. He could only have been a boy of about nine or 10.

"We went out and played the games but the fans made the Cup run what it was."

Hill, who left Everton for Port Vale in 1965 before returning to his homeland, where he managed Derry City, Linfield and Carrick Rangers, is joint ninth in City's all-time goals chart alongside two of their most prolific scorers, Ron Davies and Ted MacDougall.

He said: "The third division was very comfortable to play in. When you play you need time on the ball, and in the second division I had time on the ball, but when I went to Everton I found it very difficult."

He added: "I left Norwich in 1963 and when I was over for the 40th anniversary in 1999, there were players I hadn't seen for 35, in some cases 38 years. But when we met 10 years ago, it broke the ice a bit.

"It's unbelievable, when you look back to 1959, if anyone had said to us we would be meeting here in 50 years' time, we wouldn't have believed it.

"But time flies and some of the young boys now, in no time they will get to 35 and suddenly life goes very quickly. I don't think it seems 50 years ago.

"I'm 73 and I'm creaking a bit when I walk but I don't feel old."

Hill said City's FA Cup exploits paved the way for better times for the club.

"I believe it was the first year of Norwich City really going forward," he said. "We got promotion to Division Two, we won the League Cup, though it wasn't really a big draw then.

"The club had a bit of money, and certainly had the support. The gates were big and they got money into the club.

"When I left it was for �25,000 and Ollie Burton went to Newcastle for �35,000 and then they bought Ron Davies for �35,000 and that was a lot of money at the time.

"I still think what the 59ers achieved meant the club going forward from there. If we hadn't had that Cup run, God knows where we would have been.

"I'm amazed this is still going, that people still talk about it."