Dave Major: When the devil was in the detail for Norwich City when Manchester United came to town
- Credit: Archant Library
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‘The day Norwich City could have been inaugural Premier League champions.’
I explained this to my son a few weeks ago. He rather looked on in disbelief.
“You mean Norwich nearly won the Premier League?”
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“That’s a really long time ago.”
But they were as good as Manchester City? As good as Liverpool?
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It’s 27 years ago. Mike Walker’s Canaries were sitting top with some five games to go, having just beaten the would-be runners-up, Aston Villa, a John Polston thump from about three yards giving them a 1-0 win in an end-to-end epic under the Carrow Road floodlights.
Norwich had, that season, defied the odds. Relegation favourites, 2-0 down at Highbury on the first day of the season and come back to win 4-2.
Eight points clear at the start of December. Then a mini slump that saw them lose traction and pace, but never, crucially, belief. That Villa result saw Norwich return to the top of the tree with just five games to go.
The day after we sat in McDonald’s Westlegate over a chocolate milkshake (it was, dear readers, before my 18th birthday so of course it wasn’t somewhere else) debating quite how many wins we needed to actually make it happen. Beat United, two more and we’d be there, was the consensus.
Next along came Manchester United. They were the other challengers, having just coined Fergie time with two stoppage-time goals from Steve Bruce against Sheffield Wednesday. That game is largely seen as the destiny day; the day United were always going to win the title for the first time in 26 years.
But in Norfolk, certainly amongst my group of school friends, if we beat United, we’d win it. We’d actually win it.
The key word there was IF.
United ran Norwich ragged in the first half with purpose, pace, power and poise. Three times they carved Norwich’s defence open in the first 20 minutes, three times they scored. Ryan Giggs led three runners through the defence for the first; the flying Andrei Kanchelskis with the second and after Paul Ince had ran the length of the pitch, the talismanic Eric Cantona added the icing. It was an extraordinary and brutal carving apart of Norwich City’s dreams.
The second half brought some consolation through a Mark Robins header but, in truth, the damage was done; the belief gone.
Four days later Tottenham went two better. A 5-1 defeat for the Canaries at White Hart Lane left us clinging on for third place. A 3-3 draw on the final day of the season saw that goal achieved; and of course, Andy Linighan’s header in the FA Cup final finally sent Norwich City into Europe.
For that 16-year-old it was a story of what might have been. The tribulations have come and gone since, mainly around promotion and relegation from or to the second tier – and being a football fan, never less tortured. But that opportunity may never come again.
But maybe. Maybe. Just ask Leicester City. Relegation favourites, Premier League winners. It did happen.
Hope. Potential. As football fans, we’re used to a little of that every Saturday.
In these dark days we cling to that even more every night as more draconian measures come in.
Football will come again; with it our hopes and dreams wrapped up in 90 minutes of what might just happen.
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