Michael Bailey: Alex Notman knew his life ‘would never be the same again’ following his career-ending derby day
It’s a small detail but effective – the sight of the Norwich City and Ipswich Town crests (you don’t need the stars) side by side.
The only time you see it is around the East Anglian derby – which is why the sight of it teleports me to when I was a little kid; my dad telling me exactly how this particular fixture works.
Even after two dismal draws last season, the derby never loses its lustre – and given the build-up we’ve had this time, Sunday should be a cracker.
But it’s worth sparing a thought for the footballer who has very different memories triggered each time Ipswich Town host Norwich City at Portman Road.
“I only played in one derby,” recalled Alex Notman as we chatted about Sunday, September 15, 2002.
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“But I was really looking forward to it. As a professional, they’re the games you want to play in because they mean so much – not just to the clubs but the fans and the city itself.
“If you win, it gives such a big lift to everyone on the Monday morning when people are going to work. It makes the world of difference to everyone’s confidence if you beat Ipswich.
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“I remember it all so well, the build-up and training that week. I knew I was playing. Our main focus was stopping Jim Magilton because all their play went through him, so my job was to go wherever he went and get on top of him right away. It was working really well.”
It was Notman’s fourth season at City but his first shot at the derby. He lasted 20 minutes.
“It was my job to be on the end of the wall, run out and block any free-kicks,” said the Scottish forward. “Mark Venus stepped up and I just jumped up to the side, the ball caught my ankle underneath and twisted it. I knew right away I definitely couldn’t play on, so I remember getting a warm goodbye from the Ipswich fans as I went off on a stretcher.”
Notman was even booked for encroachment by referee Paul Durkin as he was carried away.
“I thought it’d be the usual two or three weeks to come back but after a month the swelling just wasn’t going down, so they did some investigating. I think I played once more but it was never the same again.”
Notman signed for City from Manchester United as a 20-year-old. He was 22 come his derby debut. By the age of 23, his professional career was over.
He didn’t even get insurance money to help his adjustment out of football; his policy invalidated by an unrealistic comeback attempt with City’s reserves that came a year and six days after his Portman Road injury.
If he had not played again after that year’s grace, it would have been a different story.
“I went to see a guy who I was told was the best ankle specialist in England, and he said my ligaments just needed to be reattached,” said Notman.
“I went under the knife the next morning, and when I came round he said he’d leave it to our physio Neal Reynolds to talk to me. I knew then something wasn’t right.
“Neal said they couldn’t find any ligaments in my ankle to reattach. I’d sprained my ankle repeatedly before, and they said if they’d caught that when I was 18 or 19, I’d have been fine. But how do you know these things?
“I’m fine about it now but in the beginning it was very difficult. I remember going back to a Norwich game not long after I’d retired, and I actually had to leave at half-time. It was still so raw. It was a good year before I went back.
“That’s what life throws at you and you’ve just got to get on with it. It happens and I won’t be the last, but I don’t wish it upon anyone. Football was all I’d ever wanted to do and all I’d known since leaving school. And that was taken away from me overnight.”
Notman is now 11 years into a career in the gas and oil industry, while still living in Norfolk: “I would’ve been coming to the end of my career now and worrying about what I was going to do next – but I’ve got a future and a career ahead of me I can go on with.”
Norwich drew that 2002 derby 1-1, while Notman thinks City’s improved away form will see them to victory this Sunday – because despite all that’s happened in the last 15 years, derby day still catches Notman’s attention: “Whenever this game comes up, it always takes me straight back to that minute.
“But I don’t look back on it being sad or anything like that. I just feel lucky enough that I was able to be a professional footballer and play in one of those games, because I imagine any Norwich supporter would give their right arm to play against Ipswich.
“Admittedly I only got to do it for about 20 minutes, but I thoroughly enjoyed all the experiences. It’s a great day and a great game to play in, and even better if you can get that win.”