Who laughs last laughs loudest in these derbies
There were a few puzzled looks around the desk during the recording of our Pink ’Un podcast this week when I mentioned that the East Anglian derby between Norwich City and Ipswich Town was not exactly my favourite fixture.
That may sound like heresy in these parts when it seems everyone and his dog cannot wait to cross swords with the old enemy on the other side of the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
Nearly every ex-player we have contacted this week for their recollections of derby matches has commented on how marvellous it is that the two clubs are back in the same division, and pointed out that the two City-Town encounters are the first dates players and fans look for on the fixture list when it is published in June.
I am sure that is true and, short of winning promotion or a major trophy – not exactly an annual occurrence – a victory over Town ranks as probably the highlight of the season for the Canaries’ supporters.
It was certainly the case two years ago when Lee Croft’s stunning goal set City on course for a 2-0 victory at Carrow Road and Ipswich’s players were booed by their own fans – still locked in the ground after everyone else had left – when they came out of the tunnel for their post-match warm-down. Schadenfreude indeed.
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With the possible exception of two classic battles with Wolves, it was definitely the high point of the 2008-09 campaign. Little did we realise just how little there would be to cheer in the rest of the season as City slithered towards relegation, helped on their way by a 3-2 defeat at Portman Road in the return fixture.
And that, really, is part of the problem – those blighters down the road invariably seem to get the last laugh.
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City traditionally tend to do better in the first of the two fixtures in any given season, a good omen for Sunday perhaps, and not just because they are more often at home in the first of the two games.
Huckerby in 2005, McKenzie in 2003, Bellamy in 1998 and Bradshaw in 1994 all got their retaliation in first on Suffolk soil.
But just when you think you have the upper hand, there can be an unexpected kick in the unmentionables.
Examples? The first time the Canaries finished above the old foe in Division One, back in 1977-78, five places higher in fact, Town stole their thunder by winning the FA Cup for the first and, so far, only time.
When City lifted the Milk Cup in 1985, disposing of Ipswich in such dramatic fashion in the semi-final, they returned on Easter Monday to inflict a 2-0 defeat that helped keep them up and send the team with the Wembley hangover down.
Fast forward to 1992-93 when Mike Walker’s men finished third in the FA Premier League to qualify for Europe for the first time. Only two sides doubled them that season – Manchester United and . . . you know who.
There is also a case for arguing that many of City’s happiest and most successful seasons have come when they and Town have been in different divisions and there has been no derby at all. Were not the years from 1986 to 1992 largely blissful ones on that score?
But regardless of fortunes on the field, there are other ways in which the fixture ought to be better.
Getting rid of stupid kick-off times, for a start. Only once since 1993 has the East Anglian derby been played at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. The constant chopping and changing of dates and times at the behest of TV or the police devalues the occasion – both this season’s fixtures have been changed twice from the original list.
It is also one of the few fixtures that still carries a hint of 70s or 80s menace and the tension can make even mild-mannered men into Neolithics, such as the middle-aged Timothy Lumsden lookalike who leapt about in front of the Press box at Portman Road a few seasons ago, throwing double V-signs at what he had deduced was the Norwich media contingent and at yours truly in particular.
To go to Ipswich as a working journalist is, it must be said, to enjoy one of the better welcomes on one’s travels. My experiences as a visiting fan have been rather different, from the row of Alsatians that greeted us on my first visit in the 70s to being frog-marched from the station in later years. Even in recent seasons, City fans returning from Ipswich have complained about being treated “like prisoners of war”. Exaggeration? Perhaps. I cannot speak for the kind of reception Town fans are given at Carrow Road, but one hopes it is more civilised.
As for the game itself, it tends to be a little like the FA Cup final.
It often struggles to live up to the pre-match build-up that we – guilty, m’Lord – are inclined to give it.
There have been some classics, of course, notably at Carrow Road. The 3-3 draw on Boxing Day 1979 and the second leg of the Milk Cup semi-final in 1985 are among those that stay in the memory.
The 2-2 draw in Glenn Roeder’s first match in charge in 2007 was another humdinger.
But winning is what really matters and 90 per cent of those who make up what should be City’s biggest crowd for 26 years will not be complaining on Sunday about the quality of football if they get the three points.
The hope is that City now have a manager and a team that can deliver both. There is no sign yet of one of Paul Lambert’s City teams being unable to cope with the crunch matches and that gives cause for confidence as they seek to open up a six-point gap over their rivals and close a deficit that stands at 28 wins to Town’s 38 in League meetings between the two clubs.
In the interests of not putting the kiss of death on them, however, I’m going for yet another draw.