Tuesday 5 May ~
As the tear-soaked Yellow Pages confetti was swept from The Valley away stand on Monday evening thousands of Norwich supporters journeyed back up the M11, weighed down by that all-too-familiar sense of big game anti-climax. As the Charlton trainees sweeping the terraces pondered the likelihood of their being thrown into a threadbare first team by August, the Yellow Army must have wondered where it all went wrong.
The appointment in January of my boyhood hero and local celebrity Bryan Gunn as Norwich manager came at what the club felt was the right time – when season ticket renewals needed resuscitating. Can you imagine many other debt-ridden businesses following this free-spirited approach during turbulent times? Halifax Building Society could have put all their interests in the control of that bloke who sings on their adverts. Like Gunny he wouldn’t be remotely qualified or experienced to succeed but at least the customers would admire him for his efforts. Yet for a while there I too was carried away with the idea of putting a local celebrity in charge, in our case a hugely popular former keeper who has worked at Norwich for 22 years. Why not, I reasoned with myself. By April of every year we’re trudging around the bottom half of the league, I thought, and always end up thrashing someone with a few games to go to confirm our Championship status and inflate our delusional predictions of success the following season. So why not have a bit of fun along the way for a change?
OK, so some of us got a bit carried away. Just like at Newcastle and Middlesbrough it seems that appointing a favourite former player as manager guarantees far more of a reaction off the field than on it. Our relegation rivals Forest and Blackpool showed us how to change manager and stay up after appointing experienced candidates. But it wasn’t even fun while it lasted – because it didn’t even start. We took eight games to achieve our first win under the new manager. Apart from a goal of the season contender that we didn’t actually score (a Nayim lob of an own goal from Daniel Rose of Watford) our run-in form snowballed from uninspiring to woeful just as it did during the 1995 relegation from the top flight. With an inexperienced ex-player, Gary Megson, in charge, we managed just one win in our final 17 games that year after Gunny sustained a broken leg on December 27, missing the private party that the Premier League was about to become.
I can’t help but feel the same about next season. We can but hope for a fruitful sabbatical stroll through the parochial grassroots of football; nice little clubs with leaking corrugated iron stands and even leakier defences. Yet a glance at who we’ll actually be playing conjures a different image. This season’s relegated trio may join Leeds as a fleet of brightly polished but clapped-out family cars, ours albeit with one careful lady owner, entering a banger race against all the same old teams we failed to beat in the Championship. And while we’re dodging car crashes, just look over the fence at the party the neighbours are having. In next season’s Championship we could have been contesting the Pride of Anglia with Keano’s Ipswich, Peterborough and the “McDons”, not to mention the guarantee of 4-4 draws and 50-yard last-minute winners if Middlesbrough and the Toon go down. Dan Thompson