The signing of Martin O'Neill lit a fire for Norwich City's season, says Joe Ferrari
Some say every successful team needs at least one ‘battler’ in midfield, one leathery, hard bastard who elbows and nuts his way through the opposition defence before his hobnailed boot emerges from a pile of bodies and scuffs the ball home from two yards. And there are others who argue that this sort of player is all well and good, but you also need to have at least one ‘creative’ player some willowy slip of a lad who stifled a yawn before skipping past bonecrunching tackles and playing a devastating 40 yard pass with the outside of his boot.
But what if you had all that in one player? When Norwich City manager Ken Brown brought Martin O’Neill from Manchester City on January 29th 1982 I was at best apathetic about the move. A lacklustre first half of the season saw us limp to 11th position by the time O’Neill joined, thirteen points off the promotion places. The local press had already written off the Canaries. Needed: A more ruthless streak was the headline over one comment piece. ‘Goodbye to promotion’ read the subheading. In the wreckage of my room which I trashed while listening to a 3-2 defeat against Sheffield Wednesday on O’Neill’s debut, I was inclined to agree.
But I had seriously underestimated O’Neill’s qualities. He was a combative ball-winner, true, but he also had skill, flair and, most importantly of all for our flagging squad, passion. While the rest of the division watched in disbelief, City won 13 of their last 17 games to clinch promotion. Scoring five goals himself and setting up twice as many during the run-in, O’Neill had that rare capacity to turn matches with a moment’s brilliance – and his refusal to give up even the most hopeless cause lifted his team-mates to new heights. When I was caught by our formidable English teacher Miss Sunasky carving ‘O’Neill is the greatest’ on my desk with a compass, it was proof positive that his galvanising qualities had gripped me too.
The last match of the season was the return fixture with Sheffield Wednesday with the Canaries needing just a point for a return to the big time. The match was a gut-churning nightmare for the 10,000 City fans at Hillsborough but many will vividly remember O’Neill striding up to take a corner, face red and eyes manic, clenching his fists in front of his chest, exhorting the supporters to play their part. We actually contrived to lose the game, 2-1 – Keith Bertschin’s 86th minute equalizer seemed to have done enough, only for Gary Bannister to head in a 90th minute sickener. But then news filtered through from Filbert Street that Leicester, the only team who could catch us, had been held to a goalless draw by Shrewsbury.
O’Neill had one more reasonably successful season with us before moving to Notts County. With only 65 appearances and a brief spell as manager under the Fat Controller, Robert Chase, to his name, you wouldn’t think he would have much of a place in City folklore. But I can’t remember any other Norwich player who would have come in at that stage of a crap season and lit such a collective bonfire under the club’s collective arses. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as we said more recently when Gary Megson was made manager.
From WSC 123 May 1997. What was happening this month