When the opening day of the 2010 League One season paired newly-relegated Norwich with local rivals Colchester, few would have predicted the scoreline or the season-long feud that followed. Paul Buller documents events in East Anglia

Norwich City and Colchester Utd fans rarely have anything more in common than flat landscapes and a mutual distaste for Ipswich Town. Following Norwich’s relegation to League One, however, two matches, 13 goals, two new managers, accusations of skullduggery and even a demand for an unprecedented points deduction finds both clubs inextricably linked – whether they like it or not.

As the League One season kicked off in August, expectations at both clubs were markedly different. Norwich fans, despite a summer of quality signings and favourable odds at the bookies, were not convinced by manager Bryan Gunn’s ability to shape a team and were peering at the coming season through their fingers. U’s fans were rather more hopeful. Having weathered the previous season’s stadium move and managerial changes by finishing in solid mid-table, they could start with genuine ambitions of a play-off push under smart-thinking manager Paul Lambert.

So when the two teams were drawn to play each other in the opening game of the season at Carrow Road, it seemed fitting. Deprived of their bigger local derby against Ipswich this fixture was the next best thing – something to add a bit of spice at the start of what promised to be one long, hard slog of a season in England’s unglamorous third division. What followed is not a day Norwich fans will want to remember. “We’re the laughing stock of the country,” said Norwich captain Gary Doherty after Colchester’s now infamous 7-1 win. He wasn’t wrong.

But Colchester fans had barely let the smile fall from their faces when Norwich fired Bryan Gunn and promptly replaced him with Paul Lambert. It had taken Lambert less than 14 days to move to Norwich after subjecting the Canaries to their biggest-ever home defeat. Norwich chief executive David McNally, who worked with Lambert at Celtic, claimed he’d had his man in his sights for some time. But it was a surprise to everyone else, not least Colchester’s chairman Robbie Cowling, who claimed no agreement had been made with the Canaries and that his manager couldn’t go anywhere.

While Norwich insisted they’d played by the rules, Cowling was having none of it and made his views very public. He complained to the Football League that Norwich had breached Regulation 20 (in short – “don’t pinch another team’s manager without permission”) demanding compensation and a points deduction.

Despite employing Aidy Boothroyd, formerly a Norwich youth team coach, Watford hero and “future England manager” (copyright all papers) and maintaining their play-off position, Cowling continued to aim his guns at Norwich. He made with regular complaints to the press and called the saintly Delia Smith “disrespectful” after she’d offered an olive branch by saying she’d “do anything to put things right”.

By the time the two teams prepared to meet again in January, Norwich had leapfrogged the U’s into the top two and you could smell the acrimony across East Anglia. Cowling decided to limit Norwich’s huge travelling support to only 1,900 tickets, even though the game was predicted to be nowhere near a sell-out, stating he’d “rather see an empty seat than an away supporter”. For U’s fans who had supported Cowling’s stance, this seemed a step too far. Many felt the club could do with the money rather than look at empty seats in a 10,000-capacity stadium that is not often more than half-full. There were also concerns on both sides that ticket restrictions would lead to tension between fans on the day.

In the end, the mostly peaceful game did turn out to be a sell-out with hundreds, if not thousands of Norwich fans finding their way into the home ends. But unfortunately for Cowling – who stated that he’d “never wanted to win a game of football so badly” – Colchester received some retribution by being thumped 5-0. Nonetheless, the chairman wasn’t in the mood for any conciliation, putting out a statement on the official club website the very next day: “Col U fans were correct, there is only one Robbie Cowling. The Norwich fans were correct, he is a bit of a w****r [sic] at times and as for “Cowling, Cowling what’s the score?” It’s 7 v 6 to the mighty Colchester.”

The saga rumbles on. The Football League recently confirmed they will investigate the whole palaver by Easter 2010 and if found guilty Norwich could indeed face a points deduction. And although it’s never happened before, a points deduction would most likely drop Norwich into the play-offs at the end of the season. Where they’ll probably meet Colchester.

From WSC 277 March 2010

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