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To celebrate Norwich City's birthday, and to put us in the mood for the upcoming Issue 3 of the fanzine, here's Nick Hayhoe's piece from Issue 1 that imagines what it might have been like back on that summer's day in 1902.
The Recreation Ground, Norwich.
Norfolk Senior Cup Final
Norwich CEYMS v Great Yarmouth Town
Watch the storm rise. The black clouds roll in. It starts from a small, angry cloud, then grows larger and larger until it unleashes itself on the unsuspecting earth below.
Robert Webster stood stock still, soaked and freezing in the mud. Twenty minutes earlier it had been a pleasant spring afternoon, the perfect day for soccer. He had joined the Yarmouth captain for the coin toss and remarked to his opposite number much to that effect. The Yarmouthman, a tall, stocky individual with a WG Grace-style beard and nervous eyes, agreed. This was the perfect day for soccer. But in those 20 minutes clouds black as pitch had rolled in from the west, covering the sky as though Norfolk had been covered in a blanket. Big drops warned the players to take shelter but they did no such thing, and the rain started falling with such ferocity it was as though the sky itself was falling in on them.
There was a flash of lightning and Webster watched as the Yarmouth inside-forward, trying to avoid playing the ball on the bog-like ground, went past his centre-half, the young James Johnstone, and hit a speculative toe-punt wide of the post. As the shot was struck, the thunder caught up with the lightning. The crack was loud, angry and raw. It reverberated across the houses and the factories and the fields, enveloping them in a deep, pulsating rumble. The ground shook, rattling the bones and organs in his body.
Webster sought with his eyes first the Yarmouth captain and then the referee, willing them to look in his direction and to make a gesture. Enough of this nonsense. But nothing was forthcoming. It briefly occurred that he could simply ask the referee himself, and that as the home captain the request would probably be granted, but this was a coward’s thought, and he quickly pulled it out of his mind. He glanced over to the pavilion to see if any of the dozen or so spectators who had been there earlier remained, but all had made a sensible decision and sought shelter inside.
The Norwich goalkeeper kicked the ball from the ground for the goal-kick, but the ball was so heavy with water it barely made it beyond the penalty line. From there, the centre-half Jamieson played a good long pass to Ferryman on the right, who managed to control the ball in one of the few areas of the pitch with no standing water. A Yarmouth player went in for a long slide tackle, but Ferryman had already played the ball around him. The Norwich players moved forward in a line into the Yarmouth half, and Webster ran with them. It was a slow run, for his boots were sodden and his cotton shirt clung to his skin, but he found his way into space all the same. Spotting his run, Ferryman lobbed a pass in his direction, and as the ball arced in the air a Yarmouth player charged into him with his elbow high, catching Webster on the side of his temple and sending him crashing to the ground. The referee called the foul but a fracas ensued, some players threatening with raised fists whilst others held them back. Another flash of lightning.
Webster laid prostrate in the mud. He was dazed and could not remember where he was, but then someone called to him that he needed to get up and when he did he remembered he was playing at the Crystal Palace and he knew that he must have been in the FA Cup final. And so there he was. A hundred thousand people stood and watched with open mouths and wide eyes to see if Robert Webster was going to win them the greatest prize in association football. This was such a thrill that his heart raced and his fists closed in determination. A feeling surged through him that was so powerful he never thought he could ever explain it to anyone; a feeling of such high elation that nothing on the material earth would surely ever exceed it.
And then, just as the pitch around him came into view, a crack of close thunder and he was on the floor, choking on dirt, blurry shadows all around.
Several hours later the sky had cleared and a bright evening came. An orange light, an otherworldly glow, was thrown over the post-storm city. The calm was eerie, but not unwelcome.
The players of Norwich Church of England Young Men’s Society Football Club had gathered in the banqueting suite of the Maids Head Hotel. It claimed to be the oldest surviving hotel in Britain, and the low beams and claustrophobic air of the banqueting suite appeared to back this up. There were three tables upon which sat the CEYMS players, now dressed in their evening lounge suits and excitedly chatting about this and that. Robert Webster sat at the top table with his vice-captain Joseph Cowper Nutchey, the treasurer James Stradbroke, and secretary Henry Campbell.
Robert’s ears were still ringing and his head ached greatly, but it did not matter to him now. He supped his wine; he felt that he had earnt this moment. A small silver cup had been placed ceremoniously in the middle of the top table, and he looked at it admiringly.
After a supper of roast beef and vegetables and a dessert of bread pudding, Campbell tapped a glass with his knife.
“Good evening everyone!” Campbell spoke statesmanlike, as if addressing a parliament or a court of law. “What a season it has been for the Church. I am so pleased that you could all make it for this celebration. On behalf of the club I wish to congratulate you all on what you have achieved.” There was a positive murmur from the room. “From such humble beginnings. Such humble beginnings. My friends, I cannot believe how far we are. Three years ago I said that not only are we the best team in Norwich, but in the whole of Norfolk. Now that is not only true, it is true thrice over!” There was a cheer from the tables. “But before I continue, I must hand you to your captain, Mr Robert Webster, else he may faint from his sensitive head.”
The crowd tittered. Robert stood and the cheers and applause swelled until the entire room was standing. He smiled and made modest gestures with his hands, but inside he felt a sense of pride that almost overwhelmed him.
He pulled from his inside breast pocket a sheet of handwritten notes. The applause died down, and an expectant hush descended.
“Mr Campbell, I thank you for your kind words. Friends, I speak to you as the captain of the champion Norfolk soccer club, and it brings me such pleasure to utter those words. Each and every one of you should be very proud of this achievement and I raise a glass to each of you.”
There was a cry of “hear, hear!” and a toast to the champions.
The crowd remained standing. “Without any further ado, I shall recite our club’s lyrics.”
Robert cleared his throat and picked up his sheet of paper. He spoke in a singsong, poetic way.
“Let all tonight then drink with me
To the football game we love,
And wish it may successful be
As other games of old,
And in one grand united toast
Join player, game and song
And fondly pledge your pride and toast
Success to the City club.”
The room raised their glasses, every face smiling and crimson red with pride. The sing-song rhythm of Robert’s rendition developed into a full-voiced crescendo.
“Kick off, throw in, have a little scrimmage,
Keep it low, a splendid rush, bravo, win or die;
On the ball, City, never mind the danger,
Steady on, now’s your chance,
Hurrah! We’ve scored a goal!”
Later that night, Campbell invited Robert to his house on King Street for a nightcap. Still feeling slightly woozy from wine, he accepted. The air was cool and damp, and it was now completely dark. Gas lights provided a vague orange path to their destination, and the men walked quickly. Campbell’s home, in which Robert had only previously set foot three times, was cavernous and cold. His wife had died some years ago and he lived in just a small ground floor section of what had been a majestic house with many great rooms. They walked into something of a drawing room. Campbell lit the lamps and delved into a mahogany drinks cabinet, emerging with an unlabelled bottle of brandy and two large cigars.
“Same as last year’s, I am afraid,” said Campbell, pouring two large glasses. There was something more to the way he spoke the phrase, but Robert couldn’t quite place what it was or what he meant by it.
“To Church.” He handed the glass to Robert and they both took swigs, Campbell’s much larger. Robert didn’t much care for brandy. As it burnt his mouth and throat, he tried as hard as he could to keep his face straight with appreciation.
They sat in matching armchairs and an uneasy silence filled the room. Robert looked at Campbell and noted his weary gaze at the floor. It appeared that the evening’s celebrations had taken a toll on him and Robert started to think of an excuse to leave quickly but none came forth, so he took another acrid sip of his brandy and settled further into the chair. Somewhere deep in the house a clock chimed midnight and they listened together, both silently counting each chime. After the twelfth, Campbell finally spoke.
“I have always been an honest man with you, haven’t I, Robert?”
“Of course, Mr Campbell.”
“Well, then I may as well and come out and say this now.” He turned to Robert slowly, placing his empty glass on the side table. He looked lost and forlorn; such a stark contrast from the emotion he had been expressing just hours previous. Robert went to open his mouth to interrupt, but Campbell continued.
“We cannot afford to play in the Challenge Cup next season. I am sorry.”
A pang of anger hit Robert in the side, and his head under the bandage started to burn. While he had half expected this conversation to happen for several weeks now, the sudden anger and outrage he felt still shocked him.
“Mr Campbell, I must protest, the boys, they have been looking–” Campbell raised an interrupting arm in silence.
“We simply do not have the funds to apply to the Football Association for the license, or to improve the ground for the games. I am sorry, my boy, but there is nothing I can do about the situation.”
“Sir, we have been cup and league champions so many times over the last three seasons. There is nowhere else for us to go. We have reached a ceiling.”
“And I am afraid that we cannot go beyond the ceiling without more funds.”
“But I have seen our books. We made one pound and four shillings in spectator admission this season alone.”
Campbell looked at Robert over the top of his glasses. “Robert. I will be honest with you, because you have earned that right, but you must not repeat to anyone what I am about to tell you.”
Robert Webster scratched his nose and waited. He knew what was coming.
“I have debts. Many, many debts. I am losing money faster than I can produce it or find it. I cannot afford to add more of my own capital into this club. We can only make do with the funds the church provides us.”
Robert dramatically looked around this grand, cavernous, mostly unused house in a form of silent protest, but its owner did not pick up on it. The rumours were true then, he thought. Some had seen Campbell at the public house on Rampant Horse Street, others at the inn on Bethel Street. Money changed hands. Racehorses were supposedly discussed. Card games were supposedly played.
“You must not abandon us though, Robert. Please do not abandon us. You are an excellent footballer and the Church wouldn’t want you to leave us.”
Robert said nothing. Instead he drank the rest of his brandy in one go, placed the glass softly on the side table and went to excuse himself.
“Thank you for the drink, sir, but I need to get home to my wife.”
Campbell did not move, not even to show him to the door. He stayed in his seat with his face downturned and stared at the piled rug on the floor with distant eyes.
As Robert Webster walked quickly down the road in that orange gaslight glow, his face turned red with indignation and anger.
The following day, Joseph Cowper Nutchey sat down to breakfast with his wife. An envelope in the pile of post delivered early that morning did not quite fit in with the rest, and it was that which he pulled out first. Dirty and stained, it was as if it had been dropped on the ground several times, with the handwriting scrawled and spidery, as if written in a hurry.
I do not wish to alarm you of these circumstances by such subterfuge, but we must talk privately. There are issues with Church, but I believe I have a solution.
The weather on that Tuesday in mid-June was dry and warm and the city suffocated under a cloud of hazy dust from its sawmills, maltings and grain stores.
Down the narrow thoroughfare of White Lion Street, horses, carts, working men and children in rags jostled for space on the cobbles. The buildings either side leaned into each other so much they were nearly touching and caused a great darkness to fall on the avenue despite the bright day. Through the signs for the butcher and the pub and the haberdashers one could see the castle high on its hill, looking down on the city it once ran. On this street was the Criterion Café, an unassuming place that nonetheless served good quality coffee from Africa, tea from Ceylon and chocolate from Central America, processed at the nearby Caleys factory and as sweet as it possibly could be.
Inside, a meeting was underway. The men in the group smoked, drank coffee and ate chocolate as they spoke in turn, professionally and formally, and listened to what each other had to say. Behind the bar, a waiter cleaned crockery and pretended not to be listening in.
Nutchley took handwritten notes, while Webster chaired. Four CEYMS players were present, like Joseph and Robert all of them teachers and hence available for the Tuesday rendezvous. They were joined by three men from two other football clubs, dressed slightly more formally than the Church players, but nonetheless not looking out of place.
None of them could hide an impalpable excitement. Hearts swelled and hands shook as they kept reminding themselves of the decision they were making.
Robert Webster and Joseph Cowper Nutchley had started their own football club. They called it Norwich City.
As the meeting progressed, a man named Arthur Turner discussed financials. Formerly on the Swiftians team, it was through chance that Robert had met him in a public house several months previous. It was then they made tipsy suggestions to each other about merging Church and Swiftians, “if they had their way”, and they had both had a good chuckle about it, whilst all the same both harbouring a secret desire for the plan to actually take place. An accountant by trade for a large family of businesses, Turner had a good grasp of money – and looking after money. Swiftians had been renowned for their frugality.
Having said his piece, a hush descended and heads turned to Robert. He had not anticipated making any kind of statement, but stood to address the room.
“It brings me pleasure, gentlemen, that your lofty ambitions match, and in some cases, exceed mine. I do not wish ill will upon the clubs of which we are leaving, but I – we – feel that there must be an association football club in the City of Norwich that matches the ambitions and goals of this great city.”
“Hear, hear!” came the cry.
“Let us hope that everyone in the city will remember this day, 17th June 1902, as the start of a new chapter for the sport of Association Football in Norwich. A club in the Southern League and entering the FA Challenge Cup. I do not know where we will end up, but I do know it will be the most exciting times for all of us here and, good Lord, will we enjoy it to the fullest extent possible.” He picked up a coffee cup and raised it. “So may I be the first to say, On The Ball, City!”
The word soccer was used interchangeably with the word football to describe association football up until the 1960s in England. It is a misconception that it is an Americanised term. It was especially used by the educated classes, so it is very likely that JCN and RW, being school masters, used the term soccer.
This article was first released in Issue One of the Along Come Norwich Print Fanzine.
If you want more writing like this then you can order Issue 3 here.
Or you can get both Issue 2 and Issue 3 for the low, low price of £7.99 – including postage – here!
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