Nick Hayhoe is continuing to explore the history of Norwich City in 100 of the best, craziest and most famous goals we've ever scored. Today, we are at the Den on Sunday 22 January, 1989. Or, probably more accurately, sat in front of the TV watching Norwich at the Den on Sunday 22 January 1989...
Even accounting for the 1959 Cup Run and the adventures of 1992-93, the 1988-89 season is still the biggest what-if in Norwich City’s history. Historical record of the campaign, in books, club history DVDs, websites and what have you, will often casually drop the line “Norwich were contenders for the double”, without acknowledging the pure insanity that the sentence sounds like.
But it is, inconceivably, true. Dave Stringer, in his first full season as Norwich manager, really did come very close to securing Norwich City (yes, that Norwich City, the Norwich City which is yours and which is mine) the Division One title and the FA Cup in 1989. If it hadn’t been for a collapse in form, the usual Norwich bad luck and the usual…Along Come Norwichness, then instead of the ‘most remarkable tale in English football’ being Michael Thomas’ “Up for grabs now!” goal at Anfield in May, it would have been an almost anonymous provincial club from Norfolk obtaining the most evocative achievement in English football.
Such was Norwich’s run in the first half of that season, they were featured – for the very first time in the league – on live television. On 27th December, families all around the country settled in with the last of the leftover turkey and stuffing to watch Norwich beat West Ham 2-1 at home, leaving pundits no choice but to consider them in the title hunt. Such was the draw of Norwich that season, several weeks later, Norwich were to appear on TV again. This time against Millwall at the Den.
It can only be imagined now, the smell of the streaks of piss running down the terraces encircled by barbed wire-topped fences, with thousands of angry South London ex-dockers sneering down from above. While Elton Welsby on the Big Match tried to reassure viewers that Millwall supporters were doing a good job at turning around their reputation, and it is somewhat lazy to pick on them through this stereotype alone, it is also fair to say that this wasn’t going to be a crowd one would encounter at a night at the theatre.
As a commenter on the game’s YouTube’s video puts it more succinctly: “Standing in the away section was like being in Colditz”.
What they witnessed though, was a remarkable game – one that many consider one of the best live matches broadcasted in the 80s and, if not, certainly the most underrated.
City stunned the Den by going two up early, only to see themselves blow the two goal lead by half time thanks to goals from Tony Cascarino and Jimmy Carter. In stoppage time, with both sides trading blows in the sort of absolute slugfest that only football from the 1980s can provide, Mike Phelan found himself breaking forward with space on the right with Fleck rushing with him in the centre. His cross was a terrible one, cleared by Millwall, yet he did not give up on it. Mike Phelan never gave up on it.
His header vaguely looped in the direction of Fleck, who completely stunned his marker by attempting an acrobatic scissor kick volley that saw the ball hammered home off the underside of the crossbar. It was a goal that couldn’t have been painted to be more beautiful. With the Norwich fans in the away pen going crazy, City had announced themselves to the country that they were to be taken seriously.
In that moment everything, all of a sudden, seemed possible.