Along Come Norwich is back from close season hibernation to start whetting your appetite for the campaign to come. In the first of a summer series of our writers' favourite Norwich City seasons, Jon Punt takes a look back to the heady days of 1988-89.
In the days before I graduated to be old enough to own my first Norwich City season ticket, my poor and perpetually pestered mother had the honour of taking me to Carrow Road.
As a 10 year old lad a milkcrate to stand on at the front of the River End and a few pence for “sweeeeets” or “chocolaaaaaate” from the infamous confectionary seller were all I needed on a Saturday afternoon. It took a little bit of time but Mum, as a life-long Leicester City fan, was starting to have her allegiances swayed. You couldn’t help but fall in love with this lot. It was a sparkling and swashbuckling City side, one who would go on to record Norwich’s highest ever (at the time) top flight finish.
It contained Flecky. It contained Disco. It even contained Andy “Not for me, Clive” Townsend, although obviously his Norwich career was instantaneously deleted from the archives once he moved into run of the mill punditry.
The mid to late 1980s were perhaps the last time unfancied sides could regularly compete at the top end of the old First Division. QPR, Luton, Coventry and, more importantly, Norwich all recorded top 10 finishes. Meanwhile the now financial powerhouses of Chelsea and Manchester City were spending time in English football’s second tier.
There was no Sky TV money, no exorbitant salaries, at times no grass on the pitch, but the football was purer, less sanitised. The unsavoury elements of hooliganism were still being eradicated, but I was blissfully unaware of how this blighted our national game. It was all about Rosario, Phelan, Gossy, Gunny and their pals.
They played football in the Norwich way, not that I’ve ever really got my head round that term – everyone wants to see their team play free-flowing, attacking and passing football don’t they?
Dave Stringer had sufficiently tweaked at the edges of Ken Brown’s solid and dependable base. The results were incredible.
Importantly, the shirt they wore that season was magnificent. This was Norwich’s early dip of the toe into a long line of lesser known sports manufacturers, Scoreline. Mitre, Asics, Pony, Xara and Errea were to follow, oh for a kit made by Adidas in my supporting lifetime.
The strip itself was as quintessentially 1980s as Dale Gordon’s soul-glo mullet or pencil thin moustache. A horrible breed of yellow and green polyester which somehow contrived to be weirdly wonderful.
What really stood out though, especially looking back at the archives, was the simplicity with which Norwich approached the game.
As captain and leader, Phelan set the tone. He was strong in the tackle, all action and capable on the ball. They were qualities which would lead to a new career of perennial bench warming at Manchester United, but Phelan was a fine player, one who is often overlooked when the list of Canary greats is trotted out. His moustache was nearly as excellent as Disco Dale’s too.
Everyone was comfortable on the ball. Short, interchanged passing was the order of most matchdays. If City needed to go long, they had the gangly yet capable figure of Rosario to hold up the ball or win the flick-ons his partner in crime Flecky was sniffing out.
City started like a steam train on the road that year. The first five away fixtures each yielded 3 points and that run was only broken at Goodison Park in fortuitous circumstances for the hosts.
In parallel to the successful side of 1992-93, Norwich were unfancied that year, written off by many suggesting a relegation scrap for the Canaries would be their likely fate. What utter tosh. Again similarly to the calls of 1992-93, the team enjoyed the majority of their success in the first half of the season, holding onto top spot well into December, before sides worked out Stringer’s signature style of play and tried to combat it.
And then there was THAT game at Millwall. It was on the telly and everything, a rarity in the days of Ceefax updates and 19 inch television sets actually being considered large. City raced into a 2 goal lead courtesy of sloppy set piece marking from the home side, Butterworth and Bowen the scorers, before the Lions pegged us back and restored parity. Logic dictated with momentum on their side Millwall would go on to nick the win. Bryan Gunn had different ideas, and in a masterful display of goalkeeping repelled anything that came near him. Some of his shot stopping bordered on the ridiculous, this was Gunny at the peak of his powers.
The game however is remembered for none of those things. Robert Fleck was the man to settle the match, his on the turn half volley was expertly guided into the top corner and it sent the away fans into raptures (along with giddy 10 year old me in the comfort of my own home.)
It was a strike which ensured Flecky was never short of a drink when he frequented Norfolk pubs, and he still gets approached about it to this day. Yet he remains steadfastly modest about it, when I interviewed him recently for the match day programme he wanted to divert away from the subject, only really saying;
“Towards the end someone punted the ball towards me and I was lucky enough to catch it well and flicked it over the goalkeeper, it was a great game.”
Fleck’s modesty around the finesse with which he produced the strike only makes it greater.
There was even a cup run. For those of you too young to remember such things, this is where Norwich actually beat other teams, in order to progress to the latter stages of a knock-out competition. The run culminated in a semi final at Villa Park against Everton, sadly the same day as the Hillsborough disaster. Fleck didn’t feature following the death of his father the night before, a decision he regrets to this day.
As always with Norwich though, it was the hope that killed you. Two wins from the final 11 games of the campaign put paid to any hopes of a title challenge, yet it doesn’t detract from the fact 1988-89 was a vintage City season.
These fine men are often overlooked though, because of the exploits of the UEFA Cup team some 5 years later. Mike Walker’s men merely progressed further on Dave Stringer's excellent work. The defensive bedrock of Gunn, Culverhouse, Bowen and Butterworth was already in place and well practiced at being successful, but this was a team who worked hard, passed the ball and finally received some kind of plaudits when Townsend was shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award that term. More importantly though, it contained one of the finest strikers ever to grace Carrow Road.
These boys should be remembered more fondly.