Carrying on the baton in the My Favourite Season series, Nick Hayhoe makes his ACN debut talking about a season we got relegated. Yeah, we know, but let him tell you why.
Green, Helveg, Fleming, Shackell, Drury, Stuart, Safri, Francis, Huckerby, McKenzie, Ashton.
The names repeat themselves in my head, over and over again. Green, Helveg, Fleming, Shackell, Drury, Stuart, Safri, Francis, Huckerby, McKenzie, Ashton.
When I struggle to sleep, if I am at the dentist having a root canal, if am trying to take my mind off anything. I repeat: Green, Helveg, Fleming, Shackell, Drury, Stuart, Safri, Francis, Huckerby, McKenzie, Ashton.
Eleven professional footballers, all with vastly eclectic careers, all stuck in my brain - probably until the day I die.
It’s funny how sport can coincide with important milestones in your life. When I was in my first year of university, for example, Norwich decided to embark on that season. Thumping Ipswich home and away and winning promotion at a canter. Grant Holt became my hero, my god. The student in me loving the stick-it-to-’em attitude of a tyre fitter from Carlisle, the antithesis of the modern footballer.
The same sport/life cross-pollination happened when Norwich were relegated to League One in 2009. That season, I found myself in the bizarre position of having a part time job at the club, handing out the half-time pasties, pints and pies; as well as waitering at the corporate shindigs that were being put on in the Gunn Club or Top of the Terrace. It was the worst possible time to do this; a black cloud hung over the club from the first preseason friendly game (a 5-1 hammering against Spurs) to the last home game of the season (a disastrous 2-0 against Reading). Hearing the faint, but distinguished, cheers of the away end while trying to clean a Rollover Hotdog machine deep in the South Stand was an excruciating experience. No-one during that season appeared to be happy - especially if they were part of the charity do at the Top of the Terrace where I dropped not one, but two, trays full of champagne flutes at the drinks reception.
My favourite team though was the one I watched aged 14 a defining age of most people’s lives; the time of first kisses, being allowed to go to town on your own and staying up late. At that age, as you can’t really remember a time before, but you’ve reached an age you can understand it all properly; everything is new to you in football and it’s all soaked up. Every match report, every player interview on Look East, every statistic in the back of the programme. And, if like me, you’re lucky enough to experience a club promotion (or maybe a cup win) during that phase of your football supporting life, it only increases the obsession. It was at this time in my life that Norwich; rubbish old, almost always near the bottom of the second tier for as long as I remembered Norwich, found themselves in the Premier League.
This wasn’t just any Premier League either. This was the Premier League era of Thierry Henry, Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo. A Premier League where English midfielders were genuinely considered among the best footballers in the world, where England regularly got multiple sides to Champions League semi-finals and would then go on to win the whole thing. It was a scary place for my Norwich to be. But during that spring, we were right there with them. Occasionally even beating them.
The season was, for the most part, a shocker. Flicking through the match results online today, I find myself visualising pretty much every individual game - what happened, where I was, how depressed I was afterwards. 1-2 against Man Utd at Old Trafford, I watched on Sky, papers raved about Alan Smith, McVeigh scored and we hit the bar. 0-1 against Fulham at home, I was at the game and sat in the family corner behind the pillar (we didn’t have a season ticket), Robert Green should have been sent off for handling outside the area. 2-2 v Newcastle at St James’, watching on TV as we came from 2-0 down to draw, and were the toast of Andy Gray. There were times during the course of that first half of the season where I still believe we were genuinely unlucky. There were also times where we were just plain hopeless. But, just as the season turned into the home stretch, and we were being completely written off by practically everyone, something extraordinary happened.
I was at the game. I was actually there. My reasons for how we got a ticket are somewhat hazy, but my dad and I found ourselves in a River End corporate box. When Drury headed it in, I can remember going mad. Absolutely mad. Everyone screaming and slamming their fists on the glass of the box. I’d never known anything like it. I will remember Norwich 4 (Francis 18' Ashton 80' McKenzie 90' Drury 90') Middlesbrough 4 (Hasselbaink 34', 78' Queudrue 49', 55'), and the Barclay goading the away fans for celebrating our 2nd goal as though they’d scored themselves, for as long as I live.
A few weeks later, we were stuffed 4-1 at Arsenal. A Thierry Henry Arsenal.Remnants of the Invincibles Arsenal. An Arsenal still playing at their real home of Highbury. I watched Darren Huckerby (who was already a Norfolk KBE and well on his way to his peerage by this point) score a screamer on Match of the Day before turning it off in disgust - knowing that, despite the result against Middlesbrough and the constant near misses, that was that and we were going to be relegated. ‘If we beat Man Utd next week,’ I said to someone at cricket training that Wednesday ‘I will eat my hat.’
This time I wasn’t at the game. There was no chance Dad or I could get tickets for it. So we watched it on telly, full well knowing that it was going to be another plucky performance. Another time where we were just going to come up short. Another time where if luck had gone another way…
It’s always easy to say with hindsight, but it genuinely was a terrifying Manchester United site. An in-his-prime Wayne Rooney. Perennial goal machine Ruud van Nistelrooy. Cristiano Ronaldo, on the verge of being one of the defining players of his time. And overseeing them all, with a magic Bernard’s Watch on his wrist and pack of Wonka Infinite Flavour Chewing Gum in his coat pocket, the greatest football manager to have ever lived. They were up against: Green, Helveg, Fleming, Shackell, Drury, Stuart, Safri, Francis, Huckerby, McKenzie, Ashton. A squad consisting of the forgotten, the journeymen and the misfits. A manager who was only really a known name in Northern Ireland - and even then, only really for making two appearances in a World Cup. We shouldn’t have had even the smallest sniff of a chance, and yet, from Dean Ashton’s incredible header early in the 2nd half (from a free kick that Rooney needlessly conceded) there we were. Beating the champions of England.
In the 65th minute Rooney, who’d had a dreadful game, was dispossessed deep in the Norwich half. From that point I remember, with absolute clarity, every single millisecond of the subsequent one and a half minutes. Huckerby, gliding forward with that dreamy running style of his. The perfectly weighted pass to Ashton. No sign of the United defence. As if in ultra slow-motion, the tap sideways to Leon to slot home. Ferdinand’s wave of disgust. Pandemonium. McKenzie’s six pack. Our saviour. Our hero.
It didn’t stop there. Before we knew it, we were on a run. Safri’s goal against Newcastle. Svensson last gasp winner at home to Charlton. A win against Birmingham. Despite a cheating Andy Johnson and a loss to Southampton (which I agonisingly received updates to from my dad’s phone while watching We Will Rock You in the West End) it was in our hands. We would stay up if we won at Fulham. On the beach Fulham. Boring mediocre Fulham.
It may seem bizarre and defeatist to say your favourite season was one in which your team were relegated. Some uncouth souls may even say that it is “tinpot”, a sign of the small club mentality. They might be right.
But as a 14 year old I learnt, in that crazy season of Nike Total 90s, £4.5 million transfers, Match of the Day Goal of the Months, late night Sky Sports News and watching some insanely good football from the sides that crushed us; what it really meant to be a supporter of a football club like Norwich. As the 6th went in against Fulham and I watched on TV the West Brom fans run onto the pitch at the Hawthorns celebrating their ‘Great Escape’; I first registered that what I felt, was exactly the same as what tens of thousands of other green and yellow scarf wearing people were feeling up and down the country.
Sure I was at the play off final in Cardiff, but I didn’t really understand at the time - that sense of being a part of that special club where you belong to a football team; where you support each other through the greatest times, the worst times and the downright mediocre times. And that’s why it is my favourite season, because really it’s also the first time I realised; that is what it is all about.
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