The start of the Lambert years, peak territory for many a fans' favourite times. Here Stephen Curnow talks you through his mates starting to return his calls again and his wife's disappointment.
At the start of the 2009-10 season I was 31 years old. Although I was otherwise a good way off middle-age, my support of Norwich City was getting pretty long in the tooth. They had just been relegated for the second time in four years and therefore faced the perils of the third tier for the first time in half a century. I felt at least that old myself.
I felt like I’d had a good innings with the club. My boyhood had been indexed by cup runs and new kits. The subsequent years a bit more blurry due to day-long drinking sessions around away games in London, interspersed with ramshackle car-loads heading to obscure corners of the country. But it seemed like that was all coming to an end. The self-adhesive Panini veneer of Flecky, Jeremy Goss and co had been peeled away to reveal the rotten core of Glenn Roeder and his mercenaries. Even Bryan Gunn was in on it. Our once stoic and impenetrable custodian had spawned a middle-aged spread and a perplexed expression. In fact, Gunny seemed to be the only person who was more confused than me about why we had ever bothered going to the football club at all.
If the 2009-10 League One season started badly, and it certainly did, then the end of the previous season had been an ominous prologue. I had taken my future wife to her first football match away at Charlton on the final day, as none of my friends wanted to go to football matches any more. The eventual misery and vitriol of the occasion was inevitable to me, but her mildly appalled reaction suggested what she saw was something of a surprise to her. Gunny perspired, Jon Otsemobor strolled, and David Marshall and Sammy Clingan plotted their exit strategies. We lost 4-2 and went down with a whimper.
The narrative of the subsequent few years is fairly straightforward. Decent size club gets relegated. Club then regroups and comes back stronger, so much so that everyone can look back on all the bad bits and safely pronounce they were actually a good thing after all. But the truth of this season is somewhat more nuanced of course.
Notwithstanding having smashed the final nails into the coffin of the previous season, in the summer of 2009 Bryan Gunn was the man who was going to put it all right. He enlisted the help of his old pals Ian Butterworth and Ian Crook. Other than Gunn, the sum total of their managerial experience comprised of Crook’s few games in charge of American Samoa.
Pre-season suggested they were treating their new project as a similarly exotic jolly, as they haphazardly jettisoned money in a scattergun player recruitment programme. Regular listeners to Radio Norfolk will be well aware by now that Gunn signed the golden goose of Grant Holt, but what doesn’t seem to crop up on Canary Call quite so often is the amount of fees and wages he Mickey Carrolled away on Goran Maric, Jens Berthel-Askou and Michael Theoklitos.
Colchester United were so much better than us on the opening day that dispensing with our manager and trying theirs instead was a no-brainer. Even Paul Lambert took us down a few cul-de-sacs before he found an escape. Few will remember Owain Tudur-Jones scoring the first goal after Lambert’s appointment or Jamie Cureton starting all of his first three league games. But the Scot was nothing if not determined and ruthless. Cureton would find himself discarded at the end of the season following a fruitless loan spell at Shrewsbury, Lambert by then heading in the opposite direction, once he had built a team to his own specification.
Where he really struck gold though, was of course in his use of the midfield diamond, a system usually reserved for either desperation, pre-season friendlies or really swish Dutch teams. At its base was stationed Darel Russell, his gloved hands and athletic frame giving him the look of a young Mohammed Ali as he jostled and sparred. To his right was 18 year-old Korey Smith, his enthusiasm unfettered by any association with the years that had gone before. On the opposite side was Simon Lappin, the rose amongst Peter Grant’s many Scottish thorns, a dutiful but charismatic professional relishing his release from the penury of the lower leagues north of the border. Ahead of them all was the mercurial Wes Hoolahan. Initially discarded by Lambert, Hoolahan re-emerged to spearhead not only the midfield but the team as a whole, his talent marking him out as a conspicuous imposter amid the blood and sweat of League One.
Chris Martin’s late header against Leeds in March 2010 virtually guaranteed us a slow run up to a promotion eventually sealed back again at Charlton in April. My wife was relieved to not be required as all of my friends were suddenly returning my calls again. The job was then done and we’d circuitously achieved a comfortable promotion everyone had expected in the first place.
The individual personnel were soon to be a victim of their own success. Even the diamond midfield fell victim to the Championship cull, with three-quarters of them never really making the step up. Darel Russell did what he always did, and talked himself out of a contract at a club just when they were on the up. In any case, he was to be succeeded by the infinitely more polished David Fox. Korey Smith was a bit to boyish for the Championship, so in came the more grown-up and gnarled figure of Andrew Crofts. Andrew Surman was a bit better and even more handsome than Lappin. Hoolahan survived of course, becoming the team’s creative lynchpin on his way to the more befitting stages of Wembley and the Stade de France.
During the subsequent three years, Norwich went on to win a second successive promotion and then to two top 12 Premier League finishes. However, it had been at the foot of League One that the ship had been turned back in the right direction. That the subsequent momentum took them so far was just an indication of how decisively they’d got it right.
For me and many others, this group also reawakened a dormant affection for the team, and ultimately convinced me supporting them was still an ok thing to do in my grown-up world. A Chief Executive, manager and captain, simultaneously at the top of their respective games. Players who once again treated Carrow Road as a destination rather than a staging post, willing to run through walls for a manager who could cajole them into doing seemingly impossible things.
So perhaps the diamond wasn’t actually forever in the end, but it meant that the class of 2010 had an enduring and worthwhile legacy at least.
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