Time to bring the ACN heavyweights out for our My Favourite Season mini-series. Ffion Thomas recalls when sold out signs were the exception rather than the norm and the bitter sweet season that was 2001/02....
I was an easy child to buy presents for. A keen as mustard Norwich fan, the latest Colman’s emblazoned shirt was always a safe bet for birthdays and Christmases. I was born in 1989 and went to my first game in December 1994, in what would conspire to be a catastrophically improbable relegation season.
I wore my colours everywhere, but years of mid-table finishes, flirtations with relegation, and the ousting of Robert Chase were all I had to show for my efforts. Even worse, Ipswich-supporting school friends had plenty to gloat about. (Don’t worry, we’re not friends any more). In the summer of 2001, they had just finished 5th in the Premiership, and we’d clawed our way to 15th in Division One.
Seeking to inject some impetus, Nigel Worthington was backed with a hefty summer transfer chest, bringing in Mark Rivers and Neil Emblen for £500,000 apiece. Emblen’s knee giving way in the first game of the season represented an inauspicious start. A trip to newly promoted Millwall had seemed like a kind opener, but we were battered 4-0, and next up were Man City, hotly tipped to bounce straight back to the top tier. What chance did this ‘rudderless ship’ – as the BBC match report had described us – have against Kevin Keegan’s men?
But something curious happened. We were matching Man City; sometimes we were bettering them. After 75 minutes it was still 0-0, and Nigel Worthington decided to throw on Marc Libbra, absent at Millwall due to a family bereavement. Libbra’s first touch was to dink it over Steve Howey’s head; his second was to volley it into the bottom corner. It was brilliant, it was Gascoigne-esque, and it was all within his first 11 seconds in English football. Paulo Wanchope got sent off for shoving a 15-year-old ball boy, then Paul McVeigh made it 2-0 in the 90th minute. That escalated quickly. And who the hell is this Libbra bloke?!
He came off the bench again a week later, scoring an 89th minute winner at Selhurst Park against Wimbledon, then back-to-back Carrow Road clean sheets saw off Wednesday and Forest. A draw at Rotherham was followed up with home wins over Watford and Burnley, the latter made all the more enjoyable by being the scene of the famous ‘Man Utd 1-0 Scum’ scoreboard incident, and City headed to Preston at the end of September with the chance to go top. Of course, we conceded a penalty after 30 seconds and lost 4-0. Norwich were ‘a shambles’, said the papers. Away defeats at Sheffield United and Walsall rapidly followed.
But despite these familiar issues on the road, Carrow Road was proving an impenetrable fortress, with seven wins and one draw by mid-November. A home win over lowly Bradford, who had lost six of their seven away games, would have put us top, but once again we blew it, with Robbie Blake proving particularly aggravating in their 4-1 victory. Next up was an ITV Digital-dictated Thursday night in Stockport, who hadn’t won a home game all season. Along came Norwich.
In December, the frontline was bolstered with the addition of David Nielsen on loan from Wimbledon. With a distinct lack of foresight, they failed to insert a clause banning him from involvement in the upcoming fixture between the two sides and somewhat inevitably he scored the opening goal against the Dons. Two more came in a post-Christmas 5-0 demolition job at Hillsborough, sealed by a certified thunderbastard from Gary Holt. And then from such highs, it all went wrong again. Twelve league games after the turn of the year yielded only two wins, both at home. A frustrating mid-March Friday night home defeat to Birmingham edged the Blues within touching distance of the play-offs, while our hopes were fading away. In the first of seven remaining games, at half time Norwich were 1-0 down at home to Gillingham and stranded six points adrift.
But goals from the unlikely sources of Clint Easton and Darren Kenton turned that game around, and then we ground out a valuable 0-0 at Molineux as Wolves continued to falter at the top. Three home points from Palace were followed up with a late smash and grab at Valley Parade. When Malky put City one up after four minutes at home to relegation-battling Grimsby a return to the play-off places seemed inevitable, but we were left to rue missed chances when the Mariners equalised late on. Had we rallied just to blow it anyway?
Despite that disappointment, thousands filled the away end at Oakwell for the last away game of the season. In front of a sea of fancy dress and inflatables, goals from Nielsen and McVeigh sealed Barnsley’s relegation. Even better was the news from elsewhere; play-off rivals Burnley and Preston had both lost on the road. It was going down to the final day, where Burnley needed to equal or better City’s result to sneak sixth place. Both were at home; them to mid-table Coventry, us to long-relegated Stockport, whose game fans still turned up for a party and proceeded to do congas around the away end of the old South Stand.
Having been dealt this decent hand, our luck was clearly in when, within 42 seconds, Nielsen was sent clear and Andy Dibble raced out of his area to intercept. Sent off for deliberate handball, his replacement was James Spencer, a 17-year-old rookie who had the game of his life. Anything he didn’t stop himself, the woodwork did, as City peppered the goal. On the stroke of half-time Mulryne broke the deadlock via a deflection, but when the Clarets took the lead at Turf Moor after 68 minutes, it felt inevitable we would rue so many spurned chances.
With the clock now going at double speed, on 75 minutes Malky rose to bury a corner at the back post, and we were back above the dotted line. With eight minutes to go, Burnley brought on Paul Gascoigne for what was being widely reported as his English swansong, and a fairytale outcome seemed inevitable. In stoppage time the Coventry keeper would deny him not once but twice from free kicks, the details recounted to the Carrow Road crowd by those who had brought along portable radios. It was agonising, and then it was over. From almost dead and buried, we’d made the play-offs by a single goal. What an achievement!
We all know the rest. Despite their season having nightmarishly collapsed at the hands of bitter rivals West Brom, Wolves fans thought they would turn us over easily. Although an incredible second half at Carrow Road gave us a two-goal cushion, I paced my bedroom for the entire duration of Roy Waller’s unbearably tense commentary from Molineux. And then Cardiff, which was an amazing day out with a horrible denouement, and I didn’t say a word the entire drive home.
So why is my favourite season one that ultimately concluded with a gutting defeat, and ending up back where we started? The rollercoaster way in which it happened helps: the all-encompassing knife-edge tension of those final few matches. It’s the norm now, but when the city pulled together in those last weeks and the sold out signs were up at Carrow Road, it was for the first time in my supporting lifetime. This was a season that laid the foundations for a lot of what followed: for the redevelopment of the South Stand; for the title charge of two years later; for me and thousands more of my generation sticking with it.
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