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Originally featured in the ACN print fanzine issue 2, Jon Punt spoke to City legend Ian Crook about Europe, what could have been, Gunny as gaffer and life under Lambert....
Ian Crook was one of my heroes. Ian Crook was a lynchpin of a Norwich City side I fell in love with. Ian Crook is now on the phone to me talking at length about his Canary career. It’s all a bit surreal.
What’s more surreal though, is the fact his story has never really been told. One of the best-loved midfielders to have pulled on the yellow and green shirt, his time at Carrow Road spanned the ridiculous and the sublime. The very best and the very worst of times. And here he is talking me through it all, his confident and assured Cockney tones only slightly changed by years spent in Australia.
Despite spending 11 years at the club as player, his time in football began with a hefty stint at Spurs, where he’d struggled and ultimately failed to usurp some of Tottenham’s golden generation. Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles stood in his way and Crook never really felt there was a way past them.
“I look back now and you kinda go, ‘They were better players than me’ – Micky Hazard was another one, and the queue behind me was John Moncur and then Vinny Samways, that were both decent players as well. For me it was frustrating, but you knew that they were better than you. Spurs at the time were a great side so to get 40 or 45 games, I was fortunate to get that with the quality that was there at the time. I could have moved on a couple of times, but I look back now and I learned so much from the likes of them, and that probably helped in the long run.”
An £80,000 move to the Canaries transpired in 1986, which had coincided with the club’s highest top flight finish to date. His transition was all the smoother because of the people he had around him in Norfolk.
“It was actually weird, because Ian Culverhouse had signed halfway through the year. I was very close to Ian and Mark Bowen at Spurs. My contract was up at the end of the season, and Ken Brown, Mel Machin and Ronnie Brooks, who was the chief scout at the time, were down at Spurs quite a lot – they would always watch our reserve games. Cully spoke to me and said he knew Norwich were interested. I was captain of the reserves side and all of a sudden I got dropped for a game against Norwich, totally out of the squad, and that kind of picked it up. Ken Brown spoke to me and they agreed a fee with Spurs and it was done really quickly.”
He acknowledges during those formative months he might have had a bit of the “big-time Charlie” about him. “I’ve got to be honest, for the first six months I was probably a bit of an arsehole, because I was saying, ‘at Tottenham we did this, at Tottenham we did that’.”
It needn’t have mattered; he was soon into the flow of Norfolk life. “We really settled into life quickly here. I became really friendly with Peter Mendham, my wife was friendly with his wife, and Steve Bruce – they were such an easy group of players to get to know. Trevor Putney, Wayne Biggins, Rob Rosario, that group was a great group of lads. My impressions at first were that it was a small club, compared to where I’d been previously, but at the end of it, it was a brilliant move for me, and one that I never ever did regret.”
Crook made the jump at exactly the right time. Ken Brown’s City side were flying and ended the season in style, finishing fifth. “We got quoted as a team of ‘first division misfits and third and fourth division players’. That was a team that expected to get relegated. It was full of great guys that I could still have a beer and a laugh with today.”
That group mentality was retained when Ken Brown departed and then reserve team boss Dave Stringer took the helm. Stringer’s men bettered his predecessor’s achievements, topping the league for much of the 1988-89 season before eventually finishing fourth. Crook was enjoying the ride, but warmly suggested there was never really the feeling they’d go all the way.
“Belief is a massive thing and learning how to win is massive. You look at some of these sides now – Liverpool couldn’t stop winning when I was playing and Man United couldn’t stop throwing things away and not winning. At that stage at Norwich, the players we had at that time, I don’t know if there was any of us that had actually won. We’d been involved with things – I’d played at Spurs when we won the UEFA Cup and two FA Cups – but a league is totally different, to be consistent throughout the year. We probably didn’t have the belief we were going to do it, but that was sometimes a good thing – we could play with no real pressure.”
A cup run (what are they?) also happened that year, with City getting as close to an FA Cup final as they ever had. The midfielder still shoulders some of the blame for Everton’s winning goal in the semi-final defeat. “That was the weirdest day. I still look back now and if I’d have just left the ball it would have ended up in Gunny’s arms. I didn’t hear the call. We weren’t free-flowing on the day.”
In wider footballing circles, however, the season was defined by a much darker cloud hanging over the game. While Norwich were contesting that semi-final at Villa Park, events were transpiring at Hillsborough which would change the face of football forever.
“You come in afterwards, and you’re absolutely gutted, and I always remember Paul Cook, who’s a Scouser, he sort of said ‘something’s happened at Hillsborough’. But it was so scratchy at the time and we didn’t really know, so we got on the coach. We knew there’d been some trouble, but you didn’t realise to the extent it was. That was as much as we knew until we got further on and we did our usual, which was to stop off at a pub on the way home. I look back now and it seems so amateur, we’d stopped off and had fish and chips and had a pint and we sort of drowned our sorrows together. It wasn’t until the next day that we started to understand just what had occurred at Hillsborough. And to be honest with you now, I think if we’d have won that game, and it would have been a Liverpool v Norwich final, I don’t think it would have taken place that year. I think the only reason it took place, and probably fittingly so, was because it was Everton v Liverpool.”
City stuttered in the league somewhat after that time, the possible hangover of such a glorious campaign. Then in 1992 there was another FA Cup semi-final to contest, against a John Byrne-inspired Sunderland. Crook himself was heartbroken not to play, although Fleck, who’d missed the 1989 contest due to the death of his father, ultimately made the line-up after a battle with injury.
“That year we were flying and I think we got one of those hyperbaric chambers in, because myself and Robert Fleck were injured. I’d done my calf maybe a week to ten days prior. Flecky was done. We had three or four players that were under injury clouds. I didn’t make it, my calf just never recovered.
On the day people could say we froze. I don’t know, maybe that’s the case – but the players were confident. We were expected to win, Sunderland were a division below us, but on the day we weren’t great. I remember sitting in the crowd and Flecky wasn’t himself, he wasn’t fit. Sutty [Chris Sutton] had one chance that maybe on another day he would have scored.”
It was to get much, much better. With Asics jettisoned and Dave Stringer stepping down after a disappointing league campaign, the mood music outside of Norfolk was that City were certainties for the drop. Along Come Norwich. Egg and cress-inspired, Walker’s team took on all-comers and very nearly went all the way, finishing third in the inaugural Premier League. In Crook’s view, they should have won it. “100 per cent, yes. We were still top with seven or eight games left. The 20 minutes that changed it all was Man United at home. I can honestly say if we’d have won that night, it would’ve been interesting. But that was the catalyst – United went on and we had a bit of a nemesis for us in Wimbledon, where we got beat and I remember all of a sudden from being four or five [points] clear we found ourselves five behind and then it becomes catch-up and totally different. Maybe we didn’t believe – but we got a long way because the pressure wasn’t on us like Villa or United at the time. You look back and it was probably one we threw away. Hopefully I’m wrong but I don’t think there’ll ever be a Norwich side that gets close to winning the Premier League again.”
He’s probably right. Money has changed the game beyond recognition, yet even back in the early 1990s there was a sense of mystery about how little old Norwich had hit such heady heights.
“How the hell did we do that? No fucking idea! We all had our best years at the same time. Add to that Sutty made a huge difference, Mark Robins came in and scored goals, Foxy was at the top of his game. Everybody just hit a peak at a time and people just don’t understand that Gossy at this time – he was a bit like myself and Mark Bowen at Spurs – Gossy hardly ever played and then all of a sudden he got in. Even at the time I don’t think he was ever really a regular, but he started scoring. We were a better team than a lot of people gave us credit for, even ourselves – we were a better team than we thought we were.”
Famously, that special season provided the platform for Crook and his colleagues to go on and create more lifetime memories for the Yellow Army as they stormed into Europe. “I remember we kept wanting to draw the big boys, which is really a stupid way of looking at it now. But at the time, we probably didn’t think we’d have any chance so it was like, you know what, let’s get a big boy and we can enjoy it. So when Bayern Munich came up it was like, brilliant, that was everything we wanted. I’ll be honest, we were looking at having two really big nights against a great side, and then patting ourselves on the back and getting back to the league. I don’t think we expected to win.”
Of course they bloody won. Along Come Norwich again for the only English side to ever record a competitive victory in Munich’s Olympic Stadium, all masterminded by Walker’s tactics.
“I remember not really touching the ball! Mike set us up away from home playing a system that I look back now and think, nobody played it prior and I don’t think anybody has played it since. We played with three out-and-out centre-halves, plus Cully as a sweeper, myself and Gossy in front and then two, I’m gonna say they were more full-backs than attackers in Mark Bowen and Foxy, and then two up front in Sutty and Efan or Mark Robins. It was the weirdest system, it was very defensive, but away from home we scored so many goals. But when we were 2-0 up in Munich it was all a bit surreal. We hadn’t really touched the ball. We’d countered well for the first goal, and then the second was from a free-kick. I still say it was a penalty on Sutty. Anyway, thankfully Mark Bowen got on the end of that, and then we just defended. Gunny made some top saves, we had people putting bodies on the line.”
That night is possibly tinged with regret though. You won’t find Crook on any of the post-match photographs; he was all business at the time.
“It’s funny, but there’s certain things I regret now that I didn’t enjoy them as much at the time. I was more about celebrating winning something, so I didn’t actually take it in that night, because I knew it was the first leg. I look back now, and do I class myself as a bit dumb when I look at certain photos? Yes. The boys were out enjoying themselves out on the field and I was back in the dressing room, because I was just thinking to myself, we’ve just won a game. The second leg was obviously where there was more finality about it. I enjoyed that one more.”
Minds quickly turned to the draw for the next round. “We all wanted Inter Milan. I always say, if we’d have avoided Inter Milan, I honestly believe we could have gone all the way to the final. But at the time we just wanted to draw big boys and have a great experience, which it certainly was.”
A youthful Dennis Bergkamp ultimately put Norwich to the sword, with City spurning a number of chances over the two legs. Then things started to turn sour. Walker departed for Goodison Park just a few weeks later and John “Dixie” Deehan took the reins, only this time he wasn’t standing on the shoulders of giants.
“What Mike and Dave benefited from was a group that was coming together, had been working together for a while and were all peaking together. Dixie got us when a lot of us were tipping the other way, if the truth be known. Myself, Mark Bowen, Ian Culverhouse, Rob Newman, we were just all tipping on the other edge and going downward on our career. I feel sorry for Dixie that he probably caught that aspect of it. It would have taken a brave man at that time, but that probably cost us something as a club. He should probably have let five or six of us go at the time but he kept us all on. Mike had spoken to Sutty and myself about going to Everton, because of what had gone on people were trying to grab us. And because of that it was a little bit more unsettled, and Dixie caught all of that.”
It was a downward spiral City couldn’t recover from. An ageing team started the 1994-95 season relatively well, but injury to Bryan Gunn left them without the experience to organise a leaking defence. Deehan departed with a handful of games to go, with Gary Megson taking over an impossible task. Norwich found themselves in the second tier for the first time in the best part of a decade.
Martin O’Neill was the man tasked to ensure City were indeed only “on loan to the Endsleigh”, but his fall-out with Chairman Chase meant Megson was back in charge by the end of the season. Megson told Crook he was free to leave in the summer of 1996. With Crook’s options limited for family reasons, this was quite the summer transfer saga. A deal was done, and Crook was pictured holding the blue and white shirt of Ipswich.
“I’m not proud of that. I’m standing in Suffolk now so I can’t be too loud. But I hope what people understand is my love for Norwich, not just the football club, but my love for Norwich as a place was probably the reason for (nearly) going to Ipswich. When Meggy had said to me ‘we’re gonna give you a free’ I’d said ‘fine’. I spoke to my wife and said ‘what are we gonna do?’ The only thing she said is, ‘I don’t want to move from here’. My eldest was gonna be going to Gresham’s [School] and all we wanted to do was stay in Norwich. So it really limited my options on where I wanted to go.
I went and met Barry Fry, at Peterborough, so we’re talking two leagues below, and I’d had offers from other clubs in the Premier League but it was all about staying in Norwich. So George Burley rang, and I’ve gotta say he was a gentleman, and it was something where there wasn’t a lot of other options – it was either that or Peterborough. I didn’t want to be a player who shifted down the divisions just to get a game, so they made an offer and the offer was fine. A mate of mine who was a season ticket holder said, ‘You can’t do it, you just cannot do this’. I said to him, ‘Yeah, but you have to understand about my family’. He went to me, ‘No, I don’t care, you cannot do it, you just can’t do it’.”
Enter a returning Mike Walker, who was back for a second stint at Carrow Road, and clearly wanted Crook’s magic to recreate the feel-good factor around the club.
“On the day with Mike coming back it was just so weird. If it was in today’s day and age where we have USB chargers in the car it would never have happened, I’d never have signed for Ipswich because Mike would have called me on the way down. I would have turned the car back round and re-signed for Norwich and nothing would have happened – but in those days the phones were as big as shoes and it died.
Then we went away on holiday and Mike got hold of me, he just said to me, ‘Do you want to stay here’, and I said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t want to go’. We just made a decision that there was a loophole in regards to the transfer registration, which today we’d have never got away with as it’s all done online. It gave us a loophole to work on and I’m obviously delighted it worked out the way it did and I was able to come back.
It wasn’t an easy one – but it was only because of our love of Norwich as a place. I see players when I come back over, I went to watch Wroxham last year and Simon Lappin was there, Holty was there, and Adam Drury – Iwan Roberts is still here, Flecky was the same. It’s a beautiful place to live and bring up a family.”
Despite the Crook family’s love for Norfolk, his career would see him take in the sights of Japan only a year later, completing a switch to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
“I’m gonna be truthful, [the move] was purely down to money. Mike had spoken to me about signing another deal [at Norwich] and getting involved in the coaching. I’d done a couple of bits with Keith Webb and the youth team at the time, I was starting to look into that side of it more because I knew the playing side was coming to a halt at some stage. But I could earn in Japan three times what I could in one year here and then come back. I actually spoke to the club about coming back after that year and that was all fine, so my wife and kids stayed here and then used to come over in the holidays. And then of course Australia came up, and that was 21 years ago! It’s been a bit of a journey.”
That journey consisted of a number of managerial jobs Down Under, but his name was always in the frame for the manager’s job back in Norwich. It was clearly part of his plan, but it just didn’t quite come off and left him seeking to change his career’s trajectory.
“There was one time where the club actually flew me here. It was a big secret. I think I was only in Norwich for two days. The club I was with at the time, Sydney FC, they didn’t even know I’d come over. I flew in and met Delia at her house in London. I met with Neil Doncaster and Dave Stringer, it was quite a cast there. I went and quickly saw my mum and dad then got on a flight the next day and I thought I had the job, I thought it was pretty much nailed on. Then I got home, I remember going to sleep and I woke up to a text message from Neil Doncaster saying I’d been very, very close but they’d given the job to Peter Grant. On the plane back home everything I was doing was making plans for coming back and actually doing the job. That was probably the most disappointing time of my career to not get that.
That’s when my whole coaching thing changed. I’d always looked at Norwich as the pinnacle for me, I always wanted to come back and coach, well, manage the first team. It didn’t happen and I made a decision then that was it, I wasn’t going through all that again – I was going to look to work more as an assistant or in the youth.”
Crook picked himself up and worked as Pierre Littbarski’s assistant in the Japanese second tier before taking himself back to the A-League. The lure of home was never far from his mind though, and he returned to Carrow Road as part of Bryan Gunn’s ill-fated management team.
“That was out of nowhere. There was a lot of talk and I remember at the time Neil Doncaster rung me, but I’d sort of set my stall out as being a coach or an assistant out here [in Australia]. Then Gunny rang me to ask if I’d be interested in coming back with him. It was going to be myself, Dion Dublin and Gunny. I was to coach and Gunny would manage with Dion.
Then Dion couldn’t do it for some reason, I think he had a deal with Sky or something to do with his coaching, so Ian Butterworth came in. Butts was probably more like me, and so he kind of took on more of the coaching than I did. He took over from that role and I ended up doing more work with the reserve boys, which I enjoyed.”
Gunn couldn’t keep City from being relegated to League One. “What you’ve got to understand is at the time Gunny was working at the club but had never coached, never managed – and was thrown into a big job, his first job and a big ask. I feel sorry for Gunny. The squad was also not one of the strongest, and there wasn’t a lot of confidence. I’m gonna say this in the nicest possible way, but the club was a little bit of a holiday camp when I came back. It felt like anybody could just stroll into the training ground, and the place was abuzz all the time, but not really as professional as I thought it would be.”
With Gunn removed in bastardly fashion by then Chief Executive David McNally, Paul Lambert invited Crook to stay on as part of his management team.
“To be fair to Lambert and Cully, they turned it around and we became a professional club again. The training ground was then a place to train and work, not for any Tom, Dick and Harry to come in and have a bite to eat and have a laugh with the boys. That wasn’t what it was about.”
With promotion back to the Championship sealed, Crook felt it was a fitting time to part ways, again for the sake of his family.
“That was something I won’t ever forget, it was a really nice way (to end it). All through this the club had spoken to all three of us about signing new deals, but it got to a point where it was either family or football. I’d always put the football first and it was probably a time where I needed to do the opposite. So I spoke to Paul Lambert and said ‘gaffer, I’ve really enjoyed it but I can’t stay.’ I’d actually made the decision about halfway through the year – but it was great to finish it up that way.”
Midway through the remarkable renaissance, Crook’s time was done. His time at Norwich City has been rollercoasteresque, but throughout his description of events he retains an affectionate tone for a club which feels like ‘his’.
His contribution to the yellow and green meant Hall of Fame status was inevitable. This midfield pass-master will go down as one of the greats – his like will rarely be seen again.
This interview originally featured in issue 2 of our print fanzine, which is still available in limited numbers here
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