James Chaplin returns with his Premier Manager series. Having won an unlikely Division 1 and FA Cup double, how will City fare in the top-flight? Dwindling budgets and soaring expectations, coupled with levels of touchline bravado that will inspire Jose in a few short years, this could be a rollercoaster.
Didier Deschamps lifts the World Cup at the Stade de France on a warm Sunday evening, but more importantly the very next day I am back at Carrow Road to have a meeting with the board of directors ahead of our Premier League return. Delia and Michael tell me that the club has a budget of roughly £5m for the year and their expectations are suitably low; European success. I nearly fall off my chair when they tell me this. Just twelve months earlier my brief was to avoid relegation into the third tier of English football and now they want European success? I’m glad that the board share my ambition and I know I’m good but, that seems a stretch even for me.
The following week I bring the lads back in for a meeting to discuss the upcoming season and to assess fitness levels. I make it clear that I’m expecting there to be a high turnover of players and that each and every one of them is going to have to show me they can make the step up if we are going to come close to getting any kind of European success. David Ginola is understandably buzzing. Chris Llewellyn cracks a joke in Welsh to Craig Bellamy and I’m furious. Llewellyn is released without making a senior appearance and ends up at Wigan in Division 2.
The transfer merry-go-round gets off to a bright start with Southend stumping up £1.6m for Erik Fugelstad. The deal is too good to turn down. Shortly afterwards Shaun Carey is flogged to Walsall for £300k in what I can only assume is a moment of madness from the Midlands club. Still in recovery from his second broken leg in less than a year, I accept an offer of a mere £8k (EIGHT) for Peter Grant from Northampton Town. I make it clear to the Scot that he is no longer wanted and he hobbles away.
With the best part of an extra £2m filling up the coffers, I go looking for bargains in the transfer market and boy do I find one. Fresh from not being selected to play in France for England, Middlesbrough have put one Paul Gascoigne on the transfer market and they accept my bid of £900k for a player they signed for £3.5m three months earlier. I meet with Paul to discuss terms and I make it clear to him that he will be given the freedom to express himself on the pitch if he can restrain himself off it. He agrees and seems excited to move to a city far away from the bright lights of London and the fog on the Tyne.
Andy Marshall has found himself going from first to third choice keeper in less than a year and requests a move. I’m reluctant to let him go at first, but when Northampton Town make an offer of £600k on the eve of a pre-season tour of Italy I bid the young keeper farewell. The tour is a mixed bag. A heavy defeat to Juventus is followed by a hard fought draw with Lazio. Back in the UK, we lose to Premiership Champions Liverpool, before Adrian Forbes stakes a claim for a starting place with a hat-trick against Cambridge United in the last friendly. Unfortunately skipper Colin Calderwood and full-back David Bardsley pick up knocks that will see them miss the start of the season.
For the first time in the club’s history, Norwich take part in the Charity Shield. The curtain raiser is against Liverpool and I feel a huge amount of pride leading the team out at a Wembley final for the second time in three months. The lads put a shift in and the game ends goalless. We come off second best in the subsequent penalty shootout, with Iwan Roberts missing the decisive penalty.
I’m finding it tough to sign players that can improve the squad. Essentially the common issue is that players of real quality don’t believe that Norwich are a big enough club for them. With an average attendance of just 13,000, can anyone really blame David Platt for deciding to stay at Arsenal? Possibly most disappointing is Leicester City’s striker Ian Marshall claiming that he wants to play at a higher standard of football. With Gascoigne and John Beresford the only real summer signings of note, we head to Old Trafford. The first game of our new life in the top flight is away at Manchester United. Brilliant.
The host’s line-up is intimidating. Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Beckham, Keane, Giggs, Cole and Sheringham all start the game. I get the lads focused in the dressing room. I remind them that they have earnt the right to play at grounds like this, against teams like this and I do my best to instil some belief. It works. The lads start the game on the front foot and there is a real zip in the passing. That man again David Ginola opens the scoring after 30 mins, curling in a wonderful effort from the edge of the box. Andy Cole equalises but we go on to win the game 3-1. A statement. Norwich City are top of the league.
The very next day and I’m on the phone to Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough again. Three days later and Paul Merson is being paraded in front of the gathered media at Carrow Road. After Ginola and Reuter, his £2m transfer fee is the third time Norwich have broken their transfer record under my stewardship. Merson is now 30, but has real pedigree and played in France during the summer. I’m confident he is the final piece to this jigsaw. He partners Marco Branca up front with Darren Eadie being relegated to the bench. Darren is disappointed at first, but we win all three of our opening matches and sit two points clear at the top of the Premiership by the end of August. The club and the city as a whole is buzzing.
Eyes turn to Europe. The UEFA Champions League has an unusual format of eight groups, with only group winners going through to the knockout rounds. We are drawn in Group G along with Everton, Borussia Dortmund and Sporting Lisbon. The draw could definitely have been worse for us and I’m optimistic. The first match is away at Lisbon. Eadie and John Polston are the only players in the starting XI who experienced European football with Norwich just five years earlier. The atmosphere is intimidating and a brace from Edmilson sinks us 2-0.
More niggling injuries among my defenders threatens to derail the season before we even get into the autumn and September is a real struggle. The second fixture in the Champions League sees Premiership rivals Everton visit Carrow Road. The game is shown live on Sky Sports and an entertaining encounter ends 2-2 with Paul Merson and Steve Nicol getting the goals. Polston loses his head and is sent off after an hour for a lunge on Duncan Ferguson.
The inconsistent start continues, while club captain Colin Calderwood is only available to make his first appearance in October but needs-must and he is straight back in the side despite not yet being fully fit. Player-Manager Gianluca Vialli gets the goals for Chelsea which knock us out of the Coca-Cola Cup in the second round. I’m called into a meeting with the board of directors and they make it clear that they are not happy with how things are going. The EDP gets hold of this information and it is splashed all over the local media. I work on team bonding during the week and the lads do me proud in the next game, hammering defending Champions Liverpool 3-0.
Borussia Dortmund visit Norfolk for the first time in their history and are sent back to Germany with tails firmly between their legs. Polston and Branca get the goals in a famous 2-1 win for City. Annoyingly, the Champions League is well behind the times and the reward is just two points rather than three. At the halfway stage of the first round ourselves, Dortmund and Lisbon are all tied on three points.
Cher’s Believe is number 1 in the charts in November and we are 5th in the league but struggling for goals. Ageing defender Steve Nicol is currently top scorer with just 4 goals. There is hope that we have turned that particular corner on a European night at Goodison Park which will live long in the memory. Gascoigne and Stefan Reuter get their first goals of the season, with Bardsley, Matt Jackson, Merson and Ginola completing the rout in a 6-1 victory. After drawing with Lisbon, the final group game against Dortmund is a winner take all pressure cooker. An electric night at the Westfalenstadion sees a thrilling end-to-end encounter take place. Reuter scores against his old club, but Matthias Sammer and Andreas Möller get one each to take the win and the group. It’s a disappointing result, but the experience will do wonders for the squad and my coaching team. I share a drink with Michael Skibbe after the game and we develop a mutual respect.
Elsewhere in the Champions League and there are shocks everywhere. Chelsea and Read Madrid go out of Group D, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid go out of Group F and Liverpool can’t get out of Group E. No British club makes it to the knockout stages.
My philosophy of buying proven veterans sees the average age of the squad rise to 32. The lack of summer signings starts to show when Gascoigne breaks his leg just before Christmas. It’s a real hammer blow and although we are 6th in the league, it is incredibly tight and I’m feeling the pressure. Ginola is again top scorer, but goals are still tough to come by. The signings of Merson and Branca have not gone how I expected and they are both struggling with confidence. Despite losing three of their best players to us in the last two years, Middlesbrough somehow find themselves top of the league in early January.
I take the squad away for some warm weather training to southern Spain. The goals go flying in during training and Craig Bellamy is revelling in an attacking midfield role. Peter Beardsley’s ageing legs have struggled to keep up all season, but he is passing on great knowledge to the young Welshman. I leave Adrian Coote at home and we are finally able to reach an agreement with cancelling his contract. I hear later that he joined non-league Hartlepool United and settled into life in their reserve team.
The week away does the squad the power of good. The first game back is the return fixture with Manchester United. The result is even better at home, with a 4-1 win and Branca’s first goal of the season. United are struggling this season but doing the double over them is a great morale boost. The goals keep coming and we beat Chelsea 5-2 in the FA Cup. Branca trades hat-tricks with Robbie Fowler in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool and by February we are third in the table, three points off Vialli’s Chelsea. Glenn Hoddle is sacked as manager of England and I am installed as third in the bookies list of who will be next manager. It has always been a dream of mine to manage my country, but I am keen to continue with Norwich. In the end the call never comes and Kevin Keegan takes the role.
Darren Eadie and David Bardsley’s seasons both come to an end in the same game in March against Leeds. The forward breaks his ankle, while the defender tears his groin. Injuries to key players has been the story of this season and although things are still tight at the top, the squad is looking threadbare. Defender Mark Wright is the only addition I’m able to make to the squad.
On Good Friday, we go away to Barnsley in a game in which the winner will likely go top of the league. Uncharacteristic defensive errors cost us and goals from Jan-Age Fjortoft and Ashley Ward dump us 2-0. With ten games to go the top 8 teams are separated by just 5 points. We’re 5th. With the attention on the league, what looks like a comfortable FA Cup quarter final against 1st division Wolves goes the other way and we are battered 3-0, with goals from Kevin Muscat, Keith Curle and Geoff Thomas.
The FA Cup exit is followed by back to back 4-0 tonkings from Arsenal and Everton and falling revenue levels see a dramatic drop in board confidence. Our title challenge officially comes to an end in April when three defeats on the bounce leave us 8th with three games to go and 10 points off Tottenham on top. We welcome the league leaders at the end of the month and are now just playing for pride. The lads put in a spirited performance and win 1-0. Second choice right back and former Poland international Dariusz Kubicki get his first goal for the club since signing last season.
Bristol City offer £2.6m for Craig Bellamy but that is nowhere near our valuation. Craig is cool with that. He tells me he loves the club and he doesn’t want to consider a step down. He has been playing very well and has picked up 8 goals from 30 appearances this season. Although the club finances are becoming a bigger issue, I’m not ready to let one of my best young players go just yet.
A stuttering end to the season is rounded off with a typically average 2-2 draw with Coventry. Iwan Roberts gets on the scoresheet in the league for the first time in 12 months. It’s his 15th goal for the club and there is a feeling around the place that it could be his last. We finish 8th in the league, 10 points behind winners Tottenham. Blackburn Rovers are runners up. Former champions Liverpool finish 10th, while Manchester United only just survive relegation, finishing a lowly 16th. Wimbledon, Bolton and Crystal Palace are relegated with all three promoted teams comfortably in mid-table. Ian Marshall never left Leicester and finished up as the Premiership top scorer, followed by Middlesbrough’s Alan Moore and Blackburn’s Chris Sutton.
In the second tier, Newcastle United bounce back up at the first time of asking as champions. Annoyingly Ipswich Town survive being relegated to Division 2 on the last day and there is heartbreak for Reading as they lose their second successive play off final. Portsmouth finish outside the top six but win the FA Cup, following us by winning it from outside the top division.
David Ginola wins the Barry Butler trophy for the second year running. Despite missing a number of games through injury and fitness problems, he was the club’s joint top scorer with 10 goals. Runner up is John Beresford and Daryl Sutch is third.
Towards the end of the season the club is losing around £100k a week and yet I still reject an offer of £2.2m from Coventry for Daryl Sutch. With the fitness problems experienced by Peter Beardsley and Gascoigne this season, Sutch has been a big part of what we have done this year and I can’t bear to let him go.
I have transfer listed most of the players outside of my first choice 16, but no more offers are coming in. By mid-June we are half a million in debt and Delia has been putting the pressure on. I am the most fearful I have ever been of losing my job and I can’t believe it’s because I decided not to sell Daryl Sutch.
Steve Nicol is a big character, but a big earner and he is sold to Nottingham Forest. The sale buys me a few extra days to pull something out of the bag, but the vultures are circling. Then the call comes. It’s Ian Atkins. He has an offer of £3.5m to take Craig Bellamy to Northampton Town. I have no choice but to accept. I speak to Craig face to face and explain the situation and he accepts the move. Craig Bellamy has saved my job.