In which we return to the hallowed expanses of Nick Hayhoe's 2003/04 memory palace. An uneventful August is swept aside for September, when the arrival of a future legend literally changes the game.
This was the month it really started. Because Norwich signed a player on loan who would go on to be the best player. My favourite ever player.
Up to a point, every Norwich season for me will forever be benchmarked against 03/04. Every game, every point, every player. My head ticks: “how does this compare to 03/04?”. There’s 11/12 (the first year I know of us staying up) and 18/19 (I don’t need to explain this one), both up there with the seminal seasons, naturally. But the value of also being 12 years old at the time adds layers of unconscious recall that go beyond mere memory.
Like a negative afterimage you see when closing your eyes very tight, there is 03/04
It sounds daft to say, but at the time, such was the development of my trademark fragile self-awareness, I genuinely thought to myself: “this is the first time I am experiencing this and I must remember it properly.” And so it proved, like a negative afterimage you see when closing your eyes very tight, there is 03/04.
A two week international break started September 2003. This was the middle of the England ‘Golden Generation’ era, where several decades’ giddy belief in the best collective of England players created a chronic fear of failure, which begat actual failure, then a dizzying resentment towards the national team that took Gareth Southgate and a bunch of Happy Lovely Boys to quell. For the record, England scraped two Euro 2004 qualifying wins 2-1 away at Macedonia and 2-0 at Old Trafford against alpine, dentistry and tax evasion aces Liechtenstein – much to the adulation of the British tabloid press. I remember little of both.
During this time, ITV Anglia News revealed that Norwich City had signed three players on loan, who were now juggling some footballs in their stonewashed jeans at Colney. I’d never heard of them. They weren’t on FIFA 2003 at least. From Aston Villa, Peter Crouch who was (as is obligatory to say) very tall; Kevin Harper from Portsmouth, who I now always confuse with Kevin Cooper (similar names, similar games played); and Darren Huckerby from Manchester City who had a cool hairdo of bleached blonde tips and styling glue (as was the style at the time).
Iwan Roberts wrapped the game up in stoppage time after Huckerby exploded down the left, all parachuting shirt and tip-toes
Come that Saturday, both started against Burnley at home and all three made huge impacts, with Crouch scoring the opening Norwich goal after Hooper missed an excellent chance in the first half. Iwan Roberts wrapped the game up in stoppage time after Huckerby exploded down the left, all parachuting shirt and tip-toes and passed the striker for an easy finish. It was literally the start of a beautiful friendship that the two maintain to this day.
Mid-week saw a hop over to the Medway for a game against Gillingham. Damien Francis scored a rocket in the first half to give Norwich the lead only for another Robert Green blunder (see last month for further details), allowing Gillingham to pull one back. Crouch scored again early in the second half from a Huckerby to Harper to Crouch move that was finished right in front of the away support who were situated at Priestfields in what, according to the season review DVD, can only be described as one of the temporary stands you see at a golf tournament.
Next up was Stoke away, which was on telly, and Norwich wore the Lotus green away shirt, of which I would later own. Lucky as I was as a child, we had Sky Sports and I remember getting worked up about a handball call for a penalty that should have been given but wasn’t and my Mum and Dad telling me to sit down as they were eating their tea. Naturally, my frustration likely turned intense when Stoke scored the opener from some Bad Norwich City Defending®. I don’t remember the Norwich goal, which I now regret as it was the first for my all-time favourite Norwich player. Hardly a wonderstrike, the ball just fell to Huckerby after a bit of hapless Stoke defending and he slotted it past, *checks notes*, Ed de Goey in the Stoke goal. De Goey would make an excellent late save to deny Norwich the three points (nothing like a player who also played in the 1994 World Cup Finals to turn up here to date the piece).
The Palace game at home had a bizarre start, in that Gary Holt nearly scored in the opening minute before the ball went up the other end and Shuan Derry walloped home a stunner in front of a bemused Barclay. On 38 minutes, Huckerby, in that left wing position we remember him – usually with two nearby defenders looking like hapless members of the Washington Generals – raced into the box and won what was most certainly, 100% definitely, absolutely a penalty. And not a dive as some Crystal Palace players politely suggested to the referee. Naturally, he scored it himself. Phil Mulryne bagged the winner with an excellent effort from outside the box… Yes. Mulryne. Not Mackay. I know it says Mackay but if he touched that ball then I am still 12 years old.
In trying to open a particularly stubborn packet of Skittles, I succeed in ripping the bag apart
Tuesday saw another game at home against Reading, and I was at this one. Lower River End, right behind the goal to see Greeno give me the thumbs up. Unless I am muddling my memories, this was also the game in which, in trying to open a particularly stubborn packet of Skittles, I succeed in ripping the bag apart with such force they all flew over the people in front.
Norwich were now an absolutely lethal attacking force, with Huckerby naturally scoring the opener – a volley from just outside the six-yard box. A Mackay defensive error (again, Bad Norwich City Defending®), allowed Nicky Forster to run in behind and tuck it home. This led to something of a nervy second half where I seem to remember Peter Crouch doing a proto-Josh Sargent against Brighton and not hitting towards an empty net with enough force. But what is a great season if not for a few late winners? As time trickled away on that old black and yellow scoreboard, incredible box-to-box work from Paul McVeigh saw him in enough space to have a crack, and the ball took a chef’s kiss of a deflection off a Reading defender to loop into the net.
Of a possible 15, 13 points cancelling out an iffy August. Fourth in the league. Worthington Manger of the Month. Cue the e-i-e-i-e-i-os. Up the football league we go.
And boy, did the good times keep rolling.
13 September / Norwich City 2 – 0 Burnley
16 September / Gillingham 1 – 2 Norwich City
20 September / Stoke City 1 – 1 Norwich City
27 September / Norwich City 2 – 1 Crystal Palace
30 September / Norwich City 2 – 1 Reading
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