It takes, it might be argued, a special type of football club chairman to persuade the supporters of Norwich City to violent demonstration. In the first months of 1996, however, one man managed to achieve this, and that man’s name was Robert Chase. A local builder, Chase arrived at Carrow Road in the early 1980s at a time when the financial fortunes of many football clubs in England were about as low as they could be. By the time that he left the club in the middle of the following decade, however, the fortunes of those at the top of the game had been changed forever by the arrival of television deals that would have been considered unthinkable just a decade before they came to pass. Yet by the time of his departure, and despite having had their most successful league season ever in the very first season of the Premier League, by the time of his departure Norwich City seemed headed towards a desperate financial state.
So, how did this all come about? Robert Chase was invited to join the board of directors of the club in 1982, and three years later after a boardroom putsch which saw the previous chairman Sir Arthur South, senior partner of the Norwich Fur Company, a former Lord Mayor of the city and Labour councillor, replaced over a row concerning the redevelopment of a stand which had burned down a year earlier (Chase would later demonstrate just how in touch he was with ordinary football supporters by saying of its replacement that, “Coming to a football match within the City Stand is very much like going to the theatre – the only difference being that our stage is covered with grass”), Chase was in charge. A couple of years, with Chase in full control of the club, the author D.J. Taylor would, for the magnificent football anthology My Favourite Year, the memorably describe a public meeting called after the final departure of South and manager Ken Brown towards the end of 1987:
They held a hastily convened emergency general meeting at St Andrew’s Hall, with the skinheads outside chanting “Robert Chase is a homosexual” – its proceedings rendered irrelevant in advance by the fact that Mr Chase already owned most of the voting shares. Highlight of the gathering was an impassioned speech from the floor by an elderly woman decked out in yellow and green favours. “What I want to know,” she demanded, fixing her gaze on the Chase satrapy, “is who are yer?‘ It was a good question. Nobody, eyeing Mr Chase and his line of sheepish cohorts, seemed to know the answer. Mr Chase remained impassive, like some trade union baron in the old, or perhaps not so old, Tammany Hall days, happily aware that he will get his way despite the squeakings from the gallery.
The sudden departure of Brown – who, in seven years, had brought the likes of Martin O’Neill, Dave Watson, Steve Bruce, Chris Woods, Keith Bertschin, John Deehan, Mike Channon, Ian Crook, Mike Phelan and Bryan Gunn to the club – and his replacement with Dave Stringer coupled with the manner of Chase’s boardroom manoeuvrings might have set the club up for a fall, but then something rather surprising happened. Norwich City started winning matches. A lot of matches. After finishing the 1987/88 season in fourteenth place in Division One – not earth-shattering, but clear of the relegation places at least – in September of the following season they went to Old Trafford and beat Manchester United to go top of the First Division table, a position they would hold almost without losing it until the end of the year. The team faded – it would win just one of its last nine league matches of the season while their FA Cup run would end in defeat in the semi-finals at the hands of Everton – but its finish in fourth place in the final table, behind Arsenal, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, was still the best in its history at that time.
Norwich’s class of ’89 broke up over the next year or so, a pattern that would become wearyingly familiar to the club’s supporters over the next five or six years or so. Captain Mike Phelan went to Manchester United, striker Malcolm Allen to Millwall, Andy Townsend to Aston Villa and defender Trevor Putney to Middlesbrough. Norwich City reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup again in 1992, but the team only narrowly avoided relegation and Dave Stringer resigned his position at the end of the season. His replacement, Mike Walker, took the club into the first season of the Premier League with a hint of trepidation in the air, but his team won at Arsenal on the opening day of the season and the uneasy cold war that existed between the supporters of the club and its chairman fell into another period of relative detente as the team kept winning and, although the team would eventually fade again – the tipping point in terms of Walker’s team’s chance of winning the title came in front of the cameras of Sky Sports in April 1993 when Manchester United ripped into Norwich at Carrow Road with three early goals to end their chances of actually lifting the first Premier League title – they beat their record of four years earlier by finishing in third place in the table.
The team that Mike Walker built broke up too, of course. This was a pattern that was becoming all too apparent to many Norwich supporters, but this time – in spite of a famous UEFA Cup win in the Olympic Stadium against Bayern Munich the following season – there would be no more highs, only further lows. Walker, who had tolerated Chase rather than working with him after Chase sold yet another player, Robert Fleck, behind his back not long after his appointment in 1992, jumped ship to go to Everton in January 1994 and from here on the rot well and truly set in. John Deehan was promoted from the coaching staff to replace Walker and seemed to be getting on reasonably well, but at the start of 1995 his team suddenly went into free-fall and at the end of the season Norwich City were relegated back to the second tier of English football for the first time since 1986. Next into the hot seat at Carrow Road was Martin O’Neill.
O’Neill, a former Norwich player, had received rave reviews for his work with Wycombe Wanderers but had been careful not to leave the club at the earliest available opportunity. He later revealed that he had been warned by a Norwich coach and personal friend, Mel Machin, “don’t go, because you won’t get on with Mr Chase”, but didn’t take any notice of this advice. In spite of a promising start on the pitch (he would win twelve and lose just five of his twenty-six matches in charge of the club), O’Neill broke his contract with Norwich to leave for Leicester City in November 1995 after a disagreement over the signing of the striker Dean Windass. Gary Megson, who had managed the club to relegation at the end of the previous season on a temporary basis after Deehan resigned in the April, took over again but could only manage a fifteenth place finish and he was replaced the following summer.
By the time of Megson’s departure, though, Robert Chase had also finally been forced out of Carrow Road. Attitudes towards Chase on the part of supporters had ranged between some degree of suspicion and outright loathing, but protests had been growing for some time throughout the 1994/95 season which culminated and one supporter being injured and a policewoman slightly hurt after the police broke up an angry but reportedly peaceful protest outside the ground after a home league match against Liverpool at the end of the 1994/95 season. By February of the following year, the Norwich City Independent Supporters Association had collected ten thousand signatures to a petition calling for his removal as the team stagnated in Division One of the Football League. By this time, the club was an estimated £8m in debt in spite of having sold £10m worth of players in the previous year, whilst the only serious investment that had taken place had been in Carrow Road itself and on a new training ground, as well as on other, more trivial matters such as a match day radio station, a fleet of cars, and new carpets for the boardroom – things which might not matter unless there is a protest brewing against your club over a lack investment in the playing side of it.
As the years of passed, former players have also revealed themselves to be critical of Chase’s modus operandum in the transfer market. In his autobiography, former player Kevin Drinkell expressed his anger at being denied a move to Tottenham Hotspur in the late 1980s after Chase first accepted and then rejected two separate bids from Spurs for the player before pushing the valuation so high that Spurs walked away from the deal. Meanwhile in his autobiography, former striker Chris Sutton described how he was coerced into attending a press conference stating that he would stay at Carrow Road unless a club came up with £5m for him in the summer of 1994 after he had already agreed terms and signed a contract with Blackburn Rovers. Perhaps it was this feeling of low level dishonesty – was Chase merely trying to extract a little more money out of the Sutton sale, or was he merely trying to save face, having said that he would resign his position if Sutton wasn’t at the club for the start of the 1995/96 season in spite of having secretly already having agreed to sell him? – which led to the degree of distrust on the part of many, who would regard the club’s achievements under his control as being down to its respective managers but the subsequent failures as being down to him.
The Chris Sutton debacle proved to fatally hole Chase’s credibility amongst a large proportion of the club’s support and the writing was on the wall regarding his departure from the club for most of the 1995/96 season. With two bidders, local businessman Harry Serruys and a second consortium, publicly expressing an interest in buying it, Chase issued a challenge for potential buyers with £10m in their pockets to come forward, but both of these bids came to nothing when Chase refused to provide detailed club accounts, stating that, rather than selling the club itself, he was only selling his shares in it. Chase still only owned 30% of the shares in the club. By February of 1996, vice-chairman Jimmy Jones was calling for an EGM in order to clear the increasingly toxic air that was hanging over Carrow Road. Chase, however, finally left at the end of the 1995/96 season after selling his shareholding to Geoffrey Watling, who had been the club’s chairman between 1957 and 1973, had been instrumental in saving the club during a financial crisis in 1957 and was by that time the club president. Watling, who died in 2004, would subsequently sell his shares in the club to Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones.
In the years since his departure from the club, Robert Chase has come to split opinion amongst the supporters of Norwich City. Some have come to regard him as very positive for the club, with the success that occurred on the pitch in 1989 and 1993 and the redevelopment of the club’s facilities counting in his favour, but others would counter that the ground improvements were something which would have had to happen regardless of who was running the club, that Chase never quite took on board that running a football club is not the same as running any other sort of business, and that a strong of popular and successful or potentially successful managers left the club because they were unable to work with him. Perhaps the most convincing explanation for Chase’s failure is that he failed to see how significant the changes that were coming with the introduction of the Premier League in 1992, and this is perhaps something that Chase himself has come to recognise. In an interview with Anglia News in 2006, Chase stated that, “I think the only thing I would have done differently is to have gone six months or a year earlier.” Supporters of a club that would enjoy just one season of top flight football over the sixteen years after the end of it’s control might be inclined to agree with him on that, at least.
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