As Bad As Things Got: Norwich City, 8th August 2009
Norwich City have never been much a club for extremes. This is a club of relatively modest ambition which spent the last half century bobbing between the top two divisions, never quite able to entrench themselves as a top flight club, but at the same time feeling a little too big for the second tier. As such, the highs have seldom been too high, and the lows have never been too low.
If there was a golden period, this came from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. Their only major trophy came with the 1985 League Cup, but this was accompanied by relegation from the First Division. They were promoted back the following season as champions, though, and this time they stayed, right the way into the first season of the Premier League, where they finished in third place behind Manchester United and Aston Villa.
This qualified them for the following season’s UEFA Cup, where they beat Vitesse Arnhem over two legs and then, famously, Bayern Munich away from home before losing to Internazionale. It remains their only season of European football, but manager Mike Walker quit the club in January 1994 for Everton and the club was relegated from the Premier Leaguethe following year. They returned for a solitary season a decade later, but were otherwise a solid, mid-table second-tier club.
Managerial hysteria had never been that much a part of the culture of the club. Norwich only had three managers – John Bond, Ken Brown, and Dave Stringer – between November 1973 and May 1992, and even at the turn of this century Nigel Worthington managed the club for six years. The decline, however, started in the middle of the last decade. They finished one place off the bottom of the Premier League in 2005, and from there on every end of season was incrementally worse than the year before’s. Ninth, sixteenth and seventeenth, under Peter Grant and then Glenn Roeder, who left in the middle of January 2009, with Norwich sliding towards League One.
Roeder’s replacement was a cri de couer. Bryan Gunn had a very special relationship with Norwich City. The goalkeeper had played almost 500 games for the club, and in those big matches in Munich and Milan. And the relationship had an emotional edge, due to the death of Gunn’s two year old daughter Francesca from leukaemia during the 1992/93 season. The reaction he received before his first game in charge against Barnsley was described as “euphoric”, and Norwich won 4-0. He was appointed the manager until the end of the season a couple of days later.
From there on, though, Norwich’s form was, if anything, even worse than it had been under Roeder. Norwich failed to win in the league again until the start of March, when they suddenly went on a brief upswing, winning three and drawing one of their five games. They won only one further league game throughout the second half of the season, and were relegated on the last day, after getting beaten by Charlton Athletic by four goals to two. It was the first time the club had been in the third tier since the 1959/60 season. Still, though, the club made Gunn’s appointment permanent, and the nostalgia was cranked up still further that summer by the appointment of fellow former players Ian Butterworth and Ian Crook as backroom staff. The wave of optimism continued. The club sold 19,000 season tickets, that summer.
There were, however, reasons to question the decisions being made by the club at this time. For all the heartstrings being pulled, there wasn’t much experience on the coaching side. Ian Crook’s assistant coaching experience had all come in Australia, with a few games in charge of Western Samoa, while Ian Butterworth’s had come at Darlington, Cardiff, Bristol Rovers and Hartlepool United. Gunn himself had only been the Norwich goalkeeping coach since 2007, and had no other experience. This resulted in a transfer policy that looked scattergun (though it did bring the popular striker Grant Holt in from Shrewsbury Town), but pre-season results did seem to vindicate the optimists, with six wins and a draw from seven matches.
The league season started at Carrow Road, against Colchester United. Ipswich Town are Norwich’s great rivals, of course, but the idea of the “Pride of Anglia” stretches beyond merely these two clubs and is real enough to warrant its own Wikipedia page, but the two clubs had only ever played each other 24 times before in the league, as well. This match could hardly be described as a “local derby”, with there being 60 miles between the two cities, but it added a touch of spice on top of Norwich being the big shots from the higher divisions who’d fallen on fallow times. With 19,000 season tickets sold (25,217 turned out in total), the hope was that results would now improve after several seasons of deterioration, and a management team of former supporters, led by a manager who became a club legend as a manager.
Within twenty-five minutes, though, Norwich were four goals down. Grant Holt, making his league debut for them that day, later said, “We played quite well for the first ten minutes.” That’s how long it took for the tone of the afternoon to be set, when right-back John Otsemobor woefully under-hit a lobbed backpass which goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos also misjudged, allowing Colchester’s Kevin Lisbie to nip in and roll the ball into an empty goal. Three minutes later, Lisbie’s shot was blocked by Theoklitos, only for the ball to roll out to Clive Platt, who rolled the ball into another empty goal.
Things went from bad to worse. After nineteen minutes, Platt scored his second from close range after the entire Norwich defence allowed a low cross to squeeze across the six yard area between them. Three minutes after this, a David Cox free-kick from 25 yards made it four. This torrent receded, but there was still time before half-time for Lisbie, as though to rub salt in the wounds a former Ipswich player, to head his second from close range. A couple of supporters got onto their pitch. Two threw their season tickets at Gunn. This wasn’t what they’d paid all that money for. It was 5-0 at the break.
It’s not saying much to suggest that things at least got better for Norwich in the second half. They seemed to contain the Colchester forwards for a while, and with eighteen minutes to play Cody McDonald broke through on the right to pull a goal back. This was a brief respite, though. Four minutes later, David Perkins scored a sixth goal for Colchester, and the trickle towards the exits that had started around the time of the fourth goal became a flood. In stoppage-time, Scott Vernon scored from close range with the Norwich defence having all but given up. Colchester had won by seven goals to one. It was the first time that they’d conceded seven goals in a match in seventeen years, and their heaviest ever home defeat. At the final whistle, those who had stayed behind made their feelings on what they’d witnessed very clear indeed.
After the match, Gunn said, “I’m big enough to know how unhappy the fans are and it’s up to me, the coaching staff and the players to apologise and most importantly, make sure it never happens again this season.” Bryan Gunn as the Norwich City manager was an idea that everybody wanted to work, but the evidence had clearly mounted that he wasn’t the man for this job. The following Tuesday Norwich travelled to Somerset to play Yeovil Town in the first round of the League Cup. Supporters may have been forgiven fearing the worst when the two teams went in at half-time with the score goal-less, but the second half saw Grant Holt score his first goal – and, within 26 minutes, his first hat-trick – for his new club as they cruised to a comfortable 4-0 win.
What happened next was a demonstration of the power imbalances that can occur between clubs, even in the same division. Bryan Gunn held onto his job until the following Friday, when he was sacked by the club, whose statement read: “Bryan has worked tirelessly for this football club for more than two decades, not least since taking over team affairs back in January. However the board met this week following Saturday’s unacceptable record home defeat in our opening league game of the season.” Ian Butterworth took over for the following day’s match at Exeter City, which they drew 1-1, and the following Tuesday they lost again, this time 2-1 at Brentford.
This was Butterworth’s last game as temporary manager. The day before their next match, at home against Wycombe Wanderers, it was confirmed that the architect of the final act of Gunn’s downfall, the Colchester United manager Paul Lambert, would be taking over as the Norwich manager, taking his entire backroom staff with him. Needless to say, Colchester United were very angry about this, and issued a statement in which they confirmed that they had initially refused Norwich permission to talk to Norwich after compensation negotiations broke down, but that Lambert had subsequently resigned his position anyway. In his first match in charge, Norwich beat Wycombe 5-2.
Norwich City won the League One championship at the end of that season, finishing six points clear of second placed Leeds United. It took Lambert a little while to get into gear – they went four matches without a win in September – but only lost seven further matches throughout the rest of the season and one of those defeats was on the last day, with the title already sewn up. The following season they finished as runners-up in the Championship and were promoted, a season which included a derby win that did mean something, a 5-1 win against Ipswich Town at Portman Road as that second successive promotion started to come into view. After a mid-table finish in the Premier League in 2012, Paul Lambert left to join Aston Villa. His reputation as a manager would never fully recover from his time at Villa Park.
But was the result of this one match on the opening day of the 2009/10 season an aberration, or was it an accident that was waiting in plain sight to happen? It has been suggested that Bryan Gunn had to be cajoled into accepting the Norwich manager’s job on a temporary basis in the first place, and Norwich’s results throughout the second half of their relegation season in 2009 didn’t really merit him being offered the job on a permanent basis. Gunn, somewhat ironically, has confirmed himself that he would not have accepted the job on a permanent basis had he kept them up, and that he only took it because he considered the relegation a wrong that he should have to attempt to right. There’s a lesson to be learned in all of this about thinking with the heart rather than the head throughout this story. He hasn’t worked in any coaching capacity since, though he does now work as an agent. His son Angus, meanwhile, is playing occasional Premier League football for Southampton.
Things being as bad as they got is, of course, relative, and Norwich City supporters should perhaps be grateful for the fact that their club has always been run as a fairly tight financial ship. The potential is there for losses to rise as high as £35m this summer (to put the disparity between the Premier League and the Championship into sharp focus, their entire turnover for last season was £33.7m), but even including these, parachute payments would ensure that they’d still be financially advantaged in comparison with most Championship clubs next season should they be relegated this time around.
But on that sunny Saturday afternoon in August 2009, it must have felt as though the sky was falling in. Norwich’s strategy throughout that period seemed partly governed by blind optimism, and the peak of that optimism was kick-off on the first day of the following season, when a coaching team with little experience led by a man who’d demonstrated throughout the second half of the previous season that he probably wasn’t the man for this job took their team out in a Premier League stadium, in front of a 25,000 crowd, and had seven goals put past them by a team who, in their last meeting two seasons earlier, they’d beaten 5-1. It took a little hard-headedness and dropping the sentimentality to get the Norwich City back on track. It was a decision that turned out well for everybody, as things turned out.