Norwich City’s two wins over Bayern Munich in the 1993-94 UEFA Cup, along with their League Cup victory in 1985, will forever be held up by Canaries fans who can remember both as the zenith of their supporting lives.
As the Premier League turns 25, Tom Simmonds looks back at the Norwich side who created waves in that first season and their predecessors who laid the foundations for that team to burn brightly.
Carrow Road was a generally a happy place in the mid-to-late 1980s, though the joy that came with winning the club’s first piece of silverware – the League Cup in 1985 courtesy of a 1-0 win over Sunderland – was tempered by them being relegated in the same season.
A double whammy came in the form of the ban on English clubs from Europe imposed in the aftermath of the Heysel disaster three months later. That team which featured, among others future serial Premier League champion Steve Bruce and future England goalkeeper Chris Woods, managed to bounce straight back by winning the Second Division title in 1985-86.
The platform was set for Norwich to spend a club-record nine seasons in the top flight and, for the most part, royally entertain their fans in the process.
That title win, achieved with a seven-point margin over second-placed Charlton and a whopping goal difference of +47, was enabled by many factors. The retention of Woods and Bruce helped, as did the 22 goals of Kevin Drinkell, signed from Grimsby that summer.
Other new faces such as Mike Phelan (signed from Burnley) and the emergent youth product Dale Gordon, who would become central to the first part of Norwich’s trip to the moon, ensured that some freshness was imbued into a side who bore the stigma of relegation and that the team did not buckle under the weight of being pre-season favourites.Embed from Getty Images
The 1986-87 season was one for the underdog to celebrate in general, with Coventry beating Tottenham to win the FA Cup in what is still, in this writer’s opinion, the best cup final of all time.
Norwich played their part in giving some depth to this narrative by storming to a fifth-place finish in the top flight straight after their return. Some clever transfer dealings by manager Ken Brown laid the foundations for future sides. Out went Woods, who was recruited to Graeme Souness’s English player-heavy overhaul at Rangers and central defender Dave Watson was bought by that season’s champions Everton for then club-record £1 million.
In late October, with City sitting near the top of the table, in came a young Scottish goalkeeper called Bryan Gunn from Aberdeen as the gradual assembling of a squad that would briefly live with and outdo the best continued.
The following season started badly, however, leading to the sacking of Ken Brown, the manager who had delivered the League Cup, promotion and a fifth-placed finish in the preceding three seasons in the November. Playing legend and then youth team manger Dave Stringer took over, steadying the ship before Norwich really started to make waves the year after.
It was the 1988-89 season when Norwich firmly implanted themselves into the nations’ consciousness, when Stringer’s team set up camp in the top four of the First Division all season. They did so by playing a style of one-touch pass and move football that was so beautiful to watch, it drew favourable comparisons with the exhibitions put on by Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side.
As with previous sides, this was not a collection of finished articles put together and expected to function, though their stability did enable them to sign the odd established top-flight player – Southampton midfielder Andy Townsend and pint-sized Rangers forward Robert Fleck (Drinkell went the other way) – for example. Players of this quality, added to the likes the nucleus provided by Gunn, Phelan, centre-back Ian Butterworth and left-back Mark Bowen, completed Stringer’s jigsaw, and the Canaries were about to take flight.
City perhaps benefitted from only using 18 players in the whole season, flew out of the blocks, winning their first four games and only losing twice between August to December as they occupied top spot at Christmas. The crowning glory of this run was a 1-0 win at Anfield just before Christmas, courtesy of Townsend’s goal, which stung the heavy title favourites and led Reds and England forward Peter Beardsley to declare Norwich to be Liverpool’s sternest challengers for the title.
It was all to unravel after a 2-1 away win to relegation-doomed West Ham in late February, as a run of six games without a win, including a 5-0 thumping by eventual champions Arsenal at Highbury, saw their title challenge fall away.
A narrow 1-0 defeat to Everton in the FA Cup semi-final, an irrelevance in the grand scheme of things given it occurred on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, ended the prospect of silverware for the season, though finishing fourth was a highly impressive effort and would have also earned them European football but for the ban.
The summer saw some, but not huge, accretion. Captain Phelan couldn’t resist the lure of linking up with Bruce again and being part of Alex Ferguson’s quest to finally get the league title back to Old Trafford, though the rest of the squad remained largely intact.
Watford midfielder Tim Sherwood was recruited to replace Phelan. While the mind boggles at what the noise levels in the dressing room were like with him and Townsend in it, the team didn’t ever really turn it up to 11 on the pitch in 1989-90.
They scored only 44 times in the league and showed a propensity to ship goals at times, conceding eight times to Southampton alone across two meetings and conceding four goals in five separate games. The finish of 10th place and two early cup exits felt like a regression and the following season was, despite a run to the cup quarter finals, horrible to watch for City fans.
The loss of Townsend to Chelsea for a then British record transfer fee for a midfielder in the summer took a lot of the vim and vigour from their engine room and their defensive problems continued to dog them. A 3-2 opening day win over Sunderland was as good as it got, as they lost six of their next seven games, conceding 15 goals in the process.
The eventual 15th-placed finish they attained was testament to them still being a team who could turn it on when required, but a clear downward spiral was now in place, and worse was to come in 1991-92 as City clung on to an 18th-placed finish in a 22 team division after a horror run of one win in 12 games from early March to the end of the season saw them fall from 10th to 18th.
A run of six straight defeats underpinned this run and, such was the alarming nature of this free fall, it was just as well for Norwich that they ran out of games when they did. Another semi final appearance in the FA Cup was another case of what might have been, as they stuttered to a dull defeat by a Sunderland side – who would surrender to an average Liverpool side on the downswing of their dominant period in the final – a division below them. That the semi-final came smack in the middle of that aforementioned disastrous run of form meant the result was no coincidence.
Stringer decided that his time was up at the end of 1991-92 and the club persevered with their promote from within policy, giving Mike Walker (father of Spurs keeper Ian) the top job. As a complete unknown, outsiders were sceptical as to what Walker could change. His early results completely silenced the sceptics. Powered by the goals of new striker Mark Robins, signed from Manchester United and midfielder Dave Phillips, Norwich won eight of their first 11 league games to top the table in mid October, and they did not vacate the top two until late February.Embed from Getty Images
This was also the season where an exciting youngster by the name of Chris Sutton (who was still undecided as to whether he was a central defender or a centre forward at this stage of his career) emerged, and his eight goals provided a taste of what Norwich fans could expect the season after, when his star really began to ascend.
A tendency to get absolutely thrashed when they did lose (1-7 v Blackburn, 1-4 v Liverpool, 1-5 v Spurs) ensured that the spectre of defensive frailty dogged them even when they were flying high and an over-reliance on Robins, Phillips and Sutton for goals meant their opponents knew where their biggest threats lay. As in 88-89, Norwich were to come up short when faced with the squad depth of the bigger beasts around them.
They got their European adventure this time though, and a 3-0 win over Vitesse Arnhem in the first round set up that famous win over Bayern on their own turf, before they bowed out to Roy Hodgson’s Inter Milan a round later. While things did not go well for Walker during his next move (a disastrous tenure in charge of Everton) and while their achievements from 1985-94 proved to be the club’s glass ceiling in a lot of ways, they also stand as testament to what you would hope a well-run medium- sized club can still hope to achieve even today in the financially doped English league.
Follow Tom on Twitter at @TallulahonEarth