Football / Fan's Eye View: Call us mellow yellows: No. 29 - Norwich City

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The Independent Online
'IT'S just a big village really,' was how our new striker Mark Robins described the fine city of Norwich recently. How we long-suffering Canaries fans cringed. The visiting armies of big-city teams have taunted us for decades about our rural origins. Now our own No 9 had all but admitted he played for a 'village' team. An exaggeration maybe, but one which the rest of the football world happily subscribes to in its ignorance of NCFC's affairs.

Take Grandstand's Steve Rider, for example. 'There's the Norwich goalscorer, Craig Sutton,' he told viewers in January. Actually Steve, it's Chris not Craig Sutton. But Steve is only one among many pundits who has mistaken Ruel Fox for Darren Beckford, or Jeremy Goss for Lee Power as Norwich have become genuine title contenders this season.

To the fans it's a minor irritant, but to players striving for superstar status, knowing that even Gazza's pal, Jimmy 'Five Bellies' is a bigger football name, must be hard to bear.

It helps explain why the richer and more glamorous clubs have consistently been able to lure away our best players. Norwich fans can only dream of a team that never was: Woods, Phelan, Bruce, Watson, Linighan, Sherwood, Townsend, Gordon, Fashanu, Reeves and Fleck.

Had they stayed, we might have won the trophies which would have brought the crowds flocking back to Carrow Road, and our anthem 'On the Ball City' would have become as famous as 'Blaydon Races'.

Or perhaps not. Our supporters are notoriously passive. At Everton this season, home fans were puzzled by the unusually vocal support from the Norwich end - until it became apparent that most were Sunderland fans whose game at Tranmere had been cancelled.

It was ever thus. Twenty-one years ago, when we won the Second Division championship, our Scottish striker Jim Bone was so disappointed by the lack of atmosphere at home games, he would run to the South Stand terraces and implore the crowd to 'sing up'.

The fans muted response was understandable. Pride in reaching the First Division for the first time was tempered by the fact that everyone else thought our team was boring beyond belief.

They were right. We longed for a Norwich player who could dribble like George Best or shoot like Peter Lorimer. Instead, under Ron Saunders's regime of non-stop running and 100 per cent work-rate, we had to content ourselves with the occasional misdirected bicycle kick from the luckless Bone.

Worse still, a sequence of embarrassing incidents made us look even more like hicks from the sticks: the crossbar collapsed on our goalkeeper, a League Cup semi-final was abandoned when fog descended with only five minutes left as we led 1-0. Then we conceded three own goals and sacked Saunders in one disastrous afternoon.

With John Bond at the helm, we at last acquired a touch of 1970s glamour, and, more importantly, a reputation for stylish football which would outlast his reign. Like the big-name players he signed - Martin Peters, Ted MacDougall and Phil Boyer - Bond was great box-office. His post-match theatricals were as over the top as his flash suits and cigars. Once, memorably, he wept openly on Match of the Day after we lost an eight-goal thriller to Liverpool.

Although Bond was famous for reading the riot act to his players, even he was rendered speechless by the violence which erupted before a home game with Manchester United in 1977. Pre-Bond, the most serious crowd disturbance seen at Carrow Road was an outbreak of cushion throwing in the main stand seats. This was in a different league. United's hooligan army tore apart our beloved Barclay Stand.

Afterwards, the tabloids raged and MPs called for the water cannon. But, in Norfolk, a different inquest took place. The verdict was clear. Some of the biggest troublemakers had been treacherous local yobbos sporting United's colours.

Now, as then, the Red Devils shirt has greater pulling power than the Canary yellow for fans and players alike. Perhaps only a League title will finally win over the unconvinced Norfolk public and prevent the likes of Fox and Sutton from following the same path as Steve Bruce and Mike Phelan. Wouldn't it be a nice irony too, if that former Red Devil, Mark Robins, discovered that a 'village' team can finish first?

Andy Walpole, freelance journalist.