Football: Golden Canary memories

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The Independent Online
A LETTER came the other day that brought back a time before the close proximity of sport to the financial section in national newspapers became appropriate.

It was from Norwich City Football Club requesting my presence on Saturday at a dinner in honour of men whose inspired play in the spring of 1959 almost took a middle-of-the-road Third Division club to the FA Cup final.

By the time Norwich came up against Luton Town in a semi-final at White Hart Lane after remarkable victories over Manchester United, Cardiff City, Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United, they were established as the most accomplished giant-killers in FA Cup history.

Yet such was the state of affairs at Carrow Road three months earlier that the club's manager, Archie Macaulay, a distinguished former Scottish international, was barricaded in his office while disgruntled supporters protested in the street outside.

Norwich's League form was poor, they had struggled to overcome an amateur club, Ilford, in the first round and only just got past Swindon in a home replay.

No wonder that the task - in my first year as a sports reporter - of covering Norwich's home third-round tie against Manchester United for the Daily Mirror did not have much appeal personally. "Get on with it," I was told bluntly. "It will be good experience."

United were still recovering from the awful tragedy that had overtaken them at Munich just short of 12 months earlier, but there was nothing to suggest that I was in for more than a routine assignment.

Instead, the reverberating shock of Norwich's 3-0 victory foretold the FA Cup's most romantic story. Suddenly, they were a team transformed by sensation. Their captain, the solid, intelligent full-back Ron Ashman, who later managed the club and developed Kevin Keegan at Scunthorpe, would say: "It's still difficult to work out what happened to us. One minute we were finding things hard in the League and lucky to still be in the cup. Then overnight we had this conviction that we could beat anyone.

"You see, it wasn't just that we had taken United to the cleaners and that one or two of them went missing on a frozen pitch. We had good players in our team, very good players who wouldn't have been out of their depth in the First Division.

"We weren't a kick-and-rush team and it just needed something to set it all off. Beating Manchester United did that for us. It's a big advantage to be drawn at home in the FA Cup, but as time went on we honestly believed we could win anywhere and against anyone."

After overcoming Cardiff City from the Second Division in the next round, Norwich were drawn away at Tottenham, who would soon be transformed themselves, going on from a depressing season to win the League and Cup double two years later.

More than 20,000 fans, almost double the number who had watched Norwich's ragged start to the season, travelled to cheer their team in London. Norwich was gripped by Cup fever. Work schedules had gone haywire and there was not a citizen who could not repeat the mournful yet oddly inspiring lyric of the terrace anthem: "On the Ball, City." The city lived for the next match. Exiles flocked back to Carrow Road to take part in the mass adulation of the Canaries.

Saved by Cliff Jones' late equaliser, Tottenham did not carry much optimism into the replay and were defeated. Their captain, Danny Blanchflower, declared: "I have played all over the world, in some of the world's great stadiums, but I have never experienced an atmosphere like that."

A draw against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in the sixth round, when Norwich hung on with their goalkeeper Ken Nethercott injured, set up another emotional night in Norfolk. Immediately the whistle blew to announce Norwich's advance to the semi-finals, I got a message from the Mirror. "Front page piece - now," the voice said.

In receipt of a similar request, the famed Daily Express sports columnist Desmond Hackett ad-libbed wondrous tales of supporters getting a dray horse drunk and cars being swapped for match tickets - none of them true, but put around often enough in the wee small hours to be credible when printed.

The run ended when Norwich went out 1-0 to Luton in a semi-final replay at Birmingham after drawing at White Hart Lane. So strong is the bond in those players that Errol Crossan is coming from Vancouver, Matt Crowe from South Africa and Roy McCrohan from Florida. It cannot be imagined that, in 40 years' time, any of today's teams will feel a similar attachment.