Football Interview: Delia Smith: Hard-boiled but soft-centred

Home economics and a taste for the roots of football safeguard Norwich's future.
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The Independent Online
Easter Bank Holiday Monday at Blundell Park. Norwich City are the visitors and the spread - chicken tikka on rice and homemade fishcakes - in the Grimsby boardroom is enough to tantalise the most fastidious of gourmets.

Well, you'd hardly expect the Mariners' caterers to place fish paste sandwiches, on stale Mother's Pride, before the woman regarded as the First Lady of the Spatula.

Grimsby's avuncular chairman Bill Carr warmly greets the country's best- loved cooking show host and Norwich City's majority shareholders, Delia Smith and her husband Michael. "Hope you like the food," he says. "Our catering manager's very anxious." She reassures him that it looks wonderful.

It's not the first time there's been some fretting in the kitchens of Britain's football clubs at the prospect of Delia's visit, even though once she has set down down her recipe books to egg on Norwich a different character altogether emerges.

Today, she is concerned that her team get back on the boil after an indifferent run. Swathed in huge green and yellow scarf, the princess of the poaching pan is in her favourite alternative guise of committed football fan. Just an ordinary supporter, except that she and Michael loved the heat so much, they just had to get into the kitchen.

Like Elton, there's only one Delia. You have only truly infiltrated the public psyche when you are known instantly by first name alone, and she can't help but project a certain aura when she enters her hosts' boardroom. Yet, there is no celebrity pretension whatsoever; no suggestion that the almost royal "we" are anything but approachable, as the waitress who wanted a well-thumbed copy of her book on baking cakes signed finds.

Indeed, she is the antithesis of the former chairman, Robert Chase, the man who sold Chris Sutton, Ruel Fox and Ashley Ward among others, all "distress" sales as the club went from European competition one year into freefall the next while Chase increasingly went to ground. When he eventually departed his bequest was a decent stadium, excellent training facilities, and the remnants of a team.

"He sold all our players and nobody had any power to stop him," Delia explains as we view the game from the directors' box. "There was this terrible feeling of helplessness. Michael and I became directors because we wanted to have a say. It was awful to see a club on the verge of collapse." She pauses. "Do you know, that can't ever happen again. We can control what goes on. That's why I don't agree with flotation, with the City running the football club."

As we talk, you would hardly know that this same character, who demurely whisks the country into a passion for such delights as Mashed Black-Eyed Beancakes with Ginger Onion Marmalade, is simmering with exhilaration at the prospect of Norwich securing only their second victory of 1999. "Get it awaaay, Norwich. Defend, defend..." she implores them.

As her team gradually assume control, Delia explains how she did the same with Norwich. "Michael and I sat down one day and thought about what we would like to do with our money. Really, there wasn't anything else we wanted, other than put it into our football club to do well, because we're both very emotionally attached to it, even though we probably won't see it again."

Delia adds: "My work is total commitment. I have to be very single-minded. Football is the only thing that gets me away from it. If I was at home on a Saturday afternoon, I'd be looking at recipes, or cooking."

A youthful 58, she was first seduced by the game after watching the 1966 World Cup. When Michael's father Edward, a Norfolk vicar and staunch Norwich follower died she took over his season ticket. The couple became directors three years ago and took a 57 per cent controlling interest a year later when they bought pounds 3m worth of a new share issue. "The hardest thing has been the financial side, finding the players' wages every month. This year, we've put in pounds 100,000 in dribs and drabs," she says.

Out on the field, a bland 90 minutes is spiced only by a sweetest of free-kicks from Norwich's transfer deadline-day signing from Manchester United, Phil Mulryne. The Norwich contingent in the directors' box celebrate, but with a suitable decorum. The travelling faithful behind the goal are more unrestrained. Delia sings the first line of the Norwich anthem along with them, then recites the whole verse.

"On the ball City,

Never mind the danger;

Steady on,

Now's your chance

Hooray, we've scored a goal

"It's a real dirge. We might take the song to a rap band, or the London Philharmonic Orchestra or Elton John and get them to come up with a new version, then persuade the fans that it's an improvement."

It is not the only change she has instigated. And not all have been welcomed.

Like the yellow shorts, part of the new designer strip by Bruce Oldfield. Norwich held a referendum, and next season they will revert to green. "The majority of our fans back what we're trying to do. One afternoon I went down to the Barclay End and sat with them, the real hard-core supporters. They were just brilliant to me. They were all singing `Ooh-lah, Deli-aah'."

Michael, who is reminiscent of a young Peter Ustinov, is editor of Sainsbury's Magazine, which is owned by their company, New Crane Publishing. He chain- smokes through the game. The pair appear inseparable. They clutch hands, when Delia is not using hers to exhort Norwich to greater efforts. "I get anxious and nervous, but I'm philosophical if we do lose. I'm not obsessive and I'm not going to spend my whole weekend in misery."

Not all supporters are so stoic, as she discovered during a home game with Port Vale. As Norwich were yet again struggling, a supporter in front of the directors' box, turned round and suggested that she put her hands in her pocket to strengthen the team. The following day he wrote, apologising. Rather than take umbrage, she invited him for a drink after the next home match. "I'm willing to take the flak," she says. "All my cooking career, if people wanted to tear me off a strip over recipes I've accepted it; you've got to reach out to people and let them have their say. It doesn't matter how angry they are."

She adds: "I told him that our vision is to get the right people organising it all. That's why we've got a marketing manager who's filling our stadium even when we're losing matches." She has also brought in a chairman, Bob Cooper, a former Sainsbury's senior executive, who has reduced overheads. Delia herself has upgraded the catering in the restaurant and carvery.

Improvements elsewhere will take longer. She laughs when describing some of the logistical problems. "When Robert Chase built the Barclay stand, they didn't get the power supply right. So when the floodlights go on, the ovens go off."

Now she'd like to wean the supporters off pies, just as her players have been placed on healthy diets. "I've spent year after year creating recipes. Now I want to start serving them. There's a whole new world out there. I like hot dogs and pies," she says. "But why not try something more healthy. I'd like to offer everyone in the ground soup in winter."

She goes on: "Football is a sexy subject, isn't it? It's the in-thing. But there are still a lot of women who think they wouldn't like being at a match, so what I do is to invite all my women friends who haven't been and say, `You tell me afterwards that you didn't like it and I'm happy'. Probably about 80 per cent want to come again."

However, what she won't do is promise supporters haute cuisine on the footballing menu, despite the publication this weekend of a Sunday newspaper's annual "Rich List", which is liable to raise the fans' expectations. Last year, the same survey valued her at pounds 24m, which made her the 837th richest person in Britain. "The problem with it is that they'll give me some fictitious sum that I'm supposed to have and the fans will think, `why aren't I doing anything?' But even if I had the millions I think I'd put into our academy to help develop more good, young players. That's the future."

Delia, who has visited clubs including Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven and Auxerre to gain expertise on youth development, adds: "We're never going to have the money to buy big players. I'm not like Jack Walker. The club has to be run like a business. You can't let your emotions turn you into a fool. Of course, I want to see us back where we were before the Chase collapse, back in the Premiership and in Europe but it is possible to do it without money. If Charlton survive in the Premiership it will give us all hope."

Their great East Anglia rivals, Ipswich, whom they face this afternoon following that defeat of Grimsby, could also confirm that. "Personally, I don't mind if they get into the Premiership. I think they deserve it. I have a great respect for the club, although probably all our supporters would hate me for saying that." They might just forgive her if Norwich followed next season, although then her talent for devising a recipe for success really would be put to the test.