Football: Manifesto of a footballing progressive: Norwich City are enjoying unprecedented prosperity thanks to their manager's approach. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
THE brass monkeys had the thermals out in snow-covered East Anglia and the players were running for the bath, but Mike Walker was last off the training ground, after thumping a few penalties at his chortling assistant, John Deehan.

Fun is all part of the game at Norwich City, where they are convinced that enjoyment is infectious. The theory, that if the players take pleasure in their football the specators will, too, is a good one, and a burgeoning Carrow Road audience is not the only proof. Norwich are just about everybody's favourite 'other' team these days.

It is not just for egalitarian reasons that the Canaries fly to Manchester United today buoyed by the good wishes of the uncommitted. True, everyone not of the red persuasion would like to see United falter and turn the championship into a race rather than a procession, but there is also a universal fondness for Norwich's style and methods.

Under Walker's studious, but never po- faced management, they are providing a handsome contradiction of the conventional wisdom that money - and a lot of it - is now a prerequisite of footballing success. Blackburn's buy, buy became bye-bye in the Coca-Cola Cup this week. Meanwhile, Norwich sell their best players, pick up replacements for peanuts, and embarrass the likes of Bayern Munich in Europe.

A conundrum? The answer lies in coaching expertise and tactical nous. Walker is probably the best around at turning decent players into good ones and ensnaring stronger opposition with a cunning plan.

Norwich clearly enjoy their football, but cavalier would be the wrong word. It is never a question of 'Just go out and play'. They work 'bloody hard' at their preparation under a manager who knows what hard is all about.

After a journeyman career as a goalkeeper (York, Reading, Shrewsbury, Watford and Colchester), the highlight of which was a Third Division championship medal, Walker had the rudest of introductions to management at Colchester. Six years ago, his team were perched comfortably on top of the old Fourth Division when he was called in to see the chairman. He expected a wage rise. What he got was the sack.

'That sort of thing keeps you awake at night,' he says. 'It still crosses my mind that I'll get the call again one day.'

The chairman in question, one Jonathan Crisp, should be the one suffering sleepless nights, Colchester's loss having been very much Norwich's gain. An impressive stint bringing on the youngsters as reserve-team coach was rewarded 18 months ago, when Phil Neal, the first choice for the job, refused to uproot his family from Merseyside, and the board promoted Walker instead.

Mike Who? was the reaction at the time. A season and a half later, it is Mike for England, Mike for Wales - if they beat Internazionale next week it will probably be Mike for Pope.

Norwich have always had a reputation for good football. John Bond, Ken Brown and Dave Stringer all played the game the way it was meant to be played. So how come Walker is enjoying a higher profile than all his predecessors?

First and foremost, because he has brought the club unprecedented prosperity. Third place in the Premier League last season was their highest ever finish, they are in Europe for the first time, and last month's Uefa Cup triumph over Bayern was the best result in their 92-year history.

Norwich have good reason to be appreciative, then, but there is more to it than that. Walker's crusade for cultured football, his innovative ideas and tactics, have struck a chord at a time when England's depressing exit from the World Cup has football followers everywhere up in arms, demanding a better way.

Manchester United, Aston Villa, Queen's Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United are all eschewing the dreaded long ball in favour of a more sophisticated passing game, but it is Norwich, with their pauper's pay and abundant play, who continue to capture the imagination.

Nearly half their team are on pounds 500 a week, and the manager gets not much more, yet they are out-thinking and outplaying opponents paid 10 times as much.

Typically, they are alone in using the sweeper system the proper way - with the spare man licensed to initiate and join in the midfield play, not anchored as a third central defender.

A 1-0 defeat at home to Inter has left Norwich with it all to do in Milan on Wednesday, but it was music to Walker's ears when an Italian journalist told him his team were 'Continental in style'.

Praise indeed. 'It's very nice of you to say so,' he replied.

'Rather than say: 'We'll go out and play the old 4-4-2 and never mind what they do', we try to delve a bit deeper on the tactical side. We put a lot of emphasis on stopping the other team. We certainly wouldn't say, as some would: 'Forget what Inter do, we'll go out and run them into the ground.' You've got to be a bit more sophisticated than that. You have to be realistic and accept that they can hurt you. We have to nullify that. If we can do that, we can take our game to them, but you can't have one without the other.

'You have to give your opponents respect. That doesn't mean you're frightened of them. It's just tactical common sense.'

In their first game of the season, at home to United, the consensus was that Norwich paid the champions too much respect, deploying an extra defender and hardly getting out of their own half. They lost 2-0.

The performance was a pallid one, but the sweeper-orientated defence, much criticised at the time, has since been a real boon.

Walker says: 'We used it successfully a few times last season, notably against Villa (1-0 and 3-2), but it was because of Europe that I went back to it.'

Europe is the big one - and not just because United are out of sight at the top of the League. For Norwich as a club, Liverpool have long been the role model. For their manager, the major influence was Real Madrid.

'When I was a youngster I used to watch them on television and I realised they were outstanding. I was never good enough to play at anything approaching that level, but they gave me my perception of the game.

'I thought: 'That's the way to play.' It was always attractive to me, and I knew it would be attractive to players. If they pass the ball a lot and get a good few touches, they enjoy the game more. If you're a midfield player and the ball is flying from A to B and all you're doing is running up and down without getting a kick, it's not particularly enjoyable.

'If you play a passing game: (1) the players enjoy it, (2) it's more progressive and (3) the spectators enjoy it. It can't be wrong, can it? People will always say: 'Ah yes, but what have you won?' In our case, we haven't won anything, and I'm not happy about that, but we've proved that a smaller club can compete with the big boys by passing the ball.'

Up to a point. There are not too many 'competing' with United this season, and a Norwich win today would still leave the champions with a double-figure lead in the Premiership, odds-on to retain their title.

Walker is much impressed, but has to look elsewhere for an example to follow. 'We've got to be realistic, we're not going to become a Manchester United or an Arsenal. We haven't got the tradition or the crowd and everything that goes with those things. What I would say, though, is that there's no reason why we shouldn't emulate Nottingham Forest.

''They came from the depths of the old Second Division - fourth from bottom when Cloughie took over - and won the League and the European Cup. They had a great reputation for playing good football and an excellent disciplinary record. They improved their ground as they went, as we are doing, and enjoyed a marvellous era.

'The principles that got them to the top and kept them there for so long are the right ones.

'We're already in the Premier League, so we've got a head start. We had a bit of success last season, and we're doing quite well again, but we need to push on. Everything is blossoming, but we need to show a bit of ambition to go that bit further.'

'Ambition' is managerial shorthand for buying rather than selling. It is also something Walker possesses in plentiful supply. Would he like to manage a bigger club - England, even? 'You bet. You always want to find out how far you can go.'

Talk of England and English football and he becomes very intense. It is easy to forget that he is a Welshman, from Colwyn Bay, with four Under-23 caps to prove it.

No, Norwich were not about to burden themselves with the task of burnishing England's reputation in Europe. 'That's not down to us. We've had no players in the England team (a sore point), so none of us is responsible for their performance. I do understand the situation, though. There is a need for a shot in the arm.

'What I would like us to do is go out and play well next Wednesday. If we do, against one of the best teams in Europe, then everyone watching may think: 'Well, English football is not that bad.'

'People like Sepp Blatter are giving the English game stick, and I understand why, but it's not as bad as some make out. The unfortunate thing is that the national team have failed, and failed not playing the right way, and we all get tarred with the same brush.

'For that reason, I'd like people to look at us on Wednesday and say: 'They can play a bit. They can pass the ball.' That would be nice.

'A few people have said it already. Hansi Muller came up to me when I was watching an Inter match. He speaks perfect English, and he tapped me on the shoulder and said: 'I saw both your games against Bayern and I thought you were magnificent.' That was tremendous. Compliments like that from a man who was a top player are encouraging. They give you a little lift when the doom and gloom descends after you've lost, or when people are knocking English football.'

Walker resents this condemnation by association, and feels England could, and should, have made a better fist of qualifying for the World Cup.

'The England manager picks the players he wants, and he didn't pick the right ones. There are others I'd have picked, and I think they'd have done a better job. I'm not saying they'd win the World Cup, but they'd certainly play in what I consider to be the right manner, and I think they'd have given a better account of themselves.

'The bottom line is that you've got to win, but I think you can win playing good football. Look at Manchester United. They've got flair players, play good, attacking football and they won the League. They've proved that you can play and win.'

Today, in seeking to prevent United from doing both, Walker will rely on the sweeper defence which rendered the rampant Reds toothless in Turkey. Can Cantona and company buck the system this time? The match of the day is full of East Anglian promise.

(Photograph omitted)

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