Football: Norfolk's broader horizon: Richard Williams reports from Norwich on the principles that have made the city's team the season's unlikeliest success story

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STUCK OUT in the rural fastness of East Anglia, tucked into a bend of the river Wensum, thrumming gently to its own particular rhythms, Norwich City is the kind of football club where the gateman wishes you a happy Christmas. The sort of place where, on your way to meet the manager, you naturally wipe your perfectly clean shoes on the mat just inside the door under the main stand of the trim little ground on Carrow Road.

In the foyer, outside the manager's office, there's a Christmas tree and a table on which lie folders containing thank-you letters from children whose schools have been visited by Peter Mendham, the former Canaries midfielder in charge of the local Football in the Community scheme. 'It was the best day of my life,' writes Nathan from Thorpe Hamlet Middle School. 'I am still scoring goals. Lukerly my mum did not kill me for your autograph on my coat.' Donna, a pupil at Fairway School, writes: 'I enjoyed it when we were shooting because I got a goal in for the girls, but I did not like it when we were late for lunch because my tummy rumbled.'

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that Norwich's current pre-eminence may not have been exactly what the inventors of the Premier League had in mind. Carrow Road is not San Siro or the Nou Camp. The club is not owned by an intergalactic media magnate. Nevertheless, Norwich City's season began with a 4-2 win at Arsenal, the championship favourites, and since then they have spent more time on top of the table than not, which is good going for a team who, only seven months ago, needed a point from their final match to avoid relegation. And in the process, Mike Walker has become a national figure.

It would be hard to dislike Walker, who took over the manager's seat at Norwich during the summer. A 47-year-old former goalkeeper whose playing career took him on a lower-orders tour of Reading, Shrewsbury, York, Watford and Colchester, and whose only previous experience of management ended in the sack from a Fourth Division club, he is having the last laugh in a big way.

'Some people say I'd have been good enough to play in the First Division,' he told me, with just a little wistfulness. 'I never had the opportunity, and there's nothing I can do about that. But it gave me good values, because I came from the bottom up.' And those good values are what the directors of Norwich identified when they made their choice to succeed Dave Stringer.

Walker is a handsome, silver- haired man in a stylish dark blue double-breasted suit. If he were any smoother, he'd be a televangelist or a chat-show host. And, even in defeat, he doesn't go in for the monosyllabic, defensive, ashen-faced stuff. The night before our meeting, his team had lost at home to Ipswich Town - the first time these two Anglian neighbours had met in a league match in eight years, and the match of the season as far as local fans of both sides were concerned. In a pulsating game, filled with the tension engendered by weeks of local hype, Ipswich had kept it tight, throttled Norwich's flair, scored a couple in the second half, and then watched as the Canaries lost their nerve and their imagination.

Afterwards, it had been Walker's job to find a way of saying that this wasn't the end of the world, that a dent to local pride didn't affect the fact that his team were still four points clear at the top of the league. 'To be honest,' he said, 'I think the fans feel it more than we do. But it's only one game. To lose to Sheffield United, that's just as important. You've got to keep it in perspective.'

What had disappointed him was that, under the pressure of imminent defeat in a local derby, his team had abandoned their principles. 'There was too much Route One - the fans are willing you to get a goal, and the by-product of that is, 'Get it forward, get it in the box at all costs.' So your heart starts to rule your head and you end up just knocking balls in. All right, you might get a knock- down, but really you're on a wing and a prayer. I don't think that's the way to play. We had a word after the game. Reminding them about patience, about getting back to the good habits of earlier in the season - good overlaps, good final ball, good runs.'

Mike Walker knows what good football is. 'Nottingham Forest at their best, Liverpool at their best, AC Milan at their best. Flowing football, with skill, with people not frightened to express themselves. And with good organisation. That's what I like.' People have criticised his team for letting in too many goals - they have scored 34 and conceded 34, which is remarkable for a team leading the table. 'Fair enough,' the ex- goalie responded. 'But I'd happily win 4-3 all season. You get three points for 4-3, and only one for nil-nil. Of course, the ideal is 2-0 or 3-0. Then you're looking solid. Like Ipswich, or Manchester United. People say, 'They're tight, they're not letting in many goals.' But Manchester United lost the title last year because they were tight and didn't score many goals.'

Norwich City is the kind of club that reminds you of the phenomenon of the worn-out spade: you can replace the handle one year, and you can replace the blade the next year, but it's still the same spade. Managers and players may come and go, but the character of the team survives. Asked about it, Walker referred to his own induction into the club. 'I was invited to join in the first place because of my outlook on the game,' he said, mentioning that he'd been sacked from the managership of Colchester United because the chairman didn't think that playing good football was the way to get out of the Fourth Division, even though they were top of the table at that moment. 'Dave Williams and Dave Stringer, Ken Brown before them, John Bond before him . . . they all had a philosophy of wanting to play good football. If I was asked to join Wimbledon, I'd have to think long and hard about it. Not because of their reputation, or because it's a bad club, but just because of the way they play.'

In the last three or four years, while he was on Dave Stringer's coaching staff, Norwich had been known for playing good football but not scoring enough goals. 'We over-passed the ball,' he said. 'I think we've gone a long way to changing that. I wanted the players to get fitter, to be more resilient, and to be more penetrative. I think we've achieved that. We've obviously scored more goals. We haven't stopped trying to play football. And we've lasted 90 minutes - that's proven because we've won so many games late on.'

The problem at a club like Norwich City is always going to be financial. 'You're working all the time to get the balance of the team right. It's never easy, and it's a little harder for us because we haven't got the financial muscle to go out and say, we might be weak in this position, let's go and get the best player and put him in.' The only solution is long-term success, and who can guarantee that? 'If we finish in the top four for the next three seasons,' he said, 'you may get a situation where we're stronger because we get more people through the gates, there's extra money from television, and we may be able to say, hold on, we don't have to sell so-and-so at the end of this year for two million because we don't need to.' This, of course, is the club that in recent years has been forced to sell the likes of Steve Bruce, Andy Linighan, Mike Phelan, Robert Fleck, Dale Gordon, Robert Rosario and Andy Townsend.

'It's a bit different now. I could go to the chairman today and say I want to pay a million pounds for a player, and we'd do it - although in fact we still couldn't sign him, because we can't pay the wages. Everybody's on three, four, five grand a week, the good players. And the only way you can do that is to be successful enough to guarantee a full house every week, and to get a good revenue from qualifying for Europe.'

All season, Walker has been reluctant to talk about winning the league, giving only a mildly hilarious deadpan admission that his priority is to avoid relegation. 'We still haven't got there,' he said last week. 'We need, I suppose, 45 points to be sure.' They currently have 39, with 22 games to go. 'If we get those, then we can start thinking, we should be OK. Then, come February or March, if we're in the top three or four, and there aren't many points in it, then I might be saying, hang on, we could win this. It all comes down to consistency. And we've been the most consistent side. We've consistently scored. We've consistently let goals in. And we've consistently won games. We've managed to keep on an even keel, and that's why it's very important that we don't get carried away just because we've lost a couple of games.'

For the past few years, Christmas has been the season of ruined hopes at Carrow Road. 'After a good start,' Walker said, 'we've had an indifferent holiday and then we seem to have fallen away completely - culminating in last year, which was ridiculous. But I think there's a reason, and it's one that we can influence. Time will tell. If we have a bad time again this year, it'll be proven that I was wrong.'

On the way out, I stopped off to have another look at Peter Mendham's postbag. Here's Helen from Thorpe Hamlet Middle School: 'I tackled my brother,' she writes, 'and I have never done that before. I am better at football now. Thank you.' Somehow, you hope Norwich City have a happy Christmas.

(Photograph omitted)