David Conn: The thoughts of Chairman Delia

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The Independent Football

The Legends' Lounge is one of many spaces at Manchester City's stunning new stadium devoted to corporate feasting, although the featured legends themselves tell you plenty about the club's sweet and sour history. Neil Young's picture is there, goalscoring hero of City's 1969 FA Cup win, better known recently for never being given his promised testimonial; Gary Owen, sold to West Bromwich Albion in Malcolm Allison's catastrophic second managerial stint in 1979; even Uwe Rosler, scorer of a few key goals in more recent troubled times, is there on the roster. At City, they're hungry for real icons, and on Monday night, Delia Smith swept in to fill the void.

National cookery institution and owner, with her husband Michael Wynn Jones, of the visitors Norwich City, Delia had Norwich fans chanting her name and pleading for photographs outside the stadium, while all heads turned as she arrived in the Legends' Lounge. The poor girl carving Delia's beef was a bag of nerves, the meat collapsing in a pile on the plate. "That looks lovely," Delia smiled, and floated back to the table.

She invited me because she liked my first book, The Football Business, and had used it in staff away days when stressing her and Michael's philosophy that a football club is a community institution, not there to rip off fans to make money for shareholders. She is reading my new book, The Beautiful Game?, and is shocked at the money many football directors are making: "Unbelievable. They're taking money out!"

Around the table were Mike Reynolds, the chair of Norwich City's supporters' trust, his partner, Catherine, and Delia's nephew, Tom, who is at Liverpool University. We were eating here, two tiers down from the pinnacle of poshness City now proudly cater for, because guests are not allowed in the directors' room.

Delia, drink in hand, warmer, funnier, more outgoing than she can seem on TV, was bewildered by football clubs' obsession with hierarchy: "It's all about club class and first class and who's in the inner circle."

When she first became involved, there were still men-only bastions; at West Bromwich Albion, there was a separate table for directors' wives: "Can you imagine it? A separate table!" Michael was quiet, solicitous and popped out for a fag periodically. He is the shrewd presence who met Delia on the Daily Mirror in 1969, where he was the deputy editor and she wrote her first cookery columns, and has steered her fortunes ever since. A lifelong Norwich fan, Michael used to go with his father. Then, when his father died, Delia took over the season ticket.

In 1996, the club was unravelling financially at the end of Robert Chase's chairmanship and a director, Martin Armstrong, took the couple for dinner and asked for £500,000 for a seat on the board. Delia stressed that she knows nothing about loans and shares: "I don't do money. Michael does money. Everybody thinks it's all me at Norwich, but really Michael's behind so much of it."

She suggested £1m for two seats on the board and since then, with loans soaked up and successive share issues, their commitment stands at £7m and they own 57 per cent of the club.

Sceptical fans suspecting Delia was another celebrity-come-lately to the reborn game were swiftly reassured; Delia likes to sit in the most vocal, Lower Barclay stand, and she and Michael breathe affection for the supporters. They don't expect a return - they could sell the club at some point, probably at a fat profit, if anybody wanted to buy, but they have waived interest on their loans and take no salaries.

"It's the upward flight I'm worried about," she said. "The way football directors work their way from the clubs on to the FA, then Uefa, Fifa - they're serving themselves," Delia said.

Mike Reynolds told me that the fans have taken Delia to heart; he laughed at the memory of tattooed 40-year-old blokes at the ground, queuing for her to sign their How to Cook books. "Delia and Michael were fans first," he said. "They recognise the club's importance in Norfolk and try to run the club the right way."

When Delia reached her blue, deeply padded seat in the directors' box, hundreds of eyes watching her all the way, the first question she asked was how many Norwich fans were stuffed behind the goal. "Two thousand," came the answer from Neil Doncaster, the club's well-regarded chief executive.

"Not bad for a working night," she said, and the Canaries went on to do all the singing.

She freely admits that although the club's manager Nigel Worthington did strengthen his squad in the summer, it was not with Premiership-scale money. Without a win yet, Norwich are struggling to adapt to life in the top flight. "You'll see," she said, nerves palpable. "We might not be the best, but we're fit, we'll keep going.

"We're a second-half side. The problem is," she pondered, "the second halves aren't long enough."

She's a twitchy, shouty fan, mutters the fans' songs under her breath, even the famous dirge, "On the ball City", thought to be the world's oldest football chant. "Go Hucks!" she screamed at Darren Huckerby, "Come on, Leon!" to Leon McKenzie. Michael, next to her, is the hunched, nervy type, sure disaster is round the corner.

Delia thought Robert Green, Norwich's goalkeeper, was nervous because David James was in the opponents' goal, and when Green flapped Willo Flood's volley into the corner of Norwich's net after 11 minutes, she recoiled: "That's it! We've had it."

They hadn't, though. City were rampant for a period, with Flood, Shaun Wright-Philips and even Steve McManaman threatening, but Green found his form and the defence stood up strong, with the right back Marc Edworthy outstanding. "I love him, he's a trier," Delia said.

Soon the 40,000 blue fans in the stadium, Manchester City's post-Commonwealth Games gift from the local council, were silent. "Why are they so quiet? I've never heard a football ground so quiet. If we were winning 1-0 we'd be bringing the house down."

A few fans next to the Norwich section got up a cheer. It was the one coined in 1998-99, when Man City found themselves in the Second Division, the third flight, for the first time in their history. "We are not, we're not really here; We are not, we're not really here..."

"What do they mean?" Delia shook her head. "Sorry, I don't get that." Gallows humour which sustained City fans on the terraces at Blackpool, Macclesfield and York, the song lingered to capture the euphoria of the Kevin Keegan-inspired rise from the First Division. Here, though, it moans of dislocation, as their team of millionaires, McManaman a particular target of exasperation, underperform at the gleaming new stadium.

Delia missed Damien Francis's equaliser, scored within a minute of the restart - she was still signing programmes for all-comers in the chairman's lounge. Forty-five minutes of pain followed, of biting lips, Delia and Michael holding clenched hands, but Norwich threatened too, making it to a 1-1 draw and arguably finishing stronger. Michael, relieved, clapped the players off the pitch, hands above his head.

Being here at all represents success. Norwich reacted to the loss of ITV Digital by launching a share issue, and enough local businesses and supporters rallied round to raise £3.9m. Last year they had another, raising £1.7m to enable Worthington to sign Huckerby, McKenzie and Matthias Svensson and win promotion.

Norwich regard Charlton as their model, a Premiership club with decent pricing and a much-admired community programme. Delia argued that there should be a much fairer distribution of money from the Premier League; they are wary of spending too much this season and landing in crisis if they drop.

"We want to survive," Michael said, quietly, "but not at all costs." This the week after Manchester City announced another £16m loss, and debts of £62m, a monument to their urge to do it all too fast.

Delia, glass of red wine in hand, admirers around, glowed: "We've matched a mid-table Premier League side. Surely that means we're equal to them and we'll stay up."

Then she laughed. "I know I'm clutching at straws." And all because the second halves are too short.


Ups and downs the yo-yo effect

Since the Premier League was formed for the 1992-93 season, 32 clubs have been promoted to it.

Of these, 15 - 47 per cent - have been relegated immediately the following season:

Barnsley, Bolton (twice), Charlton, Crystal Palace (twice), Leicester (twice), Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Swindon Town, Watford, West Bromwich Albion and Wolves.

Three - Ipswich, Bradford City and Middlesbrough - 9 per cent - have been relegated after two seasons.

Nine - 28 per cent - are still in the Premiership. Four have come up and not been relegated at all. It is still early days for Fulham (promoted 2001), Birmingham (2002) and Portsmouth (2003). Newcastle, promoted in 1993, have stayed up longer than any other promoted club.