Alan Curbishley. That’s the name you remember when asked to recall one-club wonders in management. In 15 years at Charlton Athletic – his first role as manager – he took them through the divisions to the Premier League and to an extraordinary seventh-place finish in 2003-04.
Then? Well, very little. He spent two years at West Ham, before resigning over the classic transfer funds dispute. That was 2008 and he has never managed again.
However, there is someone with a greater claim to the one-hit wonder crown. A man unfairly but unsurprisingly forgotten outside of his native county, a successful player and manager whose Wikipedia entry runs to only 204 words.
Meet Dave Stringer. The 77-year-old former Norfolk docker who became a club legend, as player and manager. And then… nothing.
A spirited, scrappy centre-back who played 499 times for Norwich City in the 60s and 70s, Stringer scored two of the most important goals in the club’s history. After retirement he returned to Carrow Road for his first job in management, taking Norwich to their then-highest top-flight finish of fourth, as well as two FA Cup semi-finals in four years.
Thirty years ago, in 1992, he resigned. That first job in management would be Stringer’s only job in management.
Stringer made his Norwich debut in 1964. A mid-table second-tier side, the Canaries had never risen to the top flight and, for the first eight years of Stringer’s career, that ascent appeared a distant dream. They were footballing driftwood.
But then, out of nowhere, Norwich won Division Two in 1972 and gatecrashed the footballing elite. Stringer wrote his name into Canaries history with a rare, late goal against Watford at Vicarage Road on the final day of the season to clinch the title.
It wasn’t the most important goal Stringer scored for Norwich, though. That came a year later, in the penultimate game of their inaugural Division One season, at home to fellow relegation strugglers Crystal Palace. Needing a win to avoid relegation, the match was 1-1 going into the final minutes. In front of 36,688 fans, Stringer flung himself at a corner and crashed in a winner.
“I arrived behind and just hit it and it flashed into the net,” he later told the Norwich City matchday programme. “And that was it. Everyone was on their feet; grown men were in tears.”
There would be an insipid relegation and an enthralling, immediate return to the top tier before Stringer left Norwich in 1976. Just one short of 500 appearances for the club (he will always claim the record books missed one match somewhere along the way), only two men have played more times for Norwich City in its 119-year history. Stringer then spent four seasons at Cambridge United – a club he chose because the commute meant he could remain living in Norfolk.
His Norwich hiatus wouldn’t last long. When Ken Brown replaced John Bond as manager, he brought in Stringer to lead the youth team. This Norwich senior had immediate success with Norwich’s juniors, winning the FA Youth Cup in 1982-83, the first time in the club’s history. Stringer progressed quickly and Brown made him one of his assistants ahead of the 1987-88 season.
The smooth ascent bumped into turbulence for the first time. City had finished fifth in the top flight the previous season and it felt like something special was bubbling. But results took a turn for the worse and Brown was sacked in November 1987 with Norwich in the bottom three.
Enter Dave Stringer, the manager. It wasn’t an easy introduction, though. He was confronted by filling the shoes of a popular boss who had won the League Cup during his reign. Alongside the daunting relegation battle, there was hostility in the stands directed at the club’s chairman, millionaire builder Robert Chase, who had a penchant for selling crowd favourites.
Things got worse: Steve Bruce, City’s outstanding centre-back, was sold to Manchester United within days of Stringer’s appointment. Things got even worse: Bruce’s replacement, John O’Neill, suffered ligament damage 34 minutes into his Canaries debut and would never play again.
Not the perfect start. But, in the benign, measured way that Norwich fans would get used to, Stringer turned things around quickly. City survived relegation comfortably and there were strong hints that an attractive, passing style of play was developing.
And then? We’ll let The Times report of Norwich’s 3-1 home win over Tottenham Hotspur in October 1988 tell the story: “Norwich commendably lead the first division with a team whose individuals will be remembered primarily by their mothers and admiring sons, and by their manager, Dave Stringer, rather than the history books. They are a beacon to selfless, collective, effort, elevated by the intelligence of [Mike] Phelan, their captain, and the opportunism of [Robert] Rosario and [Robert] Fleck”.
There’s a whiff of being patronised, but it was true: Norwich City were no fashionable team. But they were, astonishingly, leading the top tier of English football with a band of brothers gathered up as rejects from bigger clubs.
Norwich played with, for the era, unusually progressive full-backs in Mark Bowen and Ian Culverhouse; the cultured midfielder Ian Crook (think the passing range of his former Spurs team-mate Glenn Hoddle, but with the languid nonchalance of a man leaning against a bus stop with fag on the go); the box-to-box ability of Phelan (destined for Manchester United) and Andy Townsend (for me, Clive, destined for the commentary box); the step-over kings Dale Gordon and Ruel Fox on the wings and the bubbly, pesky, sharpshooting Fleck up top, ably supported by the granite Rosario. To keep the flair in check, goalkeeper Bryan Gunn and centre-backs Andy Linighan and Ian Butterworth provided the ballast.
“We have a young team here with no great pedigree,” Stringer said after a memorable 2-1 away win over Manchester United at the end of October put Norwich six points clear of Arsenal at the top. “We haven’t the money for a big squad. But you look how hard they work for each other, to play football, not just to battle.”
Remarkably, Norwich were still top of the table in December, cemented a week before Christmas with a 1-0 win at Anfield against defending champions Liverpool. According to a report in The Times, the Canaries had “almost arrogantly mirroring the passing game upon which Liverpool’s reputation was established”.
At the turn of the year, City’s title push started to fade away. The squad wasn’t big enough to sustain the momentum, but there was an FA Cup run to the semi-finals to keep the Norwich fans dreaming of glory. It was only City’s second FA Cup semi-final appearance. The first was in 1958-59 when Division Three Norwich shocked English football, with the schoolboy Stringer listening on the radio as they recorded famous wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Matt Busby’s Manchester United.
Norwich might have run out of steam, but a fourth-place finish was vindication of Stringer’s pragmatic, stylish misfits and youngsters. It would have been enough to secure European football in normal circumstances, but English football was in the midst of an ongoing ban from European competition due to the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster. It was the third time in five seasons that Norwich would be denied their first-ever continental adventure.
There would be no repeat of the league success in the following seasons. But Norwich stuck to their attractive playing style, with the esteemed Times sports correspondent David Miller an admirer. “Carrow Road is one of the worst places in the League to lose possession,” he wrote. “It can take you an age to regain the ball. With the decline of Liverpool, Norwich City collectively are possibly the best passers of the ball in the league, yet who cares about them outside the Broads? It is wretchedly unfair. I don’t think I have seen a bad match at Norwich in recent years.”
Stringer, though, was fighting an increasingly uphill battle, with his best players repeatedly sold from under him. There was another run to the FA Cup semi-finals in 1991-92, but a defeat to second division Sunderland signaled the end for Stringer. He saved Norwich from a relegation battle, but with the churn of players, the style of football had started to be sacrificed. He knew it was time to step aside. He resigned in April 1992.
When Stringer had joined Norwich 29 years earlier, the club had never tasted top-flight football. He left it with 17 seasons in the top tier and with a platform that would see them finish third the following season under new manager Mike Walker and a famous win against Bayern Munich two years later.
For Stringer? Well, he both left and didn’t leave. Here was a man with a chance to firmly establish himself as one of England’s brightest managers, just as the Premier League was about to get started on its lucre-charged flight to the stars. But he took a role in the background at the Norwich academy, coaching the club’s players of the future. Stringer had come full circle.
Roy Hodgson, only three years Stringer’s junior, has just made Watford his 15th managerial home in the 30 years since Stringer stepped down at Norwich. But this doesn’t diminish Stringer’s achievements. Quite the opposite. Stringer may be a one-club wonder. But he played for and managed his boyhood club to unprecedented success and, well, isn’t that what we all dream of when we first start kicking a football around? Isn’t that, really, what it’s all about?