This is the story of the very first team to top the very first Premier League table.
A team led by an unknown manager with a silver mullet and a ruddy tan, a team powered by the striker who saved Alex Ferguson’s job, a team that was beaten 7-1, 5-1 and 4-1, a team that played in the most wonderfully nauseous kit to ever splatter itself over the English top division, and a team that finished third despite a negative goal difference. Ultimately, it is the story of the first, the last, the only underdog to crack the Premier League’s top three.
When English football shook Rupert Murdoch’s claws in 1992, the Premier League probably didn’t have Norwich City in mind when they were selling their product. The three glory seasons of 1984-85, 1986-87 and 1988-89, when they’d won the Milk Cup and finished fifth and fourth in the old Division One, were slipping quietly into the past. All three of those seasons should have resulted in European qualification, but the ban following the Heysel disaster had kicked in at just the wrong time for Norwich.
Little was expected of them, with bookies ranking them as 250-1 outsiders for the title, and previews in the Independent, the Times and the Guardian all tipping Norwich for relegation. It was based on strong logic: they’d avoided the drop in their final match of the previous season and had sold their best player and crowd favourite Robert Fleck to Chelsea for 2.1m.
There was disenchantment among the fans at the choice of manager. Local hero Dave Stringer had resigned at the end of the previous season and, after Phil Neale was linked to the job, it was given to Walker, 46. A former goalkeeper in the lower leagues with the wardrobe of a gameshow host and the demeanour of someone who knew his way around a Filofax, he’d been brought in as reserve team coach in 1987 after being sacked as manager at Colchester United while they were top of the fourth division (according to Rob Hadgraft’s Norwich City: The Modern Era, he was pushed because the Colchester “chairman thought Walker’s brand of passing football was too soft for the lower leagues.”).
Norwich had no time to ease their way into the dawn of the Premier League. First up was a trip to Highbury to play title favourites Arsenal. At half-time Norwich, bustling but ineffective, were 2-0 down. But something happened in the away dressing room that would have a lasting impact across the entire season.
“Yes, we were 2-0 down,” says Norwich midfielder Jeremy Goss in Gossy: The Autobiography. “Some of the lads might even have thought it would be a case of damage limitation in the second half. But that wasn’t Mike Walker’s way.”
Instead of looking to keep the score down, Walker encouraged Norwich to attack the Arsenal defence. And this wasn’t any old defence. This was a back four of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn, with David Seaman stood behind them. But what did Walker care? On 58 minutes he threw on new signing Mark Robins, just two years after he had come off the bench to score The Goal That Saved Sir Alex’s Job against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round.
In a blistering quarter of an hour, Norwich savaged the unsavageable defence four times. Robins scored twice, including an outrageous 25-yard lob that even the Arsenal fans applauded. Norwich had somehow won 4-2.
According to the Times’ match report, Walker had given Robins a clear pre-match instruction: “We’ll stick you on for 20 minutes and just knock a couple in”. It seemed, after all, that Walker knew what he was doing. Norwich were top of the Premier League’s inaugural table.
Four days later they again came from behind, beating Chelsea 2-1 at home with Fleck watching in the stands. Robins scored another winner, a clever volleyed lob with the outside of his boot. A solitary point from the next two games was followed by five back-to-back wins that returned them to the top of the table at the end of September.
Next up was a top-of-the-table clash against Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn who, like Norwich, had also lost only one of their opening 10 games. Recently pumped up on Jack Walker’s millions, Blackburn had brought in Alan Shearer from Southampton and former Norwich midfielder Tim Sherwood. It was the big-spenders against the no-spenders. Money talked. Blackburn flashed their cash in Norwich’s pauper faces and hammered them 7-1, usurping them at the top of the table in the process.
In the Mirror, Mike Langley wrote Norwich off (and was far from the only one to do so): “I believe we’ve seen the end of Norwich. They’ll never come back from that slaughter. I see the Canaries’ fall as the shake-up into a new, possibly permanent, top four: Blackburn [Manchester] United, Villa and QPR.” So how did Norwich respond? They won five of their next seven matches (although, just for giggles, that included a 4-1 defeat at Anfield).
A 3-2 win at third-placed Aston Villa at the end of November brought the home side’s 10-game unbeaten run in the league to an end and had the Times writer Tony Francis getting a bit gushy in his opening paragraph: “Marvellous. Breathtaking. Thanks for lifting us out of our seats. Norwich have decided the only way of making off with the championship is by throwing caution to the wind and slugging it out with all-comers. It’s brave and it’s glorious.”
Norwich followed that up with a last-minute winner from David Phillips at home to Wimbledon and, rather staggeringly, two months after the 7-1 defeat at Ewood Park they were eight points clear of second-placed Blackburn. With every passing game, every comeback, every unlikely win, Norwich were winning new fans.
It was an easy team to like. While Walker was bordering on vain and loved talking tactics, he had a self-deprecating wit that made the press and public warm to him (Brendan Rodgers with a sense of humour, essentially).
His team was adventurous, almost carefree. It was studded with names that mean little outside of Norfolk but for two seasons were some of the finest players in English football.
While Norwich leaked goals throughout the season – only three teams conceded more – it was partly because centre-backs Ian Butterworth and John Polston spent most matches watching the full-backs disappear up the pitch. Left-back Mark Bowen and right-back Ian Culverhouse were gifted, cultured players who saw their roles as starters rather than stoppers. They pushed high and attacked the opposition full-backs, decades before it became de rigueur in the Premier League. Culverhouse would be employed as a sweeper in Europe the following season, as Walker showed he was a rarity: an Englishman prepared to abandon 4-4-2.
In central midfield was the permed Jeremy Goss, who became an overnight sensation the following season after his volley against Bayern Munich at the Olympic Stadium, but who’d been spending most of his time in the reserves at Norwich since 1983 before Walker put his faith in him. Goss never stopped running, tracking, tackling, the kind of man who would run into a burning house, save the kids, put the fire out, rebuild the home and have Grand Designs come round to film it.
Next to him was Ian Crook, signed in 1986 from Tottenham. He’d learnt a lot from Ossie Ardiles, and was similarly slight, with a laser eye for a languid pass. It was the ultimate lover/fighter central midfield combination, with Goss doing anything to protect Crook from the studs and scissor-kicks that back then passed as acceptable tackling.
On the right wing was Ruel Fox, tiny, nimble, fast, and on the left Phillips, who scored one of the great forgotten goals against Crystal Palace that season: striking a volley back across the goalkeeper while completely vertical, suspended four feet up in the air.
Robins was joined by the burly Rob Newman in attack, while the pacy striker Efan Ekoku was signed at Christmas and Chris Sutton broke into the team, first as a defender before moving up front.
Watching all of this from his goal was Bryan Gunn, signed in 1986 from Aberdeen a month before Alex Ferguson left to join United. His daughter died from leukaemia aged two shortly after the 7-1 defeat to Blackburn, creating a tight bond between him and the fans – who gave him a standing ovation in the following game against QPR – that remains to this day.
This band of youngsters, cast-offs and old heads played some wonderful football. In an interview with the Independent on Sunday in the December of that season, Walker explained what he wanted from his team: “Flowing football, with skill, with people not frightened to express themselves. And with good organisation. That’s what I like… I’d happily win 4-3 all season. You get three points for 4-3, and only one for nil-nil.”
In the Times, Tony Francis called Norwich’s style “canny, two-paced and multi-fronted… rich in European undertones”.
Up next for table-toppers Norwich was another team beginning to get a reputation for flowing, attacking football. Alex Ferguson was slowly coaxing Manchester United out of its chrysalis, turning them from functional to fearsome. They’d hovered behind the leading pack for most of the season and this was a chance for them to close the gap at Old Trafford.
Their record against Norwich in the 1980s was poor, and this was a huge test for United. They triumphed in an even, end-to-end match after a poor mistake by Daryl Sutch let in Mark Hughes to score the only goal. “You could almost hear the sighs of relief from the rest of the division,” wrote Guy Hodgson in the Independent.
The best player on the pitch was Eric Cantona, prompting, posing and pulling strings. He obviously hadn’t impressed everyone though, with team-mate Paul Ince saying after the game: “It’s all very well doing the flicks when you are winning, but when you are losing it’s more important to have someone to put their foot in.” English football, the state of.
Inconsistency set in for Norwich, with no goals in the next four games – including a 2-0 home defeat to local rivals Ipswich. They won just six of the 16 games after the defeat to United, and at the end of March faced two crucial games at Carrow Road against title rivals inside 13 days: Villa and United.
A 1-0 win against Villa, with Polston scoring from a corner hours after he’d become a dad for the first time, put Norwich back to the top of the table. With just six games remaining, the belief had returned ahead of the visit of United, without a win in four matches.
“There was a real buzz about the city,” wrote Gunn in his autobiography, In Where It Hurts. “Everywhere I went people were asking me, ‘can we do it, Bryan?’ Not just fans but shopkeepers, businessmen – even little old ladies stopped me in the street to wish us luck.”
A win would put Norwich five points clear; a defeat would mean being leapfrogged by United. With Hughes suspended, Ferguson started with three wingers – Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe. Norwich couldn’t cope with the pace, and were blown away inside the first 20 minutes as United scored three times. The second was a blueprint for how they would come to dominate English football for the next two decades: turning a blocked shot by Goss on the edge of their own area into a five-touch move that ended in Kanchelskis running through to score.
Robins pulled a goal back after half-time but there would be no great comeback this time. “They tore us apart,” wrote Goss. “It was, by far, the best performance of any team I’ve ever played against in my career.”
If that hasn’t entirely crushed Norwich’s title hopes, a 5-1 defeat at White Hart Lane – they sure knew how to lose heavily that season – in the following match suddenly had Norwich suddenly worrying about European qualification. Two home wins over Leeds and Liverpool (Sutton announced himself as a striker of real talent with a hat-trick against Leeds) sandwiched another careless defeat to relegation-threatened Ipswich.
With United winning their final seven games to take the title, and Aston Villa cementing second, Norwich needed a draw on the last day of the season at relegated Middlesbrough to finish ahead of Blackburn in third. A nervy 90 minutes ended 3-3, and Norwich had achieved their highest-placed finish. “I came off the pitch with next to nothing on,” wrote Gunn. “My shirt, gloves, boots, socks, shorts, just about everything apart from my vest went into the crowd.”
The players and fans couldn’t yet celebrate properly, though. A place in Europe – denied to them three times in the 1980s – was dependent on the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. Arsenal had secured a Uefa Cup spot by winning the Coca-Cola Cup – also against Wednesday – but a win in the FA Cup final would send them into the Cup Winners’ Cup, opening up a spot in the Uefa Cup for Norwich.
This was the biggest FA Cup final in Norwich’s history – they’d never got there themselves – and too old boys gave them a helping hand. Former Norwich player Andy Linighan scored the winner in the replay past Wednesday keeper Chris Woods, also a former Canary, to send Norwich into Europe for the first time in the club’s 90-year history.
Norwich’s success remains an anachronism in the Premier League, a reminder that before all of the money crashed into English football there was life outside of Manchester and London. In the 20 seasons before Rupert Murdoch got his bulky wallet out for the 1992-93 season, 19 teams finished in the top three – almost a new club ever year. In the first 20 years of the Premier League, Norwich were one of 11 teams to have finished in the top three; since the 2000-01 campaign that number is down to just six.
Perhaps that’s why Norwich fans still walk around the city wearing the vomity kit from that season. It’s not only a reminder of their team’s greatest season, but a reminder of what’s since been lost.
What happened next?
Chairman Robert Chase refused to dip into the funds and strengthen, with Phillips even electing to leave and join relegated Nottingham Forest. But there were more glories to come, with Goss and Bowen giving Norwich a famous 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in the Olympic Stadium – “it’s almost fantasy football” cried John Motson – before holding them to a 1-1 draw at Carrow Road. They went out in the next round, missing a series of chances and losing 1-0 in both legs to eventual winners Inter Milan.
Walker, fed up with under-investment, left shortly after to join Everton. Norwich finished 12th (with a plus goal difference) but sold off many of their best players and were relegated the following season.
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