PRELUDE: Norwich City 1 Colchester United 7 (Saturday 8 August 2009)
Even the most devoted Norwich City fans forget quite how bad the side got – and quite how bad were the players (not to mention managers) were. Struggling in England’s second tier, manager Glenn Roeder staked his position on signing loanees rather than constructing a permanent squad, stretching Football League laws to their limit by borrowing five English-based players and two from abroad at any given time.
Things came to a head when, with only one centre-back available, Roeder picked full-back Adam Drury against Crystal Palace rather than central defender Troy Archibald-Henville, on loan from Spurs’ reserves, stating that “Troy wasn’t ready to step up” to Championship football. Increasingly arrogant and massively unpopular, Roeder was sacked in January 2009 after fifteen months in charge and replaced by Norwich legend Bryan Gunn, then Head of Player Recruitment, until the season’s end.
With the transfer window about to close, Gunn had little option but to continue Roeder’s policy of signing loanees – the club owned just twelve players who’d represented the first XI when he took over – and with no managerial experience, Gunn could not prevent relegation to the third tier for the first time in fifty years. Astoundingly, with no chairman and no chief executive, Norwich gave Gunn the manager’s job on a permanent basis, and let him sign twelve new players for the League One campaign, his squad now containing 32 professionals.
The lower down the Football League pyramid you go, the harder it becomes to predict who will finish where, and I couldn’t decide if I thought Gunn’s team would leave League One via the top or the bottom. On the season’s opening day, the question was answered: disastrous performances from new centre-back Michael Nelson and goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos and the more established Drury and Gary Doherty, who’d been with City during their last Premier League foray in 2004-05, meant that Norwich were 5-0 down at half-time. We finished with our worst ever home defeat, and became a national joke.
New CEO David McNally, had seen enough. Taking a ruthless approach that contrasted with his predecessor, Neil Doncaster (who’d left for the Scottish Premier League), McNally announced Gunn’s sacking and, four days later, that Colchester manager Paul Lambert would succeed him – bringing Ian Culverhouse, with Norwich during the famous title challenge and UEFA Cup run of 1993, as his assistant. It was an intriguing appointment, not just for its bizarreness or brazenness: a Champions League winner at Borussia Dortmund, Lambert played under Ottmar Hitzfeld and Martin O’Neill (at Celtic) before managing Wycombe Wanderers and Colchester, experiencing the highest and lowest in professional football. His record looked solid rather than spectacular, but City’s 5-2 win in his first match, against Wycombe, suggested that he would at least stop matters from getting much worse.
1. Norwich City 4 Leyton Orient 0 (Tuesday 29 September 2009)
Among the many things that Roeder did to alienate City fans was to unceremoniously dump the loyal and exhilarating Darren Huckerby in June 2008, asserting that it was “time for new heroes”. Huckerby’s replacement, Wes Hoolahan, signed from Blackpool, endured a difficult season, scoring just twice in his first season. Against Orient, Hoolahan finally began to fulfil Roeder’s promise, and made himself central to Norwich’s revitalisation.
Coming after just one win in five League matches, albeit with points salvaged by late goals against Charlton Athletic and Gillingham, the Orient game demonstrated three of Lambert’s greatest strengths: his tactical flexibility, his masterful use of substitutions and his democratic team building.
On arriving, Lambert dropped Hoolahan, but gave him a chance to play his way back in. This trait served Lambert brilliantly: team spirit was maintained by the sense that anyone could establish themselves in the first XI through hard work and impressive performances, with nobody frozen out for long. Fittingly, three players told by Roeder that they would never represent Norwich again after a 3-0 hammering at Plymouth in November 2007 featured against Orient, two on target as Norwich scored four in the last twenty minutes.
Calling them “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”, Roeder had refused to refer to Chris Martin or Michael Spillane by name after loaning them to Luton for 2008-2009. Lambert moved Spillane to right-back, and brought on Martin after 66 minutes with the score still at 0-0. At the same time, he moved Hoolahan from the left wing, where he’d played since his arrival to limited effect, into the space behind Martin and Grant Holt. Instantly, 4-3-1-2, or “the diamond” became Lambert’s preferred formation, and the core of his team was fixed.
Simon Lappin – another of the ‘Plymouth Three’ – Darel Russell and youth team graduate Korey Smith remained the first choice midfield all season, retaining the ball by passing it in front of the opposing defence for long enough overlapping full-backs to get forward and provide crosses, or for Martin or Hoolahan, roaming, to draw a centre-back out of position and create an opening.
At its best, this was mesmerising to watch, and far more successful, long term, than anyone could have guessed that Tuesday night at Carrow Road. Martin and Holt opened the scoring – Holt with a sublime chest and volley, under pressure, showing the skill that accompanied his strength – Spillane made it three and Jamie Cureton, in one of his final games for Norwich, struck the fourth. Suddenly, for the first time in years, Norwich were fun to support, winning seventeen of the next twenty games and charging up League One.
2. Colchester United 0 Norwich City 5 (Saturday 16 January 2010)
I had anxieties about how my club conducted itself in League One, sometimes throwing its weight around more than seemed necessary, particularly during an undignified row with Walsall over a late postponement. I had sympathy with Colchester United over the nature of Lambert’s move – until the build-up to the return fixture.
Colchester chairman Robbie Cowling demanded that Norwich be deducted points for taking Lambert and not agreeing compensation, asserting that any City fans found in their Weston Homes Community Stadium’s home end would be ejected. This, of course, just made them more determined to get in, and Lambert more determined to win.
The pitch was almost unplayable in the driving rain, heightening the inhospitable atmosphere. Essex Police put the game on their highest risk status and Colchester fans screamed “Judas!” at Lambert, who gave a provocative thumbs-up to the away end. Everything went as right here as it had wrong in August: right-back Russell Martin, Lambert’s first permanent signing, played in his namesake Chris for the first goal on 16 minutes; Chris Martin scored again soon after, Holt’s through ball holding up for him to race into the box and hit the bottom corner.
Having once asked not to be played up front, Doherty scored the third: this victory was especially sweet for him and Nelson, who, like Hoolahan, had to fight his way back into the side. This centre-back pairing, disastrous for Gunn, held until the season’s end, with both providing vital goals: Nelson scored the winner at The Valley which clinched promotion, forever securing himself a place in the fans’ affections.
Pacy striker Oli Johnson, signed to come off the bench and stretch weary defences, got the fourth, and Holt the fifth – his 23rd of the season. I’d love to say that I didn’t savour this ‘revenge’ too much, but I watched The Football League Show’s highlights at least twenty times: this was the day I fell in love with this team, its style and spirit, and when I felt convinced that the title was there for the taking.
3. Norwich City 1 Leeds United 0 (Saturday 27 March 2010)
To keep ourselves interested in long League campaigns, we invent rivalries. During Norwich’s interminable second tier stretches – 1995-2004 and 2005-2009 – the games against Ipswich were often the most eagerly anticipated. A league below them, we looked elsewhere: first to Colchester, then to Leeds United, top all season. The televised match at Elland Road in October had finished 2-1 to Leeds, with Jermaine Beckford scoring the winner in injury time after on loan goalkeeper Fraser Forster’s miskicked clearance fell straight to him. At that point, despite City’s improvement under Lambert, the two clubs were eleven points apart.
After knocking Manchester United out of the FA Cup, Leeds’ form collapsed, and by the end of January, Norwich had overtaken them. Lambert was attracting wider attention, linked with his old club, Celtic; given how he arrived and knowing we had someone special, we feared he’d leave. “My main job is to get this team out of this league”, he said, not discounting a summer departure, but for now, he concentrated on this game. If Leeds won, our lead would become just five points; a win would put us eleven clear and virtually guarantee not just promotion but a morale-boosting first place.
As at Colchester, scores were settled in the most appropriate fashion. The game featured just one clear-cut chance – in the last minute. Two substitutes combined: Scottish midfielder Stephen Hughes, unlucky that Lappin, Russell and Smith kept him out of the starting XI, crossed for Chris Martin to flick an unstoppable near-post header into the far corner. This trend for late, important goals would become even more exaggerated in the Championship: a consequence of the team’s ability to tire opponents by keeping possession, and Lambert swiftly changing its shape by introducing extra strikers or quick wingers, wrong-footing opposing defences and managers. Unlike several of his predecessors, playing for a draw was never his strategy. There were a few nerves as City lost at Tranmere and Leyton Orient, but the title was snared long before the end – unthinkable after the opening day debacle.
4. Norwich City 4 Ipswich Town 1 (Sunday 28 November 2010)
Although more optimistic than before League One, I was no surer about where we’d finish in the Championship. In our first match, at home to Watford, never recovering from going two down in 25 minutes, eventually losing 3-2. We retained the diamond but had a host of new players to incorporate into the system: three central midfielders, Andrew Crofts, David Fox and Andrew Surman, centre-back Elliott Ward, centre-forward Simeon Jackson, with Grant Holt starting on the bench, and goalkeeper, John Ruddy, who struggled to win over fans who felt Forster should have been borrowed from Newcastle for another year.
Early results were mixed, bearing out my prediction that “we’ll finish mid-table – play-offs at a push”: a shrewd counter-attacking win at home to Swansea and the thrilling 4-3 victory over big-spending Leicester contrasted with defeats at Doncaster and Cardiff, before four successive draws. It was against Roy Keane’s Ipswich, as the media called them, that the foundations for our second promotion were laid – appropriately, as my (few) Ipswich friends maintained, incorrectly, that it was their 3-2 win at Portman Road in April 2009 that sent us down to League One.
Grant Holt had struggled at this level with Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest, and after hitting thirty goals in the third tier, started slowly, too often drifting into the channels before seeing no options for a cross. Looking fitter and staying central, Holt’s hat-trick – the first by a Norwich player in a League derby – silenced calls that he be dropped, and his pathetic fall to get Ipswich’s Damien Delaney sent off at 2-1 was, for us, a hilarious reminder of how fans see their players’ misdemeanours. Some denied, absurdly, that Holt had dived, whilst others took great amusement in just how frequently he got away with such theatrics, and how much it wound up opponents. It was never more fun than it was here.
5. Norwich City 2 Millwall 1 (Tuesday 1 February 2011)
Norwich lost one, drew three and won five of the next nine Championship games, including the home match against leaders QPR. Lambert’s largely unchanged tactics took City to second place: our new central defensive line-up – two of Leon Barnett, Elliott Ward and Zak Whitbread – was holding firm and Ruddy was winning over doubtful spectators. Crofts and Fox were constant in midfield but others such as Lappin or Korey Smith could play their way in; Hoolahan remained the creative hub, Holt the main threat while Chris Martin jostled with Jackson to partner him up front.
A limp FA Cup exit to Leyton Orient aside, Lambert was establishing himself as one of Britain’s brightest young managers, and we knew he wouldn’t be at Carrow Road forever. I never thought he’d join mid-table Burnley, though, and when McNally said in January 2011 that he’d refused their approach, I thought that was that. How I ended up pining for the pre-Internet days, when this would have been mentioned on Ceefax page 312 (News in Brief) and then forgotten – Twitter and City forums raged over the subtext of Lambert’s rebuttal and why the club hadn’t been more assertive in saying no.
Here, everyone put the affair to rest. Millwall went ahead in the second half, unmarked Theo Robinson converting a low cross, before Henri Lansbury, borrowed from Arsenal, came into his own. Lambert used loanees very differently to Roeder, knowing that camaraderie could best be achieved through making permanent signings whose styles and personalities blended, supplementing the core with temporary recruits when injury of suspension necessitated it (full-back Michael Rose and forward Stephen Elliott in League One) or occasionally when he found someone, like Forster or Lansbury, whose class and character made it worthwhile.
Lansbury’s free kick hit the post and Ward scored the rebound with a quarter of an hour left; then Lansbury bundled in the winner in the ninety-fourth minute. The entire team mobbed him, Ruddy running the length of the pitch to join in, as he did every time we scored so late: the final whistle went as soon as Millwall kicked off. Things were tight, but this kept City in touch with QPR and ahead of Swansea, Cardiff, Leeds and Nottingham Forest.
6. Ipswich Town 1 Norwich City 5 (Thursday 21 April 2011)
After Millwall, Norwich lost to Burnley but then went another nine games unbeaten, winning 3-2 at Leicester, beating Bristol City 3-1 with two last-minute goals and scoring six in a League game for the first time in my memory, against Scunthorpe. This put us four points ahead of Cardiff and Swansea, but we lost 3-0 at the Liberty Stadium to cut the gap to one with six matches left. Before we visited Ipswich, Cardiff had overtaken us, with Reading and Swansea close behind, and this looked tough: our rivals had won four of their last five and wanted revenge for their thrashing in October.
They didn’t get it. As at Colchester, Lambert’s team were unfazed, taking the game to the hosts. Surman put City ahead from Hoolahan’s cut back before Gareth McAuley’s comical own goal made it two. Holt set up Jackson for the third after seventy minutes; Ipswich offered brief resistance through Jimmy Bullard’s brilliant 25-yard strike, but Russell Martin got forward to make it 4-1, again. Substitute Dani Pacheco, recently borrowed from Liverpool, made sure that we topped our triumph at Carrow Road, and repaid Ipswich for beating us 5-0 back in 1998 – something I and many other City (and Town) fans had never quite forgotten. Pacheco’s spell was brief, but he keenly follows our results and keeps in touch with our players via Twitter: testament to the strength of spirit generated by Lambert.
This put City back into second, Cardiff two points behind with a match in hand, Swansea dropping off after failing to win since beating us. The first time that Norwich had doubled Ipswich since winning this division in 2003-2004, the result meaning that Lambert’s record in East Anglian derbies with Colchester and Norwich was played four, won four, scored 21, conceded three. Suppressing thoughts of just how miserable our last Premiership campaign had been, I finally allowed myself to believe that we could go up, but with three games to go, we needed to keep winning and hope that Cardiff would collapse.
7. Norwich City 3 Derby County 2 (Monday 25 April 2011)
After this, I knew we’d go up. Cardiff drew their match in hand, against QPR, so we were a point ahead before the Easter Monday fixture. Sustaining the pressure, Cardiff went ahead at Preston after six minutes through Peter Whittingham. With no further score, Norwich had to beat mid-table Derby.
Nobody had quite established himself as first-choice partner to Holt, but Jackson was finding form: he scored four goals by the end of October but none since, until replacing Pacheco against Scunthorpe, when he hit a fifteen-minute hat-trick. His equaliser at Watford, again on for Pacheco, secured an important point, and he earned his place in the starting XI for the next match, and the rest of the campaign.
Jackson headed City ahead before half-time, but Derby’s Spanish playmaker Alberto Bueno set up Steve Davies to level. In typically precise approach play, Surman tapped the ball to Holt, who laid it to Jackson: full of confidence, he passed it over Derby goalkeeper Brad Jones from outside the box. Three minutes later, Bueno equalised with a smart low drive, and in the five minutes of injury time that followed Derby’s attempts to waste time, Lambert threw men forward but Norwich couldn’t produce a winner.
One last attack produced a corner. Hoolahan flicked the ball on, it fell to Russell Martin who struck across goal, Bueno tried to clear – it rebounded off Jackson and went in. 3-2! Knowing the Cardiff score, the crowd and the Radio Norfolk commentators went berserk; the team, apparently unaware, were just as delirious, all but leaping into the stands in celebration of our twelfth last-minute goal of the season. I wasn’t there, instead jumping around my flat for over an hour, but I was at Portsmouth the following week, when Jackson’s goal sealed our return to the top flight. Fans and players finally came together, dancing on the pitch. The journey had been joy unconfined: but what would happen now that we’d reached our destination?
8. Liverpool 1 Norwich City 1 (Saturday 22 October 2011)
Cynical about the Premier League but in love with my team, I thought Norwich would stay up, perhaps with a battle, perhaps not. Most signings were players we’d met in League One: Elliott Bennett (Brighton), Anthony Pilkington (Huddersfield), Steve Morison (Millwall), Bradley Johnson and later Jonny Howson (Leeds), with James Vaughan and Daniel Ayala, from top-flight clubs, frequently injured. I couldn’t decide if this would prove competitive or not, but I admired the clear-headedness of Lambert’s transfer policy – much better than last time, when Nigel Worthington curated a strange selection of Scandinavian internationals, Premiership reserves and ageing also-rans.
Worthington’s conservatism meant that we didn’t win an away match that season, nor at home until mid-November: experimenting freely with formations and line-ups, starting with the League One front three at Chelsea, Lambert secured our first Premier League victory in September, 2-1 at Bolton. His team beat Sunderland by the same score at Carrow Road a week later, three of the goals scored by summer signings, allowing City to play with freedom at Manchester United. As at Chelsea, we lost by two goals but won plaudits for the skill and adventure of our play.
With a third victory secured, over play-off winners Swansea, we were ninth: 57 places higher than when Lambert joined. Every match felt crucial now – there weren’t enough ‘winnable’ games to allow mistakes – except, strangely, those against the top teams, where anything besides defeat felt miraculous. Our point at Anfield was exactly that: Liverpool were breath-taking in the first half, their rapid approach play thwarted more by poor finishing than strong defending, going ahead through Craig Bellamy, my favourite City player as I sat my GCSEs.
With 4-4-1-1 the preferred system, Hoolahan behind Morison and wingers offering the full-backs more protection, Holt was starting on the bench, despite his equaliser at Chelsea, rapturously received by us away fans. Determined to succeed, having moved from the fourth division to the first in consecutive seasons, Holt came on after 57 minutes and levelled on the hour, meeting Pilkington’s cross with an intersecting run and smashing header past goalkeeper Pepe Reina. Holt had chances to win the game before Liverpool’s late onslaught: John Ruddy, like Holt, proved himself a Premier League with a string of amazing saves, especially from Luis Suárez in injury time.
So much was made of Liverpool’s ‘Moneyball’ approach, signing players on their assists statistics and so forth, but ours was more shrewd: British players from lower leagues or top-flight reserves, in their mid-twenties, whose values would improve if they played well enough to keep us up and who would likely stay with us if we went down. None were as outstanding as Charlie Adam had been at Blackpool the season before, but this worked in our favour. They all had spells of form, scored important goals, and quietly continued to work when out of the side: certainly preferable to Adam, at Blackpool or Liverpool.
9. Swansea City 2 Norwich City 3 (Saturday 11 February 2012)
I could have chosen any of our games against the other promoted teams, QPR and Swansea, or our hard-fought home win over struggling Wolves in March, but this game was the point when I knew, deep down, that we’d stay up, and when we ensured the maximum twelve points from the sides that ascended with us.
Like us, Swansea were doing far better than expected, greatly admired for their short passing methods – the fact that we’d come up together, and were having similarly successful seasons, meant that another mini-rivalry developed. I wasn’t bothered, respecting what Brendan Rodgers had done with his team, but I preferred our style: with Holt and Morison so good in the air, the national media initially characterised Norwich as quite direct, before realising how good our midfielders, especially Fox and Surman, were on the ball, and how thrilling Hoolahan could be behind the attack. It was more dynamic and produced more goals, not least as we became only the second visitors to win at the Liberty Stadium all season.
Adapting his tactics more for Premier League opposition than he had before, memorably at QPR where his second-half switch to 3-4-1-2 exploited Joey Barton’s dismissal and secured a crucial win, Lambert realised that he could stifle Swansea’s lauded system by pressing them high up the pitch, preventing them building from the back. It worked at Carrow Road in October, when City went 2-0 up in ten minutes, and it worked here too: Norwich, playing a flat 4-4-2, dominated territorially in the first half but went behind as Danny Graham scored.
At half-time, Lambert switched to the diamond, Elliott Bennett between the lines, and within six minutes we were ahead. Just after the restart, Elliott Ward kept Russell Martin’s scuffed shot in play and looped it over to Holt, who headed past Michel Vorm, before Pilkington’s wayward effort hit Neil Taylor and deflected in. Swansea’s defence couldn’t cope with Bennett and Pilkington switching from the centre to the flanks, and Bennett raced through to set up Holt’s second goal on 63 minutes. Graham scored a penalty but Norwich dealt with Swansea’s pressure, Ruddy making another late save to further build his reputation. This win put City eighth, with 35 points in mid-February: we could relax, it seemed.
10. Tottenham Hotspur 1 Norwich City 2 (Monday 9 April 2012)
Lambert’s team had some phenomenal records going into the Premier League – never beaten twice in a row in the same League season, never doubled – which were finally broken, the former in the first five games and the second when we outplayed Manchester United at home only to lose to Ryan Giggs’ injury time strike.
I thought Spurs would become the second team to beat us twice, for two reasons. Firstly, we had a commendable record against the weaker teams, but were the only side in the division not to have beaten any of the ‘Big Six’ (Manchester United and City, Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool), drawing at Liverpool and 0-0 at home to Chelsea in January. That had been our first clean sheet all season, and defence remained an issue, particularly as we conceded so many early goals – we’d only won once since beating Swansea, drawing twice and losing four, and were falling back towards the relegation battle with a difficult run-in.
The 2-2 with Everton the previous Saturday had been encouraging, but those watching the games knew that Norwich hadn’t been playing badly, more running out of energy and luck. Our next win would put us over the forty point mark generally agreed to be enough to stay in the top flight (the hapless Roeder’s West Ham side of 2003 disregarded): nobody thought it would come here, in what proved the greatest performance of Lambert’s reign.
Fielding an entirely English-born first XI, with our League One full-backs up against Bale and Lennon, Lambert opted for a flat but adventurous 4-4-2. This victory was built more on phenomenally hard work than tactical nous, but Lambert’s willingness to give every player his chance paid off. We’d all been surprised to see League One veterans Chris Martin, Adam Drury and Simon Lappin feature in the top flight, and never thought we’d see ageing target man Aaron Wilbraham, signed as back-up in the Championship, in the Premier League, but ‘Wilbrahimovic’ (as we called him) worked his way onto the bench and then scored at Fulham to earn his first start.
Like Chris Martin, Drury and Lappin, Wilbraham did his best, his persistence in the box helping Pilkington to put Norwich ahead after 13 minutes, meaning that we’d now scored against every Premier League club. Spurs came back into the match, Bale going close before Holt was refused what looked an obvious penalty. Spurs broke and Defoe quickly equalised, capitalising on Jake Livermore’s bisecting through-ball.
Spurs started the second half better, but Ruddy and his defence held out before Norwich started to create chances. Holt chipped to Bradley Johnson, who volleyed over and wide, then Bale hit the bar before Elliott Bennett ran at the defence, cut inside and scored with a beautiful curling shot from outside the area. Thereafter, Norwich defended superbly from back to front and held on for a momentous, and fully deserved victory.
ENDING: Norwich City 2 Aston Villa 0 (Sunday 13 May 2012)
Norwich lost the next three games, the home defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool reminding me of why I hated the Premier League. Carlos Tévez, signed by Manchester City for anything between 25 and 47 million pounds and paid an estimated £200,000 per week, came back into the side after being suspended for months for refusing to play against Bayern Munich. Replacing Mario Balotelli and Edin Džeko – other twenty-thirty million pound centre-forwards who weren’t performing – Tévez scored a hat-trick against us, gleefully embraced by the Manchester City fans as their absurdly expensive team won 6-1.
The Liverpool game had been even more dispiriting. There was a sense that Lambert was finally running out of ideas, and he took an unusually defensive approach against a Liverpool team that couldn’t buy a League win. An annoyingly late kick-off on a depressingly cold and wet late spring Saturday, the atmosphere was tense, the Norwich fans hurling mean-spirited songs about unemployment and Liverpool fans being “always the victim” and the Norwich team never creating a chance, losing 3-0 to a hat-trick from Luis Suárez, a player I despised.
Nonetheless, we were mathematically safe – the season’s aim – and the 3-3 draw at Arsenal became the best match I’d ever witnessed in the flesh, Hoolahan and Holt putting us 2-1 up, Robin van Persie reversing the score with two well-taken strike before Steve Morison bagged the equaliser, silencing parts of the Norwich crowd who’d inexplicably branded him “lazy”.
So we could enjoy the final game, at home to Aston Villa. The away fans loathed their manager, Alex McLeish, who’d joined after getting their rivals, Birmingham City, relegated – they chanted Lambert’s name, wanting him to replace McLeish, who had Glenn Roeder and equally inept former Norwich boss Peter Grant in his team. With both sets of fans singing “You’re getting sacked in the morning” and “There’s only one Paul Lambert”, we laughed: for all their support and history, Villa were a shambles, running out of money and with few outstanding players. We beat them with almost embarrassing ease, Holt and Jackson scoring in the first half. Why would Lambert go there?
We ended with our third clean sheet, and Holt, who had scored seventeen Premier League and Cup goals, won his third consecutive Player of the Season award. We’d finished twelfth, with 47 points – better than I’d dared hope – and I filed out of the Lower Barclay to go to the end of season party with my friends, joyfully discussing the many highlights of the campaign and speculation about what might happen next to Lambert’s team.
Utterly content after a perfect afternoon, I walked towards Norwich station as the early summer sun set, past the gates to Carrow Road, the crowd long since dispersed, past the Barclay End where I’d taken my seat for the second half of the season, temporarily forgetting that all football teams, even the most consistently successful but especially the provincial over-achievers, are but mere houses of cards. Within three weeks, John Ruddy had pulled out of England’s Euro 2012 squad with a broken finger, Grant Holt had handed in a transfer request and Paul Lambert had walked out to replace McLeish at Aston Villa. Our years of unimaginable achievement were over – or so it seemed ...