The reluctant pioneers: when Norwich City made history

norwich city 1985

In 1985, Norwich City made history when they achieved what was at the time a unique feat but which has since been emulated by both Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic.

While being a pioneer in any field or walk of life is usually celebrated, it is debatable if those involved with the Norfolk-based club felt so at the time. This is because the slice of history they were making was becoming the first club to ever win a major trophy and suffer relegation in the same season.

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To experience such a season of contrasts is undoubtedly surprising in the extreme, but while the biggest surprises in the cases of Wigan and Birmingham were the acquisition of the FA Cup and League Cup respectively, with Norwich the shock came not with the success part of the equation but rather with the disaster of relegation.

With all due respect to Wigan and Birmingham, both sides had struggled in the league all season long and will have been prime teams for people to have enjoyed matched betting sessions on if it were around at the time, and their final demises were anything other than expected, but Norwich’s demotion came as an unmitigated shock due to how it came about.

Led by former West Ham player, Ken Brown, Norwich had been in the First Division since promotion in 1975 under former boss and ex-playing colleague of Brown, John Bond.

When Bond left Carrow Road to succeed Malcolm Allison as boss at Manchester City in October 1980, Brown took over the reins, but unfortunately got off to an inauspicious start. The side slipped into a late-season freefall, and on the last Saturday of the 1980-81 season, suffered a relegation that was both surprising and potentially demoralising.

Showing admirable loyalty and foresight, the Norwich City board stood by Brown and was rewarded as promotion was achieved at the first time of asking. A couple of steady seasons then followed with Norwich earning a reputation for playing good football and for being a decent side.

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As winter started turning to spring, the 1984-85 season was progressing in much the same direction the previous couple had, with Norwich sitting reasonably comfortably in mid-table without really pulling up many trees.

On March 16th, Norwich City met Sunderland in a league fixture at Carrow Road, and when the visitors departed with all three points in the bag courtesy of a 3-1 victory, it moved them into 16th place in the 22-team table, with 34 points from 30 games. Norwich, meanwhile, sat in 12th with four points more from one game less. At this point, Sunderland were eight points clear of the drop zone, while Norwich were a dozen clear of danger.

The following week, the two sides were due to meet at Wembley in the final of the League Cup, then sponsored by the Milk Board and thus titled, ‘The Milk Cup’. Norwich’s route to the final had not been the most arduous in the history of the competition, on paper anyway, with lower-league opposition being overcome in every round leading up to the semi-finals.

It had begun with a two-legged victory over Preston North End in the second round when a 6-1 home victory put right a slight stumble in the first leg at Deepdale which finished in a 3-3 draw. This was followed up with a home draw against basement division side, Aldershot, in Round Three, but any thoughts of an easy tie were quickly dispensed with as the Fourth Division team emerged from Carrow Road with a more than credible scoreless draw. The replay a week later allowed Norwich to put matters right and this time they made no mistake, emerging 4-0 victors.

Into Round Four, and Notts County were dispatched easily enough by a 3-0 scoreline at Carrow Road, before a single goal away to Grimsby Town clinched a last-four spot and a date with East Anglian rivals, Ipswich Town.

Sunderland, for their part, reached the same stage courtesy of victories over Crystal Palace in Round Two (2-1 on aggregate), Nottingham Forest (1-0) and Tottenham (2-1) in Rounds Three and Four both following replays, and a single goal victory at Watford in the last eight. Waiting for them with a place at Wembley at stake were Chelsea.

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Both semi-finals were full of drama, with Norwich falling to a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their clash with Ipswich Town at Portman Road, and Sunderland taking a 2-0 advantage from their Roker Park clash with Chelsea. Both ties were thus very much alive going into the second leg and both made the headlines but for very different reasons.

While Norwich and Ipswich were engaged in a titanic battle at Carrow Road that would require extra time to separate the clubs and send the Canaries to Wembley by a 2-1 aggregate scoreline, another sort of battle was taking place at Stamford Bridge.

1985 was in many ways the nadir of hooliganism in the English game and a large minority of Chelsea followers used their 3-2 home defeat as an excuse for staging constant pitch invasions, fighting with police, and generally acting as pringle-wearing total buffoons.

Anyway, to Wembley and a drizzly North London afternoon. Fears that the game would be less than a sell-out were soon dispensed with, as both clubs sold their entire allocations with ease. The atmosphere on the day was a unique one in that both sets of supporters mixed freely together with such a sense of camaraderie and lack of ill feeling that solid bonds were built between the clubs that last to the present day.

As a lasting legacy, a ‘Friendship Trophy’ is still played for between the clubs whenever the sides meet in a competitive fixture.

The match itself was a fairly turgid affair, to be honest, with little of note occurring in the first half whatsoever. However, just after the resumption, the game came alive when Norwich played a long ball down their left-side touchline. Sunderland defender Dave Corner attempted to shield the ball out for a goal kick, but failed to get his body in the way of John Deehan of Norwich, who stole the ball away and crossed it into the Sunderland box. When it was half cleared to the edge of the area, Asa Hartford struck a shot into the ruck of players on the six-yard box and saw his effort deflect wickedly off Gordon Chisholm for a tragically unfortunate own goal.

Within two minutes, Sunderland were presented with the perfect opportunity to equalise when Norwich defender, Dennis van Wijk, inexplicably handled in the area but Clive Wilson, usually reliable from the spot, saw his kick go wide of Chris Woods’ left-hand post.

Norwich held onto their slender advantage for the rest of the game and so it was captain, Dave Watson, that lifted the rather aesthetically-challenged trophy at the end of the match.

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An open-bus celebration was held in Norwich city centre and the future looked very rosy, with major European football on the cards for the first time and a developing squad expected to push on.

Unfortunately, though, Norwich City then simply went into freefall in the league. Following a win and a draw in their next two league games, against Coventry City and Sheffield Wednesday respectively, Norwich promptly suffered five straight defeats which sent them plummeting down the table.

A hard-fought 3-2 victory at already doomed Stoke City promised a little respite, but it proved to be a false dawn as the next three matches were all lost. This chain of events saw Norwich mired in 19th place, just one above Coventry City who were occupying the final relegation spot. Norwich had just two games left and were five points ahead of the Highfield Road outfit who had three games in hand.

Their vanquished cup final opponents, Sunderland, had suffered a similar drop in fortunes since Wembley and were by now doomed to relegation.

On May 11, while Coventry were losing 2-1 at Southampton, Norwich picked up a point in a goalless draw at home to Newcastle United to move six points clear of their rivals. When the Canaries finally found some form in a 3-1 victory at Stamford Bridge in their last match of the season, while Coventry could only manage a goalless draw at Ipswich, it looked as if the late-season wobble would prove immaterial as although Coventry still had three games in hand, the gap was now up to eight points.

Needing to win all three games to stay up, Coventry were not given much chance by the pundits of pulling off a great escape. The first of the three games was away to Stoke City who had experienced a terrible season, winning just three times all campaign, A tough affair ensued but Coventry prevailed by the only goal of the game to keep their survival dream just about alive.

Next up were Luton Town at Highfield Road, and an identical 1-0 scoreline was enough to see off the Bedfordshire side and so bring about a do-or-die last game against newly-crowned champions, Everton.

If Norwich were counting on the Merseyside side doing them any favours, they were to be sorely disappointed as the Blues were coming off a long and exhausting season that in addition to taking the title had also seen the finals of the FA and European Cup Winners’ Cup reached. With the title long since secured, and limbs aweary, it was perhaps not the greatest surprise in the world that some of the Everton players were ‘on the beach’ and the 4-1 defeat that ensued was of little consequence to them.

It was of major consideration to Norwich City though, and the club complained bitterly that Coventry regarding the fact had been allowed to finish their last three fixtures after the end of the regular season.

The disappointment of relegation was a blow which was then compounded by the ban imposed by UEFA on English sides entering European competition following the Heysel tragedy that spring, and so what should have been an exciting time for the Norfolk club turned out to be rather a gloomy damp squib instead.

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Sticking with Ken Brown for another spell in the second flight proved to be a prudent decision, as a solid season spent consolidating proved fruitful with the Second Division title being won fairly comfortably. Brown was able to keep most of the side together, and with another year’s experience, the team blended well and the following season, 1986-87, the momentum was maintained with an excellent fifth-placed finish back in the First Division.

The following season started poorly, however, and by December 1987 the club was once more mired in a relegation battle. Having stood by Brown twice through relegation, the Norwich City board were unwilling to make it a hat-trick and so, perhaps a little harshly, they dispensed with his services as Christmas approached.

Brown was replaced by the reserve team coach, Dave Stringer, a former player at the club, who steered the side away from the relegation zone in his first season. The next season, 1988-89, saw Norwich in contention for a rather unlikely league and FA Cup double going into the final weeks of the season, before ultimately falling to Everton in the FA Cup semi-final and drifting away to finish fourth in the table.

As for Brown, he was appointed manager of Plymouth Argyle, where he reigned in the hot seat for eighteen months before once again being sacked. It was his last management position.