As new book is released, Keith Skipper gives his memories of covering Norwich City Football Club
12:00 28 June 2012
To celebrate the publication of a new book titled Norwich City Histry As It Happened, Keith Skipper recalls his eventful stint as our City expert.
I’m tempted to call up that grand old commentator Charles Dickens to summarise my eventful seasons as a full-time Canary scribe.
Then again, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” scarcely embraces the complexities and intrigues of a period when football reporting should have carried a health warning for anyone daft enough to strike an individual pose.
Yes, my tale of one city and two managers of starkly contrasting character, Ron Saunders and John Bond, includes glamour, excitement and genuine pride in rich achievements of a club I had loved since childhood.
Yes, there were occasions when I had to temper a fiercely parochial spirit with a drop or two of chilling honesty so as to stay true to myself and thousands of Norwich City followers who had reason to trust what they read in the local papers.
Yes, I could have settled for an easier life by constantly espousing the Carrow Road party line and “looking on the bright side” whenever problems mounted amid poor results or weak displays. No, I do not regret my insistence on reflecting public opinion rather than trying to sway it.
I saw my role as an unbiased reporter, not a passionate supporter. I survived with my principles – and some of my sanity – intact. But it took an iron will and innate belief in real freedom of the press to keep going for nearly a decade.
It’s worth placing my football reporting years into some sort of general context. When I started with the arrival of Ron Saunders in 1969, much of the nation still glowed in the World Cup glory of Alf Ramsey & Co.
Many Canary fans clung to the romance of that breathtaking 1958-59 FA Cup run. There had been an astounding Cup victory since over Manchester United at Old Trafford, but nostalgia appeared a more potent force than faith in the future.
Local correspondents could get very close to clubs they were covering, especially those outside the top flight, but I eschewed a growing habit of overloading match reports and reflective articles with fatuous quotes from manager or players. Same with tittle-tattle in the national press... an occasional grain of wholesome wheat in mountains of speculative chaff.
Remember, too, how Norwich’s geographical position and “country cousins” tag left them untroubled by Fleet Street newshounds for long periods at a time before they started rubbing shoulders with the big boys on a more regular basis.
Running reports in the Pink ‘Un on Saturday afternoons and in-depth analysis in the Eastern Daily Press and Evening News on the Monday dominated coverage.
There was no local radio, no website and no social media to spread facts, opinions and rumours, while television interest was largely confined to Anglia’s Match of the Week highlights after Sunday lunch.
One of the biggest challenges of my Carrow Road tenure was acclimatising to a dramatic change in managerial personality and style about halfway through. Mr Saunders, dour and dogmatic, gave way to Mr Bond, all colour and controversy.
While one threw a protective shield around his players, and confined himself to startling comments along “we gave 110 per cent” lines, the other courted the media shamelessly and encouraged everyone within reach to wear bleeding hearts on sleeves.
They had nothing in common other than being born a few weeks of each other in 1932 and both joining Manchester City to further their careers and leave Norwich with the sort of “stepping stone” complex Paul Lambert has reinforced in recent weeks.
I admired some aspects of the Saunders approach as he made plenty out of little, banking on sweat and dedication rather than the cheque book to take the club into the top flight and on to Wembley for the first time. His achievements stand proudly in Canary history. His methods built on a parade-ground mentality have to remain open to question.
My efforts to remain objective and fair were seriously hindered by being thrown off the team bus, banned from the boardroom and denied any useful information from the club for weeks at a time. I suspect Mr Saunders harboured a little grudging respect for my Norfolk cussedness – but he never said so.
His successor settled for a far more entertaining and open regime but often needed protection from a non-stop passion to oblige.
Cynical operators chasing juicy headlines for national tabloids made him a regular target.
A reputation for cigar-and-champagne living in a modest abode may have given the “Bondwagon” a hefty push, but it couldn’t hide fatal flaws on and off the pitch.
Add a dash or two of explosive boardroom politics involving forceful characters like Arthur South and Geoffrey Watling and it becomes abundantly clear why my Carrow Road years deserve the headline; “A privilege – but so many pressures.”
Norwich City History As It Happened is available at £25 from Archant Norfolk outlets (including the Evening News/EDP offices at Prospect House in Norwich). The large-format softback is also available from Norwich City FC outlets at Carrow Road, The Mall, and Chapelfield, and Jarrold’s Norwich store. You can order a copy (£25, including free delivery to a UK address) by calling 01603 772174 or by visiting www.subscriptionsave.cpo.uk/ncfc