The Return of the King: Looking back on the greatest Boxing Day ever enjoyed by Norwich City fans

Darren Huckerby is unveiled by Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones on Boxing Day 2003, ahead of kick-off against Nottingham Forest. Picture: Steve Adams. Darren Huckerby is unveiled by Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones on Boxing Day 2003, ahead of kick-off against Nottingham Forest. Picture: Steve Adams.

Monday, December 23, 2013
9:47 PM

The Christmas of 2003 will always be fondly remembered by Norwich City fans. David Freezer takes a look book at the special present which was unwrapped at Carrow Road 10 years ago today.

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Huckerby in action during his final loan game, a 4-1 win against Cardiff City at Carrow Road, Picture: James Bass.Huckerby in action during his final loan game, a 4-1 win against Cardiff City at Carrow Road, Picture: James Bass.

There was one Christmas present at the very top of every Norwich City fans’ wish list 10 years ago.

Winger Darren Huckerby had been a huge hit during a three-month loan spell from Manchester City, scoring five goals in 16 games, and quickly become the star name at Carrow Road.

But keeping Huckerby, who was part of a loan triumvirate unveiled by City boss Nigel Worthington in the September of that year alongside Peter Crouch and Kevin Harper, was not looking likely.

Everyone was desperate for Huckerby to stay, with City sitting second in the Division One table and dreaming of a promotion charge.

Huckerby with Nigel Worthington following his final loan game, a 4-1 win against Cardiff City at Carrow Road. Picture: Albanpix.Huckerby with Nigel Worthington following his final loan game, a 4-1 win against Cardiff City at Carrow Road. Picture: Albanpix.

Goalkeeper Robert Green was among those pleading with the club’s board to find the funds to keep the former Newcastle and Leeds man.

“In a few weeks time we could lose three of our big players, which would be a very big thing,” Green said following a 1-0 home win against Crewe on November 29.

“Everybody wants Huckerby in the First Division, if they can afford him, and that’s the fact of the matter and you know what a difference he makes.”

It was Huckerby himself who really stoked the fires though, when he admitted he would be prepared to take a pay cut if it meant staying at Carrow Road, saying: “I would have to take a pay cut no doubt about that. I’m not stupid, there’s not the money in Division One that there was. But I don’t think that’s the biggest problem, I don’t think it will get that far, it’s irrelevant really.

Delia Smith and Darren Huckerby prepare to take to the pitch on Boxing Day 2003, ahead of kick-off against Nottingham Forest. Picture: Steve Adams.Delia Smith and Darren Huckerby prepare to take to the pitch on Boxing Day 2003, ahead of kick-off against Nottingham Forest. Picture: Steve Adams.

“If I had the choice I’d love to stay and play for Norwich City, but it’s not down to me. It doesn’t matter what I want or what the manager wants for that matter.

“If Manchester City see me as more valuable than what Norwich can pay, then that’s that.”

The ultimate dream for Canaries fans was for the club to somehow keep Crouch at Carrow Road as well, but while the Huckerby saga rolled on, Worthington admitted the Crouch deal was a very different kettle of fish.

“Villa spent almost £5million for the lad and they are not going to want to let him go for £250,000,” the City boss admitted.

Darren Huckerby is re-introduced to the Carrow Road crowd by Delia Smith after signing for the club. 
Picture: Bill Smith
.Darren Huckerby is re-introduced to the Carrow Road crowd by Delia Smith after signing for the club. Picture: Bill Smith .

With money already tight - the club had just announced a £4.6m yearly loss in their annual accounts - a £2.2m share issue had been made to try and free up money for Worthington’s transfer kitty.

Among the people to snap up shares were associate directors Mike and Karen Smith, from Filby, who bought £100,000 worth of shares, and Drayton-based construction company R G Carter, which added a further “five-figure sum” to the pot.

Tickets for Huckerby’s final game against Cardiff City sold-out on the Tuesday before the match, as City fans prepared themselves to say a frustrated goodbye to Huckerby.

Worthington, speaking at the usual pre-match Thursday press conference, said: “Darren will go back. We’ve spoken to Manchester City and all the figures potentially to be added up are way in excess of where Norwich City is at this moment in time.

BBC Radio Norfolk presenter Roy Waller gets ready to run naked through the streets of Norwich after Norwich City signed Darren Huckerby.

 
Photo: Nick Butcher
.BBC Radio Norfolk presenter Roy Waller gets ready to run naked through the streets of Norwich after Norwich City signed Darren Huckerby. Photo: Nick Butcher .

“Darren’s done exceptionally well in his time here. He’s an exciting player who gets supporters, managers and coaches on the edge of their seats, but we’re governed by finances, simple as that. We have got to be realistic.”

A disappointed Huckerby added: “It’s gone quite well here and I hoped something might have been sorted out. It hasn’t and I’ve just got to get on with it.”

The pain was eased somewhat by the arrival of striker Leon McKenzie, for £300,000 from Peterborough United, on the back of eight goals in his last nine games for Posh.

But following Huckerby’s virtuoso swansong in a 4-1 destruction of Cardiff, played under the shadow of the new £6m Jarrold Stand during its construction, Worthington offered some Huckerby hope.

“Leon’s not to be seen as a Darren Huckerby replacement - it’s not a case of that at all,” Worthington said. “He’s just been added to the squad that I’ve already got and if I could add Darren Huckerby and others to it I will do so.

“We will never have a better opportunity than this to get to the level where we all want to go.”

On Tuesday, December 16 the ultimate Christmas present for City fans seemed to be on its way, when it emerged Norwich had agreed a £750,000 deal with Manchester City, with another £250,000 added on if they were promoted.

But the deal was not yet done, as Huckerby had to settle personal terms, in particular for the £1.5m he was owed for the 18 months remaining of his contract.

And even worse - Manchester City were thought to have agreed similar deals with both West Brom and Wigan.

In amongst the drama of the Huckerby saga was the small matter of an East Anglian derby at Portman Road, and an opportunity to go top of the Division One table.

Worthington’s team managed that part of the story just fine without Huckerby, McKenzie famously scoring twice on his debut to fire the Canaries to one of the most important ever wins against their rivals.

But without Huckerby, staying on top of the table was looking like a big ask for City.

In the meantime another striker was brought in, Matthias Svensson from Charlton, but still no news on the Huckerby front.

Then the story took a fresh twist, after Huckerby’s agent Phil Smith decided to speak up.

“It would be very difficult for Darren to entertain a permanent move into the Nationwide League,” Smith said. “We will speak to West Brom and Norwich in due course, but we also believe there are other clubs interested in him who are operating at a higher level.”

The saga had reached crisis point, cue a statement from Huckerby, issued by his agent, on December 23.

“It became clear, first last night and again this morning, that Norwich were expecting more manoeuvrability from myself and Manchester City than they were prepared to do themselves, to the point where I have been forced to ask the question: just how much did Norwich want me in the first place?,” the statement read.

“I wanted to express this feeling because of the excellent rapport that I have had with the Canaries’ fans during my three months at the club.

“There was certainly no more that we could be expected to do to make this happen and my one regret is that I won’t be playing in front of them more regularly.

“I wish the club well and hope that Nigel Worthington, the lads and the fans get what they deserve, Premiership football next season.”

It seemed now the deal with Norwich was also dead.

But, just like all good Christmas tales, there was a happy ending still to come.

Huckerby, seemingly angry with the statement released by Smith, told Worthington he would be bypassing the agent and speaking directly to Manchester City himself.

Then came Boxing Day and a clash with Nottingham Forest at Carrow Road.

The Norfolk rumourmill went into overdrive and speculation about Huckerby signing reached fever pitch on the day of the game, as rumours started to leak.

Then just before kick-off, the smiling faces of majority shareholders Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones emerged alongside the man everyone was talking about.

Huckerby was treated to a hero’s welcome to spark a brilliant atmosphere for a tough battle against Forest, won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Svensson.

After receiving his rapturous reception and with a huge grin on his face, Huckerby said: “It’s been a tough week but it’s great the way it has turned out. The aim was always to get back here.

“There were a lot of clubs interested in me but my first choice was always Norwich and it’s nice to get it done.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

It would later emerge that local businessman Carl Moore had significantly helped the club find the finances for the deal and, another 43 goals and 187 games later, Huckerby’s legend status was well and truly secured.

It even prompted BBC Radio Norfolk commentator Roy Waller into making good on a bet to run through the streets of the city if Huckerby were to sign.

That was just how much Huckerby meant to Norwich City fans during the glorious Christmas of 2003.

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