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On The Air, City! How The Canaries went live on the airwaves with their famous FA Cup run of 1958-59

PUBLISHED: 17:37 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 17:37 15 February 2019

FA Cup match between Norwich City and Tottenham Hotspur (1-0) at Carrow Road, 18 February 1959. Photo: Archant Library

FA Cup match between Norwich City and Tottenham Hotspur (1-0) at Carrow Road, 18 February 1959. Photo: Archant Library

Archant Library

Sixty years ago on February 18, Norwich defeated Tottenham in an FA Cup fifth round replay on their way to reaching the semi-finals for the first time in the club's history - it was also the first ever live radio commentary on a Norwich City game. Radio Norfolk's Paul Hayes recounts that famous cup run through its radio coverage

A box containing the tape of the Radio Norfolk commentary v Sheffield UnitedA box containing the tape of the Radio Norfolk commentary v Sheffield United

The stories of Norwich City’s 1959 FA Cup run are part of the modern folklore of Norfolk. Tales of sherry and eggs; of spikes on the ice and of Ken Nethercott’s shoulder; of the team walking the length of the train home to serenade their loyal fans after the heartbreak of semi-final defeat.

But what isn’t so well-known is that the cup run also represents another important landmark in Norwich City’s history, and indeed the history of broadcasting here in the county.

This Monday will mark not just 60 years to the day since the Canaries beat Tottenham 1-0 at Carrow Road to secure their place in the cup quarter-finals. It will also be the 60th anniversary of the first ever full, live radio commentary on a Norwich City game.

Aside from the FA Cup final itself and the occasional international match here and there, full commentaries were extremely rare at the time, with the BBC usually being restricted to covering a short section of a game, or at best the whole second half. The handful of Norwich matches which had been partially broadcast since the 1930s had all been along these lines, with clubs and the football authorities reluctant to allow full coverage in case it impacted on attendances at the grounds. The plan for the replay against Spurs had been for a commentary team to bring the last 10 minutes or so of the game to the nation on the Light Programme.

In 1956 the BBC had opened up a regional radio headquarters on All Saints Green in Norwich, providing news bulletins and a few weekly programmes for East Anglia on the local frequency of the Home Service. Seeing perhaps an opportunity to increase the awareness of their existence, and to satisfy the cup run excitement across the county, the BBC in Norwich arranged to use the national commentary team to broadcast the entire match on the East Anglian service.

This was the first time ever that a complete Norwich City game had been broadcast live from beginning to end. It was so successful that it was done again for the replays in the following rounds against Sheffield United and Luton Town – an unprecedented level of coverage for almost any club at the time, but especially so for one at Norwich’s Third Division level.

Norwich v Manchester United in January 1959Norwich v Manchester United in January 1959

City fan Frank Heyhoe recorded two of these East Anglian commentaries off-air onto reel-to-reel tapes, preserving far more of the matches than the brief snippets which survive in the official BBC archives. His recordings are a unique window onto 1950s football commentary, but also on the excitement that was generated by the cup run here in the county and is captured in some of the pre-match build-up.

“The recordings of the FA Cup run are incredibly rare,” says Jonathan Draper of the county’s Record Office, where Mr Heyhoe’s tapes are preserved as part of the Norfolk Sound Archive. “The technology to record off transmission was expensive, and so it’s a bit of a find to have these recordings. We don’t have anything like it, and their importance to the local area is incalculable.”

In 2019, the BBC employs dozens of journalists in Norwich to cover news across Norfolk and the wider East of England on radio, television and online. Sixty years ago the Corporation had just a single journalist based in the city, Dick Robinson, who produced a five-minute radio news bulletin every weekday evening.

Unlike on radio, in the spring of 1959 there wasn’t yet any regional television service here, either from the BBC or ITV – they both started up in October of that 
year. However, such was the interest in Norwich’s exploits that after their quarter-final victory the national BBC news sent a camera crew up to the city 
and dispatched Dick onto the streets to gauge public opinion. Dick, now aged 90, still lives in Norwich and recalls that unlike some stories, it was a very easy subject about which to gather people’s views.

“There was no need to explain to people what you wanted,” he remembers. “Sometimes with a story you’d have to say ‘this is about so-and-so.’ But here everybody knew all about it, and were more than happy to give their opinion! Everybody was caught up with this enthusiasm – even people who were not normally reckoned to follow the fortunes of Norwich City, talking about it, thinking about it and wishing the club well.”

The footage, which still survives, provides a charming time capsule of the excitement which gripped the county. A landlord explains how all the talk in his pub has been on only three subjects recently – football, football and football. “We’ve even forgotten horse racing!” One woman on the market is almost drowned out by an impromptu chorus of On the Ball, City coming from somewhere in the background – “we’re gonna win it,” she tells Dick, with a tone which suggests this is obvious. “Bring it back to Norwich!”

Alan Clarke, who led the commentary on Norwich's 1959 FA Cup gamesAlan Clarke, who led the commentary on Norwich's 1959 FA Cup games

Attached to the same piece of film is a post-match interview conducted in the City dressing room after the win over Sheffield United. A young Terry Bly – shy, quiet and beaming, clutching a celebratory glass of something – tells an incredulous David Coleman that the goals he’s scored this evening were his first ever in professional football with his left foot. “I just had a laugh with Terry Allcock in the bath tonight,” he offers softly, unused to being filmed, trying to provide an anecdote when there isn’t really one to tell.

“I said, ‘What about that Terry, two goals with my left foot?’”

It’s being able to unearth such gems from the archives and broadcast them for perhaps the first time in 60 years which is one of the real pleasures of making a programme such as Canaries in the Air, my documentary about the cup run and how it was broadcast which goes out on BBC Radio Norfolk this Sunday lunchtime. It’s a fascinating period at which to look back, seeming to me to be something of a crossroads. A time when television was establishing itself, if it hadn’t already, as the most popular mass medium, but when the giants of radio were still household names. A time of Grandstand and Crackerjack, but also still of Music While You Work and Family Favourites – and all of these programmes have their parts to play in the story of how the BBC covered the cup run.

But these pieces of the puzzle do not, sadly, provide the entire picture of the BBC’s coverage, on radio or on television. We’re very lucky in that we have more archive of Norwich City’s run than perhaps any other local news story of the era, but much of what was broadcast is now gone. Lost to the ether; existing only in memory.

Unless you know differently, of course? If you do happen to have any reels of tape recorded off-air back in 1959, then do please get in touch with BBC Radio Norfolk. I might perhaps find myself with the very welcome task of having to prepare a revised version of the documentary!

Canaries in the Air, the story of the 1959 cup run and how the BBC covered it, is on BBC Radio Norfolk on Sunday at 1pm, and available for 30 days afterwards via bbc.co.uk/radionorfolk



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