Stringer and the Theatre of Dreams for Norwich City
- Credit: Archant
Half a century ago today, what was then considered a minor miracle occurred at Old Trafford.
The mighty Manchester United were beaten 2-1 at home in the FA Cup by Norwich City, a side then competing in the second tier.
It was a United side that contained the Holy Trinity - Best, Law and Charlton. Six of the team would, 18 months later, help United create history as the first English team to win the European Cup.
Manager Matt Busby wouldn't have considered resting any of his players for the game against Norwich. It didn't happen. Not in front of more than 63,000 fans at Old Trafford, where they expected, and received, more respect.
This weekend, there won't be a fan of the seven Premier League clubs left in the competition who would bet good money that they could name their team. Even their opponents, cast in the role of giant-killer or in the case of one or two, minnow, might just rotate. That's what the FA Cup is nowadays.
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Stepney, Dunne, Noble, Crerand, Sadler, Stiles, Ryan, Law, Charlton, Herd and Best lined up for United 50 years ago.
The Norwich team is one that rolls off the tongue for fans of a certain vintage: Kevin Keelaan, Dave Stringer, Joe Mullett, Mal Lucas, Laurie Brown, Terry Allcock, Mike Kenning, Don Heath, Tommy Bryceland, Gordon Bolland and Terry Anderson.
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Stringer's job? Simple. To mark George Best. The man his team-mate Paddy Crerand said left defenders 'with twisted blood'.
On February 18, 1967, Best couldn't get the better of Stringer.
'I wouldn't say I had him in my pocket, that would not be correct, but it would be true to say it wasn't perhaps his best performance,' said the former City player and, later, manager.
'On the day he didn't cause me an enormous amount of trouble. But we defended well and we defended in numbers and we tried to hit them on the break, as you would describe it today, and we managed to keep him quiet.'
Only two teams had left Old Trafford with a victory in the previous three years and for 25 minutes, United were the masters, guilty only of trying to walk the ball into the net. They paid the price after 26 minutes. Bryceland's defence-splitting pass found Heath. The United defence was static. Stepney tried to close off the angle, but Heath was composed and sidestepped the keeper to slot the ball home. The only noise inside Old Trafford came from the thousands of travelling Norwich fans.
United responded and, eight minutes later, Denis Law.
'He got a great goal, a near-post volley and his body was in the air when he hit it... great player,' recalled Stringer. 'I thought, 'here we go, we're in trouble'.'
Understandable, and you doubt Stringer was alone in his thoughts.
But City's back four remained resolute and, eventually, United made an error which let the Canaries in. Sixty five minutes had been played when Bryceland hit a pass that was too strong for Bolland. Tony Dunne and Nobby Stiles hesitated and, under pressure, Dunne passed the ball back to Stepney. But the keeper was already racing off his line. The ball headed towards an empty net, helped over the line by Bryceland.
City spent the rest of the game defending their lead, with Keelan a formidable last line of defence. 'Kevin had a blinder on the day,' Stringer said.
If any extra proof were needed of how good a team this was, consider this – Busby's men won their remaining 14 league games to win the title.
Stringer said: 'We had a great celebration as well – we made the front page of the Sunday Mirror the next day.'
Stringer didn't get to swap shirts with Best – 'it might have been worth a few bob today if I had' he laughs – but was delighted to accept a gesture which, again, you might not see in today's game.
'We had a meal after the game and United sent champagne for us by way of congratulations and that was a very good gesture,' recalls Stringer.
Is that something you found yourself doing as a manager? 'We didn't tend to lose many cup ties,' laughed Stringer, who guided City to two FA Cup semi-finals.
And with that ended a conversation which could have gone on for hours, reminiscing about great players, great days and a once great competition.
'What they do nowadays takes away from the competition, no doubt,' added Stringer, now 72. 'It is one of the great cup competitions anywhere. What they do know devalues it.'
Thankfully, we still have February 18, 1967 to remember.
Going to have to had my two penn'orth worth to the great goals debate following City's win over Nottingham Forest a week ago.
Wes Hoolahan's goal was majestic, fantastic. Jonny Howson's even better. The ability to avoid smashing the ball into row Z of the Barclay was unbelievable.
It reminded me of Zinedine Zidane's goal for Real Madrid in the 2002 European Cup final against Bayer Leverkusen
Zidane was on the edge of the area, to the left. The ball came out of the sky, but unlike Howson, the Frenchman was not quite facing goal. He watched it drop and then, left footed, volleyed it home. Truly sensational.
Some prefer Roberto Carlos' free-kick at Le Tournoi, in 1997, when the bend defied the laws of physics.
The problem with that is, Carlos was, in the most part, at best an average free-kick taker.
Zidane was a genius. For Norwich City so is Howson.
Arsenal are going to find life very different the day Arsene Wenger is not their manager.
Wenger is responsible for just about everything that goes on at the club. He is to the Gunners what Sir Alex Ferguson was to Manchester United.
I went on a stadium tour of The Emirates a while back and Wenger's influence is everywhere.
In the home dressing room, for example, there is a table in the middle. It gets filled with bottlers and old socks and what have you. But it is low enough so players seated at their cubicles can see everyone around it. In the away dressing room, the table is higher, so players can't see each other.
The room is designed so the quietly-spoken Wenger can be heard without shouting.
Every minute detail has Wenger's stamp on it. Sadly, so has his team at the moment.