OPINION: Tale of two contrasting managers as Canaries hit top flight

Norwich City manager Ron Saunders

"This is hurting me as much as it’s hurting you …” Norwich City manager Ron Saunders stripped for another tough training session up and down the slopes of Mousehold. A regular beat on the way to top-flight football for the first time - Credit: Alan Howard

Milestones mossed with vibrant memories tend to multiply for me on the last lap of April. A high point in Norwich City football history claims pride of place right now.

An up-and-down half-century has flown since the Canaries sealed a top-flight place for the first time and then crowned a wondrous week by clinching the Second Division title in driving rain . Then I prepared for a heady new era as soccer scribe with a capital evening trip to see our national team in action.

Monday, April 24 1972 found me ready to join an expectant yellow-and-green cavalcade towards London with my regular promotion-hunting “minders” fellow reporter Bruce Robinson and photographer Dick Jeeves. City beat Leyton Orient 2-1 – and purple prose flowed.

“Grown men cried and attempted handstands and cartwheels way beyond their scope before trooping away sheepishly to find ways of ringing home to say they might be a bit late,” I scribbled. “As one who has gone through several briar patches with hard man Ron Saunders, I am happy now to admire his defiant pose in the rose garden of success.”

The Norwich boss kept a few more sideways smiles and “I told you so!” fist-pumps up his sleeve as the following Saturday’s champagne-drenched 1 -1 draw at Watford provided that precious point needed for championship honours. The Canaries wore red shirts to avoid a colour clash with the already-relegated Hornets.

Monsoon conditions followed me to Wembley for England’s European Championships quarter-final first leg tie against West Germany, clearly still smarting from 1966 and all that. With an imperious Franz Beckenbauer pulling soggy strings in midfield, the visitors strolled home 3-1, held England to a goalless draw in the return and went on to lift the Euros crown.

Perhaps that Teutonic masterclass was meant to serve as a useful reminder of what “little old Norwich” could expect on elevation to a football hierarchy soon to turn into a global multi-millionaires’ playground. Countless times since that 1972 breakthrough, Carrow Road officials, players and supporters have been forced to mumble that old line about being “better to travel than to arrive …”.

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At the time, Saunders contented himself with a loud mutter underlining something else for fans to go on about instead of harping back to that epic FA Cup Run of 1958-59, a source of constant irritation to him while he built a new era on the demanding slopes of Mousehold Heath on the city outskirts.


Changing room celebrations for Norwich City after beating Orient 2-1 in April 1972 and securing top flight promotion for the first time - Credit: Library

Contrary to popular belief, I did admire some aspects of the Saunders approach. He made plenty out of little, banking on sweat, organisation and unadorned graft rather than the cheque book and flair on the pitch to take his troops into Division One and then on to Wembley for the first time to face Spurs in the 1973 League Cup Final.

His achievements stand proudly in Canary history, His methods, allowing so little room for freedom of expression, must remain open to question. I know from scary experience how belligerent he could be over any hint of criticism about that parade-ground mentality and defensive tactics.

My banishment from the team bus, and regular news conferences pale into background gossip against the notorious boardroom bust-up between Saunders and chairman Arthur South, culminating in the manager’s angry resignation after home defeat by Everton.

One of the biggest challenges of my Carrow Road tenure was acclimatising to a dramatic switch in managerial style and personality about halfway through. Dour and dogmatic gave way to colour and controversy as John Bond swaggered in. One threw a protective shield around his players and confined himself to startling comments along “we gave 110 per cent” lines, while 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 reinforced by several incumbents to follow. Many pundits have suggested combining the best bits of Saunders and Bond might have produced an ideal candidate for the hot seat …

I am tempted to call up that grand old commentator Charles “Early Doors” Dickens as guest summariser for my eventful seasons as a full-time Canary correspondent. Then again, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” hardly 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.

My tale of one city and two managers of starkly contrasting character, Ron “Gradgrind” Saunders and John “Micawber” Bond, included glamour, excitement and genuine pride in rich achievement of the club I had loved and followed since childhood.

I do not regret my insistence on reflecting public opinion rather than trying to sway it. I saw my role, a highly privileged one as an unbiased reporter, not a passionate supporter.

I survived with my notebook, pencil and principles -- and some of my sanity – intact.. Even so, it took an iron will and innate belief in real freedom of the press to keep going for best part of a decade.