Norwich City’s success is even sweeter for Culverhouse second time around
If there is one person best qualified to rank the achievement of back-to-back promotions in Norwich City's recent history, it is Ian Culverhouse.
The classy right-back and Hall of Famer enjoyed the Canaries' most successful period during his 369-game playing career at Carrow Road: from two FA Cup semi-finals (1989 and 1992) and top flight promotion in 1986, to the Premier League title challenge of 1992-93 and City's European adventure the following season. The list had already secured Culverhouse's place in the hearts of City fans worldwide – but now he is heading for Carrow Road immortality.
Culverhouse arrived back at his former club two seasons ago as assistant to manager Paul Lambert, who has taken most of the plaudits but openly sings the former City defender as a vital part of his success. And given City have risen from League One desperation to Premier League euphoria, even Culverhouse has been left pinching himself.
'This sits up there with all of them,' said Culverhouse. 'The Bayern Munich and European stuff – for Norwich to get into Europe was a hell of an achievement of the size of this football club. And to end third in the Premier League, it will probably never be done again – although we hope it is!
'That was more a team thing because we grew up together as players. But on the coaching and personal side, this is more… These players deserve all the credit but to actually have an input in helping them and giving them the licence to do things, and the coaching is very personal to me, it ranks as probably my best achievement.'
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The personal pride in what has happened at Carrow Road is written all over Culverhouse's face – which is understandable, given such a popular player endured a relatively torrid time towards the end of his playing days at Norwich. With City having to sell to survive, watching a successful team disbanded played its part in Culverhouse' departure at the end of 1994. The club's nine-season stay in the top flight ended soon after – and City have spent just one year in the Premier League since.
So Culverhouse feels it is fair to say the Canaries' phenomenal success in the Championship this season has gone a long way to laying a few ghosts to rest. He said: 'It does; I probably left this club under difficult circumstances. I didn't really want to leave and it was a transitional time that the club was going through.
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'In my eyes it didn't really happen for me. I just thought after the team that was brought together, it was quickly dispersed and it left a bitter taste in my mouth because you could see it all unfolding in front of your eyes. And then I was on the receiving end of that and you just think, if they had pushed the boat out a bit more, I would have loved to have stayed at this football club.
'I had nine years here, was due a testimonial, and all of a sudden for that to come to an end you think 'huh, what's gone on there?'.
'But the joy and the excitement and the honour to come back here was beyond me, it really was. And to come back and achieve what we have, it is great satisfaction for me.
'It feels like a job we are getting finished and I can look back now and think I left it in the Premier League and now we are actually taking it back there – so it is really fantastic.'
This time two seasons ago, Culverhouse was at Colchester United preparing to come up against former City team-mates Bryan Gunn and Ians Crook and Butterworth in the dugout – a game the fixture computer decided should open both clubs' campaigns. The Canaries' subsequent 7-1 Carrow Road drubbing proved the catalyst for all the success that followed – from Lambert and Culverhouse's switch north two weeks' later to last season's League One title and this month's historic achievement.
'I don't think you can sum up what has happened here really,' said Culverhouse. 'It's a hell of a turnaround from where this club was, and to actually take it back to where I personally think it belongs is absolutely phenomenal.
'The day we came with Colchester, just to stand there and have the whole ground singing On The Ball City took our breath away, it made hairs stand on the back of our necks. And then the game, which was a surreal moment – a one off.
'We talked about it afterwards, what it would be like to walk out in front of that crowd every week, and beyond our wildest dreams we never though in a fortnight's time we would be actually doing it.'
Every Norwich City supporter will spend the summer contemplating their favourite moments of the 2010-11 season – ones which set the tone, changed the mood or ultimately convinced them there would be another open top bus parade in the second week of May.
And Culverhouse openly admits to four moments he felt punctuated the Canaries' magical run to a Premier League return.
'The first game taught us a lot, Watford at home, and I think it gave us a little kick up the backside to be honest with you,' said Lambert's number two, reflecting on City's opening 3-2 defeat. 'We were caught up in the emotion of everything and resting on our laurels a little bit as well, and we underestimated the size of the task. That was a reality check and we came out of that game thinking we have got to do some serious work here. .
'And then I always think to the second one. We went to Scunthorpe and won 1-0 at a place that was hard to win where Nigel Adkins was still in charge.
'People talk about the big games, the Leicesters and Leeds, but I just thought that one was where we got this group of players to believe they could do something here.'
There was only the odd hiccup over the course of 45 games after defeat to Watford – with a 3-1 loss at Doncaster in September one time, Culverhouse admits, City's management got it wrong.
Not that anyone will hold it against them now.
'Doncaster away we tinkered with the system a little bit, and that was a mistake on our behalf – I hold my hands up there and thought no, we got that wrong,' admitted Culverhouse.
'We should have trusted in what we were doing and trusted the players, but we went there for the first time with a little bit of let's try this out.
'We came away with nothing and I sat with the gaffer and we were honest with each other, said let's go with what we believe in and got us here in the first place, the strengths of the team – that was a big point in the season.
'And then I remember Derby away (a 2-1 win in December), because it was the first time we got the players to play.
'We realised Derby came out very quickly in the first 20 minutes and scored the majority of their goals then, especially at home. So we had to kill the game, kill it off straight away. That meant controlling the ball at the back, playing out and really frustrating their fans – we did that and scored two goals.
'That really set the way for us to go forward because we got the players to control the ball. Modern day football is all about retaining possession and I think we've achieved that this year.'
Following that victory, the Canaries took 50 points from the 78 on offer to finish second in the Championship.
Automatic promotion means regular 26,000 attendances in League One will have to get used to Premier League football next season – crowds more than a third greater than the sell-out figures that watched City in Europe 18 years ago.
'The crowd is different now – although they still moan; we had that when we played as well!' joked Culverhouse. 'Especially behind that dugout when we pass the ball back and try to retain possession. We still hear the shouts of 'get it forwards' and 'what are you doing?'.
'But seriously, to have that backing is like a 12th man – especially at Carrow Road. There is nothing better than that whole crowd getting behind you and willing you on.
'It's not a coincidence that we have scored late goals – but the fans can pat themselves on the back there as well, because they help tremendously. They give these players the encouragement and the feeling that we can get something here, even in the 92nd minute.
'The will to win is so great and you can feel that all around the place.'
• Norwich City midfielder Andrew Crofts has been left out of the Wales squad for the forthcoming Carling Nations Cup fixtures in Dublin.
Crofts played from start in the recent World Cup qualifiying defeat against England, but has been overlooked by manager Gary Speed this time around, with West Ham's fit-again Jack Collison being recalled to the squad for the first time in more than 14 months.
Wales face Scotland on May 25 and Northern Ireland on May 27 at the Aviva Stadium.
Culverhouse added: 'Those European nights were brilliant. The atmosphere playing Bayern, Inter Milan, Vitesse Arnhem, those nights will live long in your memory.
'But the atmosphere now where you add 7,000 to that, it takes the roof off. And they are going to have some good nights again next year, I feel.
'When you look at the crowds, 27,000 every week, it's a phenomenal effort and it just shows you the magnitude of this football club and what it can achieve – and let's take it forward more, I say.'