Signals from the Norwich City dressing room should be heeded

Norwich City keeper John Ruddy is a major presence inside the Canaries' dressing room. Picture by Pa

Norwich City keeper John Ruddy is a major presence inside the Canaries' dressing room. Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Len Ashurst is a name that may only resonate with Norwich City supporters of a certain vintage.

Ashurst was a player and manager from a bygone era who occupies an important place in the Canaries' history and in particular that momentous Milk Cup victory at Wembley back in 1985.

The Scouser was Sunderland's manager on an afternoon when Asa Hartford's deflected strike and Clive Walker's penalty miss earned Ken Brown and his squad a cherished place in the mythology of the club.

Ashurst's brutally frank autobiography contains a fascinating insight into the bitter divisions that existed within the Wearsiders' dressing room which ultimately undermined Sunderland's attempts to overcome Brown's men and bring the cup back to the north-east.

Ashurst revealed the build up to the final in the Sunderland camp was soured by a row over an unpaid £10,000 bonus to the player pot promised by a director immediately after the club's aggregate semi-final win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The matter was only resolved in the final few days before Ashurst's side were due to face the Canaries, but the lingering resentment was compounded by the club's decision to grant Sunderland's players and management the bare minimum allocation of cup final tickets.

As Ashurst graphically recalled on the famous long walk from the tunnel to the pitch at the old stadium his Norwich counterpart was busy waving to family and friends situated in the Royal Box whilst he had to scan the infil areas in the vicinity of one of the corner flags for his nearest and dearest.

Ashurst also had to face down his captain, Barry Venison, barely 30 minutes before the game was due to start after it emerged he had signed a boot deal with a rival manufacturer to Sunderland's chief supplier.

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Venison was forced to black out the stripes on his new footwear or else watch the showpiece occasion from the sidelines. Brown, his players and Norwich's support would clearly have been oblivious to such distractions which in isolation could be dismissed as bizarre anecdotes surrounding the opposition on that special day for the Canaries.

But there is a darker side to Ashurst's tales of dressing room unrest. Sunderland were relegated from the old First Division after winning just one of their remaining 12 league games following that Wembley defeat. Ashurst paid for their demise with his own job. Norwich also departed the top tier that season before storming back as champions at the first attempt, but the toxic undercurrent within Sunderland's dressing room accelerated a decline that saw the club eventually drop into the Third Division wtihin two years of that showpiece Wembley appearance.

Ashurst's honest portrayal of his failure to control a dressing room of rival factions and competing interests may be the exception to the norm. It may, however, be all too familiar a story when the transient nature of the business means professional footballers are commodities whose first loyalty must be to themselves and their families.

Yet football remains a team game where individual success can only be achieved across a much broader canvas. Norwich's recent rise from League One was forged on honest toil and endeavour. Consolidation in the Premier League and City's ability to withstand tough times on that journey relies heavily on the same qualities. The Canaries' tightly-knit dressing room will always be their biggest asset. The faces may change, the personalities may differ but as Russell Martin alluded to recently any new arrivals with brash egos find themselves swiftly adhering to the team ethic. There is little time or inclination for the cult of the individual within Norwich's set-up.

One could never foresee a situation which faced Ashurst on the final day of his first season at Sunderland, when he alleges in his autobiography two of his key performers, Paul Bracewell and Lee Chapman, visited him in his office to intimate they wanted to leave as the team coach was set to depart for a must-win fixture at Leicester in their survival battle. Further, in his words they were 'not fussed' about playing at Filbert Street with Sunderland's First Division status on the line. Ashurst convinced both to play with a promise they would have their wish granted if they did the business and both, he recalls, were 'superb' in a 2-0 win. That Milk Cup final defeat the following March was a brief respite in a downward trend.

The widely reported events during the interval of the vital Premier League win over West Ham at Carrow Road should underline City's players care deeply about what happens to the football club.

Men like Martin and John Ruddy were vocal in their attempts to spark the hosts into a belated response against a superior visiting unit.Chris Hughton was shrewd enough to allow the leaders within his squad a platform to voice their opinions. Hughton and those senior players who have played integral parts in the rise understand the importance of retaining those core values that have proved remarkably robust on the steep ascent.

Norwich's survival and commitment to further growth in the Premier League will not rest solely on the harmony within the dressing room. The same lines of questioning about tactics and personnel will return if they fail to capitalise on a more forgiving run of Premier League fixtures between now and the New Year.

But their chances of success both in the immediate future and beyond improve immeasurably if the dressing room retains that tight bond and common sense of purpose that allows them to face adversity and challenge the established order.

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