The face of English football changed in 1992, in came BskyB and a new first division, the premier league was launched to an avalanche of hype, a whole new ball game.
The Taylor report also changed a lot. Least of all was the decision to improve safety at stadiums. One recommendation of the report was that there was to be no more standing room for fans. Stadiums all over the country started to resemble building sites.
Arsenal decided to cover up their renovations. A cardboard north bank was constructed in order to maintain the stadium feel, two nil up on the favorites for relegation Norwich on first day. The old stand seemed not to be missed. 4-2 at the final whistle, easy.
Only it was Mike Walker’s Norwich that had turned it around. Scoring four at George Graham’s famously defensive minded Arsenal at Highbury beggars belief. Norwich had set down a marker, a standard for themselves that would be a spring board to the small club mounting the most surprising challenge for the title in a decade.
Leaders in September, having garnished ten points from a possible twelve, they traveled to Chelsea and were two nil down in the first thirty minutes. A weaker team would have crumbled, but Norwich weren’t afraid to fail. If they were going to lose they were going to do it their way.
They relentlessly attacked Chelsea, Mark Bowen was a constant threat. Chelsea held firm but Dave Beasant gifted Norwich three goals in the second half. Bowen getting two and David Phillips scoring from what seemed a scuffed shot. Norwich were getting the luck they deserved by playing the attacking football Mike Walker had them believe they could play.
They feared no-one, although shipping seven at newly promoted Blackburn was never part of the plan. They dusted themselves down and marched on. Norwich were playing with not so much reckless abandon, more controlled extravagance.
Solid at the back and dashing going forward with Ruel Fox and Jeremy Goss providing support from midfield to a powerful strike force of Mark Robins and a reinvigorated Chris Sutton.
Sutton was a revelation in the new Premier League, graceful in the air with tidy feet and an eye for goal he seemed to have all the natural ability to become a top class striker.
The rise of Sutton to a striker of national recognition had surprised many at the club as he had only become a striker after an injury crises the previous season had seen him moved up from his natural centre half position for one game as cover. He never looked back.
Mike Walker was the man reaping the benefits of Suttons re-positioning. Promoted from within , Walker knew the inner workings of the club. He took over the youth team in 1987 after being sacked from the Colchester United job.
Sacked, and Colchester sitting pretty on top of the league. Some questioned his temperament. He was after all a goalkeeper in his playing days, a temperamental lot, goalkeepers. His relationship with chairman Jonathan Crisp had deteriorated beyond repair and Walker paid the price.
His chairman at Norwich, Robert Chase would offer nothing different. Described by Walker as “Shrewd” their relationship was never going to be anything but strained. Walker wanted to hold on to his star players and win trophies, Chase wanted to buy cheap and sell to turn a huge profit.
The first signs of a fractious relationship came before the season had started, Walker outraged when Chase sold one of the club’s brightest prospects, Robert Fleck, to Chelsea for £2,100,000. Walker wasn’t consulted about the sale. A sign of things to come.
October and November had been good to Norwich and in the first week of December they were eight points clear, Dave Phillips putting pay to Wimbledon at fortress Carrow road. Next stop, Old Trafford. United were in second and not on Norwich’s heels.
A nervous game was killed off Mark Hughes snuck in to punish a Daryl Sutch mistake and coolly slot past Bryan Gunn. The realities of maintaining a title challenge were starting to hit home and Norwich wouldn’t win for the next six games.
They were still in it though. Saturday 16th January 1993 and Sutton scores an equaliser against Coventry, their first goal in over eight hours of football and Norwich are back top. For a few hours at least. Sunday afternoon Aston Villa beat Middlesbrough 5-1 and go top.
But on Monday night Manchester United restored themselves to the top by scraping over QPR at Loftus Road 1-0, an extraordinary three days in the title race.
Man United were reinvigorated by the signing of Eric Cantona from Leeds and by April they were Champions. It was twenty six years since United had won the league and the pain of that record inspired them to the title, they had traveled to Carrow road in the run in.
Ryan Giggs put on a masterclass and Cantona finished them off, 3-0 down at half time, Norwich clawed one back through Mark Robbins but the dream was over. Norwich finished third.
The next season promised much for Norwich. They had established themselves. Walker’s stock was high. He was an English manager that had proved he could build a title challenging squad despite little money, a profit minded chairman and at a club with the one of the smallest fan bases in the Premier League. Now he had a chance to prove himself on the continent.
Norwich had qualified for the UEFA Cup and their reward was a draw against Bayern Munich. No English team had won at the Olimpiastadion, Norwich won 2-1. Jeremy Goss scored an unforgettable volley and Mike Walker was lauded, The Independent gushed that:
Walker has introduced a sweeper system and given it a positive face. Three defenders patrol the spaces in front of Ian Culverhouse while Mark Bowen advances to add his control and passing ability to the forward momentum.
Norwich added insult to injury a fortnight later when Bayern visited Norfolk for the second leg, Goss the tormenter again after Munich had taken the lead on the five minute mark. 1-1 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate.
The scenes in Carrow Road that night were mistaken by many as the dawning of a new era for the club, no longer a provincial minnow in a big pond Norwich had arrived. The fans expected more success to come.
But this was to be as good as it gets for Norwich and Walker. Eventual winners Inter Milan knocked them out in the next round and the team was to be broken up.
Walker left Norwich in January 1994 declaring “I’d need to win the League, FA Cup and Eurovision Song Contest every year to earn a decent salary” on his incentive laden contract.
His relationship with Chase had evaporated completely and Everton promised him a new start with assurances that he would have money to spend to revive the club he supported as a child. But Walker couldn’t get it right at Everton and was sacked ten months later.
Norwich may never come as close again.