12th May 2002.
I was 16 years old, and I queued for 10 hours for my ticket to the biggest game I had ever known in my short Norwich supporting life. My mother and I arrived at Carrow Road at 7am on the day tickets went on general sale and the queue snaked all the way round the stadium, doubled back on itself around the City Stand and carried on into the distance. All day there was a buzz. The semi-final win over Wolves was gut-wrenching enough; this was to be something else. At 5pm, we got two tickets.
On the day, we were up in the dark, and we packed our bags; packed lunches, books, and green & yellow hairspray. The essentials. At Carrow Road we were greeted by an army of bleary eyed canaries. But the buzz was still there. At 4am, the excitement was in the air. All that stood between us and the big time was a cross country coach trip, and the yellow army set off.
The trip will have been familiar to many of our away followers. Cheering every time we saw another coach, the occasional song getting stronger as the morning brightened up, running into familiar faces at service stations. 35,000 people made their way from one side of the country to another by coach, car, plane, train and limo. The anticipation had been building for seven years and it felt like the whole city was moving.
In Cardiff, the fans swarmed together and soaked in the pre-match atmosphere. A sea of yellow shirts that looked like a field of daffodils. I found myself in an Old Orleans not far from the stadium. With Norwich fans everywhere, some brave Birmingham fans walked down the street like invaders. They were greeted by ‘are you Ipswich in disguise’. If only. Across the road I saw my history teacher stood alone. Teachers were never friends, it was never done to be seen talking to one when you didn’t need to. But on a day like that, we were all on the same side.
Being inside the stadium for the first time was breathtaking. The odd decision to close the roof on such a sunny day gave the match a night-time atmosphere. Not that it needed any help. Seventy thousand raucous fans urging their teams to victory was enough. Two cities with firm belief that they should be at the top table, many shared years of hurt and disappointment. They were finally within touching distance of the promised land. The biggest prize in world football, and it remains so today. No one game has more riding on it.
We were three rows from the back, up in the clouds, but the view was perfect. The occasion was perfect. And the match? It was a belter. Open, sometimes too open. Exciting, end to end, it was the advertisement for Division 1 football that we all knew it could be. Both teams leaving it all on the pitch, both goalkeepers working miracles to keep their team in it. At the end of 90 minutes, we were scoreless. And 90 seconds into extra time, we led.
The move started with Clint Easton, and after a couple of short passes and a defensive lapse by Birmingham, the ball was at the feet of Alex Notman out on the right. Notman put in a delicate cross and rising at the end was big Iwan who nodded the ball across the goal and into the corner, all in front of the Birmingham fans. Collectively, all Norwich fans thought the same thing; why didn’t we do that 2 minutes ago? A split second later, Cardiff erupted. We had one foot in the Premier League. We only had 29 minutes to hold out.
Nigel Worthington, like the best Italian managers, pulled the team back. Defending resolutely, Norwich threw men in front of the ball as we tried to hold onto our lead, but it wasn’t to be. Before the end of the first period of extra time, Birmingham were back in it. Robert Green was caught a bit out of place and Horsfield met a ball across the goal and bundled it in. Back to square one.
The pace of the second period was frantic, and it was mainly Birmingham. The odd time delay between seeing Birmingham fans jump up, and the sound of their disappointment, had Norwich fans panicking as they hit the post not far from the end, but we held on. The long day was about to get longer. In front of the Birmingham fans a penalty shootout was about to take place for the biggest prize in football.
But it wasn’t to be. If the sight of Phil Mulryne having his penalty saved wasn’t enough, seeing Daryl Sutch spoon his wide of the post sealed the deal. It was only a matter of time. Darren Carter put the nail in the coffin of our Premier League dream, and the Birmingham fans went into delirium. Around me I saw misty eyes. But as I left, along with disappointment and despair, there was another feeling going around. Pride.
I’d seen my team play probably the best football all season. The best football of many seasons. Through the disappointment of Megson, of Walkers second sting, of Rioch and Hamilton, us Norwich fans had put up with bilge on a football pitch. We had seen frauds imitating footballers, we had seen overpaid and overhyped players, false dawns and dodgy imports. We had seen Raymond de Waard and Chris Llewellyn. And Che Wilson.
Over 7 years disappointment had built up into that one afternoon in Cardiff, and they left everything on the pitch. There wasn’t one thing they could have done, and they could look each other in the eye and say they tried, unlike another May day 3 years later. There was pride in defeat because they gave it everything. This emotional rollercoaster is what made me fall in love with football in the first place. Most of my formative footballing memories are tragic; relegation from the Premier League, England losing to Germany in 1996 and then Argentina in 1998, and then this. But if it wasn’t for these tragic bursts then the triumphs of promotion wouldn’t be as sweet.
I walked back from the Millennium Stadium to my coach, like other Norwich fans, in silence. But I carried on waving my flag on a bright afternoon that remains one of my favourites to this day, an afternoon when I saw my team give it all but come up short.