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van Wijk, front row on our left

When I first started watching City in 1982, it’s probably fair to say that there had been a mixed history with foreign players. There had been some successes – mainly those from Commonwealth countries, such as the Canadian Errol Crossan and the South Africans Alf Ackerman and Sandy Kennon. From Continental Europe there had been Drazen Muzinic. Hmmm.

In 1982, via a youth tournament in which he was competing for Ajax, Norwich moved to sign Dennis van Wijk. And there lies the first confusion with “The Flying Dutchman” in that nobody knew how to spell his name correctly, and for the entirety of his spell at Carrow Road, he was known as Dennis van Wyk (check any programme from the early 80’s if you don’t believe me). The correct spelling was of course van Wijk, which didn’t stop a matchday programme mocking the Rothmans Football Annual (does that count as Holtamania endorsing tobacco advertising?!) for using that spelling!

The second issue with Dennis was that no-one seemed to know what his best position was. Through 1982/83 and 1983/84 he was generally used to plug a gap in midfield – generally speaking on the left hand side to cover for Dave Bennett’s frequent absences through injury. After Aage Hareide signed the formation was sometimes tweaked to go with three centre backs, so Dennis was employed in the position now known as “wing back” but in those days described by Mel Machin as “auxiliary full back”.

Come 1984/85, City had gone back to playing with two out and out wingers, with the likes of Louie Donowa, Dale Gordon and Mark Barham marauding down the flanks. On some occasions a narrower midfield was employed which suited our Dutch hero more, but he had cemented himself as a left back. That said some of his most impressive performances in a yellow shirt came at centre back when Dave Watson was injured – those matches covered most of the epic FA Cup sequence against Birmingham City, but also the Milk Cup Quarter Final in the snow against Grimsby. As soon as Watson returned, Dennis was returned to left back much to the outspoken annoyance of Greg Downs.

Following relegation and Downs’ not unexpected departure, van Wijk was firmly established as the first choice left back. Tony Spearing had a run in the side early in the season prior to the side going on their all conquering run. Later on in the campaign, Dennis got a knock and was replaced by John Deehan, but contrary to popular belief it was not “Dixie” who played at left back but Mike Phelan. And then at the end of the promotion season, came the completely shocking news that Dennis was departing to join Club Brugge.

Dennis’ Canary career was definitely successful, but will forever be remembered for one daft moment. That handball lying inside his own penalty area at Wembley!. Daft, really daft and it’s still difficult to work out why he felt he needed to do it – after all Barry Venison was the sort of player who got a nosebleed when he crossed the halfway line so it was hardly a goalscoring opportunity!

You may have thought that a successful foreign import would have opened the floodgates for more. Err no. As mentioned previously, Aage Hareide (another person who suffered from having his name spelt incorrectly whilst at Carrow Road), but he had come from Manchester City, and then the next was Henrik Mortensen – and the highlight of his Norwich career came about 20 minutes into his reserve team debut with a spectacular goal (and a crazily sized reserve team crowd to see our new super signing!).

There will be many reading this blog who are not old enough to have seen Dennis in action (other than perhaps on dusty videos of the Milk Cup Final), so you may want to know what sort of player he was. Well, he was definitely the sort of player who managers and coaches love as it always seemed his attitude was spot on and he would play anywhere he was asked. He was not a bad footballer and could pick a pass, which you would perhaps take for granted for someone who used to play for Ajax. Once he had settled into the left back position his rampaging forward runs became a familiar site. The weaknesses – well when he played in midfield he didn’t score enough goals which was something regularly pointed out by Mel Machin (when he did score his celebrations were always something to behold), his crossing was somewhat suspect and defensively he was not really a natural.

I always enjoyed watching Dennis play and I was one of many who was sorry to see him go – the team was certainly less colourful for his absence and I’m sure the excellent 1986/87 team would have been even stronger for having his versatility to call upon.

Since those barren days of the 1980s as far as foreign talent is concerned, far more overseas players have come in – some good, some bad, all with a story behind them but few as entertaining as Dennis van Wijk.

by Philip Wright (@Wrighty2902)