There’s something about a city and its relationship with football that is hard to articulate, but reasonably easy to feel. I found myself in Newcastle a few weeks ago, Newcastle United had just got their new Virgin Money sponsorship, and went on that night to beat Man United – the next day people were forever opening doors for one another, tipping their hats and patting small children on the head. In contrast, in Norwich a couple of year ago, when the Canaries slipped into what old gits like me still call the Third Division, there was a level of grumpiness that had barely been seen since the great sugar beet crisis of 1953.
And it’s about Norwich, a city dear to my heart, that I write today, dear reader. And to get the drift of this, you need to know a bit about the city, or, more importantly, the people in it. So let’s imagine the city as a person (bear with me). When I go to London, it feels like the default face position is a marked furrowing of the brow. When I go to Edinburgh, there’s a bit of creasing around the eyes. When I’m in Newcastle, everyone seems to have turned these creases into laugh lines. And when I’m in Norwich…well, the face is completely relaxed, but there’s something very suspicious about the eyes and the way that they look at you. By suspicious, I mean worried in the bad times about what’s going wrong, and worried in the good times about what might go wrong. Which is kind of the mood of the moment in Norwich – there’s a good feeling about the place, in no small part linked to the football club, but also a deep, and very British, suspicion, that any minute now, we’re all going to be found out and we’ll, well, drop down a couple of divisions. Really, it’s about a sense that we’ve never had it so good, but we shouldn’t be boasting about it just yet, as something could go horribly wrong.
And nowhere is that more evident than at Norwich City every week, when Grant Holt takes to the pitch. Everybody (with the exception of opposition defenders, who claim he falls over a bit too easily) loves Grant Holt. If your not familiar with him, he often gets referred to in the press as an ‘old fashioned centre forward’. Which effectively means that he’s a big bloke who makes trouble up front. There’s probably a bit more to him than that, for all I know he may be a connoisseur of vintage wines, an enthusiastic opera fan or a keen gardener, but around 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, all Norwich really wants from him is to be a big bloke making trouble up front.
Which is largely what they get, but in a manner that reflects the mentality that I was struggling to describe earlier. Let’s take an example, from when Norwich played West Brom in January. Lambert decides to play Holt as a left winger, and at 1-1, with 11 minutes to go, he’s released to run on to a ball down the line. Actually, I’m simplifying that one a bit. The ball’s played past Holt with his back to goal. You know those clips of George Best turning on a sixpence and wrong-footing defences? Well, Grant Holt doesn’t do that. He actually has something of a turning circle, in that in order to face in the other direction he runs forward for a bit, then starts indicating right. After this manoeuvre, he’s finally facing in the right direction, and, like all the best heavy vehicles, starts gathering some momentum. After about 20 yards, you really wouldn’t want to get in his way. He catches up with the ball and clips in an absolutely perfect cross, which Steve Morison heads home like a bullet. And then, really, we get the best bit of all. Because that’s when he turns around to celebrate. Actually, this takes a couple of seconds, as he has to extricate himself out of the advertising hoarding and then negotiate another 180 degree turn, which as we’ve already noted, can take a little while. But when he does, it’s all worth it. Because he’s got a smile on his face that’s about 9 yards wide, as he waits for Morison to make his way over. When you’re Grant Holt and you’ve made that sort of effort, it’s important that the celebrations come to you after all.
And Grant Holt’s huge daft smile says (to me) a really long sentence. It says:
“I really can’t believe it because I just managed to make another goal and it’s in the Premier league and only a couple of years ago I was playing non league football and before that I was fitting tyres and now I’m in this fantastic position that I’m not sure I actually deserve but sod it it seems to be working out all right because we’ve won another game and even though we thought at the start of the season that we might be going straight down for some reason we seem to be knocking them in and we’re having exactly the kind of fun that we all thought we might have when we started off playing football when we were kids, even though our entire squad cost less that the cheapest Chelsea player but who cares because this is all just too good to be true so we’d better bloody celebrate because who knows when the bubble might burst…”.
Well, that’s what I think he’s thinking anyway. And if he is, then he ought to know that it’s pretty much what the rest of the Fine City think too.