May the best team win
This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Premier League game against Chelsea on 24 August 2019. Subscribe to OTBC here.
Well this is weird, isn’t it? Daniel Farke’s Norwich City are in the Premier League, and I – yes, OK, technically a professional journalist but mainly, mostly, some eejit off of Twitter – have somehow found myself an OTBC columnist.
Like today’s visiting manager, one Frank Lampard Jr, I seem to have wangled myself a promotion based on last season’s solid but unexceptional performance: a couple of pieces for the marvellous MyFootballWriter, an ode to Tom Trybull for the Blackburn programme, 2,000 words on Todd Cantwell for Glory magazine’s Norwich City special (still available in the club shop, I’m told, and no I’m not making commission).
And like Frank, I’m a former servant of the club on the pitch, too. I spent six years with Norwich City Ladies (Reserves), though admittedly my trophy cabinet is not quite as well populated as his, and my career stats marginally less impressive. (Appearances: 78. Goals: 0. Assists: 0. Penalties missed: 1. Tackles made: 1,326.)
So close are the parallels that it’s practically uncanny: I also went to ply my trade on new, distant shores (Frank went to New York, I went to university in Durham); he retired to focus on his coaching qualifications, while I stepped away from the game to do a Masters in London and watch a lot of TV in bed.
I hope, though, that our paths are beginning to diverge. While he got off to a dreadful start in his reign as Chelsea manager, suffering a tonking (to clarify: 1–4 is a valiant effort, 0–4 is a frankly unprofessional level of acquiescence) at the hands of Manchester United, I’d like to think I’ll emerge from my OTBC debut with a little more pride intact.
But here’s where the goodwill I built up through my workmanlike – nay, talismanic – performances on the field may begin to dissipate, because I have a bit of a confession to make: I’m not a regular Norwich City match-goer.
In the seven years since I moved to London, I’ve only made it to a handful of games, mostly out of a sense of duty, not enthusiasm – and what I saw on the pitch did little to change that. Take the soul-eroding 0–0 at Loftus Road that I thought I’d wiped from my memory until, while writing this, I tried to work out when it was. Through the gloom, a clue: the chant “Odemwingie, he would have scored that”, which helps me to date the match, with forensic precision, to February 2013.
I’d first fallen madly in love with Norwich City – and the 2003/4 team in particular – as a kid; I remember trying to save up for a season ticket, and constructing my own Blue Peter-esque totaliser. But somewhere along the way I’d forgotten what that love felt like.
That all changed last season. I don’t need to tell you why, you were there. But among the many revelations of the last 12 months – our youngsters, Mario Vrancic’s eyebrows, the relentless magnetism of a softly spoken Finn – was another, more personal one: football fans aren’t just born, they’re made, and I was both.
That latest conversion began in January 2018, with the third-round FA Cup replay against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where we went toe-to-toe with the reigning Premier League champions. I watched a promising youngster by the name of Jamal Lewis send the yellow-and-green corner of the ground into raptures with his 94th-minute equaliser, and I was hooked, all over again.
Despite our many (many!) similarities, I don’t, alas, have the razor-sharp analytical mind and top-notch footballing nous of Frank Lampard – if I did, I would have been able to see what was about to happen, the seeds of something near-miraculous being sown. Instead I just went home proud, feeling chuffed but accepting, unbothered by marginal defeat at the hands of the obviously superior side.
But as the reverse fixture, fittingly, kicks off my time as an OTBC fan columnist, it all feels a bit different. We’re on level pegging now, us and them, and anything is possible.
And so, to Frank, my peer and equal, from one club legend to another: may the best team win.