One night last summer, in all the excitement of the build-up to England’s first World Cup semi-final for 28 years, I was listening to one of the BBC’s Football Daily podcasts. This particular one was looking back at England’s previous semi-final appearance in the competition, at Italia 90. Tears, penalties, Pavarotti and all of that.
One of the guests on the podcast was Jurgen Klinsmann, and I thought how strange it must seem to him that we celebrate and look back with a wistful fondness on a team which lost a semi-final. We understand it – it was a special time, it meant something, it was an agonising disappointment but not seen as a failure. They were fallen heroes. But to the outside world, particularly to someone from Germany where they have won the thing four times, a semi-final defeat would be forgotten; one of those things. Shrugged off. You move on.
Not everyone has the option of course, because not everyone can be that successful. Your team has done what it has done, and all greatest successes are relative. Not every team can have won everything. Should teams not mark what achievements they have? Not celebrate nor commemorate their history as it stands?
I was thinking back on that again this week, as we came closer to the broadcast of my documentary Canaries in the Air, the story of Norwich City’s run to the FA Cup semi-finals in 1959 and how it was covered by the BBC back then. To those outside of Norwich or Norfolk, it may perhaps have been mostly forgotten, and seem an odd thing to mark. A semi-final defeat. But, like those losses at Italia 90 or Euro 96 do for England as a whole, here it really means something. The hope, the heartbreak… It seared them into the consciousness of a generation.
To fans of some rival clubs, you could no more explain it than an English person could explain to a German or a Brazilian why the achievements of Bobby Robson and his men meant so much in 1990. But there it is.
I can’t tell you for certain when I first heard of Norwich City’s 1959 Cup Run, but oddly it would have been – in a roundabout way – from my mother. Mum isn’t a football fan and doesn’t follow it to any real degree, but when I was first looking at possible places to go to university in around 2001-02, and had chosen Norwich as a favourite, she told me about how much she had liked Norwich City as a girl. I don’t think she remembered the details all those years later, but she certainly had a fondness for them.
A few years later, in 2007, I went to see the England Under-21s play against Slovakia at Carrow Road, and sitting just next to the players’ tunnel I saw the old locomotive nameplate with its commemorative plaque which celebrates the efforts of that 1958-59 team. I remember looking across and reading it, and thinking, “Ah, that must have been when they caught mum’s attention.”
|Watching the England Under-21s at Carrow Road in 2007.|
Mum would have turned 13 during the ’59 Cup Run. She was living on the south coast and has absolutely no connection to Norwich other than the fact that I now happen to live here. But they captured her imagination back then, in the same way they did with so many other people across the country. I compare it to how Leicester won the public’s hearts in 2016, with so many neutrals and even people who didn’t really follow football willing them to do well because it was so exciting and unexpected; so swashbuckling and romantic.
And it stayed with mum, too. In 2015, after Norwich had won the play-off final, I was on the phone to her a couple of days later, and she asked me if I knew anybody at the club.
“Um, not really,” I replied. “I see some of the former players, sometimes, if they come in on our programmes. Why?”
“I just wondered if you could pass on my best wishes to them,” she told me. It was rather sweet. All those years later, the spirit of ’59 still generating goodwill for the club.
Norwich have, of course, been in two further semi-finals since then, in 1989 and 1992. But both of those came at a time when they were in their own First Division pomp, and perhaps the FA Cup had already lost a little of its lustre. In 1959, it held more prestige than the league title did – that was certainly not the case 30 years later. In 1989 their defeat to Everton was rightly overshadowed by events elsewhere, and perhaps a feeling that it was somehow right and proper that it should be the two Merseyside clubs which faced one another in the final that year. The 1992 quarter-final win was described with great misty-eyed fondness by my colleagues Chris Goreham and Rob Butler on this week’s episode of The Scrimmage. But perhaps that run is soured by the fact it was Norwich themselves who were the giants felled that year, losing to Second Division Sunderland, missing out on a first ever final.
Speaking of Sunderland, Norwich’s League Cup wins are remembered fondly, of course, but it’s not quite the FA Cup. And oddly, despite leading the league and fighting for the title in 1992-93, Norwich somehow didn’t quite capture the public imagination in a way they had a generation earlier, and indeed even struggled to fill Carrow Road for some of the home games that season. I’m not sure even all of the UEFA Cup home games were sell-outs the following season, either.
So it all comes back to 1959, and somehow just that right combination of elements which means it still shines so brightly in the club’s history.
|This weekend's Eastern Daily Press Weekend supplement front cover, promoting my feature piece inside.|
Having worked at BBC Radio Norfolk for so many years now, of course I’d become much more aware of the history of the club. You can’t not have it become a part of you in some way when you work for a local radio station in a county where the only professional football team is so important, and when you have the broadcast rights to the games. I don’t work on the sports desk, but I do sometimes work on the coverage, and Norwich City transcends that anyway. If you work here for any amount of time, it becomes a part of your working life, to a greater or lesser degree.
That said, I still felt a little nervous when I first talked to my colleagues on sport about doing this programme. Still felt that I was something of an interloper. I’ve lived in Norwich for a long time now, and I always want Norwich to do well. I follow their progress and even in my free time will often, say, watch them on the TV if they’re on. But I’m not born to it. It’s not a part of me in that way. The only football team which grabs me by the guts and make me feel sick with nerves or sends me running around the room is England during a major tournament. (Yeah, I’m one of those people…)
But I knew there was a programme I could make about the ’59 Cup Run, and I knew that I could do it well. As anyone who’s read much of this blog in the past, or heard many of the previous programmes I’ve made, will know, I have a great passion for the history of broadcasting in general and the BBC in particular. I love being able to poke around in my little corner of it and perhaps tell some stories which might not otherwise have been told.
One of the reasons I’ve been able to make Canaries in the Air is because of a Norwich City fan called Frank Heyhoe. He had recorded about two-thirds of one of the games and almost all of another off-air onto reel-to-reel tape back in 1959. There are lots of nice bits and pieces in the official BBC archives which I’ve been able to put into the documentary, but Frank’s recordings are an absolute treasure trove, not just of the commentaries themselves but of pre-match build up, all sorts of material which would not otherwise have survived, and is almost without equivalent for any other matches of any type from that era in the official holdings.
|One of Frank Heyhoe's off-air recordings from 1959, now held at the Norfolk Sound Archive.|
It’s not clear how or why, but somehow in the 1990s Frank’s reels ended up in the old radio studio at Carrow Road. My colleague Matthew Gudgin was able to use them when he made his documentary about the run, The 59ers, for the 40th anniversary back in 1999. Subsequently, Matthew arranged for the reels to be donated to the Norfolk Sound Archive at the County Record Office, but he had mentioned them to me once, talking about how there was actual regional coverage broadcast on the nascent BBC East Anglian service from Norwich.
Remembering this and being absolutely fascinated by it, when I was making my documentary about the birth of the BBC in Norfolk in the 1950s in 2017, The Network That Never Was, Jonathan Draper at the Sound Archive kindly arranged to do a new dub of the reels and send me over digital copies – the only extant live output from the BBC in Norwich in the 1950s, as far as I know (there are a few pre-recorded programmes). Of course, I was only able to use a small amount of them in The Network That Never Was, but the seed, the idea had been planted, and I was already toying with the notion of a documentary linked-in with the cup run’s 60th anniversary.
Initially I had the thought that you could do something telling the story from the fans’ perspectives. Appeal for old letters and diary entries, that sort of thing. Voice them up and intertwine it with the archive.
I eventually realised we’d never get enough response to make that work, and after making a package for The Scrimmage in November last year when they marked sixty years since the run started, I decided to have a crack at making a full documentary out of how the run was covered – particularly as I realised it was the first time there’d ever been full commentaries of Norwich games live on the radio. Still telling the story more generally, of course, but using the coverage as the spine. That would also help to make it sufficiently different to Gudge’s The 59ers back in 1999, a fine piece of work that does a great job of telling the story when there were still more of the team left alive to speak to.
I’m luckier in some respects, however, in that it’s so much easier for someone working in the BBC now to access so much more of the archive that we hold. I’ve been able to use some TV material which in 1999 probably hadn’t even been transferred from film, and was simply sitting at Windmill Road not having come off its reel since it was originally broadcast. Now, I could call it up with a few clicks on the BBC’s intranet, and copy it across without any cost to the radio station.
I’m also very lucky in that the interest Norwich generated means there was more material around about them, and so more survives to use now. Looking at the closest equivalent achievements – in terms of a Cup run, York City from the same level making the same stage in 1955, or in terms of geography Ipswich winning the league in 1962 – then I don’t think I could have made a similar programme about either of them. Not from what the BBC hold, at least – by 1962 you have Anglia in play for Ipswich, who may have more. But in purely BBC terms, we may not have anything like a complete record of the coverage of Norwich’s 1959 Cup Run, but compared to most other teams of the era, we have a great deal. Even odd little off-hand mentions and fragments and bits and pieces, which I have enjoyed being able to weave in and use where I can.
The challenge, as always, was to try ad make it engaging to a general audience, not just people who are interested in broadcasting history. That said, I have been able to use all sorts of little touches which might only please me – using some of the same music which was used on the original programmes in 1959, for example, or recreating one of the Light Programme’s announcements linking into their partial coverage. All of that, and quoting from some of the original memos from the time, is thanks to the sterling support and infinite patience of Matthew Chipping at the BBC Written Archives Centre. He’s changed role now; hopefully not because of my constant emails asking him to scan and send over just one more PasB document…
|One of the BBC memos relating to the cup run coverage which is quoted in the documentary. The support and assistance of the BBC Written Archive Centre during the making of this programme has been hugely generous, as always.|
I’m also indebted, of course, to all of the people who kindly spoke to me to share their memories or expertise. Rather stupidly, originally I wasn’t certain whether or not to approach Terry Allcock, the last of the team still living in Norwich, because I wondered whether, being about the coverage, the programme ought to be an entirely ‘outside’ perspective. However, I came to my senses and Terry kindly agreed to speak to me. I was hugely privileged to spend an hour in his front room talking to him last month, and his interview really makes the programme.
There was one point, when he was recounting the homecoming after their eventual defeat, which was one of those great moments you get occasionally when you’re recording an interview with someone on location when you know this is it, the golden material, and you realise you just have to shut up and keep your arm still as it holds the mic and not say a word and hope like hell that the recorder doesn’t for some reason choose to die at that moment.
(I am pleased to say my trusty little Zoom did not let me down!)
Originally, I had thought the programme might make half an hour that sport could perhaps put out on a Saturday when Norwich weren’t playing. It’s become a full-length programme in its own right, trailed and promoted on other shows and very generously given a Weekend supplement cover and three pages by the Eastern Daily Press for an article I wrote them.
|My feature piece promoting the programme, which appeared in the Weekend supplement in the Eastern Daily Press and Evening News.|
I’m pleased with and proud of it, and I just hope it goes down well with those who listen. Both the Norwich fans now, and those who want a nostalgic reminder of being there back then. I feel confident I have made a very good programme, but am more nervous about its reception than perhaps any other documentary I have made. I make programmes in, of and about Norfolk every day, and I never have cause to worry about the fact I am not from here. But this… This is important local cultural history. This matters to people. There is a real sense of responsibility in making something like this.
For me personally, it feels as if it completes a trilogy of sorts along with Radio in a Roundabout Way and The Network That Never Was – the story of BBC radio in Norwich before Radio Norfolk started in 1980, back to when the regional radio headquarters opened in 1956. A history not particularly well-chronicled elsewhere, perhaps, but I like to think one I’ve been able to pay some small tribute to. Admittedly not covering the 1960s too much, but unlike the 1950s or Roundabout in the 1970s, there isn’t really much of a hook for that, nor indeed much surviving material.
Anyway, there we have it. By the time I put this up, the programme will have gone out on-air. I can only hope it went down well. If you’ve found this blog via me promoting it and the programme on Twitter – and you’ve made it this far in reading it, for which a big thank you! – do please leave a comment letting me know what you thought!