"A whole new ball game?"
The all-conquering Premier League and its attendant broadcasters have a cloying habit of remembering 1992 as the year when English football began. So many are happy to buy into this that the idea of an old First Division sometimes seems as quaint and archaic as an episode of "Muffin the Mule". Yet in its Year Zero the "whole new ball game" had its fair share of olde worlde charm.
The breakaway movement from the Football League had been germinated from a "big five" seeking a greater yield of TV monies. That initial cartel had included Tottenham and Everton, with Ken Bates' Chelsea well down the pecking order in terms of football's aristocracy. Everton, cash-strapped and in the shadow of their 1980s vintage, made little impact on that first season. The same was true of Spurs, then languishing in a post-Lineker and Gascoigne slump.
Sitting atop a table being readied for Christmas were none other than Norwich City, fully seven points clear of second-placed Chelsea. Though this was no tale of Hull City-esque romance of a team taking on the big boys and being just happy to be playing among them. City were genuine title contenders that season and though, in the light of recent fortunes, 1992-93 will be regarded as an annus mirabilis the Canaries were not to be patronized and damned with the faint praise of plucky outsiders.
In truth, there was a power vacuum in the English game. Liverpool's golden era was at an end amid Graeme Souness' reign. His efforts to oust the ancien regime with Stalin-like zeal created mayhem at a club out of time and still resting on the laurels of the "Boot Room" days of yore. Leeds United, the last winners of the Football League Championship, were having a horrible season, unable to win away from home, while Manchester United, who had fallen at the last as they sought their first title in 25 years the previous term, still looked wracked by self-doubt.
Big Ron Atkinson was doing a fine job at Villa, his wheeler-dealing gaining him an experienced and battle-hardened team who looked as though they could last the distance. But above all of them were Norwich, helmed by Mike Walker, a man enjoying only his second season as a first-team manager. His first had ended suddenly when he was sacked after taking Colchester United to the top of Division Three in 1986-87.
With Walker succeeding Dave Stringer in the summer of 1992, Norwich chose to promote from within. The former goalkeeper had been youth coach since 1987 and was in charge of a team that had narrowly escaped relegation the previous year. It looked a low-key appointment for a low-key club. Yet the first two games of the season saw Walker's team beat both Arsenal and Chelsea.
Norwich were by no means invincible. At the beginning of October, they suffered a 7-1 thrashing at the hands of an Alan Shearer-led Blackburn Rovers, the division's big spenders. Rovers' own push for the Premier League title was to be derailed by a cruciate knee ligament injury to Shearer on Boxing Day just as they had begun to close on Norwich.
Walker's formula was built on good old-fashioned teamwork. There were to be no Norfolkian galacticos though the midfield strings were pulled by Ian Crook, one of a number of Spurs cast-offs who had found a home in East Anglia's administrative centre. Three of the four defenders in the Norwich side that travelled to Old Trafford on December 12 had been sold for buttons by Tottenham.
Another player seeking his fortune away from his alma mater was Mark Robins, revisiting Manchester United for the first time and riding high in the goalscoring charts. Robins' part in United's history is these days confirmed as a result of a winner at Nottingham Forest keeping ailing Alex's hopes of a trophy alive in 1990, further cemented by a winner in an FA Cup semi-final in the same year. In typical style, Ferguson had disposed of his saviour when Robins was allowed to depart Old Trafford in the summer of 1992 having been offered little opportunity in a United side that had missed out on a title largely because of a lack of firepower.
What United didn't know yet was that the panacea to a quarter of a century of pain had already arrived. Eric Cantona would be making his first start for his new club, having completed that shock transfer from Leeds United. A sub in the previous week's derby victory over Manchester City, a groin injury to Bryan Robson made space for him in United's XI. Brian McClair dropped back into midfield.
Old Trafford was granted a première of what to expect as Cantona showed off his array of flicks and feints. Norwich's own creator in Crook made a premature exit with a calf injury and was replaced by the far more prosaic Gary Megson as the Canaries failed to take full flight. Robins was given short shrift by a defensive partnership of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce, his single chance being saved by the legs of Peter Schmeichel.
It was left to Mark Hughes to win the game for United, capitalising on a Daryl Sutch error. Ferguson's team were now within six points of the leaders and had a potential new star. Though not everybody was convinced. Paul Ince, ever the diplomat, betrayed the parochialism of the time when he said: "He can do flicks all day when we're winning but it's hard to talk to him." Foreign players were still a very much a rarity.
Perhaps fearing for his own place in the team, Ince went on to say "we're at Chelsea next week, and that's a game where you need players to put their foot in, and Robbo (Bryan Robson) is the main man, so what's the gaffer going to do if he's fit?"
Not for the last time, Ferguson had different ideas to the self-styled 'guvnor'. "I think Eric's a Manchester United player," he gushed. "He has special touches, but the most important ingredient he has given us is his vision, he started attacks out of nothing."
Disappointment meanwhile, was the overriding East Anglian emotion though Walker reflected that "it's a measure of how far we've come that we're disappointed not to have won here". His team headed for a well-earned sunshine break in where else but Gran Canaria?
The defeat was not the ending of the affair for Norwich but it had let United back in. So too Villa whose win against strugglers Nottingham Forest, in Brian Clough's booze-sodden last season, pushed them into second.
Once Blackburn faltered it was the trio of United, Villa and Norwich who would fight out a long and winding campaign.
Walker's team, eventually finishing third, were not done yet. A UEFA Cup run saw them beat Bayern Munich in a two-legged tie that keeps the cockles of ageing Canaries' hearts warm with reminiscence but the limelight would soon be dimmed. Walker took up the poisoned chalice at Everton as chairman Robert Chase flogged the team that had granted Carrow Road its finest hours. Relegation in 1994-95 followed and the club has spent only a single season in the top flight since. Walker's status as one of the most promising managers in the game headed down the dumper; one of the last public sightings was of him running a skip-hire company.
Of the rest of today's "big four", Liverpool finished next best at sixth and Arsenal edged out Chelsea in the battle for tenth place. It would take a little time for the money to really begin to talk.