My Norwich City Story #1: Robert Green – in his own words
Watch and read the opening edition of our EXCLUSIVE new Canaries documentary series, as figures from the club’s past tell their Norwich City Story. First up: Former City, England and West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green – in his own words.
- Robert Green (1997-2005, 241 appearances)
- In the beginning…
I played for a Sunday league team: Woking Boys, which my old man ran with his mate. We had a really good side and we ended up playing in what was then the Canary Cup - and we won that.
We beat Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday in the final. I got scouted from there, went up to Norwich for a trial and off the back of the trial, signed I think the week after they beat Bayern Munich in Germany… And it's gone downhill for the club ever since!
At the time before academies and stuff like that, they courted you as a club. They wanted you to sign. They took you around the club on a tour and one of the more memorable moments was that it wasn't as impressive a ground as some of the London clubs like White Hart Lane or Highbury at the time - but at one point they showed me the (Norwich) first-team photo.
It was the full squad and you go: he's from the youth team system, he's from the youth team system… And it was like 75pc of the players at the time, and you think I've got a chance - more of a chance here than anywhere else.
You had for your age group maybe 10 boys signed up tops, then another age group above and when you went full-time at the age of 16 you had 20 boys and that was it. You had a fighting chance of getting a one-year professional contract at the age of 18.
So I signed with Norwich. I used to travel up with the boys. We'd meet at Liverpool Street and travel up every weekend, and go all round the country playing on a Sunday morning - then go home, do your homework on the way home and that was your weekend gone.
That's half a test of dedication to making that step into professional football - and I loved it. The experience of going into London, on the tube… It was an exciting time for me as a kid.
I got injured at 14 at what was then the Lilleshall National School of Football and was out for two years with a broken back, and the club stood by me, paid for my operation - which I had done at the old Norfolk and Norwich - and they looked after me because they considered me a prospect.
So I could have been left on my own, left to fend for myself, and in that respect I owe a lot to the club, to Gordon Bennett (former youth development officer) and Colin Watts (youth scout), who fought my corner and really put their reputations on the line saying he would come good for us and it's worth doing. I shall remember that for as long as I'm around.
- Were you always going to be a goalkeeper?
I couldn't run - still can't. I'd like to think it's something to do with the broken back that is now all fused together, but I think my old man was asked when did he know Robert would be a professional footballer? And he said when I was eight - which was when I started playing in goal. It's been plain sailing ever since! That was my position and I've always done it.
We had a good youth team. When I was 16, the year above had Craig Bellamy, Chris Llewellyn, Adrian Forbes, Adrian Coote - numerous players who made it into the first team, but good players who didn't make it too. Had some of those players been in other years, they may have got a chance.
People find different ways around their careers in football but it just goes to show you need a lot of luck on your side and things to fall for you. I was still going at the age of 39, which is a small miracle in itself.
Keith Webb was doing the youth team. It's just so different then to what it is now. You had a coach, maybe an assistant and on a Saturday a physio - and that was it.
Keith would run the whole youth team system on his own and he was no self-confessed expert in goalkeeping, but helped me and the boys as much as he could. He took great pride in his team and had a real disciplined ethos towards it - and that sort of thing is what you took into your professionalism and beyond as a young man.
From there, Steve Foley came in and also moved up to the first team - and he was someone who took great pleasure in helping the younger lads particularly, and someone I took to and really enjoyed playing under in the reserves and moving up.
We didn't have a full-time goalkeeping coach. Martin Thomas used to come in, one of the England youth goalkeeping coaches, one day a week. We were left to learn for ourselves. Bryan Gunn was the senior professional, Andy Marshall was the up and coming one in between us and you were kind of learning through mistakes, through experience, through games - and that was it.
It was different but it grounded you quick. You learnt quick. You weren't pandered to and you weren't protected in any shape or form.
- Breaking through
I moved up to Norwich when I was 16 and decided to stay at school and do my A-levels. And by the time I was 17 in January, I hadn't been to school in about a month because I was playing for the youth team, playing for the reserves and travelling with the first team.
I was getting up on a Wednesday morning thinking I should've been at school for two days, I haven't been to school, I've got to get up at 9am having got home at 4am, and then there's a reserve game the next night and stuff like that. And I turned to my dad and I said I'm so far behind with my school work, I can't carry this on. I don't know what to do it - it's too much.
Because of the way the club was, we didn't have any goalkeepers. Andy Marshall went out on loan and then one of the other young keepers got injured and there was just me.
The first game I went to (travelling party but didn't play) we lost at West Brom 5-1 and then the next game was 6-1 at Port Vale - and I just thought, this is a disaster. What's going on?!
It was a tough time for the club but funds were at an all-time low - yet it gave young players a chance and all of a sudden I was thrown into this situation where I was involved with every team.
Me and my old man went to a meeting with the school and said, what do we do? And they said we're here to give your son a future - and he's got one; go for it.
So I signed professional forms and because of the nature of the club - in and around the first team all the time - it was great.
Andy Marshall got sent off against Huddersfield and Daryl Sutch went in goal for about 80 minutes and played a blinder. I wasn't one of the subs but I was sat on the bench and all I remember was Bruce Rioch (manager) turning round shouting at me: "That's how you do it!" And he'd never seen me play.
So I knew the game (debut v Ipswich at Carrow Road) was coming, the build-up was there. It's obviously a big game for everybody and it was a sleepless few nights before.
For me it was a great occasion but one I remember just going home after the game and going to sleep. I was just so nervous and the nervous energy it took out of me.
It's such a big game for that area. In terms of the rest of the country there are geographically and demographically bigger derbies and closer ones in proximity. But in terms of living in that area for two or three years, it's pretty much all anyone talks about.
One of the things that's stuck in my mind is we were training the day before, just mucking around and I made a mistake - and one of the players turned to me and said: "If you make a mistake tomorrow I'm going to ******* kill you" - and I thought, I'd better not.
I think I broke Matt Jackson's nose towards the end of the game. I head-butted him coming out for a ball. I remember calling for it and he was just there. On the replays he was clearly waving for me to stay in the goal but I just had eyes on the ball. He was angry and I was angry. Such is life, we both lived. It was a memorable occasion and something I enjoyed - but afterwards I was just shattered.
- Make way for number one
Brave man (on Marshall joining Ipswich from Norwich). Ipswich got promoted and then had an amazing season, ended up qualifying for Europe - and off the back of it, Richard Wright got a move to Arsenal and created a hole.
Marsh went there on a free transfer and it made sense for everybody. It just so happened he played for Norwich prior, and it's something I'm sure the Ipswich fans didn't forget.
I remember playing against him in a derby and thinking, 'he's getting it from both angles here!'
I was fortunate that at the end of the season when we knew Marsh was leaving, I went to see Nigel Worthington and I said to him, 'look - all I've ever asked for in my career is a chance'. He said I would get that chance, and he was as good as his word.
That first season I also put in a forceful request that we got a full-time goalkeeper coach. I said I'm a young goalkeeper, I'm learning my trade and it's going to be tough for me. I need someone with me every day to help guide me through it - and they got Paul Crichton in, who was experienced, had been around the Championship a long time and helped lighten things just through his character. There's not many of you goalkeepers. It's a small group. So he could lighten the mood, especially after defeats and things like that.
And then James Hollman came in and spent a number of years at the club. He was from Ipswich and took the chance to come in and really helped me out - just that training every day was priceless for me.
- Heartbreak in Cardiff?
That first season, to go and play as many games as I did, by the end of the season it was just so draining but so amazing at the same time. And for the manager, it was his big chance. So to come and just put his confidence in me was fantastic - and something I'll always be grateful for.
Sneaking in the play-offs (2001-02) and then the away game at Wolves (semi-final, second leg) was brilliant. We lost 1-0 but went through, and the atmosphere… The arrogance of Wolves. I remember the comments in the programme before the game were almost to the point of thinking they had a divine right to be promoted and they should not be dealing with these play-offs and this other side, whoever they might be - and by the way it might be Norwich. I read the programme and thought, 'wow - there's motivation for us'.
It was such a great atmosphere - and then to go (to the final)... The only thing about that was obviously losing on penalties, but I'd have loved for it to be at Wembley; the old Wembley. You can't change that but I'd have liked to have played at both.
In the end it was such a big opportunity. Whether we were ready? I think we were quite a long way off being a Premier League team. If we'd have got promoted, the next season could've been quite painful.
But just to get there and give the players that belief, including myself, in future just to say you can get close… The older players, that defeat hit harder. They thought that was their final chance to get into the Premier League maybe.
But for the younger players, ironically it's such a morale-boosting way to end a season that you're there and just that lack of one or two of us being that bit younger. When you looked around the side and saw me and a couple of the boys taking penalties were still kids, and that may have made the difference in the final throes. But as experiences go, playing in a huge stadium, huge occasion, the side playing well and competing - it was a great time to be at the club.
The Geoff Horsfield save, I remember doing it and then with his goal after, I remember thinking he's got to put it in the corner because I saved the last one when he tried to put it back across me. And if I'd done the same thing again, I'd have saved it and we might have got promoted.
But I can still remember it now, running across the goal going 'I've just got to dive, I've just got to dive' - and if I'd have just stopped and saved like I did with the previous one I probably would've saved it, although it was a bit closer.
That's football. It's ifs and buts and you're making a decision on 0.2 of a second's instinct. But that's the moment that stuck in my mind - not the save but looking back and being a keeper, it's the one that went in. If I'd just stood there, perhaps I would've saved it. We'll never know.
- The champions and the top flight
Obviously we had talent and the big difference was going out in January (2004) and making the signings we did. All of a sudden we had options. Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones were fantastic and just said, 'what do you need?' - and within the means they could, they went and got what they could.
Leon (McKenzie) and Matt Svensson coming in, Darren Huckerby staying… But I think it was a canny move by the manager. He went and got Crouchy (Peter Crouch) in and Huckerby in and got us in a position to go and say, 'we're up here now - it's down to you'. He really put it on their toes and they backed it.
You look at the back five, I think between us we played pretty much every game. Malky (Mackay), Flem (Craig Fleming), Adam Drury - I think they missed maybe three or five games between all of them. Whether the steadiness of a back five comes with success or success comes with that steadiness, you're never quite sure. But I think it was a huge thing. There were times when you'd just turn around, look at the five of us and think, 'right - this is down to us today; we're just not going to concede'.
How many times can you remember playing in the Championship thinking this is an amazing football game? Over the course of the season when you win the league? Two or three - out of 46. None of them are ever going to be beautiful games of football, really. It's a case of winning and we thought it was pretty tight but by the end, mathematically we cruised it.
It was a fantastic achievement but I think it was off the back of quite shrewd political moves by the manager really, putting the club in the position they did and then putting the onus on them at a crunch time - and they came up trumps, which is credit to everyone involved.
The Premier League was a new dimension, something a lot of us had never faced and that first season, it was a bit like the play-offs. Having the players with that lack of experience, I'm sure there were games in there that we would have won had we had a couple of seasons of Premier League football. You were looking around thinking these teams aren't playing any better than us, but we're losing games here and it was just key moments that didn't go our way.
You look back and the one that will always stick with me is Ledley King clearing one off the line from Darren Huckerby at Spurs in a 0-0 draw, early in the season. I just think that bit of belief from an away win at White Hart Lane would have changed the season.
It didn't come and we ended up without an away win all season, which was the one big thing you look at and go, that probably would have won us that game had Ledley not been as quick or good as he was - but that's Premier League football, and playing against some of the best players in the world.
Delia and Michael did what they could do at the time and I think they put all their money in when they could. Dean Ashton was a record signing by a long way (£7.5m in January 2005) and he was a fantastic player. He brought a new dimension and also, he was a better player than everyone else. Bottom line. And if you fill your team with better players, you pay more money, you stay up. But we didn't have that. We were doing what we could with what we had, and that's where the experience and quality comes into it.
He scored a lot of goals in that run-in and proved a handful for a lot of teams. He was a lad that probably had the hardest shot I had to face - quite a lot of weight behind it as well! He was a big factor in giving us an opportunity at staying up.
- Fulham and the future
I've tried to block it out, thanks. We could've been about 2-0 up at Fulham. We had a goal disallowed that no one understood why. A blatant penalty turned down. You look at moments and things like that, and I never looked at that game as the reason why we went down.
By half-time we were 2-0 down or something like that, and we virtually went with six up front - and I think that was the reason we lost 6-0; we just went for it. But I look at moments like Ledley King making that save on the line as a greater moment than that final game.
All I remember of it was at the end of the game being absolutely mortified, going out to clap the fans and seeing Joe Lewis in the middle - being the giant freak that he is - just stood there roaring with laughter. And I'm thinking, what are you doing?! There's me virtually in tears and him crying with laughter. Cheers mate.
That sort of game, you just looked at the Fulham side and they had a team full of internationals, experienced players and stuff like that. And we didn't. That was probably one of the reasons for the story of that season.
I think I've blanked it all out from my mind because we were so close to doing so well. We'd given ourselves a lifeline, and then absolutely crashed and burned - at that time going back to the Championship, it felt like a disaster really.
On a personal level I think the walls were closing in on me in terms of living in Norwich. I know it's a wonderful part of the world. I was 24, 25 by this point and had spent the best part of nearly 10 years living there. My mates who I made there had all gone off to university and chosen to come back, and I was there - and I couldn't do anything. I was there for 50 weeks of the year, working there full time, I was a young, single bloke just wanting to go off and experience different stuff.
It became a real issue with me living in the place, as much as it was on a professional level. I remember doing an interview after leaving for West Ham and I think it was to Alan Smith - and I said Norwich is a city the size of a town with a village mentality, and I meant that in a positive and a negative sense. But the longer I lived there, the more I just felt like I couldn't get out and I was stuck.
Towards the end, I remember my dad going to see Nigel Worthington at a social function. Portsmouth had already made a bid for me and the club had asked for crazy money. I knew Spurs were trying to buy me at the time, and again they were asking for an unparalleled amount of money. And it was frustrating in that regard, because you see these Premier League clubs and as much as I had a regard for the club and the place, these were opportunities in London and for me as a person more than anything, just to go and try something different.
So my dad turned to Nigel at this function and said, 'can't you see you're ruining my son's life with this? He's so frustrated and he needs something else in his life now; football isn't the sole purpose of his life. It's something bigger than that'.
And to be fair to Nigel Worthington, he turned around and said I think it's time he goes.
I had been so disillusioned that at one point, I said to Nigel Worthington I'll just stop playing football. It took a lot of soul-searching and a long time to come to the fact that I should probably carry on and take back what I said - but in the heat of the moment, possibly when Portsmouth tried to buy me, I just felt like it was too much. Mentally I had gone with the situation and I nearly walked away.
I know friends who have lived in Norwich all their lives and been happy, and I understand that. That's not me. I've come from Surrey, I moved up there, I came back to London and it's been a great experience - and if I'd have stayed there I don't know what would've happened, but it's something I couldn't have done.
- A rare England canary
It was funny because you're so wrapped up in it. At the time (of the call-up) I was so much more intense as a person that playing Columbia in America in a friendly is about as meaningless as it gets for international games - but I was so focused I didn't think to remember anything from it.
I do remember being a second-half sub, sitting watching in the dugout in the New York heat for an hour before coming on, and I was about two stone lighter than when the game started. I was so nervous and it was so tough sitting there watching this game thinking, 'I'm coming on, I'm coming on...'
By the end it was just a massive relief that it had happened and it was great to be one of six Norwich players at the time I think, to play for England. I'm sure there are more that should have played for England. John Ruddy has added to it since, I think.
Historically people have always said it's hard for players to move from Norwich because no one travels there to scout them; it's so far out of the way. And for England, it was tougher because no one really watched them play - this was before TV took over.
It was a great achievement and I was very touched - more so now than probably at the time - that Delia presented me with a commemorative cut glass gift, which I didn't think much of at the time but having been around football for 20-odd years now and never been given so much as a thumbs up afterwards from a club, you realise what it meant to the club and how much of a community and how much everyone was in it together.
In trying to do a lot of gym work I was taking a lot of creatine, and I think that aided in snapping my groin. In hindsight I probably wouldn't have done that and maybe wouldn't have got the injury I did.
Going to the World Cup was very exciting. Being involved. It was a such a big thing and being selected. Being among players who were superstars in their own right.
To have that taken away was tough but you just move on so quickly because you've got to get fit, and that was it. You've just got to move on so your focus and energies go on to something else.
You spend a lot of time in football never really mentally processing stuff. You bury it to the back of your mind, bury your disappointment and move on. And that was one of those occasions.
- Life after Norfolk
I've always looked back fondly at Norwich as a club. I don't think you can't. It is most fans' second-favourite club and it's with good reason. Its identity. Its owners in terms of being good people doing what they think is right for the club, with an open and honest policy, is true to the club and to the fans.
My time at Norwich, I look back and I got a nice letter from Neil Doncaster (former chief executive) after an article I did in a newspaper. I replied to him and said out of all the clubs I'd been at, Norwich wasn't the biggest but it was the best run - and also probably the most honest. At the end of it you deal with people how you want to be dealt with and I think the club did that - and from what I can tell, are carrying on doing so.
I look back at it now and they stuck by me when a lot of clubs wouldn't. They gave me an opportunity when a lot of clubs wouldn't. Despite my own personal and professional issues of wanting to move on, it's something that was down to me. That was my own personal issues rather than anything wrong with the club. And I think as long as Delia and Michael are in charge and they've got the good people around them, they will always be held in such high regard. As do I.
I regret not enjoying it (at Norwich) as much as I should've done. Because you're in it at the time and it's normal for you, it's not special in that regard. You look back now and getting to the play-off final was the first season of success for such a long time. The club had so many difficult years financially, ownership, Robert Chase, virtual administration - so to get a bit of momentum behind the club and enjoyed it more… I'm pretty sure most of my team-mates would have said I was proper miserable throughout it all. To have relaxed and enjoyed it was not something I was probably capable of doing.
Norwich is a fantastic club. It's got people at the heart of it and surrounded by it with the best intentions for the club. It's a real club of the community and something I probably didn't appreciate while I was there - but can see it now, as such a focal point of a strong community. The fans truly love it there and you get that sense, and it was fantastic to go and grow up there in both a personal and professional sense.
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