Tottenham fan and writer Phil Walker remembers a curious game from 1990 that taught him the truth of sporting injustice: when a dominant, post-hitting Norwich side were somehow beaten 4-0 by Gary Lineker and Spurs at White Hart Lane
Dusting off the YouTube to look back on it, I had no idea Gary Lineker scored a hat-trick. No recollection whatsoever.
Perhaps his goals that day were so archetypically his that I simply subsumed them, along with all those other occasions when he rounded the keeper and fell over in the act of wrapping his foot around it to send the ball trickling goalwards, just beyond the ‘last man’, who you’d find sliding along in vain on his arse. It seems to me now an unshakeable truth that all but about seven of Lineker's career goals involved a doomed vision of ball and opponent, caught up in some terrible clinch, bobbling over the goalline to both end up in the net together. They were never pretty, his goals; even when he was wearing the prettiest, lilliest-white strip of them all.
But still, a hat-trick it was; and a hat-trick on the telly. It was a Sunday in February, 1990: and that dark interregnum between Hillsborough and Turin, when the game felt tired and starved of love, and Elton Welsby was more than just an ironic T-shirt. I was 10. I’d only known White Hart Lane and Upton Park. It was a very London-Essex affair. I hadn’t yet absorbed the idea that adult teams actually chose to play in yellow and green, but I knew such matters mattered. Certainly did to me.
I watched the match in a room with my dad. (I say a room; it was, in fact, ‘Room’ – for Room was the name my dad had given to the converted horse stable in which he’d recently found himself living.)
And I’ll never forget the score.
Spurs 4, Norwich City 0.
To look at it now, you’d say it was a rout, right? Must have been. Scoreline like that. Paul Gascoigne ran the bill, Lineker topped it, and the Spurs went smarting on?
Well, maybe. Who’s to say definitively otherwise? Football matches played yesterday get picked apart and analysed to within an inch of their lives, and still no one’s any the wiser. Grown men can barely agree on the score, let alone who ‘held the upper hand’, had ‘most of the play’ or ‘deserved something from it'. But this particular afternoon with the Spurs – and I’ve had a few – has never left me. And not for its purity, its emphatic scoreline, or even its rather quaint exposure on television, with a Monaco-bronzed Glenn Hoddle in the pundit’s seat on a show that begins with the words – “Another season of anti-climax for Spurs? Maybe so…”
No, I remember this one for the gobsmacking injustice of it all.
For years afterwards, my father and I would reference 'the Norwich game’. And neither of us needed to elaborate. We both knew. It became shorthand for grave sporting reversals. In my mind’s eye (and that’ll have to do, for impressions are all we have to work with), never have I seen a football team so dominant for so long for such scant return. This would be Dave Stringer’s Norwich, with ‘Chippen’ Dale Gordon on the wing and Roberta Fleck killing you softly up front. A decent side which history tells me finished 10th that year, sandwiched between Forest and QPR, and three places clear of United.
They were brilliant that day. ‘Uprights’ were struck, crossbars pinged, chances came and chances went. And, so it felt at the time, every time Spurs emerged a little confused with the ball following another hilariously close shave, they would bundle it up to Lineker and he’d notch another. So skewed was the pattern of play versus the scoreline that we presumed that both teams could only be experimenting with a new kind of performance art, with Gazza playing the deranged horror-clown and Bryan Gunn the mute fallen angel condemned for eternity to do nothing but pick balls out of unguarded nets.
Holed up in Room, me and the old man, the unfolding farce felt oddly apt. This was the game of that weird, baffling, and utterly back-to-front era. It opened up to me the truth (the door was already more than ajar) that things don’t always work out as they should. That you don’t get what you deserve. That shit happens. That luck and fate is as random as a David Howells through ball. In life, such as in football.
Ever since that day I’ve always had a soft spot for Norwich City. When you can feel aggrieved by your own team’s outrageous fortune, that’s when you know you’re in it for the long haul. Happy Christmas. Here’s to Boxing Day, and more slings and arrows. Stretching meaning across the scuffed canvases of forgotten games played by others. We’re all in this mess together.