Tony Norman was one of my favourite players of that late 80s/early 90s era.
He was a stunningly good goalkeeper. He was capable of pulling off world-class saves. He was one of the first keepers, too, to dribble the ball out of his box. It’s commonplace now of course, but in the 80s keepers stayed firmly in their box, and unless it was a goal kick, kicked the ball exclusively out of their hands.
Norman was different. He’d roll the ball out of the box, move it 10, 15 yards up the field, and then look for a pass – usually, for us, towards the head of Gordon Armstrong on one side, or Gary Owers on the other.
A couple of years later, when the back-pass rule came in, it was entertaining to watch certain goalkeepers struggle with the ball at their feet. Stephen Pears of Boro is one that stands out. He was a brilliant keeper who was around the England squad, and at 30 years of age was in his prime in 1992 when the rule changed. It pretty much – slowly – ended his career.
Norman, of course, dealt with the backpass rule with aplomb.
Now, for all of Tony’s brilliance between the sticks, it’s unfortunate he’s remembered for ‘that’ incident against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993. ‘It’s an easy one for Norman’ inspired a fanzine, too.
However, on this day 33 years ago today, he made a mistake that was probably even worse.
Sunderland had gone up thanks to Swindon’s illegal payments debacle, and after a decent start, the harsh realities of top-flight football were beginning to kick in.
We travelled to Aston Villa, who had finished second in the league the season before, qualifying for the UEFA Cup (back in the days when the European Cup was for league winners only!).
However, they had lost their manager – Graham Taylor had taken over the national team after Bobby Robson’s departure post-Italia 90, and he’d been replaced by Dr Jozef Venglos, who’d managed Czechoslovakia to the World Cup quarter-finals.
Venglos hadn’t got off to the best of starts, with eight points from their first seven games. However, they had progressed to the next round of the UEFA Cup with a two-legged win over Banik Ostrava of Venglos’s homeland. The second leg was played in Ostrava, only four days before this fixture, seeing Villa win 2-1 – 5-2 on aggregate.
While Villa may have been dealing with fatigue, Sunderland had injuries and selection issues to contend with. Richard Ord had been filling in for the injured Reuben Agboola at left back – Reuben himself was filling in for Paul Hardyman.
However, Denis Smith had concerns about Ordy’s pace, or, let’s face it, lack of it against lightning-fast winger Tony Daley. The 22-year-old was one of the First Division’s most promising players and was direct as well as pacey – and the prospect of him in direct competition with Ord had Denis concerned.
So, Ord sat this one out – alongside Tony Cullen on the bench – while Anthony Smith, just turned 19, was given his debut.
Smith was an excellent prospect who should have had a long and successful career in the game, but for a talentless clogger called Andy Llewellyn. But that’s another story.
Sunderland played well and passed up a host of chances against a leggy-looking Villa side. Gabbiadini couldn’t control a poor kick from future Sunderland goalkeeping coach Nigel Spink, while Marco also forced the keeper into an excellent save and hit the woodwork, while penalty shouts were turned down after a Paul Bracewell half-volley appeared to be blocked on its way to goal by the hands of Country Durham born Gordon Cowans.
Villa took the lead just before halftime – Ian Olney heading home from a Stuart Gray knockdown after a deep ball into the box by Cowans – but even that didn’t put the lads off their stride.
In the second half, Gabbiadini headed over from an Armstrong cross and hooked a good chance high just after the hour mark – in between, Armstrong had forced Spink into another great save. Peter Davenport, meanwhile, could have had a hat-trick.
It was all Sunderland, despite the scoreline. However, events turned with just over 20 minutes left.
Daley picked the ball up and drove towards the Sunderland box. Skipping past Bennett and Ball, Daley hit a tame shot from 25 yards straight at Norman at head height.
It was as routine a save as routine could possibly get, but inexplicably slipped through his fingers and trickled into the net. It was one of those errors that poor Tony Norman would have had nightmares about for weeks and months later, but there was nothing we could do. 2-0, and that pretty much was that.
David Platt, who’d starred at Italia 90, continued his good form and scored a neat diving header to round the game off, and Sunderland trudged back home, knowing it was moments like that that would prove pivotal come May.
After the game, Denis Smith leaped to the defence of his record signing.
He’s obviously very down at the moment, but I’ve seen Gordon Banks make errors like that.
Tony will probably never make another mistake like that in his life...