Pre-season, Panini stickers and marking Paul Merson - the Ray Cash story continues…

    Cashing In is the new 90s football novel by Sid Lambert set in the inaugural Premier League season. It tells the story of Ray Cash, a 19-year-old footballer disillusioned with the game after a tragic accident involving his twin brother. Pressured into pursuing his career by his grieving dad, he signs with larger-than-life agent Paul Francisco. In part 2, Ray arrives at new club Norwich City and prepares himself for his top-flight debut in the 1992-93 campaign.

    Not-so-great expectations

    Norwich had finished just above the relegation zone the previous season after a calamitous run of nine defeats in eleven games. Manager Dave Stringer had been sacked and his successor was reserve team boss Mike Walker. I’d come across him a few times when I played for United’s second string and he seemed a very calm guy who was popular with his players. However, he was an unknown to the outside world and the Canaries were firmly installed amongst the relegation favourites.

    The City squad had been severely weakened by the departure of star striker Robert Fleck to Chelsea in pre-season. The charismatic Scotsman, “Flecky” to the locals, was top scorer and his transfer to west London had left a bitter taste in the mouth. Frustrated by Robert Chase’s stubborn refusal to agree a fee with the Blues, Fleck effectively went on strike to force through his move.

    Norwich pocketed a club record £2.1m and, as was customary for a club primarily concerned with balancing the books, replaced him with a much cheaper alternative. Mark Robins arrived from Manchester United for £800,000, a fee that some felt too generous for a striker who hadn’t scored a single league goal in the previous campaign. Robins was well-known for his contribution to United’s successful 1990 FA Cup run when his winner in a third round tie at Nottingham Forest probably saved under-pressure Alex Ferguson from the sack.

    However, sentiment was in short supply at Old Trafford. Mark found himself on the fringes of the first team as Ferguson restructured the squad into one capable of winning silverware. We’d played numerous reserve fixtures together and he was a classic poacher, though few in the press expected him to be a capable replacement for Fleck.

    The only other signing was midfield workhorse Gary Megson from Sheffield Wednesday. Megson had the dubious distinction of being signed – and sold - by Brian Clough for Nottingham Forest in the Eighties without making a single first-team appearance. Apparently Clough was appalled by his pre-match nerves and wasted no time in shoving him out the door.

    So that summed up Norwich’s pre-season business: a bit-part striker from Manchester United, a journeyman from Sheffield Wednesday and me, yet to make a senior appearance. Allied to the loss of Fleck, it was easy to see why confidence in the Canaries was in short supply. If that wasn’t enough, the fixture list handed them a difficult start away at George Graham’s Arsenal, who were amongst the favourites for the inaugural Premier League title in the 1992-93 season.

    Nonetheless, my first couple of weeks in training had been okay. Despite Paul’s best efforts to build me up as a superstar, no one was threatened by my arrival. The atmosphere at Carrow Road was a long way from the success-at-all-costs mantra of Manchester. Rather, the Canaries were a tight bunch united against a common enemy: the chairman and his vice-like grip on the wallet. Walker had negotiated better bonuses for the team as part of his new regime and that had made him instantly popular with the players.

    The sessions were still intense. Walker insisted on maximum effort and placed a huge emphasis on his players’ conditioning. In ferocious heat, he’d push the squad to the limits with a mixture of stamina-sapping endurance runs and lung-busting sprints. I easily held my own in both regards, earning me respect from the rest of the team – and the manager.

    “Very good, Cashy,” he said after one particularly exhausting session had left some players wretching by the side of the pitch. “You can run all day. Height, pace, good engine. There’s plenty to work with here.”

    The key tactical change from previous regime was a more concentrated pressing game. It started high up the pitch with the strikers harassing the opposition defence into mistakes and cascaded through the rest of the team. We were drilled into closing down space and when we won the ball we were encouraged to move it quickly.

    There were plenty of talented players too. The back four included Ian Butterworth and Mark Bowen, both seasoned operators at this level. In midfield, Ian Crook was a gifted passer and the only person at the club who could legitimately ‘ping’ a ball. It was a term I’d been introduced to at West Ham when I first saw Liam Brady train. Every time he hit a pass with any force, it made a slightly different sound. The players called it “pinging”. Something about the grace with which his foot made contact with the ball distinguished him from everybody else. There were few people around with that sort of technical mastery. Crook was one of them. From my first training session, I could see that he had the artistry, if not the athleticism, to match anyone else in the league.

    (Image: Getty Images)

    “Have you seen Crooky run?” said Paul. “He’s got three gears: slow, fucking slow and amputee. You’re gonna be his legs in that midfield, mark my words.”

    He had been staying in Norwich for a few days, dropping me off at training until I bought myself a new car.

    “All part of the service,” he insisted. Though a few weeks later, when he’d successfully signed up young stars Ruel Fox and Chris Sutton to his books, it was noticeable that his visits were less frequent.

    For his part, Fox was getting a fresh start under the new management. At just 5ft 6in, but blessed with an abundance of pace, he had been in and out of the side under Stringer. Now the diminutive winger looked set for a prolonged stay in the first eleven.

    “He’s a good player that Fox, Cashy. Tiny little bastard, but fuck me is he quick. Like a raisin on steroids,” said Paul when we met in his office on the eve of the new season.

    “Paul. You can’t say that. It’s racist,” exclaimed Christine. “Don’t listen to him, Ray. You’ll get yourself in trouble.”

    “Just look at her, eh Cashy. Boobs like Dolly Parton and the social conscience of Malcolm X. That’s why we love her,“ said Paul. “Listen, Christine. The only colour young Cashy need worry about is yellow and passing the ball to someone with the same shirt as him at Arsenal. If he gets the ball that is. Let’s face it, this lot are probably going to get murdered.”

    It was a fair comment. After a disastrous start to the previous season, Arsenal had ended the 91-92 campaign unbeaten in 17 league games. Record signing Ian Wright, a £2.5m purchase from Crystal Palace, had bagged 24 league goals. With fellow strikers Alan Smith, Kevin Campbell and Paul Merson there was plenty of firepower to complement their legendary defensive unit. I had memories of seeing Mark Hughes prone on the treatment table at The Cliff, his legs black and blue from a weekend duel with Tony Adams and Steve Bould.

    The Gunners were a side that could mix it with anyone. In addition, Danish enforcer John Jensen, fresh from the national team’s surprising win in the 1992 European Championships, had arrived from Brondby to shore up the midfield.

    On paper this was a mismatch.

    Team talk

    “Hi, it’s me. Ray”

    Introducing yourself properly was one of the first things the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) taught us about communicating with someone in a coma.

    The second thing was to be natural. No one knows quite how much the patient can hear. Apparently it differs according to each individual. It is a common consensus that hearing normal, everyday stories is beneficial and could help stimulate the recovery.

    The nursing staff certainly play their part. When they enter the room, they always do so with a breezy greeting. And then, as they potter around closing curtains, turning lights off and on or bringing in flowers, they give a running commentary throughout. If they need to touch the patient, then they always give prior warning: “I’m just going to change your fluids, so you might feel a pinch on your arm here.”

    The staff give you just enough hope. They can’t give you the concrete answers you crave. They can’t tell you when the person is going to wake up or whether they’re going to make a full recovery. Yet they make you feel that it is all possible. They talk to the patient like they will wake up any day now and this extended period of rest is part of that process.

    That’s why they stress that you should remain positive in the patient’s company. That’s the third lesson. The patient can hear every word you say. So whether you’re talking to them, to other visitors, or to the doctors, it is important to stay hopeful. Your words might be the motivation the person needs to take their first tentative steps out of the darkness.

    I sat quietly, eyes closed, listening to the rhythmic beeping of the machinery keeping him alive. I touched his hand, pressing gently on his skin. This was when I felt at peace. Back with my brother, in the same moment as him.

    The silence was interrupted by the knock of Ellie, a tiny, middle-aged lady with a short blonde bob and warm smile who had worked in Simon’s unit for the past year. It was hard to be negative around her. She was always chatty, welcoming you on to the ward like an old friend who wanted to catch up on all the gossip. Even Dad forced himself to smile briefly when she was there.

    “What have we said about keeping it light and positive, young man?” she said. “Talk to him. Open up. It would be nice for him to hear more about you and what you’re doing. He may not be able to ask you himself just yet, but he’s still interested.”

    I decided against asking her how she knew he was listening. I didn’t want to sound like Dad. He couldn’t get his head around the idea that talking aloud was doing any good. He wanted medicine to do its job and periodically would harangue whatever unfortunate consultant was on duty about why we weren’t seeing any signs of progress.

    “Besides, I’m sure you’ve got plenty to tell him,” said Ellie. “Your dad says you’re playing Saturday.”

    Dad may have stayed stubbornly silent in Simon’s room. Elsewhere, he was clearly spreading the word far and wide about my potential Premier League debut.

    “He’s very passionate, isn’t he? Says you’re going to play for England one day.”

    One for the album

    “Big day today, Cashy.”

    Mike Walker rubbed his hands with glee as he strolled past me onto the training pitch. Sporting a permanent tan and a pair of tight shorts, he gazed up at the blazing sunshine that had accompanied us throughout pre-season. He’d drilled the team mercilessly in the scorching heat for six solid weeks, soaking up the rays from the sidelines and never once breaking sweat.

    There was a week to go until we were due at Highbury. He’d prepared the team thoroughly for the trip to north London. Pre-season fixtures had gone fairly well and Mark Robins had settled nicely into the team, despite his incessant moaning about how things were much better at Old Trafford.

    Though the senior members of the team ignored it for the most part, even they had to agree with him when they saw the kit for the new season. It was a monstrosity. Norwich’s core colours of green and yellow had been respected, but the surface area of the shirt had been peppered with an assortment of unflattering white specks.

    “Fuck me. Look at the state of this,” said Paul as he held it up for inspection. “Looks like the cockatoos shat themselves.”

    “What are you doing here?” I asked.

    “I’m here to talk business with Mike. And it looks like I’ve caught him on a good day.”

    The gaffer’s enthusiasm was shared by all. The squad filed past us, each with a notable zip in their step.

    “What’s going on?” I asked.

    “It’s Panini day, son. You know, photos for the stickers.”

    Looking through Panini sticker albums with Simon had been one of the joys of our early years. I thought back to the marathon bargaining sessions at school, where dozens of kids would bark out offer and counter-offer in the playground equivalent of the stock market. Friendships could be made and broken over the horse trading of rare adhesive treasures. I remembered the sense of achievement when we successfully commandeered Everton’s elusive Adrian Heath to complete our 1984 collection.

    My introduction to the first team seemed a world removed from the innocence of those days. Talk of bonuses, whispers about the wages other clubs were paying and occasional moans over the brutality of pre-season had dominated recent weeks.

    It was surprising to see something so trivial be greeted with such enthusiasm.

    “I didn’t realise everyone loved it so much,” I said.

    “Course they do, son,” said Paul. “Fifty quid in cash? Not bad for ten minutes’ work.”

    The sun and the shadow

    A stomach bug had ripped through the squad and ruled out several members of the first team. The gaffer felt my versatility could be useful and named me on the bench for the season-opener at Highbury.

    Paul wasn’t at the game, opting instead to head to Bramall Lane where Brian Deane would be facing another of Paul’s charges, Dion Dublin, who had just joined Manchester United. The Red Devils had failed with bids for Alan Shearer and David Hirst in pre-season. The signing of an untested striker from Cambridge was seen as a poor alternative. Few believed he had the talent for the top tier.

    “Don’t you worry about Dion,” said Paul. “He’ll surprise a few people, trust me. Besides, you should see him breakdance. He can spin around on just his cock. He’s had to give it up because he’s afraid of heights.”

    I was terrified ahead of my debut. So much so that the manager thought I’d been afflicted by the same gastric bug as the rest of the team. With an hour gone and the score at 2-1 to the home side, the gaffer told me to get ready. I was going on in centre midfield to man-mark Paul Merson, whose movement was causing problems. Walker thought the Arsenal man looked tired and my fresh legs might keep him quiet and allow us a foothold in the game.

    When the linesman held up my number, I thought I was going to be sick. It was the moment I’d been dreading since kick-off. I dealt with the nerves the same way I always had in the past few years – by running. I spent fifteen minutes trailing Merson all over the pitch, hustling and bustling, not giving him a second to breathe. His influence on the game faded in the stifling heat.

    Eventually I got my first touch of the ball as a Premier League player. Frustrated by his constant shadow, Merson unwisely tried a nutmeg close to his own penalty area. I pinched the ball away and instinctively crossed a hopeful ball into the box, the kind of low-risk percentage play I’d been honing the past few years. I looked up in time to see David Seaman out of position and David Phillips connect with a volley that crept into the far corner. 2-2.

    Merson was subbed, but I spent the rest of the game, under Walker’s instruction, marking Anders Limpar. I touched the ball eleven more times in total, including two clearances high into the stands and a defensive header off the line from an Arsenal corner. Late goals from Fox and Robins, his second of the game, secured an unlikely 4-2 win and I’d tasted victory as a professional footballer.

    The manager was delighted with me for “putting a decent shift in” and the next day I got my first write-up from Brian Woolnough in The Sun:

    Cash 6: Energetic

    About the author: Sid Lambert is a football writer who recently published his new book Cashing In. It tells the story of Ray Cash, a 19-year-old footballer making his way through the murky world of the Premier League back in 1992, when football changed forever. You can buy it here.