On this day 60 years ago, Third Division Norwich City booked a place in the semi-finals of the FA Cup after beating Sheffield United in a five-goal thriller at Carrow Road.
The Canaries’ incredible surge from the first round to reaching the last four of the world’s most famous knock-out competition in 1958-59 really was the event that put Norwich City on the footballing map.
A most unlikely rise to national prominence, City’s success came swiftly after FA Cup humiliation just two season’s earlier. Norwich crashed out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle in 1956-57 as non-league Bedford Town secured a 4-2 victory at Carrow Road. The result was a disaster and left the Club in crises both on and off the pitch.
With the team well adrift at the foot of the Third Division South table and the Club’s finances in a precarious position it was certainly one of the darkest hours in the club’s history.
“We were down and out,” recalled lifelong supporter Roy Blower, when speaking to Norwich's programme at the time of the 50th anniversary in 2008.
“We finished bottom of the league by a country mile, but the biggest humiliation was to lose 4-2 to Bedford. We were in a dreadful state; if the slide had continued we were looking at playing King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Spalding within the next few seasons.”
Suffice to say City’s remarkable '58-59 campaign certainly came as a rather unexpected surprise. The Club’s resurgence and the foundations for the memorable cup adventure were based on a successful bid to raise £25,000 via a public appeal to help keep the Club afloat, the appointment of Archie Macaulay as manager and the commencement of Geoffrey Watling’s 16-year reign as Chairman.
After surviving both re-election and the embarrassment of the cup exit at the hands of Bedford in the 1956-57 season, things improved during Macaulay’s first full season at the helm as City reached the FA Cup third round and secured a greatly improved eighth place league finish in 1957-58.
With the club finally heading in the right direction both on and off the pitch, City began their 1958-59 FA Cup adventure with a first round tie at home to Isthmian League side Ilford. Despite trailing 1-0 at the break, there was to be no repeat of the Bedford debacle of ’56 as second-half goals from Jimmy Hill and Bobby Brennan (two) safely saw City into the second round draw.
Fellow Third Division club Swindon Town were City’s next opponents, with the second round tie taking place at the County Ground on Saturday, December 6, 1958. Norwich played with a great deal of confidence and despite falling behind after 20 minutes, they levelled before the break thanks to Hill’s second FA Cup goal of the season. Macauley’s side had the better of things after the break and it was the home side that were pleased to hear the final whistle and settle for a Carrow Road replay.
Both sides were given a huge incentive ahead of the Carrow Road replay with news that the winner would host Matt Busby’s famous Manchester United ‘Babes’ in the third round. In front of the watching Busby, Crossan was the Canaries’ hero of the hour as his second-half strike was misjudged by Swindon goalkeeper Sam Burton and proved enough to see Norwich through to round three and more importantly tee-up the eagerly-anticipated visit of Manchester United.
With respect to both Ilford and Swindon Town, it was the third round tie with United that really captured the Norfolk public’s imagination and lit the blue touch paper on what would become a gallant adventure for all involved with the Club.
A crowd of 38,000 packed into Carrow Road for a sighting of the glamorous United team that had just won eight successive First Division fixtures. Most inside the ground were expecting a routine win for the footballing giants, but on a snow-covered pitch and against all odds this was to be Norwich City’s day. Terry Bly hammed home Brennan’s pull-back after 31 minutes and Crossan doubled the home side’s lead just after the hour. A giantkilling act was unfolding in front of the astonished bumper crowd, and the result was put beyond doubt when Bly made it 3-0 with his second goal of the game and the legendary Pink ’Un headline of ‘Bly, Bly Babes’ was created.
Cardiff City were the Canaries’ next opponents and after the heroics of the previous round, this fourth round meeting attracted another 38,000 full house to Carrrow Road. An eventful and highly charged affair looked to be heading for a Ninian Park replay with the two sides locked at 2-2 with just three minutes remaining. However, cometh the hour, cometh the man, and it was Bly again who grabbed the headlines with a thunderous finish to win the game 3-2 and book a place in the fifth round draw.
A trip to White Hart Lane to face the mighty First Division Tottenham Hotspur saw Norwich backed by a huge travelling contingent. In front of a crowd of 67,633 (the largest in any game of the cup run), Norwich took a shock second-half lead through Terry Allcock and appeared to be heading for the quarter-finals before Cliff Jones netted a last-minute equaliser to save Spurs’ blushes.
Under the floodlights and in front of another packed house at Carrow Road City amazingly won the replay 1-0 thanks to a second-half strike from Bly – his fifth goal of the campaign.
A quarter-final meeting with Division Two Sheffield United at Bramall Lane now beckoned. At this stage of February 1958, Macaulay’s men had sent the city of Norwich football crazy – all the talk was of the cup conquering Canaries and a huge clamour for tickets to the match at Sheffield.
An epic FA Cup quarter-final meeting with the Blades unfolded and once again a replay was needed to separate the two sides. The initial tie at Bramall Lane will always be remembered for the bravery of City keeper Ken Nethercott, who remarkably played on with a dislocated shoulder to help ensure a 1-1 draw and a Carrow Road replay.
On Wednesday, March 4, 1959, Carrow Road hosted a truly pulsating encounter with many who attended the match saying the atmosphere and crowd noise was unlike anything before. Sandy Kennon replaced the injured Nethercott in goal and Bly was yet again the Canaries’ two-goal hero as Norwich won a five-goal thriller 3-2.
Victory over the Blades resulted in phenomenal scenes of celebration as Norwich reached their first ever FA Cup semi-final. First Division Luton Town stood between the Canaries and a place in the FA Cup final. City fans once again returned to White Hart Lane in their thousands after Spurs’ home was selected as the neutral venue for the semi-final showdown.
The match ended 1-1 with Brennan netting a second-half equaliser for City. The result saw both sides do it all again four days later at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s. Sadly the semi-final replay proved a bridge too far for the Third Division side whose remarkable run ended with a single strike from Luton’s Billy Bingham being the difference between the two sides.
Despite missing out on a trip to the twin towers, the Canaries were given a heroic welcome back to Norwich by their proud supporters who will never forget the memorable journey they were taken on.
This piece first appeared in our OTBC matchday programme for City's game against Portsmouth.