October 23, 2020 marks one year on from the sad passing of City legend Duncan Forbes.
Last year, our matchday programme, OTBC, paid tribute to Forbes with the below feature.
Words: Dan Brigham
No-nonsense defenders. You know the type. Strapping giants with foreheads the size of Ayers Rock, biceps bigger than most men’s legs, a missile-guided navigation system for booting the ball – and opponents – into row Z, a bandage around their head and eyes bulging as they bark out orders.
Tony Adams. Jack Charlton. Terry Butcher. Norman Hunter. There was a particular tradition of British centre-backs who struck fear into their opponents; who had mastered the dark arts of stopping attackers by any means necessary.
Duncan Forbes was Norwich City's very own no-nonsense centre-back, who relished taking on and dominating the opposition’s nastiest, elbow-iest striker. But he didn’t quite tick every box of the stereotype. He certainly took no nonsense, he certainly rattled some bones – and had several of his own broken – and he certainly frightened the life out of opponents.
There was a difference with Forbes though. At under 12 stone and standing under 6ft, Forbes had to make up for his smaller stature through tenacity, sheer determination and no little skill.
The toughest member of a tough Norwich City team under tough-man Ron Saunders, the perception of Forbes was that he was either tackling, getting his nose broken or picking up a booking. And the Carrow Road faithful absolutely loved him for it. Most importantly, though, Forbes was a fantastic player: he was part of the side that won promotion to the top-flight for the very first time, and captained City in Division One.
Forbes was well aware of his role in City’s side, and told the Guardian in 1974: “My main job is to inflict myself on an attacker. From the very start I’ve got to assert my authority on him.”
He was also a natural leader, respected in the dressing room and by opponents. “He really got people going,” said Forbes’ legendary centre-back partner Dave Stringer. “If someone was slacking, he would make sure they knew about it.”
Defenders got away with far more in Forbes’ time (as did the strikers they were up against, of course) – shirt-pulling, high tackles, studs up from behind: nearly everything was part of their armoury. “Every player you played against then, you had a battle,” Forbes wrote in Tales From The City. “If they saw you were weak, you’d be finished. So you would, early on, just go through them; let them know you were there.”
The 1970s was a very different time for English football. And Duncan Forbes was an absolute master of his era.
Born in Edinburgh in 1951, aged 20 Forbes joined Division 4 side Colchester United in September 1961 from non-league Scottish side Musselburgh Athletic. He helped Colchester get promoted in his first season, and also bounce back at the first time of asking in 1964-65.
His tenacious displays and ability to read the game was catching the eye of teams higher up the league pyramid, and it was Division 2 Norwich who captured his signature in September 1968.
Forbes made his debut on Wednesday October 9, 1968 against Crystal Palace, but it wasn’t a particularly happy time for Norwich. Frustration at the manager Lol Morgan resulted in cushions being thrown onto the pitch during a home draw with Bristol City in March 1969, and a 4-1 home defeat to Derby County with only two matches of the season remaining was Morgan’s final game before he was asked to resign.
Forbes, who had started plenty of games under Morgan, would be working under a new manager: Ron Saunders, who joined from Oxford. Luckily, they hit it off straight away. “He was straight as a die,” said Saunders, speaking to the club in 2014. “He loved the game and wanted everyone else to give the same effort that he gave.
“You speak to players when you take over a new club and those things about ability, effort, everyone working for each other struck a chord with Dunc. We were on the same wavelength right from the start.”
Forbes was an ever-present in 1969-70 under Saunders, and his committed displays won him the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy at the end of the season. Alongside him as an ever-present that year was his defensive partner Dave Stringer, and Ron Saunders knew how blessed he was to have inherited the pair: “Him and Dave Stringer hit it off straight away,” Saunders said. “They thought along the same lines. It was a huge bonus to realise right from the day I took over you had two lads you could bank on giving 100 per cent and be upset if other players didn’t.”
Forbes – who Stringer famously said could be heard in Yarmouth if he shouted in Norwich – was also a fan of Saunders’ draining fitness regime. “When we were running them up Mousehold we would emphasise to them you can’t play good football if you are not fit,” said Saunders. “You have to get fit. Duncan of course he was shouting the same things as me, only a bit louder.”
Unsurprisingly, Forbes took over as captain in November of that season when the incumbent Ken Mallender found himself out of the side. He would go on to captain City on 249 occasions, spread across eight seasons.
Two mid-table finishes in 1969-70 and 1970-71 didn’t hint at what was to come the following season.
City had a remarkable start to the campaign, going unbeaten in their first 13 games – with Forbes helping a solid City back line to seven clean sheets in the process. With Norwich unexpectedly top of the table – and Ken Foggo and Peter Silvester in fine goalscoring form – promotion to the top tier for the first time in the Club’s history was suddenly a real possibility.
Unfortunately for captain Forbes, he was injured in late October against Cardiff City, and was out until March. He missed 15 matches, six of which were won to keep the promotion push going, but he made a timely return after a 4-0 defeat to Birmingham City, who were Norwich’s main rivals alongside Millwall for the title.
City lost only twice in the 12 remaining games, and, with five matches remaining and the top four teams separated by a tantalising four points, Forbes – not at all a regular goalscorer – notched vital winners in 1-0 victories against Sheffield Wednesday (in front of the River End) and Swindon Town (in front of the Barclay).
Two days later Norwich travelled to Orient – backed by thousands of travelling Canaries – and won 2-1 to secure their first-ever promotion to the top tier of English football.
“I remember coming back on the bus that night and there were all these supporters on the road in their own buses and in cars, and more waiting for us when we got back,” Forbes remembered of a momentous night.
He would now be playing in Division 1 for the first time – not bad for someone who started in Scotland’s non-leagues: “All of us players knew then that we were going to be playing in the First Division, the top division, and for me, that was the be-all and end-all.”
City stayed up by the narrowest of margins in their inaugural top-tier season, and much of that was down to the collective teamwork of the side; a spirit embodied by Forbes. His importance to the team was also confirmed when he missed eight matches through injury in November and December, and City conceded 17 goals.
Forbes also had the honour of leading out Norwich at Wembley in the League Cup final against Tottenham, but the match ended in a disappointing 1-0 defeat.
With City struggling at the start of the following season, Saunders was replaced by John Bond in November 1973. Bond, however, seemed less enamoured with Forbes’ no-nonsense approach. “When John Bond became manager he wasn’t keen on my tackling,” he said. “I’d go through the centre-forward and come away with the ball and sometimes Bond would actually say, ‘Did you really need to do that?’”
Forbes’ impressive performances in a struggling team received national praise, and an interview in the Guardian (conducted at a pub, of course, with Forbes using beer mats to demonstrate tactics). “Pointing to his five-times broken nose and missing teeth, Forbes claims he is, in fact, more sinned against that sinning,” read the piece. “At Highbury last season he went into the Arsenal penalty area for a corner kick and, as the ball floated over, a knee in his back broke a rib, which punctured a lung. Forbes claims he harbours no grudges and even speaks appreciatively of the way Arsenal players visited him in hospital.”
City were relegated at the end of the season but bounced back immediately, while Forbes once again led the Canaries out at Wembley, but again they were beaten by a solitary goal, this time by Aston Villa. He missed only three matches in 1975-76 as Norwich came 10th in the top tier, but it was to be his last full season for the Club.
The following season he lost his place to Welsh international David Jones and was loaned out to Torquay. Although he did return, Forbes was very much a bit player after that. He was recalled for the last game of the 1977-78 season at Carrow Road and there were wild celebrations when he scored a last-minute equaliser against West Bromwich Albion.
His final and 357th appearance came against Wolves at Carrow Road in October 1981, bringing to a close the career of one of Norwich’s favourite sons.
In truth, despite his no-nonsense approach to the game, Forbes had never been sent off and had never seriously injured any player.
He was all-action, all-combative and never left anything out on the pitch but perhaps Forbes should really be remembered for emerging from the Scottish non-leagues to representing Norwich City in the top flight.
He was a fine player who belonged at the top level and, as he himself told the Guardian back in 1974, “You can tell some of those centre-forwards that I’m not the big, bad man I’m cracked up to be.”