One of my first memories of Roker Park was a game against Hull City. By my loose reckoning it was probably around 1986.
I’d been taken there by a friend of my dad as he would have been either working or playing somewhere himself.
I’m guessing at the year, because I’m sure Iain Hesford was playing for us.
At the other end was a keeper who I’d had no previous knowledge of. Why would I? I was nine years old and the two most prominent keepers in my life were Bruce Grobbelaar and my dad. So how the hell would I know who Hull City’s keeper was?
The funny thing was, even after those 90 minutes were up, I would never forget the name of that keeper and he would leave an indelible mark on me in more ways than just what I saw that day.
So what was it that made this keeper stand out so much? Well, from the middle of the Fulwell End, I wasn’t paying particular attention to the two keepers but what struck me first was how far out of his goal he stood when Hull were on the attack. More than anyone else I had seen.
Goalkeepers were supposed to patrol the edge of their box but this guy spent more outside it than in. And then he did something I hadn’t seen before. Something that I had never even imagined a keeper could do, never mind would.
As he took a long aimless ball that had been launched high up the pitch by a Sunderland defender to no one in particular, his defence pushed up and as they did, the Sunderland forwards fell back in expectance of it being returned.
But instead of punting it back on top of the Sunderland defence, he calmly dropped the ball at his own feet and began dribbling the ball forward.
I can remember wondering what the hell he was doing. He took the ball a good 10 or 15 yards outside the box and then, seemingly without much effort at all, he played a lovely clipped ball into the chest of one his team-mates.
“Is that all?” you may ask, but that simple piece of play has stuck with me ever since.
I have triggers from my childhood that pop in to my head on a weekly basis. They draw me right back to that time. Just like the bouncing hamstring stretch by Maradona during the 1986 World Cup and or the game of badminton I lost to Angela Gill, watching this game is one of those random memories.
There was just something different about him. Something unconventional. For instance, he threw the ball out with his left hand but kicked the ball with his right foot. “Who does that?” I thought.
As it it turned out, it was Tony Norman who did that and I still find it remarkable that some six years later I was training alongside that very man when I joined Sunderland from school.
Granted, it’s not the kind of coincidence that makes you go “Wow!” but it feels like I was meant to notice Tony that day. Of all of the keepers I saw in those first few years going to Roker Park, there must have been a reason why he was the one who had stood out to me.
One of the others was Eddie Niedzwiecki of Chelsea after the Milk Cup semi-final of 1985 but that was only because his name was so unusual. As names go, Tony Norman isn’t as exotic as Eddie Niedzwiecki (although both Welshman) but in every other aspect he was.
Along with Monty, Alec Chamberlain and Sean Musgrave, Tony probably gave me the best introduction in to the world of football as I could have hoped. They were all gentleman and without their support I dare say I wouldn’t have made it beyond the exit door at Sunderland.
As much of a favourite as Big Tone was, I always though he was under-appreciated as a keeper. He had an ability with his feet that managers pay fortunes for these days and would have easily transferred that talent to today’s modern game.
In small-sided games, if we had three keepers available, you would probably find him up on the left wing and not looking a bit out of place.
I loved his quirkiness too. In a reserve game, I noticed he was wearing two odd gloves; one Uhlsport, one Sondico. I have no idea why, but it worked for him that game, keeping a clean sheet.
Most of all though, Tony Norman was a gentleman to me back then and I’ll always be grateful for him for making those tough few years so enjoyable. So much so that I even forgave him for laughing at me once when I dropped a cross into my own net in a youth team game at Whitburn, funnily enough against Hull City.
As the horror of what I had just done ran through me, I turned round to see that toothy grin of his pointing straight at me and with a shrug of his shoulders he tried to convey to me that it didn’t matter. And do you know what, that’s a great lesson to teach any goalkeeper.
So cheers for that, Tone. There might be millions of people out there with more extravagant names, but to me there’s only one Tony Norman.