The night I gave James Norwood a lift home
When Tranmere lost their Football League status in April 2015, I remember sitting in the garden with my dad and brother, totally glazed in numb disbelief, dissecting the disaster and mourning the loss of credibility.
Four years later, following the victory over Newport, we gathered for another family barbecue to decompress. Around a fire, we relived the goal and basked in the glory, toasting our return to the third division. So much had changed, in football and in life, but Rovers were back from the dead and we surely deserved to celebrate.
As dusk approached, my girlfriend, Patrycja, and I made plans for the journey home, now an apartment in Liverpool city centre overlooking the Mersey. We announced our departure three or four times, only for Patrycja to start another story or my dad to find another video of Connor Jennings’ goal on YouTube. We didn’t leave until after ten o’clock. That worked out just fine.
Patrycja had never seen Prenton Park, but she wanted to know if all the fuss was justified. On our way home, she asked me to detour through Tranmere, passing by the stadium. I weaved through the neighbourhood lined with terrace housing and decided to sweep by so she could appreciate the statue of Johnny King.
More than a day after our Wembley triumph, a party continued in the fan tent, that powerful symbol of the club’s renaissance. We saw people stumbling onto the streets, mumbling songs about Manny Monthe and the impending cataclysm of Bolton Wanderers. I spun around in the car park, ready to head home, when I remembered the brick inscribed with my name on the Superwhite walkway. I parked quickly and showed Patrycja. She was happy for me, even if it all seemed ever so slightly stupid.
Walking back to the car, we bumped into the two men with foremost authorship of our halcyon days: Micky Mellon and James Norwood. The manager and his star. I asked for a photograph and they duly obliged.
Even after posing for a thousand photos and shaking even more hands, they were happy to give us a few minutes of their time. We turned back towards the car, when I heard Micky bark instructions to Nors and a few of his coaches.
“Just get a couple of cabs, I’ll pay the toll,” said Mellon.
They were obviously going to Liverpool for further celebrations. Perhaps some food and a few bars. Maybe a club. Rovers’ post-Wembley exploits had become the stuff of legend, and I was happy to see the traditions in safe hands.
“Ask them if they want a lift,” said Patrycja. It didn’t even cross my mind.
I was sceptical at first, but then the logic presented itself. We were going to Liverpool. They were going to Liverpool. We were human beings. They were human beings. Why not travel together? Stranger things have happened. And so I asked. And so they accepted. The rest is sweet Tranmere history.
When I finally climbed back into the driver’s seat of my small Audi, James Norwood, the top goalscorer in our whole country, was wedged in the back with a nondescript bearded bloke who may or may not have been Andy Hodgen, the head of sports science. Micky Mellon, the only man ever to guide Tranmere to Wembley in three straight seasons, was about to get in the passenger’s seat. The word surreal doesn’t do it justice.
In the end, another group of Tranmere backroom staff cajoled Micky into a different car, but we still had on board the most precious commodity in the lower league transfer market. We still had James Norwood, the most important player in the history of Tranmere Rovers.
I managed to drive for two minutes without asking about his contract, due to expire in a matter of weeks.
“He’ll sign a new contract when you find us somewhere good to eat,” said ‘Andy.’ Talk about pressure.
Patrycja called my family on FaceTime. Norwood spoke to my dad and brother, who could scarcely believe their eyes. My brother danced with him and many other players in The Beach, a Birkenhead nightclub, in the immediate aftermath of our victory. Now, Norwood was in our car passing through the Mersey tunnel, a fine illustration of the beautiful lunacy that makes Tranmere Rovers great.
When Liverpool played Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final a few weeks earlier, Patrycja and I saw the Barca team bus parked outside the Hilton hotel, a five-minute walk from our apartment. We joined a crowd in gawping at Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and the rest, but I was shocked at the arrogance of Barça’s travelling party. They didn’t sign a single autograph. They didn’t pose for a single selfie. People waited for hours just to see a glimpse of their heroes, and they dived straight onto the bus, totally disregarding the people whose adoration makes them secure for life.
In stark contrast, James Norwood, the eighth-highest goalscorer in the 135-year history of Tranmere Rovers, sat in our car like any other person. He spoke freely of his joy at our success, and even thanked me for an article I wrote about him when we discussed Planet Prentonia.
“You should bring it back,” he said, and that was the only motivation I needed to finish this book.
It was all meant to be. It was destiny. If we didn’t have a family barbecue, it wouldn’t have happened. If we left on time, the opportunity would have passed. If we didn’t drive past Prenton Park, or stop to see the engraved stone, we wouldn’t have a golden story to tell our kids when eventually they are born. Such is the beguiling magic of Tranmere Rovers, and such is the enchanting fortune of supporting your local club.
We eventually dropped our precious cargo on Water Street in Liverpool’s business district. They showed gratitude for our “incredible gesture,” patiently allowing us to take another selfie to prove this actually happened. Then they shimmied into the night to grab some pizza, James wearing flip-flops to avoid being roped into another night of booze.
I only hoped to see him again, see him at Prenton Park, see him in the famous white shirt. Alas, James joined Ipswich a few weeks later, grasping the reward for so much hard work.
James gave me some of the best memories of my life, including this most unlikely road trip in the depths of summer night. He was the greatest Tranmere player of my lifetime, and nothing will ever take that away.
I guess my choice of restaurant was less than ideal. I’m just glad I didn’t crash.