Matt Healey continues the series.
David Norton was born in Cannock on the 3rd March 1965. He played top flight football for Aston Villa in the 1980’s, then had spells at Notts County, Hull City, Northampton Town, and joined Hereford United in 1996.
Graham Turner had been the Aston Villa manager when Norton was at Villa Park, and it was an easy decision to sign for his former boss in the Summer of 1996 “I liked the way Graham played his football, and it was an attractive option for me at the time”.
The Hereford United squad had major surgery that close season. The likes of Steve White, Richard Wilkins, Tony James, Nicky Cross and Neil Lyne had moved on, and as well as Norton the new intake at Edgar Street included Quentin Townsend, Adrian Foster, Gavin Mahon and Ian Foster, whereas Chris Hargreaves and Andy deBont who had been on loan the previous campaign had now signed permanently.
Norton was appointed club captain, and optimism was high as Hereford went to Fulham on the opening game, nearly 1,000 supporters made the journey to Craven Cottage, on a hot afternoon in August Hereford were defeated 1-0.
Hereford would make an awful start to the season, and were bottom of the league in mid September, a 10-0 aggregate loss to Middlesbrough in the Coca Cola Cup didn’t help team morale either.
The team picked up in October, and went on a bit of a run with three wins on the trot, this culminated in a 3-1 victory at Chester City. Adrian Foster scored two goals that afternoon. He finished top scorer that season, and had a decent goal return, but is probably considered one of the most least popular players to have played for the club. “Ade Foster was a great guy, it was a pleasure to play with him” More on Foster in another episode…
What happened next was the club went on a horrific run for the next three months, it led to thirteen games without a league win which ended in a 5-1 walloping at Scunthorpe United on the 18th January 1997.
Experienced midfielder Carl Beeston was then signed on loan from Stoke City, and the Bulls went to Cambridge United on the 25th January and picked up a vital 1-0 win.
Hereford then went on a six match unbeaten run. This included further wins against Wigan Athletic, and a 3-2 victory away at Barnet.
A fierce local derby against local rivals Cardiff City on Sunday 16th February 1997 ended in a 1-1 draw, the game is remembered for ex Hereford player Gareth Stoker scoring for the Bluebirds, but then totally losing his head and getting sent off for an horrific challenge on Chris Hargreaves.
Hereford were still way ahead of bottom club Brighton, but the Sussex team were now picking up points, the former Charlton manager Steve Gritt had taken over at the Goldstone Ground, and was beginning to galvanise the club.
Hereford then lost Beeston who was recalled by Stoke City, Keith Downing had also had to retire due to a recurring back problem, and with Gareth Stoker now at Cardiff City. The Bulls were light in midfield experience.
Two home defeats against Exeter and Northampton increased the pressure, but on the 15th March Hereford went to top of the table Carlisle United and despite being 2-0 down early doors, they came back to win 3-2 with an Adrian foster hat trick. Goalkeeper Trevor Wood would dramatically also save a last minute penalty.
“We were up against it, we needed a result, it was a great feeling for the lads, it gave us a release from everything”
Hereford would then lose 1-0 away at Doncaster Rovers, there were seven games to go, the last match would be home to Brighton, in what potentially would be a winner takes all clash.
Graham Turner then bought in four transfer deadline day signings. Bradley Sandeman, Brian McGorry, Tony Agana, and his son Mark.
I asked Norton how he coped with the pressure “For me I accepted the situation, Brighton were picking up points, they were well supported at home, they were gradually creeping up behind us”
Hereford would then draw 0-0 at home to Fulham, draw again 1-1 at Hull City, and a superb Brian McGorry free kick earnt a 1-0 win at home to Colchester United on Grand National day on the 5th April 1997.
There were four games to go, and Hereford were five points ahead of Brighton, but it was still extremely edgy and anxious. Next up was a 1-1 draw at Scarborough, then another 1-1 draw, this time at home to Torquay.
Brighton had closed the gap and with two games to go Hereford were three points ahead of them. Brighton though had a better goals scored column. Usually when a team is level on points, the usual system of goal difference would kick in, but that season it was changed to goals scored, and with Hereford scoring less than Brighton it made for an anxious time at Edgar Street.
Hereford would go to Leyton Orient in the penultimate game of the season on the 26th April 1997 “We went into the game really confident, we were supported by so many Hereford fans that day, it was an incredible experience”
Despite dominating much of the game Hereford would go down 2-1 at Brisbane Road, with Brighton defeating Doncaster Rovers 1-0 in a highly charged emotional last game at the Goldstone Ground (the ground was demolished that summer). Hereford would now find themselves bottom of the league. It would be win or bust for Hereford on the 3rd May 1997.
Norton would be interviewed by Tim Russon on Central News South the day before the final day showdown.
“We went into the game needing a win to stay up. It was the biggest occasion for me in football. I was so confident we would do it, the team was really focused, we knew the enormity of it, we felt we could do it. Adrian Foster had a great chance at the end, but we drew 1-1.
We started so well, it was an incredible game, we gave everything we had, there were players in tears in the dressing room, we felt full of shame, it was dreadful after the match”
Hereford were relegated to the GM Vauxhall Conference.
I asked Norton was it hard to adapt to non league football “We knew everything that would come to us, we should have embraced that, one or two players didn’t deal with the expectancy, the financial situation was hard too for us all, every team would raise their game at Edgar Street”
An opening day 2-1 defeat at home to the big and strong Welling United was a sign that life in the GM Vauxhall Conference wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
Back then there were no Play Offs, so only the champions went up. Halifax Town ran away with it, and Hereford finished 6th. There was a big financial crisis at Edgar Street too, and the players went months without being paid on some occasions.
Norton was ravaged by injury, and missed the majority of the season. He would be released by Graham Turner in 1998.
“I left and joined Cheltenham Town. I didn’t want to leave Hereford, but they didn’t offer me a new contract. I was in severe pain, the club couldn’t afford to pay for an operation because of the finances.
I didn’t get paid for 11 weeks. I nearly lost my house, due to the pain I was suffering I couldn’t play with my daughter in the garden. I got in touch with the PFA who arranged an operation for me to remove some scar tissue and that fixed the problem.
Steve Cotterill (Cheltenham manager) invited me for training, initially on expenses, and then I was offered a contract”
Hereford United would face Cheltenham Town on the 23rd February 1999. It was the first time David Norton had returned to Edgar Street. The atmosphere was toxic. Hereford were suffering huge financial problems, and the previous season had to sell top scorer Neil Grayson to the Robins to pay a tax bill. John Brough had also left to join the Gloucestershire club, and a £15,000 fee had bought central defender Richard Walker over to Whaddon Road, as well as Norton there were 4 ex Hereford players in the Cheltenham line up that Saturday afternoon.
The abuse towards Norton would be one of the most hostile I have ever seen at Edgar Street.
“Steve Cotterill said to me before the match whatever we go through, we go through together, I went to take a corner near the Len Weston and Meadow End part of the ground, but was met by a torrent of verbal abuse, coins, spit, and cigarette lighters. It wasn’t easy to take. I understood the fans frustrations, I was captain of the club when we went down, but the abuse went too far that afternoon.
At Cheltenham we got promotion, and I felt I redeemed my pride back, it really hurt me when Hereford went down, I understand the anger though as I was the captain, and was now playing for their local rivals, but I wanted to stay at Hereford but the club let me go”
After helping Cheltenham Town win the GM Vauxhall Conference, Norton had a brief spell at Yeovil Town, then went back to Gloucestershire to sign for Forest Green, he then became joint player manager at the Lawn with his ex Villa colleague Nigel Spink, and the duo were in charge during the FA Trophy Semi Final clashes against Hereford United in 2001 where Forest Green would win 6-3 on aggregate.
He later managed Gainsborough Trinity and Grantham, he currently runs a Football Academy near Nottingham, and regularly turns out for the Aston Villa legends team.