Interview with John Allen, 78, lifelong Norwich City fan, current match day steward and originally a programme seller from the age of 14.
How did you get to work for the club at the age of 14? What was the pay? What did the role involve and how did you get selected?
It was 1956 when I first started selling programmes at the age of 14. I came from a large family of eight children and times were tough in the 50s, so I was always on the lookout for any opportunity of earning a few pennies.
I had been a fan from the age of eight and used to go to matches. (We would crawl under the turnstiles after kick-off!) I'd heard there was a job going and I jumped at the chance. 64 years later, at the age of 78, I'm still working there! I cannot remember exactly how much I was paid, it must have been just a few pennies.
Tell us about your journey over the years regarding your various job roles at the club?
I became a turnstile operator in 1965 at the age of 23, in the days of Russell Allison, such a character, who was the long-standing Head Groundsman at the time. For many years, before the days of 'Safety Stewards', we worked solely as 'Gateman'. Crowd numbers were often in the region of 30,000, therefore it was usual for me to have 1000 supporters through my gate, all paying cash. There were only a few season tickets in the early days, fans came through any of the gates, including away fans and we had to cash up and reconcile the money taken after kick-off.
After a few years, I also worked in the cash office and progressed to becoming a Section Head, which I am still today. I've never wanted the responsibility of progressing further, especially as I worked full time for Norwich City Council, as well as usually holding down several other part-time jobs.
How have you managed to arrange your personal life around 64 years of fulfilling the fixture list?
Ah, my long-suffering wife has always been used to me juggling many jobs. It's no different now. Just before the Covid 19 crisis, I was still working five part-time jobs! The hardest time was Boxing Day matches. My family never liked me having to work on those days, but I have always felt a loyalty to the club, my colleagues (some of them who have been there nearly as long as I have) as well as providing financially for my family.
Please compare the role and responsibility of a steward now compared to when you first started.
In the ‘olden days’..lol..things, of course, were very different and I have seen many changes.
When I first started working as a Gateman, there were no safety stewards. There were very little crowd problems. There was no segregation of home and away fans and the most notable difference was that most fans stood, there was little seating.
Things started to change in the 1970s which saw the rise of crowd unrest and problems arising. If there were issues, these were often dealt with by the police. Now we have to deal with far more, as not all matches are policed.
The role now is first and foremost customer safety. This is at the forefront of everything that we do. Since the 1980s which saw momentous disasters including Hillsborough, the Bradford fire and Heysel, each member of staff is trained with safety being the priority. It is a huge responsibility at every match to keep thousands of fans safe. Regulations which have followed on from those traumatic historical events govern our roles nowadays.
How do City fans differ nowadays regarding passion and atmosphere from when you first started at the club?
I guess because of the nature and geography of the club, there has always been a family feel. Years ago you didn't know what was going on in other parts of the world, so you only tended to focus on your club. Players didn't move clubs as often then either. Fans have always been passionate. When I started, going to a football match was one of the few things people could afford, plus there weren't many other activities we could do. People didn't have a lot of money, so football brought people together. Life was hard and it was the one thing many of us could do. Even though crowds were even bigger than they are now, we always felt safe.
In the '50s, men wore suits and dressed up very smartly. There weren't so many ladies then and often all the children were allowed to stand at the front. Home and away fans stood together on the terraces and we chatted and mixed with players and managers alike. The game itself was very different. The players played in all weathers, pitch conditions weren't great and tackling was much more dangerous then. The amount of money involved in the game has changed everything.
Have you played football yourself or been involved in local football?
Although I played at school, the priority was always to earn money. I left school at 15, went straight into full-time work, leaving little time for any hobbies. I used to work every first team, reserves and youth matches.
What is the most difficult or uncomfortable situation you have been part of whilst on duty?
I have been very fortunate in that I have worked within an excellent team and we have been used to problem-solving and thinking on our feet to avert problems. I can't recall any particular incidents thankfully.
Nowadays with the assistance of radios and cameras, we are able to deal with incidents easier in many respects. One of the biggest difficulties is getting thousands of fans into and out of the ground safely, but that's where the experience comes in.
What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you on a match day?
I've seen lots of characters come and go throughout my time there. I've had a few embarrassing moments when I haven't recognised a player and tried to stop them from entering the ground! We had a lot more contact with players and managers in the 60s and 70s, so we often had a laugh and a joke with them. I've got so many happy memories.
I understand you have stewarded three games at Carrow Road all on the same day, is this usual?
Yes, there were times in the past when I would cycle to the ground in the morning for a youth match, followed by a reserves match and then stayed for a Junior Cup in the evening, cycling home afterwards. That doesn't happen now of course, but I sometimes work at the Colney training ground and Carrow Road on the same day. It's not unusual for me to work three different jobs in one day.
Who is your favourite all-time City player and manager and why?
Player wise, I would have to say Irishman Johnny Gavin, from the 40s & 50s, not only because of his goal-scoring career, but he was one of the nicest people to meet. He always had time for a chat.
Norman Low (1950-55) is my favourite manager.
One of my all-time favourite players was Duncan Edwards, not a City player, of course, one of the Busby Babes, tragically taken too young as a result of the Munich Air disaster in 1958.
I have a lot of time for Daniel Farke and it's always great to see the new talent coming through.
Dead or alive, who would you most want to watch a City game with as a spectator?
Sadly, I lost my dearest son at the age of 18. I would give anything to watch another match with him, against his beloved Liverpool. However, one of my fondest memories will always be watching Norwich win promotion at Wembly in 2015 with my grandson, also a passionate Norwich fan. I've also been lucky enough to work at Carrow Road with my daughter, and two grandchildren.
Any interesting stories that our readers would love to hear about?
Probably too many to tell, but the time in the mid-1950s when the club's finances were in dire straights and the fans dug deep into their own pockets to try to keep the club from liquidation.
I was lucky enough to have a vast collection of football programmes dating back to the 1940s, many signed, which I recently sold to avid collectors. One of the most prized possessions was a single typed sheet from the 40s. A collector flew in from Germany especially to buy it.
I also remember watching City beat Man U in the 1959 FA cup run, making it to the Semi-Finals. I climbed up onto the hoardings to watch the game, which would, of course, be completely against the rules nowadays! We were only in the third division then, (the unofficial crowd numbers must have been 38,000 plus) hence why it was so exciting.
I've seen so many players, managers, staff come and go over the years, but the club has always had that family-run feeling. I hope I might be the longest-serving employee of all time. In the 64 years I've worked there I've only missed a handful of matches when fixtures have been rearranged for example. That's something of which I'm very proud.