Rotherham United: John Norris - Millers man of 1,000 games

John Norris receives Steve Evans' 2013 promotion medal
John Norris receives Steve Evans' 2013 promotion medal
0
Have your say

Millmoor, March 4 1989, the old Division Four, Rotherham United 1 Torquay 0.

Love stories have begun in more glamorous circumstances, but that matters little to John Norris.

John with player Nicky Walker at Wembley in 2014

John with player Nicky Walker at Wembley in 2014

On that unremarkable Saturday 26 years ago, he took his girlfriend to watch Rotherham because she’d never been to a football match.

They headed off to the club’s ramshackle former home and something stirred: Jane liked it, John did too. Together they were hooked and the Millers became their passion.

Years later, the couple would go their separate ways, but John’s affair with the Millers endured.

And endured.

Evidence of his devotion at home

Evidence of his devotion at home

Now the 51-year-old factory-worker is looking forward to clocking up his 1,000th consecutive competitive home and away Rotherham match when Steve Evans’ men return from the international break.

Not bad for someone who until that shared Millmoor experience had been happy to visit any ground but was essentially a Barnsley supporter!

“I’d been to Millmoor on many occasions before then, but it all started from that match,” he recalls.

“It was strange for me as I was breaking the unwritten rule of never swapping allegiances, although it didn’t happen overnight.

Everything neatly kept

Everything neatly kept

“But as I’ve always said to anybody who judges me for it: ‘My life, my choice.’”

He needed three years to completely break his Oakwell ties, but since then his appetite for all things Rotherham United has been matched only by the one he has for Wetherspoons breakfasts, which feature regularly in the entertaining matchday tales he posts on Facebook.

“The club means everything to me,” he says. “Some people can switch off once the final whistle goes, but our results are the difference between me having a good week or having a bad week.”

He doesn’t dare try to work out how much the Millers have cost him - emotionally or financially! - down the years, but this is a man who doesn’t ever intend missing game again.

Watching at Gillingham

Watching at Gillingham

“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” he shudders. “Not for the continuity of the record, but I just couldn’t imagine not being there after almost 20 years of not missing.

“I have been moved to a later shift at work so I can’t get to the afternoon reserve-team games now.

“That kills me, so missing a first-team game is almost incomprehensible.”

He also does all the friendlies, by the way!

His best ever Millers day came as the club triumphed at the old Wembley in the Auto Windscreens Shields Trophy Final against Shrewsbury in 1996.

“The game itself, our first ever visit to the Twin Towers, went by in a flash for me,” he remembers.

Wembley play-off winners in 2014

Wembley play-off winners in 2014

“But we arrived back in the Millmoor Hotel just before the team bus and the next few hours were just magical as we celebrated with the team, having photos with the shield and sharing the day’s experiences with the Wembley heroes back in the pub.

Not quite like the night in the south-west of England three years later then.

“I’ll never forget a Tuesday away game at Exeter in April 1999,” he grimaces. “A 3-0 defeat more or less ended our automatic promotion hopes, and it was belting down with rain as we got drowned on the old uncovered away end.

“I had to go to work the next morning, so I arrived home at 3.40am following a 500-mile round trip and had to get up at 4.30am for work.

“Definitely one of those ‘Why?’ moments ... but, as one of my favourite sayings goes: ‘You have to endure the bad times to fully appreciate the good.’”

He is a gentle giant of a man and a huge figure among the Millers fraternity, including fans, players and management staff, who affectionally know him as ‘Zippy’ after the monicker he uses on social media.

“My proudest moment following the Millers has to be the day I was presented with manager Steve Evans’ promotion-winning medal at New York Stadium in 2013,” he says.

“It has pride of place in my living room, framed with a couple of photos from the day signed by Steve.”

John’s current sequence didn’t begin back on that fateful 1989 afternoon in grimy Masborough.

He stacked up a run of 219 games before his pal’s car broke down on the way to Reading in 1994 and was then sadly absent at 10 away matches in two seasons when money was tight

“The last competitive game I missed was Wycombe away, 1-1 on Tuesday April 16, 1996,” he says with the recall for detail he is renowned for.

“It came two days after our Wembley win in the Auto Windscreens and we were skint,” he says.

He can rattle off the date and opposition for every one of those missed matches and you can tell it still hurts even after all these years.

He lives in Wombwell but AESSEAL New York Stadium - “North Stand block 5, end of the row, just above exit D,” to be precise - is his spiritual home.

“No seats directly in front of me or my mate’s daughter who sits next to me, so we have around 60 feet of leg room,” he grins. “Ideal.”

The most excited he’s ever been as a Millers fan was the day he walked into the club’s new stadium for the first time, on Saturday July 21 2012.

“Outside was unbelievable, inside was emotional and breathtaking,” he says.

“The fact that it was my birthday and Barnsley were the opponents made it even more poignant for me.

“It took several matches before the fact that it was actually all ours began to sink in. I still look around the stadium now and bless everything that (chairman) Tony Stewart and his team have done for us.”

Click here for more Millers news

There’s nowhere he’d rather spend his Saturdays, but weekends without Millers games often see him off with his camera and autograph book on 15-hour jaunts to all parts of the country to add a new ground to his list.

And a different Wetherspoons.

Last Saturday he was up at 4am for an early-kick-off at Welling United v Tranmere Rovers, bringing his total to 240 different league and non-league grounds, 159 of them with the Millers.

“I’ve done 152 Football League grounds past and present, 129 of them while watching Rotherham,” he says. “I’ve been to all the current 92 Football League grounds and Welling was my 17th current Conference (now National League) ground. I’m hoping to complete all the Conference stadiums this season with our free Saturdays.”

Only family - he’s the proudest uncle you’ll ever meet, and he still writes movingly on Facebook about his late dad - come before the Millers. “Although I have missed a couple of family weddings to be at a game,” he confesses almost rebelliously. “Weddings should be strictly June or early July!”

Millers followers, over the years, have become like his extended family.

“Players and staff come and go, but I’ve made lifelong friends at this club,” he says. “We’ve gone through so much together both at football and in our personal lives.”

Game one of the 1,000 came at Crewe on April 20 1996 when Shaun Goodwin and Nigel Jemson sealed a 2-0 win.

Game 999 is this Saturday at Charlton Athletic, and then comes the moment John has been waiting for.

And, really, it couldn’t be more fitting for this lovely, likeable member of that crazy, admirable band of football devotees for whom no trip is too far, no challenge too great and travelling through the night after a defeat is, well ... ‘you have to endure the bad times to fully appreciate the good’.

Brighton.

Away.

A 452-mile round trip.

On a Tuesday night.

**********************

The Millers according to John:

Best Millers player: As a singular, there’s not been many better midfielders than Steve Thompson during my time as a Miller. But if I could be greedy and have two, then what I wouldn’t give to have a Martin McIntosh/Chris Swailes centre-half partnership again.

Best Millers team: Never easy to compare teams from different eras, but the overall quality in the 2000-2001 promotion-winning team and the subsequent early Championship years wins it for me. Pollitt, Lee, Robins, Swailes, McIntosh, Talbot, Watson ... names to get me buzzing.

Best Millers game: April 28 2001, Rotherham United 2 Brentford 1. You can’t get better than a last-minute Millmoor promotion winner from Alan Lee.

First ever Millers game: September 21 1974, Rotherham Utd 1 Darlington 1 at Millmoor.

Favourite autograph: I’ve met some of Britain’s greatest footballing names over the years - Tom Finney, Brian Clough, Tommy Lawton, Bob Paisley, Bobby Robson etcetera - but I just love getting signatures from the former Millers players that John Breckin brings to New York Stadium on matchdays, legends such as Dave Watson, Tony Towner, and Albert Bennett who are so embedded in Millers folklore.

Away days: The Colin Campbell pub supporters coach

Favourite away ground: The best has to be The Emirates - different class and a totally new level of stadia. But my favourite ground is Bootham Crescent, home of York City. I just love open away terraces in good old-fashioned grounds and I feel more comfortable in places such as Exeter, Macclesfield and Accrington than at plush new grounds.

Boss Steve Evans’ reign: The first two seasons were everything and more than we could have hoped for. Last season we defied all the pre-season doubters who had us relegated before a ball had been kicked. I’m firmly in the Evans camp.

The Millers manager on John: “This is a fantastic achievement by John. His unwavering and loyal support to come and follow the club through thick and thin, sunshine and rain, and from Carlisle to Exeter is staggering. We are not just talking about first-team games here. We regularly see John at pre-season friendlies, which include our last three tours of Scotland, and reserve matches. John is well known to myself, (No 2) Paul Raynor and all the staff. He is one of the first faces we see when we get off the coach at away grounds. His presence has become part of our matchday routine! Committed supporters like John are the lifeblood of our club. I remember games like Torquay, Oxford and Wycombe away on a cold Tuesday night back in the League Two days. John, like several others, would be there to support the lads. That kind of support is simply outstanding, and on a level I had never experienced before. Thanks, John, and keep the run going!”

**********************

The greatest day in Rotherham United’s recent history came on May 25 last year when the Millers won the League One Play-off Final at Wembley against Leyton Orient in a penalty shootout. Here’s how John remembers it.

“The whole Wembley experience is something that will live with me forever,” he says. “We saw the team off from NYS in the pouring rain on the Saturday, then the sun shone brightly for us on matchday.

“There were friends old and new meeting outside Wembley among the sea of red, the early second-half goal that changed the course of the game, then the seemingly endless wait for the ball to drop from the heavens as Alex Revell turned ambition into brilliance.

“I remember the heart-stopping moments of each and every penalty, Adam Collin sealing our promotion and young player Nicky Walker coming over to me and thanking me for my support of the Millers - a wonderful touch, I thought.

“I saw physio Denis Circuit getting the bumps, then there were the whole post-match celebrations and the open-top bus ceremony in All Saints square.

“The summer of 2014 belonged to Rotherham United.”