Almanac Soccer: The Curious Case of Michael Theo(klitos)’s Norwich City Career

 

This is the greatest football story I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard.

Unless you happen to be part of the great Norwich City FC diaspora and the very mention of ‘Colchester United’ puts a lump in your throat, you won’t have heard any part of this. If I’m honest, I scarcely believe it and I have inadvertently become part of the narrative. It’s always a rude shock when you stumble across another sporting tribe’s pain and suffering. It’s easy to accidentally do so, mainly because all teams have their own personal scars, remembered only by supporters. But as an outsider, once you lift that rock, suddenly that horror becomes yours as well.

Let me start at the beginning, well not the actual beginning, rather the moment I lifted the rock. We will get to Michael and the special place he has in East Anglian footballing folklore soon enough.

This tale starts in Hawthorn, Melbourne, a very, very long way from Norwich. More specifically, this tale starts at the Salvos Op Shop. For I am one of those poor souls with an affliction that means that I cannot walk past an Oppy. There are many of us, we walk amongst you, yet you would never know until that moment when we suddenly veer towards the doorway and we’re gone; lost in a frenzy, flicking through racks, lifting up boxes and baskets, poking here and there, getting down on hands and knees to sort through piles of junk.

For me the obsession started early, perhaps I was eight or nine, the same age my daughter is now, when I was taken to Camberwell Market by my mother and saw a milk-crate full of old magazines. I was young enough to still be filled with an enthusiasm that refuses to play to the probabilities, so I dived into the pile of old car, DIY and fishing mags in the vain hope that I would find my treasure.

And I did.

A tattered old Phantom comic was right there in amongst the pile. Wish fulfilled. It cost me 20 cents. It was worth a thousand times more to me. That was the eureka moment, one person’s trash, another’s treasure, the world had revealed its charm to me. If you seek, ye shall find.

 

My Op Shop philosophy has taken on more complex dimensions since those nascent free-form days of optimism. I now head into any goodwill store knowing what I’d like to find but not daring to hope I’ll strike gold. The Op Shop decides for you, the Fates will tell you what you need. This is how it happened.

Flicking through the racks is actually therapeutic for me, I find the detritus of other people’s wardrobes endlessly fascinating. I cannot help investing the garments with meaning: Why were they bought? Why were they rejected? Gift? Size? Colour? Bad decision? Some are obvious, the Bintang singlet from Bali is de-rigueur in country but once it leaves the island it loses its allure.

That also applies to the cheap knockoff football tops you bought there. Sure you wear your Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar tops with pride on holiday but when you bring them home, the lack of a maker’s-mark tends to irk you. Once it also begins to fade you know you don’t need it. Then Ronnie leaves for Juve anyhow.

Obviously, as a football fan, I have football shirts on my list of desirable goods but, as I’ve already stated, my hopes are never high. That’s why as I flicked through the rack and saw a huge ‘Coca-Cola Football League’ patch on an upcoming garment, I was intrigued but not yet excited. Then I noticed it was long-sleeved. Now I love a long sleeved football shirt. I am actually slightly perturbed by the new trend of players wearing long sleeve compression tops under short sleeves, the aesthetics are all wrong. A long sleeve should embrace the entire shirt; it is nothing without a cuff, preferably a different colour. Cuffs are being lost and this saddens me.

But I digress, as I reach the long sleeved top with the patch I immediately clock the wonderful Canary badge perched on its front. In an instant I’m transported back to the early days of the Premier League, the improbable surge of Norwich City to the top of the new league… and for some reason, Darren Huckerby!

This is one of my many favorite things about football. Apparently, mid 2000’s forward Darren Huckerby is the first player I think of when I encounter Norwich City. Upon seeing the Norwich City club crest I immediately had an image of him bombing forward, ball at his feet. You never know what will come to mind at the mention of club but if you’re lucky it will be someone this wonderfully random.

 

But back to the Norwich City shirt. As I pulled it out for further inspection it began to unpack itself. It was long sleeved because it was a goal-keeping shirt; a rather fetching cement grey, with black trim but it wasn’t until I spun it around that my fate was sealed. For there on the back was a name above the obligatory number 1: ‘THEOKLITOS.” Whether I like it or not, I am now forever linked to Michael Theoklitos and he doesn’t even know….yet.

I had never heard of this mysterious Theoklitos chap but with the shirt in hand I knew what had to be done. Out came the phone and in went the name. Then it all began to happen. ‘Michael Theoklitos’ redirected on Wikipedia to ‘Michael Theo.’ Hang on, I recognize that name. Michael Theo is very successful goalkeeper in the A-League isn’t he? Why yes he is. A three-time goalkeeper of the year and five-time champion of the comp. He holds the records for both the most clean-sheets in A-League history at 68 and the most minutes without conceding a goal, at a very impressive 876 minutes. That’s the Holy Grail of goalkeeping records. Any goalie strives for the kind of career Michael Theo has had. In fact, his entire Australian-based career has been a triumph.

But I had accidently uncovered his darkest moment.

As I scrolled the Wikipedia entry of his career I arrived at the club section to discover an oddity. Michael Theo (who actually changed his name by deed poll mainly because we Australians are notoriously lazy and shorten everyone’s name anyway) played exactly ONE game for the Canaries. That is a number that demands investigation and upon landing on the section of his bio entitled ‘Norwich City’ I came to understand why.

At the beginning of the 2009-10 English season, Norwich were fresh from relegation into the third tier of English football. On opening day in their new division they played Colchester United, with new goalkeeper signing, Australian Michael Theokolitos between the sticks. As opening games go, this was an all-time howler. Norwich shipped seven goals, five of them by half time. A cursory search of YouTube brings the horror show up instantly.

Now, as we all know, there is absolutely no way a professional football club can ship seven goals without it being a team effort. By my estimation, Theo is to blame for perhaps three of the goals conceded. There is clearly confusion between him and his new teammates, understandably so given its opening day. It means he’s hesitant and doesn’t come for the some balls, for others, he’s caught flatfooted. There is absolutely no chemistry in the defense at all and even less talk.

Of all the goals though, it is the very first that stands out. A panicked defender attempting to get a high ball under control only manages to lob the ball in a painfully slow arch back to his keeper. It is the very definition of a keeper’s nightmare, a looping backpass with opponents chasing it down. Theo obviously has no chance and his debut starts by conceding a howler. No doubt you’d wake in a cold sweat wafting at air from that nightmare. And yet, only minutes later he parries another shot right onto the foot of the player following in, the die is cast from that moment on you suspect. The procession of goals from there is painfully inevitable to watch. Only a screamer of a freekick is unsavable but with zero confidence Theo never stands a chance against any of them.

Unsurprisingly, when you lose 7-1 in your first game in a lower division, immediately after relegation, pressure comes to bear on the manager. All too predictably he’s sacked. Michael Theo is now also in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The new manager decides on a fresh start but does give Theo the opportunity to play in the cup competition mid-week. What happened next is up for debate. Euphemistically the term used is that Theo ‘forgot’ to show up for the match. He claims he got ‘his wires crossed,’ getting the match-time wrong. Management suspected he didn’t bother to turn up. Whatever the truth is, Michael Theo was ‘let go.’

 

So back to me. Here I stand in the aisle of the Oppy with a Goalkeeper shirt that might be part of history. A shirt of infamy. As I stand admiring it, my eyes spy another Football League patch in the rack. Surely not? Well, yes actually. For there hanging several shirts further along is the all green version of the Norwich goalkeeping kit, which I was to later to learn was the version he wore on the fateful day (though I would like to point out he didn’t wear the long sleeves but rather, a short sleeve version.)

And, lo and behold, behind that is training GK kit with a Number 1 on the front. This has suddenly turned from a mystery into a cracked case. I have honestly never seen a Norwich kit for sale in Australia, I suspect the only kit I’ve seen has been worn by the true-believers, so the chances of three turning up at once, with the name of a one-game-player on 2/3rds of them seems too unlikely for words.

I bought them all.

Later that same day I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts: The Totally Football League Show and the host, Caroline Barker, brought up the story of Norwich City painting the walls of their away rooms a fetching shade of pink. The link was formed in my head and I instantly photographed the kit and tweeted it to her. Caroline responded and forwarded the Tweet. That’s when my localized fame began. Almost instantly a lovely bloke from BBC Norfolk, Chris Goreham, got in contact and asked if I’d like to be interviewed. Then a day later Abigail Nicholson, a journo form the Eastern Daily Press asked for an interview and photo.

I was viral. I’ve never been viral before; it’s quite an odd experience.

The good folk of Norwich were asking questions and I knew I had to find answers. My first port of call was a trip back to the Op Shop, the woman who served me the previous day had no idea who donated the shirts, rolling her eyes at the very thought that she would remember: ‘Do you have any idea how many bags of donations come in daily?’ And yet, my trip was not in vain. For more stock had made it out on to the racks. I discovered another grey shirt exactly like the first kit with name, number and patches all present, a Norwich City tracksuit top and a pair of green shorts that perfectly match the green goalie shirt Michael Theo wore on that fateful day.

Someone, either the man himself, or at the very least, someone in his immediate family had ‘disposed’ of the kit, of that I am now certain. The only missing piece is the short-sleeved version of the shirt he wore on the day. I assume that even with the horrific memories attached, it is still a memento of his career. It was after all, his debut for Norwich in League One.

 

Within the year he would be playing in the A-League for Brisbane Roar, arriving in perfect time to join up with future Australian National team coach Ange Postecoglou for the glory years of the club. They would go on to win three Grand Finals in four years. In almost every sense this is a redemption story. Having survived what he himself has described as ‘the worst performance I’ve had in my career,’ Michael Theo became a goalkeeping great.

But if redemption is achieved when the tree of its inception fell in the forest can it truly be satisfying? I didn’t mean to bring this trauma to light but now that I have I need closure. It might be selfish of me but this story has touched on something deep within. Michael Theo’s career isn’t defined by that fateful August afternoon at Carrow Road, he has moved past it completely. But whether he likes it or not, he is still intrinsically linked to the history of Norwich City FC. My accidental involvement has proved that.

All attempts by me to contact him have come up empty handed and of course I understand why. The poor bugger clearly gave these items to charity for a reason. So far, the Australian media I’ve reached out to have given a collective shrug, this is a local story, from fields further afield than their interest. I mean, obviously I understand their general lack of interest.

 

But I now know that Darren Huckerby will forever more be the second Norwich City footballer I will think of when they’re mentioned. Michael Theo is part of my life now and I kind of want to know if he’s OK with it. I feel not unlike a stalker right now, so if anyone knows the great man, please help me gain closure by helping me contact him. I think I have something of his.

 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06j879y

http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/norwich-city-shirts-found-australian-shop-1-5666611

 

The 2018 Women’s Footy Almanac is available now

 

Comments

  1. Luke Reynolds says:

    Tom, loved this tale.
    Big fan of M.Theo, especially in his time at Victory.
    Keep us updated if you get in touch with him!

  2. daniel flesch says:

    Nice story Tom. Interesting that Colchester sport a green and gold strip. Maybe Michael had a sub-conscious psych. problem defending against a side wearing his native country’s colours , lol.

  3. Fascinating article, especially for someone who attended games at Carrow Road in the 1960s along with three colleagues from the University of East Anglia. You can get in touch with Michael through his Facebook account and the soccer academy he runs. He was the foundation goalkeeper at Melbourne Victory in the first season of the A-League, sharing the duties with Eugene Galekovic. He was hugely unfortunate in the move to Norwich City and that first game. I need to check about the manager at Norwich that season because Glenn Roeder, Bryan Gunn (long time keeper at the Canaries) and Paul Lambert were all involved.

  4. Great Article. I remember this game and could not believe at how bad he was. Paul Lambert was the manager and I heard Theo took the blame for it.

  5. Albion Rover says:

    A fabulous story. My recollection is that Bryan Gunn was the Norwich manager for the 7-1 opening day defeat against Colchester. Not surprisingly, he didn’t last long after that disaster. Norwich appointed the Colchester manager, Paul Lambert, as Gunn’s replacement and ended up champions at the end of the 2009-10 season.

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