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A Norwich City Record Breaker

When it comes to scoring goals, Norwich City’s greatest player is arguably a relatively unknown centre forward who today lives in retirement in Hethersett. 

Ralph “Ginger” Johnson doesn’t appear in any of the club record books for the simple fact that he was at the height of his goalscoring powers when the Second World War intervened. 

Ralph was just 17 when war broke out and ruined his chances of a glittering career. His scoring statistics during the war years are quite astonishing. In wartime friendlies and regional competitions Ralph’s scoring exploits became legendary. 

He hammered 123 goals in just 107 matches and that included five hat-tricks, two hauls of four, two fives and two double hat-tricks. He once scored in 19 successive Norwich City games and in another spell found the net in 24 out of 25 matches. He still holds the record for the fastest ever goal at Carrow Road – 10 seconds against Leyton Orient in 1946. 

Today Ralph has forgotten most of the goals but the 10 seconder remains vividly in his memory. 

“I tapped the ball to Noel Kinsey and he played it back to me and I hit it from close to the halfway line. It could have gone into the river or the stands but on this occasion it did a Beckham and sailed into the net. My mother was there and thought it had been a false start when Orient kicked off,” Ralph said. 

Today at the age of 85 Ralph still has a remarkable memory of those days. There may not have been any official league football, but Ralph found himself playing against some of the country’s top players who were stationed in different parts of the country. He remembers the likes of  Sir Stanley Matthews, Dennis Compton, Alf Kirchen and Alex James. Indeed legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly guested three times for Norwich City under an assumed name! 

Ralph was born in Hethersett in April 1922 and has lived virtually all his life in the village. As a youngster, athletics was his first passion and he met with some success in this as a pupil of the old British School in the village, competing at virtually every distance imaginable. 

His brother Edward was a keen footballer and would rope the young Ralph into playing and by the age of 10 he was playing for Hethersett’s men’s team against local sides such as Ketteringham, Little Melton, Bawburgh and Barnham Broom. Ralph was already a precocious footballer. 

“One day I ran into a player in the centre of the pitch and then ran down the wing with the ball only to get hit by a woman with an umbrella who told me I had hit her little Willie. I was old for my age,” Ralph laughed. 

He honed his football skills by kicking the ball against a wall and didn’t have to wait long for his first big break: 

“When I reached the age of 14 a man named Revell who was a butcher at Wymondham asked me to go to Chesterfield to play. This was just before the war. I don’t know what his connection with Chesterfield was but it took me over five hours on the train to get there,” Ralph said. 

He went on to play two seasons at Chesterfield as an amateur against the likes of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and various clubs from the south of England. 

At Chesterfield he lodged with Joseph Spence, a famous former Manchester United player who made 510 appearances for the club, scoring 168 goals. Ralph also worked as a garage mechanic until war broke out and at the age of 17 he returned to his native Norfolk to work as an engineer for Laurence and Scotts in Norwich. 

“I was earning 2/6d (just under 13p in today’s money) a week and having to cycle to and from Hethersett, seven days a week when I was approached to play for Norwich. There I got to make £3.50 on a Saturday afternoon with an extra £1 if we won and 10/- (50p) if we drew. 

So Ralph continued to play football on a Saturday and work for Laurence and Scotts until he was old enough to join the forces and went for his medical. 

“The first two doctors passed me A1 but the third categorised me as C3 which I couldn’t understand until he told me he was the Norwich City club doctor and they weren’t about to lose me to the services.” 

Competitions during the war years were slightly haphazard affairs but Ralph remembers travelling to Queens Park Rangers, Leyton Orient and playing in front of 20,000 people at Carrow Road. 

During the war years Ralph was described as being brilliant near goal with scoring ability akin to a metronome. 

Ralph looks back on those days with great affection: 

“They were marvellous times. When we scored a goal we just touched hands. There was none of this kissing and cuddling like today. We had to go to matches either by coach or train. The only places we got a hotel stay were down in Torquay or Plymouth. We would travel for hours, play the match and then travel back. We played football for the love of the game. Matches went on even though London was being bombed.” 

Ralph eventually signed professional forms for Norwich City on 17th May 1946 and made 23 league and cup appearances for the Canaries, scoring 10 goals. His professional debut was against Ipswich Town on September 7th, 1946. 

 In April 1947 Leyton Orient made a bid for him and he moved to London. 

“I received £450 for the transfer, but I’m not sure how much Norwich received. At Orient I was earning £8 a week,” he said. 

Ralph stayed at Orient for two seasons before returning to Norfolk to play non league football for Lowestoft Town where he suffered a broken jaw which effectively ended his playing days, apart from a few local matches. 

With his football career behind him Ralph used his engineering skills to good effect, setting up business in Hethersett to make concrete moulds for coal bunkers and employing seven people. 

As the company expanded, Ralph moved his business interests to Silfield just outside Wymondham where he operated as Castle Moulded Products and Johnson Engineering. He also had a garage. 

Today he rarely gets to a football game, although he was the second oldest player behind Bernard Robinson to be involved in the Canaries centenary celebrations in 2002 and was also introduced to the crowd before the heritage match between Norwich City and Ipswich Town Veterans last season. 

Ralph is aghast at the amount of money in the game today; “I’m sure with players on huge sums of money, the last thing they want to do is get hurt. We played for the love of the game, although it was good to earn a little money. The game was very hard when we played it. You could barge the goalkeeper, a wet ball would weigh over five pounds and the boots were heavy with solid toe caps.” 

However the game evolves in the future, Ralph is assured of a place in Norwich City history. It is unlikely that anybody will ever erase his fastest goal record which has already stood for over 60 years.