1996-2019 ... how the epic run of Rotherham United super-fan John Norris finally came to an end

THE journey that began at Crewe Alexandra, lasted nearly 23 years and took in virtually every football outpost in England finally ended on a sofa in Wombwell.
The last game of the 22-plus-year run ... pictured at Manchester City with close pal Ian SkirrowThe last game of the 22-plus-year run ... pictured at Manchester City with close pal Ian Skirrow
The last game of the 22-plus-year run ... pictured at Manchester City with close pal Ian Skirrow

John Norris clearly remembers the afternoon his epic trip began: Saturday April 20 1996 when Rotherham United were 2-0 victors at Gresty Road.

From that spring day in Cheshire onwards he never missed a Millers match ... until last Saturday when manager Paul Warne took his team to Ipswich Town.

Instead of a pie and pint at Portman Road, John - known to his legion of red-and-white admirers as Zippy - was sat at home with only Benylin and paracetamol for company.

After 1,172 consecutive matches, flu had taken the zip out of Zippy and the run was over.

“I managed to get through the first three hours of my shift at a window factory on Friday morning before going home badly, which was a first for me in 13 years of working there,” John says.

“I told my workmate that if I felt the same on Saturday morning, I wouldn't be going to the game. He laughed and said: 'You'll be there.'

“I knew on Friday evening that I wouldn't travel. To be honest, I don't think I'd have made it to a home match. The virus totally wiped me out.

“It took me all my time to get out of bed on Saturday morning, never mind going on a 400-mile round trip.”

Saturday found him at his home near Barnsley. His eyes were on Sky Sports TV and the Millers' official Twitter feed but his heart was in East Anglia as his beloved club slipped to a 1-0 Championship defeat.

Two bald Millers legends, Zippy and Paul Warne

“It was a surreal day,” he says. “I kept looking at the clock and at specific times I found I was saying to myself 'We'd be setting off now', 'We'd be at the pub stop now', 'I'd be munching my pre-match pie now', 'The players will be coming out now'.

“I followed the game via Twitter and Sky Sports' news feed because I couldn't get the commentary on my laptop. I was willing the word, 'GOAL', to come up. When it did, it was not in the way I was yearning for!

“Obviously, after nearly 23 years I was gutted to end my record. But as you get older, you realise that the armour-plated body you had as a youngster has long gone.

“You have to listen to the body you have now when it tells you to rest instead of traipsing halfway round the country.”

Happily, John is fully recovered and seat number104 in row H of the North Stand at AESSEAL New York Stadium will contain its usual incumbent when Rotherham do battle with Brentford this weekend.

“I await all the mickey-taking comments from mates who sit near me!” he grins. “It's game number one of a new run. Tickets for Millwall and Hull away are already purchased.

“My run of consecutive competitive home games is still going strong and reaches its 30th anniversary in October this year. That stands at 782 games and I've missed just four home friendlies in that time.”

The 54-year-old is a well-known face on social media where he regular publishes pictures and stories chronicling his life of Rotherham dedication.

“I posted on Facebook and Twitter about me not making the Ipswich game and the response was unbelievable, not just from friends and fellow Millers but from football fans all over the country,” he says.

“They were congratulating me on my achievement over the years, which was very humbling.

“I did have a young Bolton Wanderers fan message me saying that nothing should stop me from going to watch my team and my health should never come before football. I laughed it off as a very Bill-Shankly-esque comment. That fan will learn as he gets older!”

John has never dared work out how much his passion has cost him or how many miles he's covered, but year after year of Tuesday-night travels have taken their toll.

Chairman Tony Stewart hands over a token of the Millers' appreciation as John completes 1,000 games

“I've never been a lover of long-distance midweek away games and over the years we've endured them all, Plymouth, Torquay, Gillingham, Brighton, Bournemouth etcetera,” he says.

“The one that sticks in my mind as being particularly horrendous is Exeter away in April 1999.

“We lost 3-0, a result which virtually ended our automatic promotion hopes in the old Division Three, it chucked it down all game and we were all drenched on the old open away end.”

Warne might not like being reminded of this, but he played in that match.

The Millers manager is a Zippy fan and he and his squad would have filmed a get-well video for their number-one supporter had they won at Ipswich.

“He said in an interview after the match that the defeat was all my fault,” John smiles.

Shaun Goodwin and Nigel Jemson scored the goals at Crewe back in 1996. Now it all begins again on January 19 2019 at New York.

“Who knows how long this run will last?” John muses. “But if we ever play away at Exeter on a Tuesday night again and the forecast is for heavy rain, I may just give that one a tactical swerve!”

Exeter is scarred in his soul, yet that wet 1999 night of  500-plus miles sums up one man's devotion to one club.

Finally in bed at 3.40am the next morning. Up for work 50 minutes later.

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How Facebook heard about John's return to health

Couple of days off work nar to turn this haggard, knackered old snot-monster back into my beautiful, gorgeously-cute normal self again. Been awake since 5am but the coughing, wheezing and nose floods seem to have eased up a bit thankfully.

How John became Zippy

"It was just a totally random name I chose to use when I first started posting on the 'Rotherham Vital' fans forum that I co-edited around 2006. I wanted a bouncy name which reflected my happy, carefree personality! I chose Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah which obviously got shortened to Zippy."

Warne on Rotherham's super-fan

"I know John didn't come. He's been to every game for the last 600 years. It would have been nice to send him a video message from the changing room, which was my intention if we'd won."

This article first appeared in last week's Advertiser