t is an overcast day in late November, and Colchester United have given their players a day off. A few minutes’ drive from their training ground, by the side of a small private lake accessible only, given recent rain, by navigating across a few hundred meters of thick sludge, Luke Norris is putting up a tent. This will be the striker’s home until the next morning, when he will pack up and head straight to training. Inside the tent is a simple camp bed and some basic provisions, protected from the rats that frequent the water’s edge; inside the lake is a 42lb carp, and Norris hopes to catch it sometime in the following 22 hours.
Whenever it happens, the enormous fish will be out of the water only for as long as it takes to secure a commemorative photograph. The only giant-killing Norris is interested in is of the footballing kind, with his team already having knocked Crystal Palace and Tottenham out of the Carabao Cup and heading to Old Trafford on Wednesday in the quarter-finals. “There’s one fish I’m after and I think if I get that fish I’ll move on, I’ll go to the next lake,” he says. “I think that’s normally what guys do – they’ll see a fish, either in the magazines or on social media, and they’ll think: ‘I want that one.’ It’s the biggest one in the lake, and most of the time guys do want the biggest fish in the lake. I’ve had bigger over in France but in the UK that is a good fish.”
It certainly makes a difference from the kind of targets most strikers set themselves. Norris, who scored the first as Colchester came back from 2-0 down to draw at Scunthorpe on Saturday, does also have a figure in mind for the number of goals he would like to score this season – “I’ve always kept it to myself, but I do have a number where I think: ‘If I can get to that, I can accept that for the season’” – but once the final whistle goes, his attention switches. “I aim to get out for an overnighter a week and if I have a bit more time maybe a bit more,” he says.
So it was that while most Colchester fans and players were basking in their side’s victory over Palace in August, Norris had other ambitions. “We had a really good night and then that Wednesday morning I came down fishing, and I caught the biggest fish I’d ever caught in England,” he says. “That was great. It was almost like: ‘This is the perfect week.’ I’ve had other weeks when I’ve had a bad game and you think: ‘I can get away.’ You come down here, you don’t catch anything and it’s almost like you get hit twice. Football’s so manic, there’s so much pressure 24/7, even at our level. So this is your little getaway, this is your time to get away, away from the mad world.”
As the water cools towards the start of winter, the carp become less active and consequently harder to catch. Norris frequently spends entire days and nights here – watching the water, waiting, listening – without anything happening at all. “Winter fishing’s a hell of a lot harder than any other time of year,” he explains. “They’re normally at their biggest weight and they normally look their best – they get some lovely winter colors. A fish in the winter is always worth a few fish in the summer. People think it’s a bit crazy but people who are in carp fishing, they get it. They understand.”
There is no mobile phone reception, no alternative sources of entertainment, so Norris will just sit and wait, hoping to hear the telltale sound of a fish leaping out of the water, or the buzz of the bite alarm should something take his bait. Normally his only company is his French bulldog – absent today through illness – plus the occasional fox, muntjac deer and “a hell of a lot of rats”.
The lake is not exactly picturesque, particularly with diggers mauling the opposite bank, but it is infinitely more tranquil than Norris’s alternate reality, leading the line in the occasionally pell-mell frenzy of League Two football, and in an entirely different universe to a night at Old Trafford, whose average attendance this season is more than 20 times Colchester’s. Norris has been crucial in the cup run, scoring the equalizer in the 3-1 win at Crawley in the last round as well as taking and converting the first penalties in the shootout wins against both Palace and Tottenham. “I do think penalties are a bit of an art,” he says. “I think people do make them harder than they should be. It’s always been something I’m very confident with. I think if you pick your side and you hit it true, I think it’s very tough for them to save.”
Norris is related by marriage to Manchester United’s club captain, Ashley Young – like him, a native of Stevenage – and has been to Old Trafford once before, with his United-supporting cousin on a stadium tour. “I think it’ll be a bit different with 70,000 people there instead of walking round an empty stadium,” he says. “We’ve got lads at the club who support Manchester United, so they’re going up against a team they would go and pay to watch. We’re in a no-lose situation, as a League Two side going to one of the biggest clubs in the world. They’re not at the level they’ve been at in the last few years, and we’ve got nothing to lose. We could end up getting hammered but the way we’re playing I don’t think that’ll happen. I think we’ll give it a right good go. Stranger things have happened in football. It would be stupid to say we don’t have a chance, because people said that with Palace and Spurs.”
Whatever happens on Wednesday night, it is fairly easy to predict where Norris will be the next morning, pitching his tent and setting up his rods. “The lads at football don’t get it but I’d rather have something like this than not have anything at all,” he says. “Football life is so manic – you do short hours but it’s always so physically demanding. I think that’s why it works so well: you get to chill out and enjoy being outside. People nowadays get too worried about what everyone thinks. This whole social media, it’s: ‘How many likes I can get, how many this, how many that.’ Everyone’s always going at 100 miles an hour. Fishing’s totally the opposite, it’s nice and calm.”
Old Trafford can wait a while. For now, Norris’s focus is on the water and the monster in its depths.