“They sold a team and built a stand”: how Ipswich went from European champions to relegation in five years

“They sold a team and built a stand”: how Ipswich went from European champions to relegation in five years

May 20, 1981. As the players, supporters and officials of Ipswich Town celebrate the club’s UEFA Cup triumph in Alkmaar, a memorable 66-match season has a well-deserved silver lining. Runners-up in the league and FA Cup semi-finalists, these were heady times.

Fast-forward five years and the situation provided a stark contrast. The decline of the club had led to relegation from the top flight, leaving many to ponder where it had all gone wrong. To answer that particular question, you have to go back to the boom period under manager Bobby Robson.

With the club thriving under Robson’s management, it seemed an appropriate time to make ground improvements at Portman Road. A decision was taken to redevelop the West Stand at a cost of approximately £1.3m, with the electronics company Pioneer sponsoring both the team shirts and the new stand.

It wasn’t a universally popular decision within the club. “A lot of people did not want it,” Robson’s successor, Bobby Ferguson, admitted in an Ipswich Star article in 2013. “I think Bobby wanted it and maybe one or two other board members did.” The construction of the Pioneer Stand would lay the foundations for the demise of Ipswich Town in the 1980s.

In fairness to those judged in hindsight, it appeared as if the new stand could be funded through the transfer market. “Bobby’s idea was that we would be able to sell a player for a couple of million,” Ferguson said, in relation to the financing of the stand. With transfer fees spiralling – think Ian Wallace, Steve Daley and Kevin Reeves – the plan seemed to have legs.

What Ipswich didn’t need was for the bottom of the transfer market to completely fall out. But soon clubs had to wake up to the fact that spending money that they didn’t have was not a sound business plan. With player prices plummeting, the best-laid plans of Ipswich were now looking foolhardy.

The success under Robson had another damaging consequence. Ipswich’s manager had worked closely within the England setup, managing the England B team from 1978, so it came as little surprise when he was appointed as Ron Greenwood’s successor in July 1982. Chairman Patrick Cobbold attempted to keep Robson at Ipswich with an improved ten-year deal, but the pull of England proved too much.

Replacing Robson would have been a difficult enough task under normal circumstances. The likes of Wilf McGuinness, Colin Harvey, and David Moyes can vouch for the fact that succeeding a club legend is often a thankless task. Cobbold opted to recruit from within to fill the Robson-shaped void.

The poisoned chalice was handed to Robson’s assistant, Bobby Ferguson. The continuity this provided seemed sensible; Ferguson had been at Ipswich since 1970 and had been a coach for three years. But with the cost of the stand looming over the club, a deflated transfer market, and the job of replacing the irreplaceable, Ferguson had his hands full.

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On paper, Ferguson had a decent squad at his disposal. Arnold Mühren may have left the club in the summer, but many of the legendary UEFA Cup-winning squad remained, some still revelling in their starring roles in Escape to Victory. Paul Cooper, penalty saver extraordinaire, was first-choice goalkeeper; the back four of Mick Mills, Terry Butcher, Russell Osman and George Burley provided international experience; in midfield, Frans Thijssen, John Wark, Steve McCall and Kevin O’Callaghan provided the ammo for Eric Gates, Alan Brazil and Paul Mariner up top.

But this talented group wouldn’t prove easy to manage throughout Ferguson’s spell in charge. Understandably perhaps, as soon as Robson left, many started to see a future away from the club, especially as there was no money available to strengthen the squad. Ferguson would spend his first couple of seasons dealing with transfer requests, as the mess gradually started to unravel.

Ferguson needed to hit the ground running. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Without a win in his first seven matches, the vultures were already circling around him as Ipswich sunk to the foot of the table and were knocked out of the UEFA Cup first round by Roma.

As early as September, the Express’ Ian Barratt described Ferguson’s team as “only a shadow of the one left behind by England’s new manager.” Cobbold was already being forced into adopting a defensive stance. “Bobby is confident it will come right and we have every confidence in him. You have to remember that after 14 years with one man at the helm, a change in management is going to bring its little problems.”

Gradually the tide began to turn. A 6-0 win at Notts County gave Ferguson his first victory, and Mich D’Avray scored the only goal as eventual champions Liverpool were beaten at Portman Road. Come March, the club were sitting in sixth and fully involved in a race for European qualification. A disappointing run-in saw resulted in a ninth-place finish, though considering the challenges Ferguson encountered during his maiden campaign, this seemed like a reasonable return.

Keeping his squad intact was becoming increasingly difficult. At various points in the season, he was handed transfer requests from Cooper, Gates and Brazil, and three players would leave the club. Mills, with his contract running down, was sold to Southampton for £40,000, but the alarm bells started ringing when Tottenham paid £450,000 for Brazil. Thijssen left to ply his trade at Vancouver Whitecaps and then moved on to Nottingham Forest.

The pattern was set: star players would be sold to make ends meet, with Ferguson unable to reinvest the money to improve matters. Forced to turn to young and inexperienced players such as Irvin Gernon, Ian Cranson, Trevor Putney, Jason Dozzell, Mark Brennan, and D’Avray, Ferguson had his hands tied completely.

The 1983/84 season offered no respite. Despite a strong start, the club was rocked in October when both Wark and Mariner requested pay increases. “They are both after more money and at the moment the club cannot afford it,” Ferguson revealed. “I don’t know what more they want from the club. I don’t want to lose either of them, they are both very good players, but the matter is now in the board’s hands,” Ferguson said. Unfortunately, there was only ever going to be one result. In February, Mariner joined Arsenal for £150,000 and a month later Wark sealed a dream move to Liverpool for £450,000.

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Understandably the player departures started to have an impact. The spring of 1984 saw Ipswich drop like a stone, losing seven consecutive league matches in a spell that saw Ferguson’s team lose ten in eleven in total. With relegation a real threat, journalists scrambled to cover the carnage. “Ipswich have been caught in the classic football spiral,” Steve Curry stated in the Express. “Having to sell their best players to balance the books and pay for a new stand that they can no longer fill.” Reportedly £1.5m in debt, the wisdom of the Pioneer Stand development zoomed into focus once more.

Even Robson was forced to stand his corner, at a time when he had enough on his plate after England had failed to qualify for Euro 84. “It was only designed and constructed because we had 2,000 fans on our season-ticket waiting list and we were making £250,000 a year profit,” Robson argued. “The stand was not a gamble as far as myself and the directors were concerned. Let’s face it, the club had a run of playing in Europe nine years out of ten and we were looking to having gates of between 25,000 and 28,000.”

The logic was sound, but with crowds now dropping as low as 14,000, the position of the club looked bleak. Cobbold gave Ferguson a vote of confidence, and the manager was even allowed to spend £70,000 on midfielder Romeo Zondervan and £60,000 on goalkeeper Mark Grew. But these measures appeared to be too little too late.

Somehow Ipswich survived, picking themselves up off the canvas in a ten-match run that included just one defeat. Norwich were beaten 2-0 in the East Anglian derby, loan signing Alan Sunderland and Zondervan scoring; Gates scored twice in a 2-2 draw at Liverpool; D’Avray scored five goals in the sequence; Sunderland scored a shock winner away at Manchester United.

Cup runs during the 1984/85 season would bring Ipswich fans some entertainment, but once more the team struggled to stay in the top flight. Butcher was the latest name linked with a move away, Manchester United constantly rumoured to be tabling a bid for the England centre-back. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.

With relegation avoided, Sunderland joined on a free transfer, and in January 1985 Kevin Wilson was purchased for £150,000 from Derby. Yet by the time Wilson joined, it was obvious that Ipswich were again involved in a relegation scrap. Eight defeats in nine during November and December, with no goals scored, highlighted the plight of Ipswich.

There was some escapism from the league woes during two cup runs. In the FA Cup, Ipswich were just a few minutes away from knocking out holders Everton in the quarter-final, only to lose the replay 1-0. But the main heartbreak was reserved for the Milk Cup. A 1-0 win over bitter rivals Norwich in the first leg of the semi-final had Ipswich fans dreaming of a trip to Wembley. It’s the hope that kills you.

Steve Bruce’s late header gave Norwich a 2-1 win on aggregate, and temporary bragging rights in East Anglia, but there was little time to wallow in the pain. Rooted in the bottom three for the majority of the season, another escape act was needed. At the end of the season, it was again mission accomplished, and this time with a delicious twist come May.

Three wins on the bounce in April boosted Ipswich, the last a vital 2-0 win away at Norwich. A late win at Tottenham was followed by a 2-0 victory against Leicester. Wilson scored a hat-trick as an abysmal Stoke side were dismantled 5-1, and two more Wilson goals resulted in a crucial three points against fellow strugglers Sunderland.

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Again, a late-season surge had kept Ipswich heads above water, and there was a huge bonus for Town fans as the dust settled. Although Norwich had gone on to win the Milk Cup, an unlikely set of results led to the Canaries dropping out of Division One. Ipswich supporters may have taken some comfort in that, but a year later it would be the Norwich fans gorging on schadenfreude. 

It was clear that Ipswich were deteriorating in the post-Robson years. From second in both 1981 and 1982, Ferguson led Ipswich to ninth, 12th and 17th in Division One, as the financial constraints strangled the life out of the club. The escapes could not go on forever; Ipswich had been playing with fire for too long, and 1985/86 would see them get burnt.

Osman, Burley and Gates would all leave for pastures new, as the makeup of the squad was changed further. Cooper, Butcher and McCall remained from Robson’s glory days, but elsewhere it was a case of relatively cheap buys and inexperience. Ian Atkins would arrive from Everton for £100,000, but Ferguson’s requirement to search for bargains was demonstrated when he persuaded Nigel Gleghorn to leave his job as a fireman. “I brought in Nigel Gleghorn from the Fire Service in exchange for a set of kit,” Ferguson revealed in 2013. Times were that hard.

With such an inexperienced squad, the last thing Ipswich needed was for their rock to be removed from the side. As England would discover at Euro 88, Butcher was a vital component in the engine of the team that proved impossible to replace. Two cartilage operations on his right knee resulted in Butcher playing just one match before November, and it was hardly a coincidence that in his absence Ipswich’s fortunes slumped. By the time he returned, only an abysmal West Brom kept Ipswich off the bottom of the table.

Butcher’s only match in the opening part of the season was a 2-1 win over West Brom, but with Ipswich only winning one other game before the England defender returned, the club were now playing catch-up for the rest of the campaign.

Scoring goals was a big issue. Just eight in the opening 16 matches indicated that 1985/86 would be a long struggle for the players and fans alike. The fact that Wilson finished top scorer with seven league goals illustrates this fact, only Birmingham scoring fewer than Ipswich’s final tally of 32.

Strangely, Ipswich would go goal crazy immediately after Butcher’s return. Yet defensive frailties were exposed. After throwing away a two-goal lead against champions Everton, worse was to follow at Oxford. Leading 3-0 and in total control, somehow Ipswich lost the match 4-3, the inexperience of Cooper’s replacement Jon Hallworth cruelly exposed. Come the end of the season, this loss would prove crucial.

After the Oxford debacle, things could only get better. From the end of November to early April, Ferguson’s team claimed eight wins and five draws in a run of 17 matches that flipped their season around completely. Wins over relegation rivals Coventry, Birmingham,and West Brom helped, but it would be victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest that gave Ipswich fans real hope. With seven matches left in their league campaign, they had surged to 16th place, and given themselves a real chance of survival.

However, the long season started to take its toll during the business end, as Ipswich suffered a loss of form that threatened their First Division status. Goalless in four consecutive matches, defeats to fellow strugglers Leicester and Aston Villa pushed Ipswich closer to the trapdoor. The forthcoming fixture against Oxford looked like being the six-pointer to end all six-pointers.

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A slightly fortuitous 3-2 win at Portman Road – Atkins scoring a 92nd-minute winner – looked to have saved Ipswich. Oxford still held a game in hand, but were now five points behind, the Milk Cup winners with the none too enticing run-in of Everton, Nottingham Forest and Arsenal to come.

If decisions had gone for Ipswich in the Oxford match, then a controversial late penalty awarded by referee Gerald Ashby three days later would redress the balance. Slipping to a 2-1 defeat at West Ham, Butcher was incensed, so much so that he had to be restrained by policemen.

Butcher’s mood, and that of the club as a whole, would have turned a darker shade of blue when news filtered through that Oxford had stunned champions Everton, a result that would have huge implications at both ends of the table. Going into the last Saturday of the season, any one of four teams could go down.

Ipswich had a few lifelines: a win would definitely keep them up, although the chances of beating Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough were slim. Even a draw might be enough, and defeats for either Coventry or Leicester would keep Ipswich up regardless. But a loss would leave them vulnerable.

And so, the worst nightmare of any Ipswich fan came true. A 1-0 reverse in Sheffield, coupled with wins for Coventry and Leicester, left Ipswich clinging on by their fingertips. Oxford may have helped by losing to Nottingham Forest, but crucially they still had one match left to play, on Monday 5 May.

Luckily for Oxford, their opponents had nothing to play for, Arsenal described as “disinterested and disjointed” in the Daily Express report of the match that sealed Ipswich’s fate. Their 3-0 win capped off a marvellous season for Maurice Evans and his men. For Ipswich, Arsenal’s capitulation marked the end of 18 years in the top flight.

Butcher described 5 May as “the blackest day of my career”, and he immediately became one of the hottest properties in the summer. In the post-mortem, Cooper defended Ferguson. “The manager’s hands have been tied behind his back in a way and he has been given no room to manoeuvre. So many players have been sold to pay for the stand. The warning signs have been there but sadly nothing has been done about it.”

Ferguson kept his job but resigned a year later as Ipswich lost in the semi-finals of the new playoff system. It would take them until 1992 to return to the top flight, John Lyall leading them to the brave new world of the Premier League.

“Ipswich sold a team and built a stand. They didn’t deserve to stay.” Alas for Ipswich supporters, it is hard to disagree with Tony Stenson’s verdict in the Express. On 6 May 1981, Ipswich had won the first leg of the UEFA Cup final 3-0 against AZ Alkmaar. Almost five years to the day, their fall from grace was complete. Just to rub salt into their gaping wounds, Norwich passed them on their way down.

By Steve Pye @1980sSportsBlog

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