Bobby Robson, Ipswich Town and a brutal quest for the 1981 treble

Bobby Robson, Ipswich Town and a brutal quest for the 1981 treble

The wind blows hard and cold across East Anglia during the winter. With barely a hill in sight, there is nothing to stop the progress of the icy chill in this south east corner of England. An agricultural region, it is home to two principal football teams – Norwich City in Norfolk and Ipswich Town in Suffolk.

While both teams are small in comparison to those from the major cities of England – London, Liverpool and Manchester for example – they’ve famously punched above their weight in times gone by. Norwich were particularly strong just after the Premier League began, finishing third in in the inaugural season before a famous UEFA Cup victory over the mighty Bayern Munich.

But overall, Ipswich have enjoyed more success, beginning with the appointment of Alf Ramsey as manager back in August 1955, when they were languishing in the Third Division (South) – a provincial team with no success to their name.

Having played for England 32 times, including the infamous 1950 World Cup defeat to the US, Ramsey hung up his boots in 1955 and set about considering the next phase of his career. A player with a reputation for the tactical side of the game, it seemed natural that he would gravitate towards coaching. And so he was approached by the owners of Ipswich, the Cobbold Brewing family, to consider a player-manager role after their latest relegation to the third tier of English football.

Dismissing the playing role, he agreed to join them as manager at the age of 35. Everyone has to start somewhere, so while Ipswich were a small club languishing in the lower leagues, Ramsey was hoping it might be a stepping-stone to bigger things.

No-one around Ipswich could possibly have dreamed about what would happen next. In his second season he secured promotion to the Second Division as champions with a team scoring over 100 goals, which was subsequently followed by a Second Division championship and promotion to the big-time.

Incredibly, Ramsey then led Ipswich to become vhampions of England in their maiden campaign in the top-flight, an incredible achievement over the course of just four seasons. It was this amazing debut in management that led England to come knocking in 1963 – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Unfortunately, Ipswich didn’t build on this success and bumped between the First and Second tiers until the arrival of yet another future England managing great, Bobby Robson, in January 1969. Over the next decade, Robson built Ipswich into a successful side once again, the pinnacle being FA Cup glory in 1978 following a 1-0 victory over Arsenal, which could have been a much wider margin, such was Ipswich’s domination on the day.

They were a regular top-five team over this period and a constant thorn in the side of more established teams such as Liverpool and Manchester United. This was personified in an incredible game during the 1979/80 season when Ipswich demolished Manchester United 6-0 at home despite the United goalkeeper saving two penalties. One question remained, however: could Robson take Ipswich one step further and convert a top five team into English champions against the mighty Liverpool?

It was against this backdrop that 1980/81 commenced. Ipswich had finished a strong third during the previous campaign, but behind both Manchester United and the dominant Liverpool team of the time. This was the Liverpool of Clemence, Neal, Hansen, Thompson, Case, Lee, McDermott, Souness and Dalglish. This was the Liverpool who not only won the title but also reached the semi-finals of both the League Cup and the FA Cup, managed by the legendary Bob Paisley. This was the Liverpool who dominated the late 1970s, having won four of the previous five campaigns. They were not going to give up their position of dominance lightly.

While the Liverpool squad sent shivers through all who met them, Robson had assembled a formidable squad of his own in his little corner of Suffolk. In goal was Paul Cooper, a keeper who joined Ipswich in 1974 and enjoyed a reputation as a penalty specialist. The defence included internationals such as George Burley, Terry Butcher, Mick Mills and Russell Osman. In fact, the England back line around that time often included Butcher, Mills and Osman, so good a defensive unit were they. But it was in midfield that things got especially interesting.

In the 1970s, English football was still extremely insular. It was widely thought that foreign players were unable to cope with the rigors of English physicality and would wilt on a cold, rainy night in January. And really, who wanted all that fancy dribbling and passing that these continentals would bring over? English football was not a game for finesse.

Against this backdrop, Robson decided to buck the trend and go shopping overseas. In doing so, he brought in not one but two Dutch gems. The city of Enschede lies close to the German border and is home of FC Twente, and it is from there that Robson signed two midfielders in 1979, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen.

The year before had seen Tottenham enjoy success with the double-signing of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, but the import of two non-British players was still a novelty at the time. The signing would prove to be a Robson masterstroke, bringing in two players with the ability to play the ball on the ground with an advanced level of skill. 

He then just needed someone else in that midfield to provide a bit more “British grit”. Luckily exactly that player had joined Ipswich in 1975 to mature into one of the top players in England by 1980.

To call John Wark combative is an understatement; he personified teamwork with energy that was second to none. Like Bryan Robson, he was a midfielder with the engine of a Rolls-Royce, who could run all day and shared the speciality of popping up in the area and scoring. For a midfielder, Wark had a phenomenal goalscoring record: he would end his Ipswich career with 94 goals from 266 appearances. And 1980/81 was going to see him in his prime.

In attack, when Wark wasn’t dashing in to score, Eric Gates, Paul Mariner and Alan Brazil supplied plenty of firepower. Gates had played for Ipswich his whole career after making his debut at just 18 in 1973, with his finest moment coming when he netted both goals in a 2-1 win over Barcelona at Portman Road in the 1979 Cup Winners Cup quarter-final. 

Mariner, meanwhile, had been a club-record signing from Plymouth for the princely fee of £220,000 and had established himself as an England target man under Ron Greenwood. Alan Brazil also enjoyed status as an international within Scotland.

So going into the 1980/81 season, while their squad may not have been as deep as Liverpool, it was packed with established internationals from England, Scotland and the Netherlands. Providing the key players could keep injury-free, there was no reason why they couldn’t push on to new heights. They also had a UEFA cup campaign to look forward to.

As they travelled to Leicester on the opening day, there was a cautious mood of optimism amongst the fans. That optimism was soon justified as Ipswich started the season in fine form. After winning the opener at Filbert Street, they proceeded to win seven of their first eight league fixtures. In the days of two points for a win, they opened up a four-point gap on Liverpool, Everton and a developing Aston Villa.

Wark was showing his uncanny goalscoring ability with six goals in those eight games as both Villa and Everton were defeated at Portman Road, the latter 4-0. But October would prove a more realistic test with trips to both Liverpool and Manchester United looming. 

September also saw Ipswich begin their UEFA cup campaign, Wark again going on a scoring spree, netting four goals – including a hat-trick of penalties – at Portman Road against Aris Salonika, giving Ipswich a 5-1 victory which would be enough despite a 3-1 defeat back in Cyprus. A pattern would develop over the campaign of winning at home but losing away. 

Back in the league, October saw Ipswich travel to Anfield and come away with a respectable draw thanks to a Thijssen goal. They followed that with another 1-1 draw at home to Manchester United. They had played the top two teams from the previous season and maintained their unbeaten record. The end of October did, however, see Aston Villa take the top spot, albeit only two points ahead of Ipswich who had two games in hands over the Villains. 

The end of October saw Ipswich’s next European adventure as, once again, a first leg win at home saw them establish a 3-0 win over Bohemians Prague, with Wark inevitably scoring twice, before another away leg scare that saw them lose 2-0 but hang on to progress to the third round. Wark now had six European goals to go along with his impressive domestic tally and seemed to be single-handedly dragging Ipswich along.

It was game 15 of the season that finally saw Ipswich suffer their first defeat – and surprisingly it occurred away at basement-dwellers Brighton. But they immediately bounced back with back-to-back wins to finish November in third, behind Villa and Liverpool but still with three games in hand. The end of November also saw Portman Road again host a UEFA Cup first leg – against Widzew Lodz of Poland – on a night few would forget.

Widzew had impressively knocked out Manchester United and Juventus in the preceding two rounds and included a young striker who was getting quite the reputation by the name of Zbigniew Boniek. Juve decided to continue to monitor his progress, leading to his eventual signing and successful partnership with Michel Platini at the Delle Alpi.

But on this night in November, they would be swept aside 5-0 by Ipswich, inclusive of another Wark hat-trick. Of course, Ipswich then went on to lose the return leg in Poland 1-0, but the Portman Road faithful now truly believed. The European adventure was in full flight but would now be on hold until March. Until then, it was back to blustery cold Suffolk for a continued league campaign and the start of the FA Cup.

December saw six league games including a home draw against Liverpool, a much-enjoyed home victory in the East Anglian derby over Norwich, and just one defeat away at Tottenham. By month’s end, Ipswich were just a single point behind leaders Liverpool and Villa, but still with two games in hand. Attention now turned to the FA Cup.

The FA Cup still retained its magic back in the 80s with full-strength teams sent out, fan fever and budding romance. Ipswich had enjoyed a strong bond with the competition in recent times, winning it in 1978, and so it was with excitement that fans awaited the draw to see how their latest campaign would commence. The beauty of the open FA Cup draw delivered, throwing Ipswich a third-round tie at home against Aston Villa. 

Unsurprisingly it would prove to be a tight game, but a moment of magic from the Dutch duo led to an early Mariner goal, which proved enough on the night. The reward was a fourth-round tie away at Second Division Shrewsbury.

As evident in their UEFA Cup campaign, Ipswich had a poor track record away from home in the cups, and that continued at Gay Meadow as the Tractor Boys came away with a 0-0 draw in a game that Robson admitted they were lucky to have survived. Ipswich’s home form saw them win the replay 3-0 and set up a fifth-round tie in February at home to Charlton.

Ipswich’s January league campaign saw them win three and draw one, scoring 11 goals over the three games, a strong run that saw them return to the top of the table ahead of Aston Villa on goal difference and with champions Liverpool beginning to drop away. It was a stellar month that meant Ipswich were now top of Division One, in the fifth round of the FA Cup and in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup.

February saw them build on this momentum as they won all four league games and beat Charlton 2-0 in the FA Cup, leaving them two points ahead of Villa in what was now effectively a head-to-head race and awaiting Nottingham Forest away in an FA Cup quarter-final. The whispers began around England: could Ipswich actually win the treble of league, FA Cup and UEFA Cup? Heady stuff, indeed.

There was one major obstacle ahead in terms of the treble. March saw Ipswich return to Europe, and the UEFA Cup draw had given them the toughest of ties: St-Etienne. Three-time league champions during the 1970s and European Cup runners-up in 1976, it was a squad that boasted the likes of Battiston, Lopez, Larius, Rep and a certain Platini.

This was the Platini who would soon be joining Boniek in Turin and who would win European Footballer of the Year in 1983, ’84 and ’85. It was a team with serious European pedigree – and Ipswich had to travel to the Stade Geoffery-Guichard first.

It was a legendary night for the boys from Suffolk. Gates were closed two hours ahead of kick-off as 42,000 crammed into the stadium. It was 26 years since St-Etienne had last lost a European tie at home. An early headed goal from Dutch star Rep in the iconic green shirt had the crowd whipped into a frenzy as Ipswich’s poor away cup form continued. But then a powerful header from Mariner left the teams level at the half. And then the miracle occurred. 

Just two minutes from the restart, some nice interplay from Ipswich saw Wark pass the ball to Muhren outside the area. Without hesitating, Muhren unleashed a left-foot screamer into the top corner, giving the goalkeeper no chance. Ipswich had their first UEFA Cup lead away from home.

With confidence surging, a ball out to Brazil on the right saw his cross volleyed by Butcher before Mariner swooped in to score Ipswich’s third. St-Etienne were on the ropes and the knockout blow came from who else but Wark with a strong header into the corner. Ipswich had ended their away curse in style. Robson commented: “We have demolished a good side with one of the best victories anyone has achieved in Europe in the past ten years.”

As if to reinforce the point, Ipswich then comfortably won the return leg 3-1 in front of a packed Portman Road. Needless to say, Wark was on the scoresheet once again. Suddenly all of Europe was aware of the Tractor Boys.

In between these two historic games, they also travelled to Nottingham to take on Brian Clough’s Forest in the FA Cup quarter-final. A pulsating tie ensued as Forest literally gifted Ipswich a two-goal lead only to see it evaporate as Trevor Francis, Colin Walsh and John Robertson turned the game on its head.

It seemed that finally the volume of games had caught up with Ipswich and the treble dream was crumbling. But then a shot by Thijssen took a cruel deflection and the blues escaped with a lucky draw. The replay was won 1-0 and the treble dream was back on … just. Ipswich were in the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and UEFA Cup.

But all these games were beginning to drain a small squad and cracks finally began to show during March in their league form. After having lost two games all season, March saw them defeated in successive away games at Manchester United and Leeds. It was enough to still see Ipswich top at the end of the month, just a point ahead of Aston Villa. It was a first ominous sign.

And so the season was coming towards the end with Ipswich entering April top of the league and in two major semi-finals. A historic treble was still in play – if Ipswich could just maintain their momentum through the final weeks. But they were facing eight games during April. With a skeleton squad, they were going to need a reserve of energy and a bout of luck to negotiate such a schedule.

The final nervewracking endgame commenced under the ultimate definition of fixture congestion, and the diary evolved as follows:

April 4 

Ipswich visit West Brom in the league and suffer their third successive away loss 3-1 – the irony being that West Brom’s victory helps their arch-rivals Aston Villa. 

April 8

Ipswich face the first leg of their UEFA semi-final against a powerful Koln at Portman Road, boasting the likes of Littbarski, Bonhof and Dieter Muller. A full house sees Ipswich establish a slim 1-0 first-leg victory courtesy of a header from Wark. 

April 11 

Ipswich travel up to Villa Park for their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. A crowd of 46,000 watch a nervy game remain goalless before entering extra time with Beattie having an effort cleared off the line. Then a through ball to City’s Bennett sees him tussle with Butcher, with a free-kick somewhat harshly awarded to City around 30 yards from goal.

What happened next lives in Manchester City folklore; skipper Paul Power curls the free-kick past Cooper into the top corner. It leaves Ipswich with 20 minutes to rescue the treble dream, but it isn’t to be. It has taken three games in eight days to finally break them, but break them it has. The treble is no more.

Ipswich now have the titanic task of picking themselves up from defeat – and a 120-minute match – to revisit Villa Park just three days later for a possible league decider. After three successive away defeats, a loss here would virtually hand Villa the trophy.

April 14

Over 47,000 fans pack Villa Park for the title decider. A hopeful long ball sees Villa defender McNaught under no pressure, except that he fails to notice Mariner closing in behind him. Before he knows what is happening, Mariner pokes the ball from him and Brazil slots Ipswich into the lead. Suddenly the confidence is back and an early second-half Villa surge is thwarted twice by Cooper.

Villa once again go into self-destruct mode as a wayward pass from Bremner allows Mariner to play in Gates for a second Ipswich goal. Villa come back with a beauty from Gary Shaw but Ipswich hang on to rekindle their title hopes. In three days, Ipswich players go from despair to ecstasy on the same Villa Park turf.

April 18

Another league game as Ipswich host Arsenal at Portman Road. The endless matches are now taking their toll and Robson chooses to rest Thijssen while Kevin Beattie is absent with a broken arm. Unfortunately, Ipswich finally experience their first home loss of the season as Arsenal leave with a damaging 2-0 victory, with the opening goal initially disallowed for offside before a change of mind following a referee-linesman consultation. An injured Gates has to be substituted during the game to add to Ipswich’s injury woes.

April 20

Just two days after their first home defeat of the season, Ipswich must travel to Norwich for the East Anglian derby. If any team will delight in derailing Ipswich’s title push, it will be the Canaries. Almost 26,000 rabid Norwich fans pack Carrow Road to urge their team on. Despite being near the bottom of the table, they shock Ipswich by inflicting a 1-0 defeat. It seems now that the title is heading to Villa Park, much to the delight of those in yellow.

April 22

Again, a mere two-day rest and then off to Koln to defend their narrow 1-0 first-leg advantage. An insane schedule for any team but possibly the last leg of the treble still alive. But Ipswich again drag themselves off the canvas and win 1-0, courtesy of an unlikely goalscorer in Butcher, to reach the UEFA Cup final. 

April 25

Back to Portman Road for a must-win home tie against their FA Cup foes Manchester City. Butcher again becomes the hero as he scores the only goal of the game – and Ipswich are still just in the title race. Two games are left in May to decide the league with two UEFA final legs sandwiched in between against AZ Alkmaar.

May 2

With Aston Villa now almost over the finishing line, Ipswich travel to Middlesborough in a must-win game while Villa travel to Arsenal. Arsenal win 2-0 but play against a backdrop of singing Villa fans as the news circulates around Highbury that Ipswich are losing at Ayresome Park. The defeat means that the second part of the treble dream is officially over as Villa are crowned Division One champions. In the space of under a month, two legs of the stool have been removed. Only the UEFA Cup dream remains.

May 6

Another short rest and then the first leg of the UEFA Cup final against AZ. Once again, Ipswich breathe life into tired legs as they run out 3-0 victors with goals from Wark, Thijssen and Mariner. A rocking Portman Road celebrates, but knowing their shaky away record, nothing is certain yet. 

May 20

Finally – finally – Ipswich’s marathon season draws to a close as they travel to the Netherlands to secure European glory. A great start sees Thijssen score against his countrymen after just four minutes. Nerves start to jangle as AZ grab two goals in the next 21 minutes to go ahead before Wark, inevitably, returns calm with an equaliser. Undeterred AZ score again to take a 3-2 lead into the half-time break.

Then, on 73 minutes, they go 4-2 up, meaning an aggregate lead now of just 5-4 to Ipswich, but with away goals advantage., AZ still need a further two. But Ipswich hold out and finally one of the three trophies that they have been chasing all year is in their hands. 

So, after a season that saw Ipswich play a staggering 66 games across four competitions, they finished as UEFA Cup champions, First Division runners-up and FA Cup semi-finalists. Overall, this represented an incredible achievement for the team from Suffolk with a limited squad and resources.

Robson had demonstrated his talent for developing talent while also integrating foreign flair, leading him to a great career spanning PSV, Barcelona, Newcastle, England and a knighthood.

In a way, Ipswich were actually unlucky not to win the league given Liverpool were having a relative off-season (they still won the European Cup and League Cup but finished fifth in Division One). Unfortunately for the Tractor Boys, they came up against a once-in-a-lifetime Aston Villa team who had a much lighter schedule of matches.

It is hard to imagine nowadays having to play eight highly competitive, stressful games in a month with a limited squad at the end of a long season – but that is what Ipswich faced. It is no wonder, then, that they failed to convert all three opportunities. The fact that they got as close as they did is achievement enough.

The 1980/81 season represented the apogee of that talented side. The following season would see them again end as Division One runners-up behind a rejuvenated Liverpool, but the UEFA Cup triumph would be their last major trophy up to the current day.

For all those fans who witnessed it, the 1980/81 season will live in their hearts forever. From humiliating Platini and co in France to a classic cup win over Clough’s Nottingham Forest and a snatch-and-grab win at Villa Park against the champions-to-be, many indelible memories were formed.

As for John Wark, he ended the season as the top scorer in the UEFA Cup with a staggering 14 goals in just 12 games. And then, just to rub it in further, he grabbed 18 Division One goals and two apiece in the League Cup and FA Cup. It took his total tally for the campaign to 36, ten ahead of the next best, Mariner. An Ipswich legend was born.

The last word should go to the great man himself. Looking back on the season, the late Sir Bobby Robson said, “People loved us and it was one of the few occasions where we actually made people sing. The ’81 team, in my opinion, was the best side [I managed]. We played the sort of football that hadn’t been seen in for many, many years … and not only just in Ipswich but I think in England.” If Sir Bobby thinks that, then who are we to argue?

By Dominic Hougham

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