Bobby Robson’s swashbuckling, treble-chasing Ipswich Town side caused me no end of sleepless nights back in the 1980-81 season. Not that I particularly had anything against either him or the entertaining football his side churned out week after week, I hasten to add. It was just the fact that as a Liverpool supporting fan attending school in East Anglia, my life was in constant danger of being made a misery.
Schoolboy Bragging Rights
The greatest fear any football-loving boy can have is not merely their own team failing, but their great rivals cleaning up. To be in the proximity of mates or relatives whose teams are doing better than yours must be every schoolboy’s nightmare.
This was the scenario I found myself facing as a 12-year-old back in the 1980-81 season. As previously chronicled here, I ‘discovered’ the love of my life (Liverpool FC) at the age of 5 whilst living in my native North-west. Now, however, I found myself living in Essex and surrounded by Ipswich-supporting school friends.
Throughout my football-following childhood early years, things had gone swimmingly for me as a Liverpool fan. Every season since my first (’74-75) Liverpool had won at least one trophy enabling me to at least hold my own in the schoolyard battles.
It is true that 1978 had given me a taster of what it was like to be surrounded by fans of another successful club when Ipswich won the FA Cup that year. However, the fact that Liverpool won the European Cup that season meant that there was no real shift in the status quo as far as playground bragging rights went.
However, 1980-81 promised to be different. For the first time since I had been following football, my team were somewhat less than all-conquering. To make matters worse, the side that many of my close mates supported were in serious danger of clearing up at home and abroad.
1980-81: A New Kid on the Block
The season started and Ipswich began with a bang. Unbeaten in their first 14 league games Ipswich played some free-flowing football that took them to the top of the table. A solid defence consisting of George Burley and Mick Mills as full backs and Terry Butcher and Russell Osman in the centre spots, sat in front of the diminutive, yet agile Paul Cooper in goal. Cooper had in fact carved out quite a reputation for himself as a specialist penalty saver, stopping 8 out 11 at one point the season before.
Town’s midfield was made up of the skill provided by legendary Dutch duo Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren, combined with the grit and goal scoring ability of John Wark and the flair of Eric Gates. England forward Paul Mariner and his Scottish international striking partner, Alan Brazil were the men trusted with banging in the goals.
This side was pretty much the settled first-choice eleven throughout the season for the Portman Road side, with defender Steve McCall and midfielder Kevin O’Callaghan the only other players to reach double figures in appearances.
An early test of Ipswich’s credentials came in an October meeting at Anfield. Liverpool came into the game in second place, a point behind Ipswich who had played a game less. At the time, Liverpool had been unbeaten at home for almost three years and whilst they trailed Ipswich in the table, it was assumed that they would be too strong for the Norfolk side and leapfrog them to the top. The reality was, though, that Ipswich put up more than a good account of themselves and only a controversial penalty (what, at Anfield in the 80’s? – never!) enabled Liverpool to preserve both their dignity and unbeaten run.
This performance more than any thus far indicated Ipswich were the real deal, and together with Liverpool, and an emerging Aston Villa managed by Ron Saunders, they led the way at the half-way stage of the season.
New Year, New Beginnings
On New Year’s Day 1981, Liverpool sat atop the table ahead of Villa on goal difference with Ipswich two points behind in third, having played two games less than both their rivals. A January 10 defeat by two goals to nil at Aston Villa saw the wheels begin to fall off for Liverpool, and from then on in it became a good old-fashioned two horse race for the title between Villa and Ipswich.
Ipswich were storming along not only in the league, but were also into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup following impressive two-leg victories over Aris Salonika, Bohemians of Prague, and Widzew Lodz. They also embarked on a FA Cup run, which coincidentally commenced with a single goal victory at home to title rivals, Aston Villa.
Although undoubtedly celebrated by Ipswich at the time, how much effect this game was to ultimately have on each side’s title aspirations, is open to conjecture. Whilst Villa were now to focus purely on the league, Ipswich were still fighting on three fronts.
Anyway, back to my school in deepest Essex. This 12-year-old was getting it on all fronts as 90% of my school buddies were Ipswich fans and were having a ball: “Liverpool’s day is over,” they gleefully informed me at every opportunity.
Worryingly, it looked like they were going to be proved right! In the middle of March Ipswich sat top of the table with 50 points from 32 games, while Villa were tucked in just a point behind having played a game more.
Some of the football played by Ipswich that season was outstanding. The highlights included a 4-1 away win over highly fancied Saint Etienne in the quarter-final of the UEFA Cup. As Saint Etienne captain, Michel Platini, said at the time, Ipswich were now amongst the best sides in Europe.
Week after week, side after side were put to the sword as Ipswich marched on in all three competitions. Conversely, Liverpool were making hard work of not just the league, but also the cup competitions. Already the allegations of me being a ‘glory-hunter’ were gathering pace, and increasing the pressure. As Liverpool limped out of the FA Cup to neighbours Everton, and squeezed into the League Cup final courtesy of a 2-1 aggregate victory of Man City, the nightmare scenario of ‘us’ winning nothing while my mates’ team won the lot gathered pace.
Into March and a difficult away draw at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup quarter-final gave me a glimpse of a hope that Ipswich’s season may yet be derailed. Putting aside Liverpool-Forest rivalries for the day, I became an honorary Brian Clough supporter for the first and only time in my life. However, Ipswich just about escaped to fight another day courtesy of a late equalizer in a cracking 3-3 draw. A 1-0 victory in the replay put Town into the semi’s and kept their dream, and my nightmare, alive.
Then it all started getting serious.
On 8th of April Ipswich played the first leg of a UEFA Cup semi-final against FC Cologne. On 11th of April it was FA Cup semi-final time, against Manchester City at Villa Park. The 14th of April saw a titanic tussle in the league against Villa, also at Villa Park. The next weekend a home league match against Arsenal on the 18th was followed by an away ‘old-farm derby’ match against Norwich two days later. Finally, on 22nd of April the second leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final was held in Germany, with a home league match against Manchester City three days later
In this eighteen-day spell, Ipswich played no less than seven crucial games. Results were mixed, to say the least, and Ipswich’s dreams started to crumble before their very eyes.
A single goal victory at home to FC Cologne at the start of the run seemed to put Ipswich’s progress in Europe in jeopardy, but a repeat scoreline two weeks later in another outstanding European performance was enough to see Town through to the final.
The FA Cup, however, was a different matter. The previous season Liverpool and Arsenal had met four times at the semi-final stage and at one point it was looking remotely possible that the final would have to be put back if the two sides couldn’t get things settled. With this in mind, The FA brought in a new rule allowing for extra time to be played at the end of the first game if the scores were tied. It was this change in rules that Ipswich fell foul of.
A rather drab game at Villa Park was locked scoreless at the conclusion of normal time, but rather than all go home and try again a few days later, extra time was played for the first time in an FA Cup semi-final. This change in the rules allegedly caught Eric Gates unawares and he supposedly took his boots off and shook some of the bemused City player’s hands upon hearing what he assumed to be the final whistle.
Into extra time and a Paul Power wonder-goal from a free kick finally separated the sides. Ipswich suffered badly from injuries before and during the game, and Bobby Robson always believed that had the game gone to a replay, as all previous FA Cup semi’s level after ninety minutes in the history of the competition had done, Ipswich would have eventually prevailed.
The vital league clash four days later against Villa gave Ipswich the opportunity to get back on the horse, so as to speak, and they did just that with a 2-1 victory. With five games to go, Ipswich were now a point behind Villa who had played a game more.
The title was Ipswich’s to lose, and lose it they most certainly did. An Arsenal side battling for a place in Europe came to Portman Road and left with the points thanks to goals from Peter Nicholas and Kenny Sansom. Then worse was to follow when a single goal was sufficient for Norwich to prevail in their Easter Monday clash.
Villa took advantage of Ipswich’s slips and pulled five points clear thanks to victories over Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough. When Villa could only draw at Stoke on the same day as Ipswich got a small measure of revenge over Manchester City for their cup exit, the gap was down to four points.
Ipswich still had a game in hand and so could win the league on goal difference if they won their last two games, away to Middlesbrough and home to Southampton, as long as Villa lost to Arsenal on the final Saturday of the season.
Last Day Drama
Villa took an estimated 20,000 fans to Highbury on May 2 and they witnessed one of football’s great dramas. At half-time, the title looked to be slipping back towards Ipswich, as they led 1-0 at Middlesbrough while Villa trailed by two goals at Arsenal.
However, while the scoreline at Highbury remained unchanged throughout the second-half, two goals for the home side at Ayresome Park were enough to give the title to Ron Saunders and his men. The result rendered Ipswich’s last game at home to Southampton academic and the subsequent 3-2 defeat meant Ipswich finished four points back in second place.
Ipswich fans feel to this day that it was only injuries and the small size of their squad that led to the failure to secure at least the title, if not the ‘treble’ that year. Having to play so many games so close together was their undoing, they claim.
The fact that Ipswich played sixty-six games that season compared to Aston Villa’s forty-six probably didn’t help, but it should be noted that Aston Villa too hardly had a big squad. Indeed, only fourteen players appeared for the Villa Park side in league games all season.
The truth of the matter is Ipswich crumbled and handed the title over. Having lost only twice in their opening 32 games, Bobby Robson’s side somehow contrived to lose six of their last ten games to gift the title to Villa. Villa, who also managed to lose three times in their last nine, just about fell over the line.
Ipswich still had one more trophy to go for and a 3-0 victory in the home leg of the UEFA Cup Final against AZ Alkmaar meant one hand was on the trophy. A nervy 4-2 defeat in Holland was sufficient to ensure what had once promised to be such a rewarding season didn’t end up totally barren-less.
For my own part, things worked out reasonably well in the final bragging rights as, despite Liverpool being unable to finish higher than a dismal 5th in the league, the European Cup was won to go alongside the League Cup.
It should be said, however, that from the moment Ipswich were knocked out of the FA Cup, I was actually cheering for them in the league and UEFA Cup for my mates’ sakes. I just didn’t want them to clean up a treble.
A final point should be made about the kits worn by Ipswich that season. The silky royal blue adidas number with white stripes on the sleeves was a rare work of beauty. This was only accentuated on the infrequent occasions when they wore all blue. Their away strip had the same glorious attraction to it: a silky white shirt with black adidas stripes and either the same coloured and featured shorts, or else black ones with white stripes. Perfect!
An exciting and memorable season that is still fondly remembered at Portman Road, with just a tinge of regret.