Ipswich Town (2000-2001)

Cult Premier League Teams Ipswich

George Burley Promotion

The Last of the Promohicans; The glorious rise and fall of Ipswich Town

Ipswich Town (2000-2001)

Cast your mind back to the turn of the millennium. A time when A1 and Craig David ruled the charts with an iron fist, Jimmy Saville was a live-and-kicking national treasure and Ipswich Town were mowing their way through the Premier League as though it were a plentiful wheat field. The Tractor Boys (as they’re affectionately known), managed by ‘Burly Burly’ George Burley and featuring a loyal band of never-better journeymen and deceptively promising youngsters, were perhaps the final example of an arguably extinct breed; the promoted team who has a genuine go for the Champions League spots, an underdog with no limit to their ambitions. It’s a type of team we’ve elected to call The Promohicans partly for their warrior spirit, but mostly for wordplay reasons and today we honour the last of them.

Daniel Day Wilnis

Starring Daniel Day Wilnis

 

The Promotion

Ipswich may have wasted little time making a mark in the Premier League but they certainly made a pig’s ear of getting there in the first place. In the three seasons preceding their victorious promotion campaign of 1999-2000, Town thrice made the play-offs and all three times they fell at the first hurdle; twice on away goals.

To make matters worse, going into the 1999-2000 season Ipswich lost their star player, the prodigious talent (and soon-to-be insatiable sicknote) Kieron Dyer. The future England international had enjoyed an explosive impact since his introduction into The Blues’ first team and had already twice made the Division One Team of the Year when Newcastle came calling. The £6 million bid combined with Dyer’s public hunger for Premier League football persuaded Ipswich to part with their dynamic young talisman.

Burly George was not phased by these supposed obstacles and in fact used them to his advantage. The previous years’ play-off heartbreak proved the catalyst for a run of formidable early season form as Ipswich won four of their five games in August and similarly provided valuable experience for a highly motivated squad to finally make it over the finish line come the end of the season. Dyer’s departure, meanwhile, allowed Burley to refocus his team and alleviated its strain as the burden of winning games was shared throughout the starting eleven rather than being thrust upon one (admittedly talented) teenager. Once again, the Scottish manager successfully guided the Suffolk club to third place with Town finishing an agonising two points from automatic promotion. The now familiar play-offs beckoned but this time Ipswich would be ready.

First, came the conquering of past demons in the form of Bolton Wanderers, the team who a season before had condemned Ipswich to defeat at this very same stage.

The Devil Himself

These demons were led by the Devil himself

Town successfully overcame The Trotters in a tasty couple of encounters, eventually triumphing 5-3 in extra time of the second leg. The hero of the night was Jim Magilton who scored his only ever career hatrick and cemented a place in Blue supporters’ hearts. An ill-advised stint as manager a few years later would ruin this legacy and salt the earth of these hearts so no love could ever grow there again but that’s another story.

Barnsley, the scourge of South Yorkshire and recent inhabitants of the Premiership, awaited Town in the final but having got this far Ipswich were not to be denied. A dominant, blistering display saw The Blues win 4-2, the pick of the goals an emphatic stoppage-time netpiercer from Martjin Reuser.

Ipswich Town were heading to the Premier League in some style but they only needed to look as far as their two play-off opponents, both of whom had been instantly relegated the season proceeding promotion to England’s top flight, to see the step up was not easy. At least it shouldn’t have been.

A Slow Start

A few months later Burley’s Ipswich took their first tentative steps in the Premiership and as they fell to three defeats in their first five games you could be forgiven for thinking the season was going to be an arduous one for George and the boys (‘the boys’ being Ipswich Town Football Club’s first team rather than an on-the-nail nickname Burley gave his testicles). The fifth game in this run, despite featuring a spirited performance from Town  (‘spirited’ being a recent punditry buzzword meaning high on work-rate, low on quality), saw The Blues lose 2-1 to an Aston Villa side who up until that point were yet to manage three points themselves. It was the type of game Ipswich really needed to start winning were they to stand any chance of staying up and although it was still early days it seemed a lack of Premier League pedigree was beginning to tell for The Blues.

It wasn’t a surprise. Whether through choice or financial restraints Burley had failed to significantly strengthen his squad over the summer, instead concentrating on keeping the core group that gained promotion together and putting faith in a promising crop of youngsters to make the step up. Key roles were given to local lads Titus Bramble and Richard Wright along with middling lower-leaguers Matt Holland, Jermaine Wright, Marcus Stewart and the aforementioned Magilton . The only significant transfer the club made was that of danger-zone magnet Hermann Hreiðarsson (who holds the unenviable joint-record for most Premier League relegations) who was bought in from the club formerly known as Wimbledon.

May they never, ever return!

May they never, ever return

Add to this the fact that last season’s top scorer, David Johnson, had left his shooting boots in the First Division (he would struggle to ever wear them comfortably at the highest level) and The Tractor Boys seemed destined for a short stay in the top tier of English football.

Momentum Builds

But then came a glimmer of hope in the form of a 2-1 victory away at an imperious Leeds United side who would reach the semi-finals of the Champions League that season. It was a gutsy win, one that owed a debt to the minor injury crisis that had recently befallen Leeds but a thoroughly deserved one all the same. The decisive goal, scored by an equally decisive Jermaine Wright, occurred within 90 seconds of the beginning of the second half.

The next game saw Town face a team blossoming into Arsene Wenger’s second great Arsenal side. Again Ipswich scored soon after the interval, this time the scorer was Marcus Stewart who was proving even more adept at picking apart the locks of Premier League defences than he had been in Division One. Arsenal scrambled a late equaliser but Ipswich held on and the team from East Anglia were suddenly showing their worth.

Professional Net Botherer Marcus Stewart.

Professional net botherer Marcus Stewart

Everton, too, would prove no obstacle. A comfortable 3-0 victory at Goodison Park with two Stewart goals and a collectors item from veteran centre back John McGreal confirmed The Tractor Boys had hit a purple patch. Although their Mersey counterparts provided little resistence, whatever slim hopes Everton may have retained of a comeback were quickly eradicated in the opening five minutes of the second half as Stewart immediately doubled Town’s advantage.

This goal, along with The Blues’ similarly timed efforts in their two previous games, epitomised what would prove to be a winning formula for Ipswich over the course of the season; don’t let your opponent settle. In the supposed dead zone of matches – the period in which the teams size one another up and ease themselves into the match – Ipswich would hit their opponents with everything they had. Town scored 57 goals in total throughout the season; 6 of those came in the first 10 minutes of games and another 8 in the first 5 minutes of the second half. To put it another way 25% of Ipswich’s goals were scored in periods totaling just 15% of overall match time.  While rival teams were quite willing to sit back and wait for an opportune moment, The Blues were aggressive and proactive, instigating and provoking opposition into changing their game plan. Imagine the frustration of sending your team out in the second-half after delivering a considered, detailed team talk only to then see them concede instantly. Ipswich were the chief supplier of this frustration to an abundance of Premier League managers over the course of the season.

Ipswich Town and unruly coat zips.

Well Ipswich and unruly coat zips

Post-Villa, over the next thirteen league games Town won nine times including a 1-0 away win at Liverpool. The Tractor Boys were surging up the table in style while strong opposition found themselves trapped behind, beeping the horns of their more expensive vehicles and trying in vain to squeeze by.

Tractor Crash

‘Not so fast’

The run was tempered with occasional blips; a 1-0 defeat to Derby here,  a 2-1 defeat to a Shearer-inspired Newcastle there but through it all the impressive Ipswich refused to let their heads drop, often bouncing back immediately.

Considering the relatively small size of their squad (twenty-three players clocked game time over the course of the season although Burley had a clear idea of his ideal starting eleven) and their reliance on energetic wing play, Town retained strong levels of fitness. Of their remaining goals in the league, 14 came in the final ten minutes plus stoppage time amounting to a further 25% of The Blues’ total goals scored. While that in of itself isn’t all that staggering – it stands to reason goals are more likely when players are tired and a team is chasing the game – it does prove that Ipswich were a team who could go the distance and were not suffering from burnout during games. Unfortunately relying on a core group of players was always bound to tell at some point and the harsh winter run-in hit Burley’s small squad hard.

Beginning with a meek 4-1 surrender to Sunderland, Ipswich stuttered through January and most of February losing four of five games. Chelsea, Leeds and Arsenal all delivered hammer blows to the underdog’s self-belief and any optimistic notions of a genuine, romantic title challenge for the ages ended with this poor run of form.

However, our story doesn’t end here, for what kind of a story would that be. Whereas more recent underdog Premier League pace-setters have ran out of steam in the final months, content with having secured safety so early on (cough Swansea, cough Southampton), Ipswich were not done. They realised the season was yet to finish. They realised that they were capable of more than mere midtable security. They knew the popular children’s story is The Little Engine That Could, not The Little Engine That Got Most Of The Way Then Saw He Was Close To The Top So Kind Of Just Dossed The Last Quarter Mile. They took a deep breath, stared ahead and made for the summit.

'Chill clown I got this!'

‘Chill clown I got this!’

The Hilltop Assent

So Ipswich regrouped, they re-energised and renewed their faith in themselves. The end of February saw their second game and victory of the season against Everton with the underrated Matt Holland chipping in with a goal. A dominant 3-1 comeback win over an porous Bradford followed, effective supersub Reuser contributing with a couple of unstoppable fizzers. Just like that Ipswich were back on track.

Over the remaining nine games that followed Town accrued six wins and one draw. Their squad, near identical to the one that had achieved promotion a year earlier, went into the final game away at Derby still in contention for a Champions League place. It was a phenomenal achievement and even Malcolm Christie’s opener could not dampen the away fans’ mood. As it was both Liverpool and Leeds won their final matches giving The Reds Champions League football and leaving Ipswich’s final result redundant. The Blues finished their 38 games three points off third place. Had they somehow managed to convert two of their six draws that season into wins they would have risen by a full twenty team division within a single calender year.

Their final game finished 1-1 incidentally. In typical Ipswich fashion Richard Naylor’s equaliser came in the opening minute of the second half.

The View From The Top

All of this talk of what-ifs seems to suggest to finish fifth is trivial; it’s not, but it is important to contextualise Town’s achievement. United won the league with a relatively low 80 points that year while Arsenal were second with 70 and Ipswich were just 4 behind that with 66. People will suggest the quality has improved in the Premier League since then, and it undoubtedly has (the last two years Tottenham then Everton won 72 points over the course of the year and still finished 5th), but picking apart Ipswich’s competition proves difficult.

The Blues finished behind the core members of a still-dominant United team that two years earlier had won the Treble, a burgeoning-on peak Arsenal team that would shortly win the Double, a Liverpool side who had just won an (admittedly shitter) Treble and an exciting Leeds team that reached the final four of the Champions League that season. Additionally, they finished above a Chelsea team containing Gianfranco Zola, Diego Poyet and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and a reawakened Newcastle United featuring Alan Shearer and Town old-boy Kieron Dyer.

Carl Cort

Also featuring Carl Cort…Carl Cort anybody?…no?…just me then

Since then the highest a team has finished the season following promotion is 8th (Reading, 2006-2007), and the most points they have collected over the 38 games is 55 (West Ham 2005-2006, Reading 2006-2007). In the present day, entry into the top seven seems unattainable for even longstanding Premiership teams never mind newly promoted sides with the current septet seemingly far and away the best seven teams in the league. Barring some cataclysmic super club meltdown (cough Leeds), it seems unthinkable that a club could repeat Ipswich’s achievements especially on a similarly minuscule budget. Town greeted the new century with a feat that will more than likely now be consigned to the previous century and they had fun doing it.

But How…

More than anything this squad was characterised by an innate likability and an energetic zeal. They were honest, humble players, but not in the Tony Pulis Stoke City ‘leave a stud in to let them know you’re there’ sense, nor in the Martin O’Neill rough-and-tumble Leicester City sense (an endearing team yes but one who sometimes resorted to bullying opponents with leading elbows and late Robbie Savage lunges). Ipswich were admirably uncomplicated and if that sounds like a backhanded compliment it shouldn’t be. The main bulk of their goals came about from set-pieces and incisive wing play with the players proving extraordinarily proficient and and well-versed in what was being asked of them. It may not have been the most radical tactic but when done well it was startlingly effective.

Among their star performers that season Titus Bramble produced the kind of form that bedeviled a host of future managers wondering where this Titus had gone and who this shambolic impostor was that had taken his place. When in the ascendancy Town’s expansive play, although measured, could be a joy to watch and with Burley preferring a fluid, passing game, Bramble was point one in these slow-build attacks.

Titus

A player as ridiculous as his name suggests

Matt Holland was key too. The baby-faced Captain capable of the odd, cracking thunderbastard when given the chance, seemed to epitomise the sincere, hard-working nature of his team. He excelled at opening areas for his teammates to exploit and driving Ipswich forward from his central position.

On the wing Ipswich’s strength lay in their plethora of options. On any given day Town could play any two of Jamie Clapham, Jermaine Wright, Martijn Reuser and James Scowcroft each bringing with them a different option and style. While upfront either Scrowcroft or Alun Armstrong  would play a supporting role to electric space merchant Marcus Stewart, who enjoyed a stupendous debut season.

Above all, Burley instilled an unshakable belief in his players that they were capable of anything. Having played himself under Bobby Robson’s great Ipswich team of the late 1970s, the Scot had picked up a few things about installing a winning mentality in a perennial underdog. If Robson’s Ipswich were used as an inspiration by Burley, then hopefully in the future a newly promoted team, searching for guidance, will stumble upon Burley’s Promohicans; the perfect example of what can be achieved with a little hard work and self-belief.

 Celebration

Downhill

That Ipswich started the subsequent season poorly seemed more a case of bad luck and individual blunders than anything. In their first match Bramble’s botched clearance immediately followed by his poorly timed attempt to make up for it led to a Kevin Phillips penalty, the only goal of the game. Another defeat in their third match against Charlton, came from a last minute Kevin Lisbie wonder goal after Town had bossed proceedings. Their fourth match a 1-1 draw against Leicester City turned on its head when recent goalkeeping acquisition Matteo Sereni conceded a dubious penalty and was sent off as a result. And so it continued. Everything that had gone right for them in their debut season went wrong for them here.

New signing Finidi George who single-handedly dismantled Derby in Town’s second game (‘the best right wing performance I’ve ever seen’, Burley gushed) fractured his cheekbone and was out for eight weeks. Marcus Stewart too would contrive to break his own jaw. There’s no truth in the rumours that when asked questions about this bizarre spate of facial injuries, Burley replied ‘That’ll be on account of the twins’ and kissed his own biceps but these injuries definitely hit Ipswich hard. Add to that their adventures in Europe which sapped much-needed energy and attention from their league campaign.

Before Town knew it they’d won just one game in seventeen and were in the middle of an all-out relegation dogfight. A brief revival in winter (seven wins in eight) dragged Ipswich up the table but whereas the previous season Burley had seemed able use the good will generated from fine early form to renew Town’s self-belief, here a morale-destroying 6-0 mauling by Liverpool curtailed The Blues’ run and seemed to reraise doubts and fears in the players’ minds.

Ipswich were relegated with 36 points and have been stuck within The Championship’s cruel limbo ever since. It can only be hoped that when they do return it’ll be for another tilt at the Champions League. As history has proved, you’d be a fool to write them off.

The Gaffer

George Burley

A softly-spoken, patient man whose reputation has been unfairly tarnished over the years, Burley clearly owed a lot to Bobby Robson’s school of management, proving himself a gentle and supportive presence and, at times, an exceptional man-motivator just like his mentor. The Scot’s bravery in trusting an inexperienced, unproven group of players and his solid, well-drilled and decisive game plan for tackling the Premier League meant he more than deserved his Manager of the Year award at the end of the season even if he struggled to balance domestic form with Town’s European adventures the following year.

George Burley

Classic Game

Ipswich Town 3 Tottenham Hotspur 0 (30th December 2000)

Arguably their best performance of the season and undoubtedly exemplary of everything The Tractor Boys did so well; Titus Bramble has never played better.

Classic Player

Marcus Stewart

If Ipswich are the archetypal one season wonder then Stewart is their poster child. For all the pluck, charm and derring-do The Tractor Boys showed in their sensational campaign, without the sparkling bravado and sublime spacial awareness of Marcus Stewart we wouldn’t be talking about them now. A striker naturally suited to the Premier League, rather than one who adapted well to it, the forward man relished exploiting defensive uncertainty and given this was his maiden voyage into the top flight he proved a remarkably composed finisher when presented with the chance. To be filed away next to Joseph Desire Job and Shaun Bartlett as strikers who are better than you remember.

Marcus Stewart

Dream Team

Ipswich Town Dream Team

Cult Rating: 

STYLE: 4/6

LEGACY: 4/6

STAR PLAYERS: 3/6

STAR MANAGER: 3/6

SUCCESS: 4/6

INFLUENCE: 3/6

CLASS RATING /6:   3.50/6

Further Reading:

Dice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s