There is no questioning the dominance of Dutch football in the 1970s. Alright, so they didnâ€™t win a World Cup, but everyone knew that they could have â€“ twice. Two finals in two successive incarnations of the tournament abundantly proved their pedigree at an international level. More than anything, though, it was the way they achieved their reputation that set the world alight. Watching the Cruyff-era side was as much an intellectual and artistic pursuit as a sporting one â€“ at times, the gracefulness of their play was more akin to ballet. In this golden era, Total Football ruled supreme.
Of course, Total Football was not a new concept; Hugo Meisl arguably introduced the system with his Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, and â€“ certainly in European terms – the Magical Magyars of Puskasâ€™ Hungary in the 1950s perfected it. It is worth noting, too, that both these teams bore the stamp of British tactical visionary Jimmy Hogan – a figure instrumental in reshaping the somewhat staid tactics employed in W-M formations.
However, these two incarnations aside, the sporting ideology in question arguably found its most fertile ground in the Ajax system, and – by extension â€“ the Dutch national team from whence, like missionaries of old, Dutch footballing Ã©migrÃ©s spread its gospel. As outlined in both Jonathan Wilsonâ€™s Inverting the Pyramid and Brilliant Orange by David Winner, the concept is relatively simple: any player has to be able to play in any position, so skill, intelligence and tactical nous are highly prized. The system also relies on awareness of space â€“ when a team is in possession, they strive to make the pitch as large as possible, and when they are defending, they aim to shrink it. The approach also relies on complete commitment to winning back possession when it has been lost; footage of the 1974 World Cup, in particular, frequently features orange-clad hordes hunting in packs to chase down the ball. Such a tactical approach, of course, requires players to be in peak physical condition to cope with its demands – another area in which the Ajax system led the way.
Professionalism came relatively late to Dutch football: its introduction in 1954 perhaps goes some way to explaining the blossoming of its national side once sufficient players had passed through the ranks and were familiar with the requisite stylings of the system. The Dutch realised the value of having players schooled in how to operate within a particular set-up from a young age, so they could easily slot into senior teams. Evidence of the approachâ€™s success is clear in Ajaxâ€™s perfect home records in 1971-72 and 1972-73. They suffered only 1 defeat in any competition during the former and, in this time, won 4 different titles overall.
Of course, the brilliance of this style was also evident on a national level in the Netherlands, but its worth was especially marked in the way it could synergise groups of players who â€“ had they been playing in other systems â€“ might not have fared so well. By the late 1970s, the Dutch possessed an embarrassment of players already au fait with the system. However, at the same time, a visionary English manager started to ponder whether a similar approach might also be employed at his provincial club on the other side of the North Sea: Ipswich.
Yes, thatâ€™s rightâ€¦ unlikely though it may seem, the lowly Tractor Boys became key beneficiaries of the Low Countriesâ€™ sporting approach. Against all odds, they had won the League in 1961-62 with Alf Ramsey at the helm in their first season as a top-flight side. After his subsequent departure for the England job, they declined speedily. However, since Bobby Robson had taken the reins in 1969, the Suffolk side had been on a steadily upward trajectory. Victory in the Texaco Cup in 1973 was followed by FA Cup success in 1978 when they memorably defeated Arsenal at Wembley. In the League, they were consistently pushing for the top spot. Indeed, in the 4 seasons from 1973/74 to 1976/77, they finished in the top 3 on 3 occasions. Robson, however, was looking for fresh impetus â€“ he wanted the club to become genuine title challengers in the face of the dominant, big clubs who enjoyed more strength in depth within their squads.
Fortunately, on the banks of the River Orwell, several key pieces were already in place to build the Total Football jigsaw puzzle. Firstly, Robson was a real student of the game and was open to new ideas â€“ particularly tactical innovations from the continent. Added to that, attitudes in English football were beginning to shift â€“ in February 1978, European Community legislation meant that the footballing associations of member states had to allow foreign players access to playing in England. This didnâ€™t stop the somewhat xenophobic outlook that proliferated (the ban had been in place since 1931 after all, and so ideas were deeply entrenched), but it did mean that overseas signings became a little more commonplace. Robsonâ€™s first venture into the overseas market was to sign Arnold MÃ¼hren from FC Twente in summer 1978 for Â£150,000. Still only 27, the Dutchman had won a European Cup winnerâ€™s medal with Ajax in 1973, where he had played alongside Johan Cruyff. In early 1979, the Ipswich boss added a second Dutch signing from FC Twente â€“ Frans Thijssen, for Â£200,000. This became the midfield fulcrum around which Ipswichâ€™s new approach revolved. Finally, there was the important fact that squad sizes were small. Unbelievable though it might seem in the current era, it was eminently possible for a first-team player â€“ barring injuries or suspensions â€“ to play all league, cup and European fixtures over the course of a season. MÃ¼hren himself has attested that this allowed Ipswich to grow into a tight-knit group of players who all knew their roles. Further to that, being a relatively small provincial club meant that there was an almost familial atmosphere which further enhanced the sense of closeness.
The sense of professionalism the Dutch set-up instilled in its players was important too; MÃ¼hren and Thijssen brought with them a set of expectations that differed from English footballing culture and, potentially, gave the Suffolk side an edge. In a manner that foreshadowed Denis Bergkampâ€™s horror at Arsenalâ€™s drinking culture upon his arrival at Arsenal in the mid-1990s, MÃ¼hren lamented the lack of pre-match preparation. Warming up prior to fixtures was integral to clubs like Ajax and Feyenoord and, soon, pre-match gym sessions became the norm at Portman Road too.
While they famously beat Manchester United 6-0 in a home game in the 1979-80 season, the zenith of Ipswich Townâ€™s â€˜Dutch eraâ€™ was spread across 2 seasons: 1980/81 and 1981/82 â€“ both of which saw them finish as runners-up in the League. The 1980-81 season had the Tractor Boys playing a bewitching style of football that saw them unbeaten in their first 14 games. As well as challenging for the title, they were also competing for the FA Cup, eventually losing in the semi-final. Robsonâ€™s side eventually finished second in the League – only four points separated them and Aston Villa, with the sad irony being that they had defeated the Midlands side three times during the season. Tellingly, Thijssen suffered a hamstring injury and missed the seasonâ€™s final four games; Ipswich lost 4 of them. His influence â€“ not only on the club but upon English football in general â€“ saw him named as the Football Writersâ€™ Association Footballer of the Year.
Though league success escaped them, they triumphed in the UEFA Cup against AZ 67 Alkmaar. The relative ease with which they reached the final across the 2 legs of each of the competitionâ€™s rounds, was a testament to their dominance; in all fixtures bar the second round against the Czech team Bohemians, they won by at least 2 clear goals. The first round saw the Greek team Aris despatched 6-4 on aggregate. Polish outfit Widzew Lodz were defeated 5-1 in the third round and, in the quarter-final, St Etienne â€“ captained by Michel Platini â€“ were beaten 7-2. The first leg notably featured a 4-1 away victory. FC Cologne were then beaten 1-0 in each leg to secure Ipswich Town a place in the final.
27,532 spectators saw the first leg at Portman Road which the Tractor Boys won 3-0 thanks to goals from John Wark, Paul Mariner and Frans Thijssen. A similar sized crowd saw Ipswich carry their advantage into the deciding fixture. Thijssen was on the score sheet again, but AZ â€™67 equalised quickly and then scored a further brace of second half goals. The final score was 4-2, meaning that Ipswich triumphed 5-4 victors on aggregate. Their 1981 UEFA Cup win remains the clubâ€™s only European silverware.
The 1981-82 season was very much focused on the league. Having been knocked out of the FA Cup in the 5th round in a 2-1 away defeat at 2nd division Shrewsbury, they were eliminated from the UEFA Cup 4-2 on aggregate by Alex Fergusonâ€™s Aberdeen. As it was, Ipswich finished second, four points adrift of Liverpoolâ€™s 87-point tally, with the best home record of any team in the top flight. Naturally, fans hoped that the side would continue to build on their successes. However, as with so many unlikely footballing success stories, the factors that facilitated the clubâ€™s success were relatively fleeting. This was very much Ipswichâ€™s experience. Given the small squad sizes and under-developed youth systems of English football in the early 1980s, it is, perhaps, little wonder that Robsonâ€™s footballing revolution could not be sustained. The Ajax cross-club approach was light years ahead of its time and Portman Road didnâ€™t simply did not possess the resources to fully implement a long term facsimile.
Following the heady heights of UEFA success and further high league placement, Robson accepted the Football Associationâ€™s approach to replace Ron Greenwood and manage the national team. The offer was issued on 7th July â€“ 2 days after England were knocked out of the World Cup. MÃ¼hren departed to Manchester United in the same year, and Thijssen moved to Nottingham Forest in 1983. The team was relegated from the top flight at the end of the 1985-86 season in a disappointing end to what had truly been a golden era.
So why had things worked so well?
Firstly, there was the manager: Bobby Robsonâ€™s leadership capabilities require little justification â€“ he went on to manage England (memorably reaching the 1990 World Cup semi-final where England lost on penalties); he also took the reins at the Nou Camp between 1996 and 1997 where, under his leadership, Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de EspaÃ±a, and the UEFA Cup.Â With PSV Eindhoven, he had 2 stints: 1990-1992 and 1998-1999, further underlining his suitability to the Dutch game and his ability to work within its tactical parameters.
Then, there were the players: although the Dutch contingent is fully deserving of their plaudits, it must be remembered that they played in an extremely good Ipswich team. Indeed, Robson had an embarrassment of English internationals at his disposal: Mick Mills (42 caps); Steve McCall (6 caps); Russell Osman (11 caps); Terry Butcher (77 caps); Paul Mariner (35 caps); Eric Gates (2 caps). He also drew on Scottish internationals John Wark and Alan Brazil (with 29 caps and 13 caps respectively). Therefore, Ipswich Town in this halcyon era were about as far from being a 2-man side as it is possible to be.
Nevertheless, the inclusion of MÃ¼hren and Thijssen allowed for the adoption of an entirely different kind of play. It brought a little Cruyff-style magic to Portman Road and, in doing so, transformed the Tractor Boys into a fashionable side that played with enough flair and finesse to place them at the top of the footballing world. They were undoubtedly the catalyst that turned them â€“ albeit briefly â€“ from contenders into world beaters.
By Richard Evans