Sir Bobby Robson sadly departed this world in 2009, cruelly cut down by the awful disease that is cancer. His passing was much mourned, for he was a true footballing legend and a decent, honourable man to boot.
Most known for his time in management at Barcelona, Newcastle and the England national side, Sir Bobby made his managerial name and breakthrough whilst in charge of provincial town side, Ipswich Town, whom he managed for 13 years between 1969 and 1982.
Following a sterling playing career in the colours of West Bromwich Albion, Fulham and England, Sir Bobby found his first job in management at Craven Cottage. Unfortunately, a difficult and unsuccessful 11 months in charge resulted in the sack.
Seemingly cast on the managerial scrapheap before he’d barely got going, Robson knew he had perhaps one more chance in him. It would need to be an owner or a chairman willing to take a risk and not pull the plug if things got dicey early on.
Luckily for Sir Bobby, John Cobbold was just that man. The Chairman of Ipswich Town, Cobbold, together with his brother Patrick who was also on the board and would later become Chairman himself, ran Ipswich as a friendly, almost genteel family club.
Upon Sir Bobby’s appointment in January 1969, instantly the three men knew that they had found the right balance.
Inheriting a team low on both confidence and discipline, Sir Bobby set about ringing the changes. Established players were gradually eased out as Robson put the emphasis on youth.
A steady start in Sir Bobby’s first few seasons was followed by the first real signs of success in the 1972-73 season when Sir Bobby guided Ipswich to a fourth-place finish in the First Division and qualification for Europe for the first time since 1962.
From then on, Ipswich finished lower than sixth in the old First Division just once in the nine years that Sir Bobby stayed at the helm. During this time, he built at least two, and possibly three, very good sides indeed.
The 1974-75 side is still regarded as by many of the Portman Road faithful as being one of the greatest in the club’s history. A fast-playing side, this vintage was well-marshalled in defence by future England star Mick Mills, Northern Ireland’s Allan Hunter, and George Burley from Scotland.
In midfield, mainstays were Brian Talbot, Bryan Hamilton, Colin Viljoen, and Kevin Beattie, with a young John Wark beginning to make a breakthrough.
In attack, David Johnson, Trevor Whymark, and Clive Woods were all battling for recognition.
It was a season that was to take Ipswich to the brink of the League and FA Cup ‘double’ but which ended in heartbreak as a Clive Thomas-inspired West Ham defeated Ipswich in an FA Cup semi-final replay at Stamford Bridge and an agonising return of three points from the final three league games left Town in third place, two points behind champions, Derby County.
In 1977, Ipswich again challenged for the title. Locked neck-and-neck with Liverpool for practically the entire season, most of the 1974-75 side remained intact with some important additions. Paul Mariner was signed from Plymouth Argyle and John Wark became a regular in the side.
An early exit in the cups left Town free to concentrate on the league, and once again they took it to the wire. Again, though, a pretty disastrous ‘run-in’ would cost Sir Bobby as only one win and a solitary draw were garnered in the final six matches with a 2-1 defeat at Anfield proving especially relevant. Ultimately, once again third was the best Ipswich could muster.
The following season, 1977-78, saw a battle at the wrong end of the table, and although relegation was never a realistic prospect, the final position of 18th in a 22-team division was perhaps a little too close for comfort.
A more than adequate compensation for disappointing league form was to be found in the FA Cup. Making it through to the semi-finals, Ipswich avoided being drawn against Clive Thomas, and instead met and beat West Bromwich 3-1 to set up a Wembley final with Arsenal.
Based on their poor league showing through the season, Ipswich were vast underdogs on the day but promptly proceeded to play The Gunners off the park in one of the most comprehensive 1-0 victories ever seen at the old stadium.
A good run to the quarter-finals of the 1978-79 European Cup Winners’ Cup followed before bowing out to eventual winners Barcelona on the away goals rule. Sir Bobby would return to the Nou Camp on a more permanent basis some years later of course, but for now, he concentrated on Ipswich.
A solid sixth-place finish in 1979 was followed by third-place a year later and by the summer of 1980 Ipswich were ready for another shot at the title.
Sir Bobby by this time was working within the England set-up under the manager Ron Greenwood and was seen as a potential successor down the line. It was an open secret that Greenwood would be stepping down after England’s involvement with the 1982 World Cup was over.
Ipswich attacked on all fronts in 1980-81, with several stalwarts from 1977 being complemented by new recruits and youth team graduates. Joining Mills, Burley, Wark and Mariner, were Terry Butcher, Alan Brazil, Eric Gates, Russell Osman and the Dutch duo, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijsenn.
Heading into Spring 1981, Ipswich looked on course for a treble of League, FA Cup and UEFA Cup.
Then, perhaps almost inevitably, came the end of season collapse that Ipswich fans had been fearing but half-expecting.
Just two league defeats in the first 32 games of the season saw Ipswich open up a three-point lead at the top of the table over Aston Villa who had played a game more. Three defeats in four matches then left the door open for Villa, but Ipswich looked like they had slammed it shut once again when they went to Villa Park and won 2-1 to once more pull clear with only five games left.
The success at Villa Park came just four days after Ipswich had suffered heartbreak at the same venue in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City.
With Clive Thomas busy playing for Wolves that day at Hillsborough against Spurs, it was left to referee Pat Partridge to instead do the honours by awarding City a contentious free-kick from which Paul Power scored the only goal of the game.
With the finishing line in sight in the league, Ipswich now contrived to lose four of the last five, and with it, all title hopes once again.
It should be noted that Ipswich suffered some awful injury problems at the time as well as a sapping fixture pile-up. Aston Villa, who went onto take the league crown, only used 14 players all season but only played 45 games all season to Ipswich’s 66.
All was not lost, however. Ipswich made it to the UEFA Cup Final against AZ Alkmaar, which was in those days a two-legged affair. A comprehensive 3-0 win in the home leg set Ipswich up nicely, and although they lost the return 4-2, they had won their first-ever European trophy.
Sir Bobby had one more season at Portman Road, the 1981-82 season, and in many ways, it mirrored previous ones.
With Aston Villa falling by the wayside in the league and Liverpool out of sorts in the first half of the season, Ipswich’s consistency allowed them to once again make most if not all of the running until Christmas.
Unfortunately, the winter of 1981-82 was a particularly bad one, and by the half-way stage of the season most sides were well behind schedule, but Ipswich seemed particularly badly off in terms of games played. At Christmas, they sat third in the table just a point behind leaders Swansea but with three games in hand and only 16 of their scheduled 42 games completed.
Into the New Year and the Suffolk side kept up their title challenge while battling away for the League Cup also. Unfortunately, injuries began to take their toll and Liverpool started to get into their stride at the same time.
A series of three matches against Liverpool in eight days saw Ipswich defeated twice with one match drawn and the pressure was once more on.
Ultimately, Liverpool powered on and Ipswich had to be content with the runners-up spot for the second successive season.
It proved to be Sir Bobby’s swansong at Ipswich, with him being appointed England manager following Ron Greenwood stepping down at the culmination of the tournament in Spain.
A Geordie, Sir Bobby’s heart was perhaps first and foremost with his beloved Newcastle, but he never forgot his time at Ipswich and the rapport he built up with all at Portman Road. For many years after leaving the club, he continued to have his family home in Ipswich and in 2002 a statue of the Great Man was unveiled outside the ground.
Almost forty years after Sir Bobby passed through Ipswich his name is still revered at the club.