The late seventies and early eighties are most memorable for fantastic music, questionable outfits and Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister. However, the period also heralded a new dawn for English football in Europe.
Manchester United and Celtic had triumphed in the European Cup in the late sixties and English clubs continued to emerge as European superpowers throughout the seventies resulting in English football dominating the European Cup by the end of the decade. From 1977 to 1982 the European Cup was retained in England. Inconceivable to ever happen again to such an extent, this truly was the time that English clubs dominated Europe and one of those teams that rose to European glory were Ipswich Town in 1981.
Sir Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town side took Europe by storm in 1981, winning the UEFA Cup in one of the club’s most successful ever seasons as they narrowly missed out on an unprecedented treble.
In 1969, Ipswich Town took a punt on young and inexperienced manager Bobby Robson as they aimed to rekindle the form that won them the first division in 1962 under the man that would go on to capture the World Cup for England, Sir Alf Ramsey. Since that title-winning season, however, the club had been relegated and had spent four seasons in Division Two before returning to Division One.
Robson took over a side devoid of belief and one that the previous manager Jackie Millburn said only had one way to go: down.
However, Robson had other ideas. The future England manager recognised that as there was little money to spend on transfers at the club, his focus would have to be on developing the youth.
Because of this, instant success was always going to be difficult but after a steady start in his first few seasons, the progress that Robson had made off the pitch became evident for all to see in the 1972-73 season, as he guided Ipswich to a fourth-place finish and qualification for Europe.
Following this season, Ipswich only finished below sixth just once in the nine years that the man from County Durham remained in charge for.
A particularly memorable season for Ipswich fans was the 1974-75 season, where Ipswich, playing some fantastic football, narrowly missed out on a League and Cup double, as they finished agonisingly just two points off champions Derby and were defeated in an FA Cup semi-final replay against West Ham.
However, redemption in the FA Cup would come in 1978. The 1977-78 season was one of Ipswich’s poorest seasons in the league under Robson, as they disappointingly finished in 18th position. That was why after they defeated West Bromwich Albion 3-1 in the FA Cup semi-final, they were massive underdogs going into the final against Arsenal. But they proceeded to produce a fantastic performance against the Gunners and shocked them, by winning 1-0, to lift the famous trophy – Robson’s first for the club and the first in his managerial career.
By 1980, Robson had been at Ipswich for more than a decade and his tireless work had produced another fantastic side, arguably better than the 1975 Ipswich team that is fondly remembered in East Anglia. The 1978 FA Cup winners were now complemented by new signings and youth graduates like Terry Butcher, Alan Brazil, Eric Gates, Russel Osman and, of course, the Dutch duo of Arnold Mühren and Frans Thijssen who both played a pivotal role in Ipswich’s European triumph of 1981.
Ipswich had made tremendous progress under Robson and were recognised and respected as one of the best sides in England. In the 1980-81 season, they went a step beyond that and showed what they could do on the European stage. Once again, Ipswich’s consistency meant that they were very competitive in all competitions and throughout the season they held onto the distinctive possibility of an unprecedented treble.
In a season where they played an astonishing 66 games, Ipswich eventually fell short of Aston Villa in the league as they lost four of their last five games and missed out on the league title once again. There was also disappointment in the FA Cup, as they narrowly lost to Manchester City in the semi-final at Villa Park.
However, their European adventure more than compensated for their domestic disappointments. The Blues began their UEFA Cup campaign with a comprehensive 5-1 victory in the first leg of their tie against Aris Thessaloniki, with John Wark, who would win the PFA’s player of the year and the young European player of the year award that season, scoring four goals. The second leg did not go as smoothly for Ipswich as they lost the away leg 3-1 but won the game by the aggregate score of 6-4.
The second round followed a similar pattern for Ipswich as Wark again impressed, scoring two goals in Ipswich’s 3-0 first-leg victory over Bohemians Prague at Portman Road, with Kevin Beattie scoring a thunderbolt of a third goal that proved to be decisive. Ipswich lost the away leg 2-0, but still qualified for the third round winning on aggregate 3-2.
Three weeks later, Ipswich faced Polish side Widzew Łódź, who had knocked out Juventus and Manchester United in previous rounds, at Portman Road. Wark continued his impressive season by scoring a hattrick, with Alan Brazil and Paul Mariner completing the thumping 5-0 victory. Widzew Łódź won the away leg 1-0 but went out 5-1 on aggregate.
A three-month break from the UEFA cup ensued as Ipswich continued their fight for three trophies before returning to European action in March 1981 as they faced Michel Platini’s Saint Etienne side in the quarter-finals. For the first time in their cup run, Ipswich played the first leg away from home. However, this did not affect Robson’s Ipswich, as they produced one of the greatest victories in the club’s history, demolishing the French side 4-1, courtesy of a brace from Mariner and goals from Mühren and Wark. The second leg was also impressive, as Ipswich won 3-1 at Portman Road to seal an aggregate score of 7-2 and a place in the semi-finals.
The Tractor Boys faced Cologne in the semi-finals and they oversaw two 1-0 victories in both legs to defeat the German side and book their place in the final, with Wark scoring his 12th goal of the European campaign in the home leg and Butcher heading the winner in the away leg. The victory meant that Ipswich progressed to their first and only European cup final where they would face AZ Alkmaar in a two-legged game.
Cheered on by a capacity crowd at Portman Road, Ipswich stormed to a 3-0 win in the first leg, with Wark impressively keeping up his record of scoring in every single round, and the other goals coming from Thijssen and Mariner. The second leg was played in Amsterdam and while Ipswich lost 4-2, they still won the tie and lifted the trophy, by an aggregate score of 5-4.
It was an exhausting season for Ipswich, however; their UEFA Cup triumph, whilst slightly overshadowed by their capitulation domestically, was a phenomenal achievement that was a testament to Robson’s incredible management. From taking over a side that supposedly was only heading in one direction, Robson rejuvenated them and spent years building a youth system that would create players that would be crucial to their European success.
Ipswich played in a fast, forward-thinking, stylish manner and their UEFA Cup success meant that at the end of the season, they were voted as not the best team in England but the best team in the whole of Europe.
Sir Bobby Robson left Ipswich in 1982, becoming the England manager and later going on to manage Barcelona. Ipswich could not sustain their success without him and five years after winning the UEFA Cup they dropped into the Second Division. But what special memories Robson and his UEFA Cup winners provided.
Ipswich Town did return to European competition in 2001 – famously beating Inter Milan at home. However, now, the Tractor Boys are languishing in League One and European nights at Portman Road are just golden memories.