Book Review: Ipswich Town: A History

Posted by on Feb 14, 2014 in Book Review | 2 Comments
Book Review: Ipswich Town: A History
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Paul Clarke

Ipswich Town: A History by Susan Gardiner
Published by Amberley Publishing
2013, £16.99

The past, as we all know, is another country, and the main thing we remember learning about that country is that English footballers of the early twentieth century had very amusing names. For all the Croesus-like riches of the modern era, your Mesut à–zils and Yaya Toures can’t compete with the likes of Ernie Bugg, F.C. Peecock and Bert Haste for the sheer sensual pleasure to be derived from simply reading their names off a team sheet.

As it happens, that magnificently-monikered trio all featured as players in the early days of Ipswich Town, and one of the many marvellous aspects of Susan Gardiner’s book Ipswich Town: A History (Amberley Press) is that we learn about the lives and stories of the men behind those names. F.C. Peecock, for example, was one of five Peecocks to have strutted their stuff in the blue and white of Town. Ernie Bugg, a plumber, scored 79 goals in 62 games before losing a leg in the First World War. Bert Haste, another player from Ipswich’s amateur era, turned down the chance to turn professional in order to follow his vocation as a clergyman and missionary.

Ipswich Town: A History features many more examples of players, managers, places and times brought to life by the author’s diligent research and keen eye for observation: the broad landscape and the fine detail are juxtaposed to create a rich and lively collage depicting the 136-year history of ITFC. I should declare an interest at this point: the author is a friend of mine, and as far as I’m aware it’s the only football history book in which images of my son feature amongst the photograph section. So I make no apology for the fact that this may not be the most detached or neutral review you’ll ever read. (What were you expecting, anyway? This is a blog, not that worthy-looking section of the weekend Guardian that you never get round to reading).

In fact, to call this a football history book is to do it something of a disservice. It is, of course, the story — or rather, the stories — of how a meeting in 1878 “for the purpose of forming a football club, playing under Association rules” (as the local paper reported it) led to the establishment of a team that, after wrestling with its amateur conscience for decades, would eventually turn professional and go on to not only conquer the country, but triumph in Europe too. But it’s a great deal more than that. This is social history shot through the prism of football: a tale of poverty and privilege, of work and war, of change and convention in a humble Suffolk town, and of how generations of contrasting lives are intertwined through the football club that sits at the heart of its community.

Rather than tell a straightforwardly chronological story, Ipswich Town: A History takes a thematic approach. For example, a chapter on “Places” describes how the club began life on the outskirts of the town, at a ground also used by several works teams. At the time, rugby was the game played at Portman Road, but as the pre-eminence of the round-ball game grew, so ITFC migrated to the more central location where they still play today. In the late 19th century, the facilities at the ground were so basic that players preferred to get changed up the road in the Station Hotel. For anyone who’s ever arrived for a game at Ipswich by train, this will conjure up an endearing image of Victorian-era ITFC players clattering back across the bridge in their lace-up shirts and heavy boots, ready to take on whatever Norwich Thorpe or Huntingdon County could throw at them.

Another section, entitled “Home”, describes the growth of the club’s support. For a club that had its origins in the rarefied world of Ipswich School, Town didn’t seem to waste any time in attracting a wide and lively range of fans. The book tells us that the first-ever FA Cup match at Portman Road, played in 1890, drew “an immense crowd… the gentler sex being strongly represented”. By 1893 the local paper was condemning the “rowdyism” of the club’s support, citing “the manner in which the referee was yelled at” during a match against the 2nd Coldstream Guards. (Whether the away side brought their own “firm”, tooled up with bayonets, is not reported).

It’s these kinds of insights, gently described but sharply observed, which are at the heart of the book’s appeal, not only to Ipswich fans but to anyone interested in how football has been both an agent and a reflector of social change in post-industrial Britain.

Of course, there is plenty in here about the club itself. The author provides great insight into Ipswich’s early days as a professional club, including the mysterious sacking of Town’s first professional manager, Mick O’Brien, and his rapid replacement with the then-Manchester United manager, Scott Duncan, supposedly recruited by means of what would nowadays be termed an illegal approach — Ipswich chairman Ivan Cobbold simply sent a car to Old Trafford to collect Duncan, leaving a case of vintage port behind as compensation.

Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson, both of whom are now rendered in bronze at Portman Road, thereby casting actual shadows over the ground in addition to the figurative ones that their reputations and achievements invariably place over all those who follow them in the Town dug-out, are, of course, celebrated in the book. The author is particularly passionate on the subject of Ramsey and his remarkable success in not only taking the club into the First Division for the first time, but winning the Championship in their first season at the top level. Again, there are telling insights into Ramsey’s character and his personal journey – from his humble origins and his childhood nickname of “Darkie” (apparently derived from the mistaken belief that his family were of gypsy origin), to the recollections of the secretary who worked with him for eight years yet “didn’t really get to know him”, but who, like others, speaks warmly of the rapport and loyalty that Ramsey had for his players.

Ipswich Town: A History is a celebration of many things: of sport, of community, and the transformative, almost redemptive power of remarkable football clubs in otherwise unremarkable towns. It draws strong and reassuring lines through time, from those who were there in the early days, via those who made the glory days, to those who are still here today. The more we learn, from books like this, about the history of football and football’s place in history, the more we’re reminded of our own roles, as supporters, in stewarding the game’s present and its future.

Gavin Barber


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