Hopeless Football League Teams 9: Ipswich Town 1994-5
Technically, our Hopeless Teams series (for which further entries will be most welcome) should be reserved for teams operating beneath the top tier of English football, but Ipswich Town’s 1994-5 vintage have earned entry for masquerading as a Premiership club when they were really nothing of the sort. Here, regular contributor Gavin Barber recalls the horror while he can also be seen expounding on the subject of summer football over at the excellent Turnstile Blues.
I don’t really know if the 1994-95 team was the worst in Ipswich’s history but it felt like it at the time. Technically speaking, there have been poorer Town sides (the Paul Jewell tenure brought ever-new depths of incompetence with each passing week, but it’s too raw and too recent to give a proper perspective to), but in terms of a team that was so desperately, so obviously and so painfully out of its depth, that mid nineties squad would be hard to beat when it came to being easy to beat.
For reasons I can’t quite recall, I’d been at Carrow Road in August 1990 to watch Norwich play a Sunderland team who had lost the play-off final a few months earlier, but had been promoted at the expense of their Wembley conquerors Swindon when it transpired that the Wiltshire club had taken a less-than-scrupulous approach to their tax affairs. (Imagine that happening today! Oh). “You’re in the wrong division”, the home fans sang to taunt their visitors from Wearside. Which they were, really – they hadn’t actually earned their promotion and had reached the top division on a technicality. The Ipswich team which found themselves in the 1994-95 Premier League, however, had no such excuse. They’d been promoted as champions in 1992 and kept themselves up for the next two seasons, but by 1994, they were very definitely in the wrong division, and spent 9 months comprehensively proving it.
There’s a great bit in Servants of the People, Andrew Rawnsley’s account of New Labour’s rise to power, where Blair, Mandelson and the rest of the party elite are on a plane from Blair’s north-east constituency down to London on election night in 1997. They’ve just won a landslide victory, the culmination of years of intricate work to end 18 years of exile from government, so you might expect the mood to be celebratory, but it isn’t – there’s only an air of sombre anxiety. “What do we do now?”, someone asks. The struggle for victory had been such that no-one had thought to consider its consequences. I imagine things were similar at Ipswich in May 1992. John Lyall, having inherited something of a rabble from his predecessor John Duncan just two years earlier, took everyone by surprise by sweeping to the title. Ipswich, Second Division champions! Back at the top table after the late-80s doldrums! Founder members of the Premier League! What do we do now?
Lyall had worked wonders with a blend of youth and experience, and the first few months of that inaugural Premier League season kept the party atmosphere going. Chris Kiwomya continued to score freely, Jason Dozzell exercised his talents on the big stage, and endearing additions such as the charismatic Bontcho Guentchev added to the sense of fun. It was something of a mirage though. The squad, as Lyall was no doubt aware, was paper-thin and ill-equipped for the rigours of the season, and the second half of that 1992-93 season was more of a struggle. Town stayed up but Lyall, perhaps anticipating the travails that lay ahead, had already moved upstairs to become Director of Football and left the team in the hands of his deputy Mick McGiven.
McGiven “led” the team through a 1993-94 season of quite astounding tedium. Perhaps we’d been spoilt by the preceding years’ excitement, but McGiven raised the bar when it came to a pragmatic style of play. For those fortunate enough never to have seen that team, imagine the aesthetic inclinations of a Tony Pulis side, only with all its attacking intentions curbed. Even the long ball up to the big man (Ian Marshall, by this stage) was regarded as an act of decadent frippery. McGiven just about scraped enough 0-0 draws to keep his team up that season – including one wet November evening at Old Trafford which saw what may have been the first recorded deployment of the 5-5-0 formation – but it was a distinctly joyless experience.
By the time 1994-95 came around, the rest of the Premiership – what with its fancy foreign signings and tactics and whatnot – had left McGiven’s huffers and puffers trailing so far behind that they might as well have been in a different league. Circumstance and mathematics, however, had left Town in the same stratum, for administrative and fixture planning purposes, as the teams who understood that top-level football involved a little more sophistication than running around a lot and kicking the ball very hard, and…. oh man, was it humiliating. Week after week after week after week.
There are too many instances to recall. An early-season spanking at the hands of a Klinsmann-inspired Tottenham. A meek capitulation at Coventry in a Monday night game broadcast to the nation, the bemused faces of the sub-10,000 crowd all too visible to the viewer (our second Sky appearance of that season, the first having been a rain-sodden home defeat to Norwich in September). A dismal 3-0 tonking at Palace. A 4-1 defeat at the City Ground which was so ridiculously easy for the home side that the Forest players were openly laughing about it before half-time. The list goes on.
During the early part of the season, one of the more surreal episodes in the club’s history began to unfold. The local papers got wind of the fact that Ipswich were on the verge of signing a “big name” South American player. This was huge, exotic news at the time and the Suffolk press corps set about their investigations with the ruthless, bounding zeal of lion cubs being sent on their first game hunt, only to get befuddled by the chattering hyenas of transfer gossip. Someone said something to someone who spoke to someone else who said that they’d seen something, and the infamous headline “IT’S BATISTUA!” appeared on the back page of the Ipswich Evening Star, above a story which breathlessly explained how Town were well advanced with a daring bid to bring the Argentinian World Cup hero to Suffolk, even to the extent of apparently having deposited £250k in the bank account of his club Fiorentina.
Quite how this absurd concoction ever made it to print is something that only the reporters concerned will ever be able to explain, but suffice to say it was some way distant from the truth. The “glamour” South American was a Uruguayan striker called Adrian Paz, who Lyall and his coaches had apparently seen play “on video”. Paz, who cost the club nearly £1m, wore an outrageous mullet and a bored expression throughout his time in Suffolk, a period which yielded 18 appearances and 1 goal. That whole farcical episode summed up the season.
On the pitch, things were getting worse. Lyall and McGiven were dismissed just before Christmas and, amidst much cross-border acrimony, Colchester boss George Burley was lured from Essex to Suffolk. Burley had some early successes – notably a 4-1 win at home to Leicester, and Town’s first-ever win at Anfield, an outrageously fortunate 1-0 in January – but these were punctuated by crucial and sometimes humiliating defeats, including an FA Cup 3rd round exit at Wrexham.
And then, on the 4th March 1995, there was that game. As noted above, the previous season had seen Town grind out an embarrassingly unambitious but undeniably effective 0-0 draw at Manchester United. When Burley’s side visited the champions in March 1995, a disparate collection of players – some half-fit, some half-interested, others just not good enough – tried to affect a similarly resolute approach in the hope of once again sneaking a point. To say that it didn’t really go to plan is a bit like saying that there were one or two technical issues with the Titanic’s journey to New York. 3-0 down by half-time, Ipswich were eventually beaten 9-0 in what remains the highest-ever Premier League victory. My abiding memory of it is the 8th goal, a free-kick smartly taken by Paul Ince while ‘keeper Craig Forrest was still volubly contesting the decision to award it. Town midfielder Geraint Williams chased Graham Poll back to the half-way line, protesting at the goal being allowed to stand. What was he arguing? “You’ve cost us the game, ref”? A uniquely pointless spectacle which summed up the team’s total inadequacy on the day.
There were still 7 games to go when Ipswich travelled to Highbury on Easter Saturday, but the previous evening’s results had finally, mercifully, condemned Town to relegation. Liberated from the yoke of tenuous hope, the away fans had a riotous time in the Clock End that day, wildly celebrating a corner as if it were the winning goal in a World Cup Final, earning the amused admiration of the Arsenal fans and prompting the Independent’s reporter to describe us as “a marvellous study in gallows humour”, an epithet which several of those present vowed to have inscribed on their gravestones.
Everywhere you looked in that team, it was just Wrong. Centre-half David Linighan had been a towering presence in the ’92 promotion-winning side, but by ’95 his standards had slipped so far that Town fans took to chanting “Off! Off! Off!” whenever he was spoken to by referees. Steve Sedgeley had been signed to fill the Dozzell-sized hole in midfield but gave the impression that he’d rather be anywhere else on earth. Little Stuart Slater, bless him, had arrived from Celtic in the hope of revitalising the career that had started so promisingly at West Ham, but became an ever-more invisible presence as his career trajectory continued downwards. Around them were grafters like Neil Thompson and Micky Stockwell whose effort could never be faulted but whose limited abilities were being ever-more painfully exposed. The team’s lynchpin was John Wark, by then 36 and, for all his experience and talent, unable to bear the burden of carrying so many of those around him.
It’s said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, but it would be five years before Burley led his team back to the top tier. Nonetheless, even in amongst the prolonged humiliation that was 1994-95, there were pointers towards a different future. The baffling South American deal had brought an apparent makeweight to the club alongside Paz, a fresh-faced young defender called Mauricio Taricco. He made only one appearance that season but went on to become a rugged, thrilling presence at Portman Road in the years that followed, and remains a hero to Ipswich fans.
Burley himself knew the size of his task when he took it on. Local rumour had it that standards of professionalism in the squad, particularly around dietary considerations, weren’t as high as might be expected of top-class athletes – a view that was strengthened by some of the anecdotes in Wark’s 2009 autobiography. Even in those dismal first few months, Burley began the task of shipping out some of the players whose refuelling habits were causing concern, thus setting the tone for his more disciplinarian, but highly effective career in the manager’s office at Portman Road.
And here’s a quirky thing. That 9-0 win for Manchester United made no difference to anything. We would have gone down anyway, and Blackburn still ended up winning the title. An earlier meeting of the two sides did prove to be decisive though, in one way at least. In the same September week as the Norwich defeat – a week which had also seen Bolton come to Ipswich and execute a comfortable 3-0 “giant”-killing in the League Cup – Alex Ferguson’s side, replete with Cantona, Giggs, Scholes and Keane in their pomp, came to Portman Road. By some extraordinary means or other, and in complete defiance of form and logic, Ipswich won 3-2. It was fun at the time, but as Town’s season descended into farce, it was fairly soon forgotten. However, had United got so much as a point from that game, they’d have ended the season as champions. Ferguson’s side were, in effect, denied the 1994-95 title by a team that might justifiably be cited as one of the worst in the history of England’s top division. An Ipswich team that was taking an otherwise very painful nine months to demonstrate, beyond all doubt, that they were indeed in the wrong division.