One match that defines my club - #1: Ipswich Town
Each Monday, The Seventy Two will be playing host to a rather ambitious new series in which supporters will tell us about one defining match in the history of their club – 77 weeks, 77 clubs, 77 matches, 77 writers, 77 articles.
First up is Gavin Barber with an epic tale from just over a decade ago – the match that he feels, more than any other, defines Ipswich Town Football Club. One down, 76 to go…
Ipswich Town 5 Bolton Wanderers 3 (AET: agg 7-5)
Division 1 play-off semi-final second leg
17th May 2000
Reason 1: It had to be a play-off
This was the fourth consecutive play-off appearance for George Burley’s Ipswich. In bold defiance of the law of averages, Town had failed even to reach the final in any of the previous three, nor when they had appeared in the first-ever play-offs in 1987, and nor in either of their subsequent play-offs under Joe Royle. This was the night when, in just about the most dramatic circumstances imaginable, every journalist present had to hastily scratch the phrase “Ipswich’s play-off hoodoo” from their notebook.
Reason 2: We shouldn’t have been there
For the second season running, Town’s presence in the play-offs constituted failure in the context of what had gone before. As in 1998-99, Town had been well-placed for automatic promotion at the start of spring, but a series of stumbles – including a catastrophic 2-0 home defeat to Norwich in March – had seen them slip back. Even so, and again in a weary echo of the previous campaign, there had been a chance of automatic promotion on the final day of the regular season, but that was reliant on others slipping up – which they didn’t.
So, once again, Ipswich entered the play-offs with a nagging sense of anxiety and disappointment. (Interestingly – or not – the teams who denied Ipswich automatic promotion in those two seasons were Bradford and Manchester City, respectively managed by Paul Jewell and Joe Royle, each of whom were to end up in the home dug-out at Portman Road. Jewell repeated the trick in 2005 when his Wigan side consigned Royle’s Ipswich to a 3rd place finish and another play-off failure).
Reason 3: The triumph of the aesthetes
George Burley had much in common with one of his predecessors at Ipswich, John Lyall. Neither was particularly warm and cuddly as an individual, but both had a dogmatic commitment to a pacy, passing style of football. Over the course of a league season, supporters were often left frustrated by visiting teams who would not so much ‘park the bus’ as install a row of 12 Routemasters in front of their goal, as though daring Evil Knievel to turn up and jump them – but Burley would stick to his principles. The eventual play-off triumph was a reward for the slender Scotsman’s dedication to the ethics that he had learned at the knee of his own Portman Road gaffer, Bobby Robson.
Reason 4: Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat
It’s hard to convey the jaw-dropping, heart-stopping drama of that night at Portman Road. Most play-offs have an Agatha Christie-esque plotline of well-crafted and sometimes unexpected twists, but this was something else: an epic Dante poem, a Beethoven symphony, a Turner seascape of a tie. If you’d written it as the finale to a series of Jossy’s Giants, the producer would have rejected it as being too far-fetched. In the first leg at the Reebok, Town had gone 2-0 down before two Marcus Stewart goals – the second a ludicrously protracted solo effort – had brought parity, and a level of confidence going into the home leg that those of us who’d witnessed the previous years’ failures should have known better than to trust.
Sure enough, despite being distinctly second best on the night, Bolton took the lead not once but THREE TIMES, with Town’s third equaliser coming in the 90th minute. The visiting Wanderers then lost any semblance of composure and saw two players sent off as the game went into extra-time: it was the 184th minute of the tie when Jamie Clapham’s penalty put Ipswich ahead for the first time, with a late Martijn Reuser goal finally sealing things. Clapham had taken over spot-kick duties from Jim Magilton who had earlier missed one. After earlier having scored one. I told you it was complicated.
Reason 5: The vanquishing of the cynics
Ipswich’s conspicuous history of play-off failure hadn’t gone unnoticed outside of Suffolk, and the accepted wisdom in the football world was that Burley’s side lacked some kind of courage or moral fibre. (Even after this game, the Daily Mirror’s betting columnist previewed the final with the headline “DON’T BACK THE BOTTLERS”, urging readers to stick a wedge on Town’s Wembley opponents, Barnsley).
Bolton, as they had done when facing Town the previous year, clearly set themselves out with a plan of physical and mental intimidation, kicking and niggling and snarling at every opportunity. For once, however, Ipswich’s resolve – aided in no small part by the reciprocal winding-up antics of the irrepressible Magilton – held firm, and Wanderers’ aggression spilt over into the indiscipline that saw seven yellow cards issued in addition to the aforementioned two reds.
Reason 6: Something almost too perfect to be true and yet not quite perfect
Paul Jewell and Joe Royle may have been cast as extras in this drama, but it was another future Town manager, Jim Magilton, who firmly took control of centre stage. Since arriving at Portman Road in January 1999, Magilton had become vital to the style of football that Burley wanted to play: always hungry for the ball, always looking for a pass, always demanding more vision and imagination from his team-mates. But he’d never been a prolific scorer, managing just 7 in 65 appearances prior to this game.
From the off, however, the manic Ulsterman took the match by the scruff of the neck and yelled in its face until it complied with his wishes. Magilton scored all three of Town’s equalisers: the first a penalty, the second a smart finish after a mazy dribble (itself a rarity for the usually deep-lying playmaker), the third a crisp volley from a 90th-minute knock-down by Tony Mowbray, who had been thrown up front out of desperation. It wasn’t quite the perfect night for Magilton – he missed a chance to make it 2-2 from the spot just before half-time – but his willingness to return any verbal intimidation with interest, as well as his unexpected hat-trick, contributed an inestimable amount to Town’s eventual progress to Wembley, and then to promotion.
Reason 7: The pantomime villain gets his lines all wrong
Bolton boss Sam Allardyce was the Eric Clapton to Burley’s Johnny Marr: a technically gifted but unimaginative pragmatist who valued percentages over purity. The sides’ previous play-off encounter had stoked up a fair amount of tension, and when Wanderers’ attempts to bully Town out of the contest for a second year running failed, Allardyce turned his ire on the referee, Barry Knight.
Fuming in his post-match interviews at what he perceived to be Knight’s bias against his team, Allardyce asked for further offences to be taken into consideration, citing injustices for which he believed Knight to have been responsible in his team’s game at Crystal Palace that season.
The only problem was that Knight hadn’t even been at the Palace game (perhaps all bald men look the same to the lustrously-coiffured Allardyce). Trotters fans contend to this day that it was Knight’s performance which condemned them at Portman Road, but the simple fact is that Bolton reaped exactly what their manager presumably instructed them to sow.
Take a look at the highlights on YouTube at the foot of this page – in particular, the three penalty decisions: Dean Holdsworth clumsily kicks out to trip Magilton; Marcus Stewart has his legs taken away, and Paul Ritchie inexplicably throws David Johnson to the ground like a 70s wrestler. Bolton would take their revenge two years later when they effectively relegated Town from the Premier League with a 4-1 win at the Reebok, but their cynical approach that night in May 2000 brought exactly what it deserved.
Reason 8: We don’t make the rules up. Well, actually…
The 1999 play-off semi-final had seen Bolton progress on away goals, having beaten Town 1-0 at the Reebok before losing 4-3 at Portman Road. After that, Ipswich chairman David Sheepshanks – a big noise in the Football League at the time – successfully lobbied for a rule change so that away goals were no longer decisive in the event of a play-off tie ending level on aggregate. Had the previous rule remained applicable, Wanderers would have gone into extra-time with an away goal advantage which could, potentially, have inspired a more disciplined approach and perhaps a different outcome. A rare example, perhaps, of a chairman having a legitimate claim to have contributed directly to his team’s success.
Reason 9: Suited and booted
This is the only football match I have ever watched while wearing a suit. I’d had a mad dash to get to Ipswich in time for the game, having been detained at work by a long, tedious but unavoidable meeting, so there was no time to get changed. From a style & comfort point of view, it’s not an experience I’d recommend. You can still see the balti pie stains on the lapel of the jacket.
Reason 10: A taste of turbulent times to come
For about three years, Burley’s team were a joy to watch. Often deploying capable but not-exactly-mobile centre-halves such as John McGreal in a 3-5-2 formation, they had a swashbuckling aspect which was never better exemplified than in the thrilling Wembley final against Barnsley, which ended 4-2 in Town’s favour.
That carefree confidence was taken into the next season’s Premier League campaign, when Ipswich were so good that there was even a slight disappointment when the team’s 4th place finish was “only” good enough to secure UEFA Cup (rather than Champions League) football the following year. Things unravelled as rapidly and as unexpectedly as they had knitted together. The next season’s European adventure was a bizarre distraction from a doomed Premier League campaign: relegation was sealed on the last day of the season with yet another collapse, 5-0 at Anfield.
To date, that was the last Premier League game that Ipswich Town have played: having mortgaged the club’s future on Burley’s odd assortment of expensive recruits, relegation brought a financial earthquake from which the odd aftershock can still be felt to this day.
Now firmly anchored, once again, in the middle of English football’s second tier, Town fans long for just a fraction of the drama and intensity of that night in May 2000 when our team made us feel truly, collectively and gloriously alive.