When you think about English sides in European competitions you’d be forgiven for immediately conjuring up images of Liverpool or Manchester United. Yet, this record actually belongs to a side currently plying their trade in the third tier. Step forward Ipswich Town.
The Suffolk based club didn’t make their first steps into Europe until 84 years after their 1878 formation but ever since that inaugural tie with Maltese side Floriana in 1962 the Tractor Boys are yet to taste defeat on home turf. A run that stretches 31 games, which is the longest active streak by any club.
Ipswich had earned their place in the top club competition by lifting their first – and only – First Division title under the tutelage of a certain Sir Alf Ramsey the season prior and whilst a home victory over the champions of Malta was perhaps expected, the 10-0 scoreline would have looked more accurate in a game of hockey.
Despite a crushing 14-1 aggregate win in the preliminary round, the Blues’ flirtation with Europe was ended in the next stage. Italian giants’ AC Milan had outclassed Ipswich 3-0 in the first leg and a 2-1 Portman Road win for Ramsey’s men was not enough. Now, more than a decade passed without European football at the club.
Of course, by the time Ipswich finished fourth in 1972/73 to secure a UEFA Cup place, Ramsey had moved on to bigger and better things. Sir Bobby Robson, another England great, was now at the helm. Town eventually got knocked out in the quarter-finals on penalties by Lokomotive Leipzig (who, right now, play in the 4th German division), despite having won the home leg 1-0.
Still, to reach that stage they’d already inflicted Portman Road defeats on FC Twente, Lazio and Real Madrid to ensure their list of scalps was becoming more impressive.
Ipswich were establishing themselves as a challenger domestically and UEFA Cup qualification followed in the next two seasons albeit with earlier exits. Dutch duo Twente, again, and Feyenoord and Belgian side FC Bruges all came to Portman Road and only Twente left with anything to show for their efforts, a 2-2 draw. After a year without qualification, the 77 campaign saw Ipswich host three games and their faithful support witnessed nine goals for and none against with the most impressive victory a 3-0 thrashing of Barcelona.
In 1978, Robson lead Ipswich to their second major trophy with a 1-0 FA Cup Final win over Arsenal and with that came the Cup Winners Cup. That cup trail treated Portman Road to another trio of wins with Barcelona, SW Innsbruck and AZ Alkmaar all leaving Suffolk empty-handed. Skeid Oslo and Grasshoppers were added to the unbeaten stretch in 79/80 and then, in the following season, an Ipswich side wrote their names into the clubs’ history books.
Ipswich got their campaign underway against Aris Salonika of Greece and duly swept them aside 8-2 over two legs, Bohemians Prague and Widzew Lodz followed suit to set up a quarter-final face off with French side St Etienne, who had Michel Platini in their ranks.
Town comfortably advanced though as they outclassed Robert Herbin’s men with Paul Mariner and John Wark particularly starring across the 180 minutes. FC Cologne were next up and, although the game was a much closer affair, Ipswich were victorious.
The final pitched the Blues against Alkmaar with the first leg at fortress Portman Road; boy did Ipswich take the game to their Dutch counterparts. Wark opened the scoring on 30 from the spot before Frans Thijssen and Mariner made it 3-0. AZ won the second leg 4-2 – with Wark again on the Ipswich score sheet taking his total for the year to a then tournament-record 14 goals. And Ipswich were UEFA Cup champions.
A couple of short-lived attempts at glory followed in the years directly after their triumph but then came a fall and it wasn’t until 2001 that the Tractor Boys would be on tour again. That qualification came about as a newly promoted side, managed by UEFA Cup-winning right-back George Burley, shocked the Premier League with a fifth-placed finish.
Whilst home draws with Torpedo Moscow and Helsingborg kept the unbeaten home run going a third-round tie with an Inter Milan team boasting a potential strike force Christian Vieri and Ronaldo was one that looked like bursting the Portman Road bubble. Alun Armstrong had other ideas though and thumped home a header to give Town a stunning 1-0 victory. The San Siro was a different story though and Town were out on aggregate.
The most recent appearance in Europe followed the next year and an 8-1 home win over Avenir Beggin was the highlight but a home draw with FK Sartid and narrow win over Slovan Liberic, who won the ties on penalties, ensured it’s 31 games and zero defeats for little old Ipswich at Portman Road.
Now, they have fallen out of grace, like a retired horse who was once a betting favourite in the races. It might be easy to look at Ipswich in League One and think the run will never be extended but, just remember, at the start of this article you would never have expected that Ipswich Town had such a long resume.
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