Far from farmers: Robson’s Tractor Boys (part one)

bobby robson ipswich part one

In agriculture, before you sow the precious seeds, you’ve got to churn up some earth. Sorry Ipswich fans, but we’ve got to start with the 13th of April, 2019.

Portman Road collectively winced. The final whistle sounded. The stands groaned. A measly 1-1 against Birmingham City compounded the end of Ipswich’s 17-year stay in the Championship. With four games of the term remaining, the Suffolk side knew anything other than a win would put them down. Alas, an early Lukas Jutkiewicz strike cancelled out by Gwion Edwards was all the twitching corpse of survival could muster. It was a limp death rattle when a poised roar of intent was needed.

It had been a tumultuous season to be fair. Dire even. New boss Paul Hurst was sacked after one win in 14 games at the helm. Then in came Paul Lambert. However, the veering and swaying ship was irretrievable and had already run aground on League One shores. Lambert was invested, but just couldn’t do enough for the side that had been battling relegation for months.

“It’s gut-wrenching, it’s horrible. But we have great things to look forward to.”

 then-Ipswich manager, Paul Lambert.

Unfortunately for Lambert, he didn’t have much to look forward to. His form as gaffer was impressive, but after that doomed season things stagnated. Ipswich wanted bouncebackability. Instead of bounce though, they got a thud of mediocrity as the club got reluctantly more and more reacquainted with League One.

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At the time of writing, Ipswich finally look to be making inroads – sitting at the right end of the table in fourth. Asking if glory will return to Portman Road is another conversation altogether though. Yet, the glory in question is this article’s topic. Whilst plagued by mediocrity in English football’s third division, Ipswich fans would likely have been clinging to the fond memories of yesteryear. Sticking to the earlier agricultural metaphor, let’s look back at a marvellous yield around 50 years ago – when the Tractor Boys proved they were far from farmers.

The foundations: a 60s transition

With the club now in somewhat of a rebuilding phase under a youthful Kieran McKenna, there are parallels that hark back to the start of an important era. Ipswich had of course experienced the upper echelons of football before with 60s European excursions. However, after Sir Alf Ramsey’s departure in 1963 progress plateaued. Granted, there was a revival under Bill McGarry in 1968, yet a new boss was required when he left for Wolves the year after.

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Enter a wounded Bobby Robson. The young coach was fresh off the back of an early hitch in his managerial career. Despite bringing a young Malcolm Macdonald to the fore at Craven Cottage, Robson was dismissed from his post at Fulham after relegation to Division Two. His sacking left a sour taste in the mouth. Firstly, the club hadn’t even told him themselves. He’d learned of his departure from an Evening Standard headline outside Putney Station that read “Robson sacked”. Secondly, he knew he was better than what his early strategic stutter suggested.

Robson looked to regain confidence and continued working whilst away from the technical area. Whilst scouting Portman Road for Chelsea manager Dave Sexton, young Bobby stumbled into a job. Ipswich chairman John Cobbold saw potential in Robson and offered him the vacant managerial role which he took in January of 1969. Now, work had to begin on moulding his side for success.

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Cultivating cult Ipswich characters 

As he had done with the soon-to-be prolific Macdonald; Bobby Robson provided as well as developed, some cult players for the ages at Ipswich. In truth, the County Durham native only signed 18 senior players in 13 years at the club. Yet the impact of those signings, alongside an ever-growing rapport with the regulars, drove the club on as a fine unit.

Robson entered the club with wide eyed youngsters gazing on. These weren’t just youth players,  these were to be established members of future sides, as a homegrown culture was of the utmost importance. Norfolk boy Trevor Whymark was brought to the club from Diss Town on Robson’s arrival whilst the likes of Mick Mills and Colin Viljoen were given more and more time to develop. Everything was complimentary in the manager’s plans. For example, the 1970s purchase of Jimmy Robertson aided the club’s First Division survival. Another one from that ‘rescue squad’ was the experienced Frank Clarke, arriving from QPR.

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In 1972 David Johnson was recruited from Everton and worked as a brilliant link up striker alongside fellow forward Whymark. When Johnson returned to Merseyside for the red half, Robson had an instant replacement in Paul Mariner from Plymouth Argyle. As well as the masterful mid-70s finds of Dutchmen Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen, there were subtle buys too. For example, take goalkeeper Paul Cooper. His signing from Birmingham City for £23,000 in 1974 went widely under the radar with the Town faithful. However, Cooper went on to be a loyal servant to the club – appearing a whopping 575 times between the sticks.

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Robson had an eye for finding the perfect components for his team. Even for fringe players – Kevin O’Callaghan was often the 12th man in the early 80s. Yet, he bought into the culture. He started 89 games and came on as a sub another 59 times. Youth wise, Mills developed into a fine defender that would be announced as captain in 1971. Years later, Terry Butcher signed. Butcher was a childhood fan and even turned down bitter rivals Norwich for Robson in ’76.

Rocky start before finding form

Now, back to some semblance of chronology. As hinted at in the brief look at Robson’s players, things didn’t exactly start off smoothly in the 69/70 term. A formative Robson side stuttered to 18th place, just evading relegation from the First Division. It was a similar story the next year, finishing in a dismal 19th. 1972 saw improvement as Ipswich rose to 13th place. Then, 1973 rolled around and slowly – everything started to click.

Where before the Tractor Boys had been trundling, in ’73 they stepped it up a gear. Thirteenth was good but how about fourth? That’s right, the boys in blue flew up the table with goals from across the park. Whymark notched a useful 13 goals, whilst midfielder Bryan Hamilton got 12. Johnson chipped in with seven goals in his debut season whilst Viljoen grabbed six in all comps. Even the defenders got involved, as Kevin Beattie notched five times.

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The shared scoring really reflected Robson’s idea of unity well. Ipswich’s unit not only achieved UEFA Cup qualification with the fourth place finish, but they also topped the year off with silverware too.

The Texaco Cup

The Texaco Cup, alongside the fourth place finish, was an exciting culmination of Robson’s hard work in crafting his team. It was also a brilliant precursor for things to come.

The third edition (of eventually five) saw Ipswich blaze through St Johnstone with a 6-2 aggregate score before consummately beating Wolves 3-1 in the quarters. The two semi-final legs saw Newcastle shoved aside 2-1. Yet, with a final place booked, on the other side of the tournament tree, Norwich city were chipping away. The East Anglian Derby foes had been equally solid throughout. They piled up determined wins against Dundee FC, Leicester City, and Motherwell to give the finale a new, additionally fiery narrative.

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Robson’s men grabbed a 2-1 first leg victory at Portman Road. Peter Morris was the star of the show, bagging a brace despite Clive Payne’s goal for the visitors. Three days later, and 46 miles northeast, Ipswich mirrored the same score line to steal away their first piece of silverware under Robson. Whymark and Woods were the all important scorers as what could be deemed an important flashpoint had been ignited to start Ipswich out on an exciting journey into British cult football history. It was a growing snowball of success for a manager and his loyal players. Woods’ thoughts on Robson reflect the supreme bond employed by the ‘perfect gentleman’. It also brings a touching point to end as next week’s addition charts further exploits in the league and forays into Europe.

“Just think of the nicest words and you can think of Bobby Robson. He was such a nice, kind man who helped so many people.”

Clive Woods, Texaco Cup winner with Ipswich, 1973.