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

bobby robson ipswich part two
bobby robson ipswich part two

On our trip through the archives of Suffolk’s finest under Bobby Robson, we left off with the famed Texaco Cup win of 1973. For Ipswich, this could’ve been it. They could’ve just stopped there. However, Town were now a team coming into their own. There was an exciting mix of nurtured, homegrown talent and resourceful signings. Rightfully, Robson and all at Portman Road had reason to set their sights higher. Re-join the story as we look at the next part of Robson’s reign, league legacy and European ecstasy.

Texaco Cup success: the match that lit the fuse

So, Robson’s squad had finally improved to the point of trophy-rewarding success. But stop there with the Texaco Cup? Of course not. Why would you? With a dedicated and talented group of players at his disposal, alongside a keen willingness to add more homegrown prospects into the mix – Robson’s Ipswich had slowly become a well-oiled machine. This machine now also possessed a reinforced thirst for success.

1973’s fourth spot earned the men in blue UEFA Cup qualification and in this first dalliance with Europe under Robson, Ipswich didn’t waste any time. In the first round, the fixture with Real Madrid would’ve been enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Yet, Bobby’s boys stunned Los Blancos 1-0 over two legs. This was thanks to a Benito Rubiñán own goal in Suffolk and then what could only be described as a stoic defensive display at the Santiago Bernabéu against a side that had the likes of greats Vicente del Bosque, Amancio Amaro and Günter Netzer to name a few.

Embed from Getty Images

Excellent first impressions

Following Madrid, came Lazio in the second round in what really could be branded with the horrific ‘two halves’ cliché. In the first leg at home, Ipswich ripped apart their Roman adversaries. Trevor Whymark had the performance of his life and scored four goals to put the English side firmly on the front foot ahead of the trip to the Stadio Olimpico. Perhaps a little bit of complacency crept in and I Biancocelesti snatched an early lead in the first minute to put the visitors’ backs up. From here, the second leg was an energetic affair, to say the least – with action right to the last whistle.

After Renzo Garlaschelli’s early deadlock breaker, Giorgio Chinaglia added to light blue delight before Robson’s Ipswich finally offered up a retort in the 70th minute through Colin Viljoen. Ipswich just couldn’t get away from Chinaglia and the Lazio legend scored a late penalty on 86′ before David Johnson’s last minute insurance goal settled the 6-4 aggregate beyond doubt.

Embed from Getty Images

The third round was relatively less stressful. FC Twente had done well to reach the third round. However, their run had been somewhat easier. Dundee and Greek side Panachaiki paled into insignificance in contrast to Real Madrid and Lazio. Ipswich prevailed 3-1 over the two legs.

Right, into the quarter-finals and Lokomotive Leipzig. The state-railway sponsored East Germans were hard to break down and honours ended even. A 4-3 score on penalties decided it with Leipzig going through, yet Robson’s men had given a very good account of themselves. A first appearance under the young manager made the Tractor Boys look like a seasoned European side. It was a remarkable turnaround considering just three years prior, the club sat stagnating in 19th place in the First Division.

Embed from Getty Images

Ipswich here to stay: a continued force in Europe and the league

Given quite a fast ascent, it might’ve been easy at the time to dismiss the East Anglian club. However, Robson and co. had all the tools at hand to ensure this burst onto the scene wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

Domestically, Ipswich continued on a steady path and despite not being able to upset the apple cart of the traditional bigger sides – there were glimpses of sheer brilliance. For example, take the season after the Texaco Cup. The UEFA Cup exploits were dazzling, yet in the league – these additional fixtures didn’t change much. In the First Division’s ’73-74 season, Ipswich registered the biggest home win when they thumped Southampton 7-0 at Portman Road. Yet again, the side finished fourth and achieved the UEFA Cup spot.

After Texaco Cup victory, the following nine terms saw Ipswich finish outside of the top six only once – when a dismal 18th place was a depressing throwback to early Robson struggles. Looking back, it’s a clear anomaly as they finished as follows:

4th (’73-74), 3rd (’74-75), 6th (’75-76), 3rd (’76-77), 18th (’77-78), 6th (’78-79), 3rd (’79-80), 2nd (’80-81), 2nd (’81-82).

Alongside oh-so-nearly reaching the summit of the league on several occasions, there were consistent European outings after that maiden European voyage.  That first run to the quarters was an elusive start. On one hand, it was a tale of heroism. On the other, it inadvertently set the standard quite high. The season after, they wouldn’t get past the first round, losing to a vengeful FC Twente.

After this, the furthest they got was the third round in 1977 and ’78. In what feels like a bizarre flashback (given the club’s modern Football league endeavours), Ipswich were knocked out by Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. Even now, it’s odd to see one of the best players of all time step out at Portman Road, but this was where Robson and his tight nit group had pulled the club.

Embed from Getty Images

Giving the Blaugrana a few games and even winning one European game 10-1 on aggregate (against Norwegian club Skeid Fotball), fans must have been thinking something had to come their way. Never fear though, as in both England and Europe, the tides were set to drastically change for the Suffolk team.

FA Cup triumph

The summer of 1978. Ipswich’s second trophy under Bobby Robson was up for grabs as somehow Town had got to the final despite the backdrop of a poor year. That anomalous 18th place left a nasty taste, but reaching the final against Arsenal further illustrated the grit and determination of the group at the manager’s disposal. With bad season form and a squad “bludgeoned by injury” (as the Reading Evening Post put it), came the inevitable underdog status.

The Gunners came into proceedings after a handy fifth place finish. They were flying coming in, with Arsenal winning three of their previous four in the lead up. Ipswich had been slapped 6-1 by Aston Villa in their previous match…

Embed from Getty Images

To an outsider, the odds were stacked against the Tractor Boys. The North London residents were after a fifth FA Cup in what was their ninth final. Ipswich were in for a first trip to the national stadium for their first ever FA Cup final. In a crowded hubbub of smug predictions, Robson almost revelled in the idea of being less favoured:

“Being the underdogs helps ease the tension and that suits us fine. Arsenal seem to be most people’s choice this time, but that does not worry us in the least.”

In front of a speculated 100,000 strong crowd, Arsenal initially looked the more dominant of the two teams. However, Robson’s lads played like a side in their first and potentially last final – exhibiting a true ‘nothing to lose’ mantra. After this early Arsenal pressure, Ipswich soon sprung the game on its head. They out-ran the Gunners, from Kevin Beattie at the back to a tireless David Geddis on the right wing.  The underdogs thrived off a youthful devil-may-care attitude that stemmed from Robson’s homegrown development ideals.

Embed from Getty Images

His continuous trust over the years had translated into the boys’ undying passion against Arsenal. Terry Neill’s side in their yellow and blue strip struggled to keep the ever-present blues at bay. After being run ragged by the likes of Paul Mariner, Clive Woods, Roger Osborne and of course, Geddis – a goal finally came.

In the 77th minute, Geddis forced a breakthrough. He drove a low shot at Pat Jennings’ goal with Arsenal scrambling. Defender Willie Young stuck a foot out but his block turned out to be the perfect deflection for an onrushing Roger Osborne who converted from 10 yards out. The post match quotes tell the tale of Ipswich’s big day perfectly. A delighted Bobby Robson proudly gushed over his team:

“What a day for us. We deserved it. We played some decent football didn’t we? The whole team played well (…) everything went right for us” 

Embed from Getty Images

His opposite number, Terry Neill was a dejected yet accepting figure. Ipswich had been so good, it was enough to turn the Arsenal boss to drink:

“I am not going to say very much (…) then I’m going to piss off to have a drink. (…) We didn’t play as well as we can do, but Ipswich deserved it today, no doubt about that”

Embed from Getty Images

UEFA Cup: pushing past previous extremes

How on earth do you top that? Near relegation season and an FA Cup?  Effectively, Ipswich had defied their underdog status with a universal energy that was seemingly transferred to any competition in their wake. With this polar opposite variation of emotions, fans of the club must’ve been exhausted.

Three years after that superb day out at Wembley though, those fans would be put through it once again. Unlike recent efforts, there was no annoying Barcelona (or Cruyff) to stop them and Town got past their previous best of the UEFA Cup quarters to face AZ Alkmaar in the ’81 final.

Embed from Getty Images

Robson’s side left a slew of strong enough sides in their wake, mind, and the games were often high score slog fests on aggregate. Greek side Aris were shoved aside 6-4. The Czech Bohemians were defeated 3-2, followed by a 5-1 drubbing of Widzew Lodz in the third round. Saint Etienne were beaten 7-2 in the quarters, while Koln fell 2-0 in the semis.

Alkmaar, like Ipswich, were in their first European final. Their route to the final set this game up for a huge clash, as like Town again, goals were rife. Luxembourg’s Red Boys Differdange shouldn’t have bothered – losing 10-0 on aggregate. Levski Sofia and Radnicki Nis got swept too (6-1 and 7-2, respectively). After the competition’s three month gap between rounds, the momentum continued as AZ beat Lokeren 2-1 before a 4-3 semi-final win over FC Sochaux.

The two-legged final

Fuelled by a season where Ipswich had finished 2nd, the club still had the same attitude going in as that relegation threatened side that beat Arsenal to the FA Cup in ’78. The objective was simply to battle through. Several players were under serious injury doubt, yet the first leg at Portman Road was a consummate 3-0. All the goals were relatively close together as John Wark scored his penalty on 30′. After the break, the team came out flying with goals from Frans Thijssen and Mariner to put AZ firmly in the doldrums.

Amidst speculation of him leaving, Robson was confident in his group, but likely wary of the effect underdog status can have:

“If we lose this three goal lead in the second leg, I am definitely leaving this club, you can quote me on that.

The AZ gaffer Georg Kessler was a foreboding sense of things to come:

“There are another 90 minutes to play, but naturally it will be very difficult for us.”

Embed from Getty Images

The second leg was packed with goals as AZ were determined to make up for their defeat on East Anglian soil, with five goals in the first half alone! Kessler had definitely riled up his team and despite them grabbing another, Ipswich just scraped by with a 4-2 second leg win. What was particularly telling, was the fact that Tractor Boys keeper Paul Cooper was man of the match as two late stops had effectively kept one hand on the club’s first ever (and last to date) European trophy.

Embed from Getty Images

Final legacy

Ipswich’s success was huge and what it reflected was Robson’s gift for handcrafting a perfect unit. Despite having tactical ideas, of course – what Robson was renowned for, was his ability to get players on side. Years of a nearly-familial bond around the club had culminated in a European success story so brilliant, the light flickering off the trophy still reflects through the years into even the darkest of modern times at the club.

Not only was a national mark made, but Wark set a UEFA Cup record with his 14 goal tally. More and more people were beginning to switch on to Ipswich and Robson. The manager had surpassed previous transfer interest (as he alluded to in the three goal quote), but he of course inevitably left the team in 1982. He could finally stop chasing the dragon at the club that had given him his maiden job.

Embed from Getty Images

After 13 years in the South East, Bobby Robson of course took on the England job while turning down Sunderland and Manchester United. You know the rest. Ipswich and the Cobbold family took in a fledgling manager and like Robson’s knack for perfecting talent, had inadvertently sculpted him into a man that could rightly become one of the country’s finest ever managers.