by Juliet Jacques
Portman Road, 19 March 2000. George Burley’s Ipswich Town side, desperate to avoid the First Division play-offs having lost three successive semi-finals, faced Norwich City in a must-win local derby. Expecting that my club would lose, I was ambivalent about the appointment of our new manager: former Ipswich midfielder Bryan Hamilton was appointed from within, leaving his post as Director of Football to succeed Bruce Rioch, who had resigned in frustration at the lack of transfer funds and the sale of fans’ favourite Darren Eadie to Leicester for £3m.
Hamilton endeared himself immediately with a 2-0 victory, easing fears of relegation to the Second Division and checking Ipswich’s promotion charge. Manchester City overhauled Burley’s side by two points and claimed second place, and knowing that the third placed team rarely won the play-offs, felt satisfied that yet again, I could draw some consolation from yet another miserable year of bargain basement signings, pitiful loanees and lower mid-table tedium from our rivals’ inevitable disappointment.
Not so. After extra time, Ipswich beat Bolton in the semi-final and then faced Barnsley at Wembley. The Tykes gave me hope, taking the lead through an own goal from big-faced custodian Richard Wright, but Richard Naylor and Marcus Stewart put the Blues 3-1 up. Craig Hignett’s penalty offered some hope, but Dutch international Martijn Reuser sealed Ipswich’s ascent with a last-minute strike, sealing a 4-2 victory that I ascribed entirely to good fortune.
Every season preview I read predicted that Ipswich would go down, many expecting them to finish last. Rightly so: they had no big names and little significant top flight experience. There was no way that their combination of youth team graduates – Wright, Naylor, Titus Bramble, James Scowcroft – and journeymen could cope with the money driven Premiership: it’ll be over by Christmas, I thought.
There was little cause for optimism at Norwich – despite Hamilton’s increasingly desperate attempts to put a positive spin on affairs at Carrow Road. Our star player, Craig Bellamy, joined Coventry for £6m after just one game, and Hamilton’s signings provided no hope that any money made available would be spent well. Numerous players came and went – Steve Walsh and Tony Cottee from Leicester, both dreadful, and the staggeringly inept Raymond de Waard, described by Hamilton (who presumably had never seen Marc Overmars) as “the Dutch Ryan Giggs” – but Daryl Sutch stayed in the side, and the results remained dismal. In December, a group of players accosted City’s board demanding that Hamilton be sacked.
Things weren’t going to plan at all. Ipswich’s seemingly rag tag team were having an amazing season, inspired and epitomised by calm, consistent and intelligent midfielder and captain Matt Holland, who had missed just one League game since signing from Bournemouth in 1997. After losing three of their first five games, their season sparked with a win at Leeds and the impressive results continued, taking them into Champions League contention and the League Cup semi-finals. They refused to change their style, which was winning universal praise, or make any marquee signings to cement their position. They didn’t need to: former Bristol Rovers and Huddersfield striker Marcus Stewart became the Premiership’s leading English scorer, with an astounding 19 goals.
Despite a surprise loss in the League Cup semi-final – Ipswich lost the second leg 4-1 to First Division Birmingham, despite winning the first 1-0 – Burley’s team, revelling in their new ‘Tractor Boys’ nickname, didn’t collapse as expected. Stewart, Reuser and Alun Armstrong scored vital goals, and the likes of Fabian Wilnis, John McGreal and Mark Venus frequently denied multi-million pound opponents, as Ipswich proved that a smaller team on a limited budget could still compete with the G14 clubs that took the lion’s share of Murdoch’s television money – without resorting to spoiling tactics. Only their failure to win at Derby County on the final day kept them out of the Champions League, with all its riches – nonetheless, Town were in Europe.
I felt even less enthusiastic in summer 2001. Nigel Worthington had kept us in the First Division, but his close-season captures looked uninspiring, and I anticipated another mediocre campaign. Not least because Richard Wright had left Ipswich for Arsenal, expected to replace David Seaman for club and country, and amidst some other impressive looking signings, particularly Nigerian star Finidi George, Burley had poached our goalkeeper, Andy Marshall, to replace Wright.
As it turned out, Robert Green was ready to succeed Marshall, and fortunes finally changed. Although they beat Torpedo Moscow and Helsingborgs in the UEFA Cup, Town’s Premiership start was as bad as the previous season’s was brilliant: one win in seventeen matches, but I couldn’t be too smug as Town beat Inter Milan 1-0 in the first leg of their UEFA Cup Third Round tie. “They’ll get battered at the San Siro,” I resentfully told my flatmates, before being told that I should always support English teams in Europe and that their successes were “good for the game”. Any other club and I’d have agreed.
Christian Vieri destroyed Ipswich in Milan, as Inter won 4-1. Andy Marshall had long since been dropped, and most of Burley’s expensive signings, particularly Finidi George, flopped – they improved with seven wins in nine Premiership matches before a 6-0 thrashing at home to Liverpool put them back into freefall, and they were relegated as Ruud van Nistelrooy’s contentious penalty settled their home game against Manchester United.
As Ipswich’s form put them down, Norwich’s nearly put them up. With a 2-0 win over Stockport on the final day, City made the First Division play-offs by a single goal, for the first time since both City and Town were demoted together in 1995. Before the play-off final in Cardiff, Birmingham fans led a chorus of “Let’s all laugh at Ipswich”, uniting everyone before their club won on penalties.
Both clubs narrowly missed the play-offs in 2002-2003: after a poor start, George Burley was sacked and replaced by Joe Royle, and Town climbed the League. Following a strong opening to the season, Norwich faded, and Ipswich finished ahead of us by a single point. That summer, Matt Holland joined Charlton, making it much easier for me to admire his skilful passing, vision and calmness – he’d played 233 consecutive games, missing just one League match, on international duty, in six years. Without him, Ipswich have never returned to the Premier League – but for one season, he led them closer to the summit than any ‘smaller’ clubs has since been, and for that, through gritted teeth, I really respected him.
Juliet Jacques, as you’ll have gathered, is a Norwich fan. She is also a writer and blogger of extraordinary range, knowledge and talent, who has written for The Guardian, In bed with Maradona, a number of film publications, and plenty more besides. Her series for The Guardian — A Transgender Journey — has been longlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize. Follow her on Twitter @julietjacques and read more on her blog At Home She’s A Tourist.