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In 1981 Ipswich Town shocked the world of football when they won the UEFA Cup, beating AZ Alkmaar over two legs; but there might just be some Town fans who would have happily traded one of their club’s greatest achievements for a couple of points, which could just have seen them crowned Division One champions as the side from sleepy Suffolk chased an incredible treble.
Bobby Robson might have steered the unfashionable Portman Road club to European glory that season, but Ipswich suffered agony in the league as their exploits on the continent took their toll; meaning they fell painfully short of Aston Villa in one of the most memorable First Division campaigns in history.
Sure, the likes of Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City have shaken up the status quo in recent years, and the thought of two clubs outside of the more likely challengers for the title doing battle and fighting it out for the ultimate prize in English football seems almost unthinkable today; but that’s just what happened in the 1980/81 campaign.
Bobby Robson had spent much of the 1970s making the “Tractor Boys” a top-six staple, as well as bringing the FA Cup back to East Anglia after a memorable win over Arsenal at Wembley; but with the quality of his small, yet talented, squad he had at his disposal, winning the league title was not seen as an unrealistic achievement by the future England boss as the 1980s rolled around.
Despite playing in deepest Suffolk, Robson’s Ipswich side was comprised of players from across the UK, not to mention a number of European stars, who all came together to form one of the most entertaining sides of that period, who feared nobody and took the scalps of some of the game’s biggest sides at the time.
Their formidable defence consisted of Terry Butcher, Kevin Beattie and George Burley, while John Wark kept the midfield tight. On either side of him were Holland internationals Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen, while Alan Brazil partnered Paul Mariner up-front to form a potent partenrship.
Ipswich had ended the previous campaign in third place following an impressive unbeaten run stretching from the beginning of December to the final Saturday of the season which had seen them avoid defeat in 23 games, and they took this excellent form into the new season when it came around. Starting like a well honed greyhound, it was 14 league games before they lost and went down only twice in their first 32 fixtures, setting the bar for their better known and more respected rivals.
Not surprisingly, such ruthless form meant they were soon in the mix at the top end of the table, particularly seeing as they had avoided defeat to title favourites Liverpool, both home and away, before Christmas. By the middle of January they occupied top spot in the table after thumping Birmingham 5-1.
But despite this impressive form they still had company due to the fact that they were unable to shake free of a similarly consistent Aston Villa side. Under the guidance of Ron Saunders, Villa were as un-fancied as Ipswich but their knack of getting impressive results meant that they too were now harbouring title ambitions.
As it turned out, it would be the size of the squad which would be key to determining where the First Division title would be heading, as both title sides' seasons took very different paths after a long and gruelling 10 months of high-octane football.
Having finished in the top three the previous season, Ipswich had earned the right to play in the UEFA Cup, Europe’s second most important trophy at the time behind the European Cup; though such an honour would ultimately be the undoing of Bobby Robson’s men as success came at a price.
Comfortable wins over Aris Salonika and Bohemians of Prague saw Ipswich progress to the third round where they would face Widzew Lódź, who had knocked out Manchester United in the previous round; but the Polish side were thrashed 5-0 at Portman Road and 1-0 in the return leg, as Town chased glory at home and abroad.
A break from European competition for the winter months was a welcome one when squad rotation wasn’t even possible, let alone the thing to do. But just as the UEFA Cup campaign was put to bed for the winter, the FA Cup provided yet another distraction as fixtures came thick and fast as Christmas approached.
On the back of four games in seven days — including two in 24 hours, thanks to the fact that Boxing Day fell on a Friday — Ipswich prepared to face fellow title rivals Aston Villa in the Third Round of the oldest knock-out tournament in the world. As well as being a huge tie between two teams at the top of the league, it would also define both club's seasons for very different reasons.
A brilliant goal which saw Ipswich sweep the length of the pitch in a move that was eventually finished off by Paul Mariner settled the tie. It was the only goal of the game and earned a nomination for the BBC’s Goal of the Season competition, thanks to a superb interchange which involved nearly half of the Town side. Villa were out of the cup, but Town’s season just got better-and-better.
Although nobody said it at the time, defeat was probably the best thing that could have happened to Aston Villa that January, and possibly the worst thing that could have happened for the men from Portman Road. Saunders' Villa now faced a sparsely populated run-in, bereft of European football and exhausting FA Cup ties, whereas for Ipswich, the games continued to keep on coming.
The chance of a historic treble was very much alive, but the weight of games was starting to take its toll on the Ipswich squad. Fighting on three fronts – league, FA Cup and UEFA Cup – they played a mammoth 66 competitive games that season and, inevitably, the sheer workload took its toll as first-team regulars suffered injuries; Bobby Robson’s small squad started to creak.
On the other hand, Aston Villa only had the league to worry about and played a total of 46 games – 20 fewer than Ipswich – while using a grand total of 14 players. Ron Saunders was in the fortunate position to select a settled side, week-in, week-out thanks to no injuries and plenty of time to rest between games.
By the time the UEFA Cup resumed, Ipswich carried on where they had left off and defeated Saint Etienne 7-2 on aggregate to progress to the semi-finals. Hoever, just days later they were beaten by Manchester United in what was their first league defeat in three months; it was a loss that triggered an alarming slump in their form which ultimately handed the initiative to Villa.
As well as reaching a European semi-final, Town also progressed to the last four of the FA Cup as they beat Shrewsbury, Charlton and Nottingham Forest following the defeat of Villa. Injuries started to mount up and disrupt the flow of the side while losses became worryingly regular. Reserve team players were drafted in, but in all honesty they were not in the same league as the likes of Thijssen, Mariner, Brazil, Gates.
The costly FA Cup run eventually did come to an end when Ipswich were knocked out of the competition in the semi final against Manchester City, but by then the damage had been done. As their Easter Saturday clash with Arsenal arrived they had lost three of their last five league games and now sat in second place in the table.
The Gunners handed Robson’s men another loss and in the penultimate game of the season they were beaten again – for the third time in four games – a loss which officially sent the title Villa’s way, who actually lost to Arsenal at Highbury on the last game of the season, but it mattered not.
Bobby Robson’s men had their best chance at winning the title for the first time since Alf Ramsey guided them to glory in 1962, yet it had slipped through their fingers at the very last. Their loss of form wasn't just down to injuries, but they didn’t help at a time when squads were half the size of those today and teams often played far more games.
Missing-out on the title was a crushing blow for Ipswich, having played so well for so much of the season, but there was something of a silver lining to the cloud that hung over the tail-end of their campaign when they beat Cologne to reach the final of the UEFA Cup.
And so it was that four days after missing-out on the Division One title, they won the 3-0 first-leg against AZ Alkmaar 3-0 at Portman Road and despite actually losing the second-leg 4-2, Ipswich lifted the cup thanks to a 5-4 aggregate win.
The 1980/81 season still remains the club’s greatest ever in the eyes of many, although for some of those involved it brings back difficult memories. “If we’d had just two or three more players I honestly think we would have won the treble that year,” former defensive midfielder John Wark, who scored 36 goals in all competitions that season, said years later.
Of course, winning the UEFA Cup will always be a massive deal for a club who have always been something of a minnow in the game; but for many at Portman Road, even now, it’s still seen as something of a consolation prize compared to what they could, and probably should, have won.