The Blues from sleepy Suffolk, under the management of Bobby Robson, represented one of the finest teams in Europe in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a golden era for Ipswich Town supporters growing up during this period, spoiled by a glut of marauding goal scoring midfielders, technical wing wizards, defensive dominators and an agile keeper to boot. The stars aligned for Ipswich in the 1980/81 campaign, with the Blues seemingly on course for an historic treble – the English Football League title, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup.
Unfortunately for Ipswich and Robson, Town would go on to win only one out of the three, but it could have been so much more. The club made steady progress in the UEFA Cup, advancing past Aris Thessaloniki, Czech side Bohemians and Polish outfit Widzew Lodz – who had dumped Manchester United out of the competition in the previous round. Ipswich also knocked out title rivals Aston Villa in the third round of the FA Cup just after New Year, though this defeat would prove to be a blessing in disguise for Aston Villa as it allowed them to focus exclusively on their championship aspirations.
A defeat at Old Trafford sparked Ipswich’s domestic downfall
Ipswich looked well positioned in the title race during the early months of 1981 after embarking on an unbeaten run that would stretch from the 20th December to the 21st March. That 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford that brought the run to an end proved to be the start of a major dip in form for Robson’s men. The gruelling effects of their UEFA Cup exertions – which included hugely impressive victories over strong sides like Saint Etienne and Cologne – coupled with FA Cup games and replays – began to take its toll.
One of the biggest problems for Ipswich and Robson was the Blues’ wafer-thin squad which numbered no more than 16 first team players, a far cry from today’s top-flight squads which easily carry double that number. It meant that squad rotation was near-on impossible and Ipswich’s title rivals Aston Villa’s big advantage was playing 20 games fewer than the Blues that season. An exhausting run of four games in nine days during April proved Town’s undoing.
A gap of less than two days recovery between games is virtually unheard of today. Recent academic studies into the physical impact of fixture congestion found that players require at least 96 hours of post-match recovery to avoid negatively impacting on the intensity of their sprints in subsequent games.
A Fruitless Easter Weekend
On the 14th of April Ipswich headed to Villa Park for a crucial four-pointer against Ron Saunders’ flying Aston Villa side. Goals from Alan Brazil and Eric Gates earned Ipswich a massive 2-1 victory, but this advantage needed to be cemented in the next two huge league games over the Easter weekend against fellow title contenders Arsenal and bitter local rivals Norwich. Unfortunately for Robson’s jaded Town troops, they would go on to lose both games and hand the title race initiative back to Aston Villa.
Prior to the victory at, Ipswich also had to deal with the disappointment of being dumped out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage. Their clash with Manchester City went to extra time, but a broken arm sustained by center half Kevin Beattie affected Ipswich’s equilibrium at the back. City would go on to snatch the win in the added half-an-hour, with Paul Power’s blistering free kick proving the difference.
On paper Middlesbrough and Southampton should have represented relatively easy fixtures for Ipswich’s title run, yet Robson’s men contrived to lose both leaving the door wide open for Aston Villa to steal the title by four points. Missing out on that coveted league title, which the Blues had won in 1962 during the vintage years of Sir Alf Ramsey, hit Sir Bobby Robson hard.
Star midfielder John Wark admitted many years later that the club needed “just two or three more players” to cope with the rigours of their treble bid. When injuries to Dutch midfielder Frans Thijssen and strikers Paul Mariner, Alan Brazil and Eric Gates hit hard, Robson’s reserves simply weren’t anywhere close to the same level as Town’s senior internationals.
UEFA Cup success provided some solace for Robson and Suffolk
Despite the crushing disappointment of missing out domestically, Robson and Ipswich ensured the season wouldn’t be a total disappointment by bagging the UEFA Cup in Amsterdam. Their 5-4 aggregate victory over AZ Alkmaar secured the Suffolk side a first piece of European silverware. Although the county is proud to this day of its continental success, there is still a hint of regret at what could have been for Bobby Robson’s finest club side.