On a chilly evening in late 2018, I’m standing on Elland Road watching Leeds United v Ipswich Town. In front of me stands a man so tall that he can change the light bulbs in a light pole on tiptoe. When I look around him, I see how Leeds United got the ghost under Argentinian coach Marco Bielsa, opponent Ipswich seems to have had its soul sucked out.
The guests can be happy with a 2-0 defeat. Trevoh Chalobah fills in at Ipswich. One half of his lush hair is bleached blonde, the other half jet black. From all corners of the stadium people are singing that he has bird droppings on his head. It’s the only thing that stands out on the part of the Suffolk guests.
The Tractor Boys are having a drab season. Most of the color comes from the bright sponsor on the shirt: Magical Vegas, a cheap online casino. Those who bet on Ipswich Town will get rich easily. Set the team to defeat and it’s a guaranteed prize. I remember the club as a good team, Sir Bobby Robson’s team, but also as a team that reached European football twice at the beginning of this century. In the 2018/2019 season, Ipswich dangles desolately at the bottom of the Championship all season and it should come as no surprise that the club has been relegated to League One. Magic has rarely been seen on Portman Road this season.
Nevertheless, it is high time for a visit. It will be Ipswich Town–Nottingham Forest. When the present is disappointing, there is always a great past to fall back on. It’s a poster that people would flock to Match of the Day in the early 1980s. Forest, national champion in 1978, European Cup I winner in 1979 and 1980. The club of the eccentric Brian Clough, who only lasted 44 days at Leeds United and once grumbled about the limited opposition of Ajax and PSV in the Dutch competition. We had a Micky Mouse competition here, no more and no less. It would be a competition where every opponent was of the same level as Ipswich Town this season.
Successes in Suffolk
Host Ipswich did not deliver half work, just like now in the past. Deep valleys alternated with high peaks. With Sir Alf Ramsey, Ipswich became national champion in 1962. Ramsey left the club for the English Football Association and became world champions with the national team in 1966. Ipswich collapsed and was relegated, but came back strong with Sir Bobby Robson. With the Dutchmen Frans Thijssen and Arnold Mühren in the ranks, the UEFA Cup was won in 1981 at the expense of AZ’67. Five years later, the club was relegated again.
There was a brief revival around the turn of the century. Promotion followed and the first season at the highest level resulted in a good fifth place. Ipswich was allowed into Europe and only had to recognize his superior in Internazionale in the third round, after winning 1-0 at Portman Road.
The Tractor Boys finished in eighteenth place that season, which meant relegation. Striking detail: the club did this in an extremely sporting way, because Ipswich was allowed to enter Europe again, now based on the fair play classification. Slovan Liberec was too strong in the second round. Ipswich meanwhile became part of the interior of the Championship. For seventeen years the club remained active in the second tier. Until last season.
Everything used to be better?
The Netflix documentary about Sir Bobby Robson provides a wonderful glimpse into the kitchen of Ipswich Town. Robson is teaching on the training field. Behind him looms the mainstand on. Nearly fifty years later, very little has changed. The imposing black roof with ‘Ipswich Town FC’ written on it still marks the outside of the main stand. The field is still there, now a community pitch with artificial grass. Half an hour before kick-off, children are playing everywhere. Any child who drops the ball less than ten feet from their foot risks being offered a contract with the Tractor Boys.
The times of prosperity are well preserved in Ipswich. Sir Bobby watches over the Cobbold Stand, named after co-founder Thomas Cobbold. A little further on is a statue of Sir Alf Ramsey. Next to him is a booth where program booklets are sold. Three pounds poorer I am one match day programme richer. On the back is arguably the club’s most important day: ‘January 13, 1969 – Bobby Robson is announced as the new Ipswich Town Manager’. It is well known, with Robson at the helm, the provincial turned into a European top club.
In the fan shop there is enough attention for the impressive history. There are shirts from the seasons that Ipswich won the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup. Postcards show cheering players with long hair, big mustaches and short shorts. I buy a keychain with the shirts in which both cups were won and leave the fan shop.
Through a creaky and antique turnstile I enter the stadium. Since 1884, Ipswich Town have played here, at Portman Road. During the First World War, British troops trained in the stadium.
Bobby Robson Stand
The stadium is a picture. The short sides are modern and named after Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson. I sit on the latter and see the 1971 Cobbold Stand on the left and the 1957 three-tiered Mainstand on the right. All kinds of flags dangle from the balustrades of the main stand, hinting at the past. Robson pictured holding the UEFA Cup and reading ‘The best I’ve ever created’ and a UK flag reading ‘UEFA Cup ’81’.
Today, over 16,000 supporters have traveled to Portman Road to make their way to Canossa. It’s pure self-flagellation on the part of the supporters, but a matchday is a matchday; you are a supporter for better or for worse. And as long as you can have a pint before the game, there’s (very tasty!) pie and you can swear a few times at incapable football players with the logo of your great love on their chest, you can wish for little more. Except maybe a few good football players.
The hosts need to win and are off to an excellent start. After five minutes Collin Quaner shoots the ball behind Costel Pantilimon. Half an hour later, the guests are level in an exemplary manner. A turning corner is badly headed and hits the hip of Ipswich’s Jon Nolan. Keeper Bialkowski dives a meter behind his line, the ball then rolls exactly on the goal line in front of a Forest player and we are even. Those who travel to Portman Road for time-honored English goals will be disappointed today.
The second half sees Ipswich in missing huge opportunities. Nolan heads wide for an open goal and Jackson shoots Pantilimon again and again. Despite everything, the atmosphere remains good on Portman Road. The supporters know that it is a hopeless case, but remain behind their club. After ninety minutes it is clear that the prize cabinets of both Ipswich Town and Nottingham Forest do not need to be dusted for the time being.
Despite everything, I walk out a little later more than satisfied. The history, the beautiful stadium, the creaking turnstiles, the delicious pie, but especially because of the supporters, my visit was a success. More than 16,000 passionate supporters shouting against such a hopeless team for ninety minutes against their better judgement, I am in awe of that.
It is over for Ipswich after seventeen seasons in the Championship: 46 games yielded only five victories. Salford City FC is closer than Manchester United. Nevertheless, the club has already sold more than ten thousand season tickets for a new adventure in League One at the beginning of May. The present may not look very good for the club in the short term, but a club with such a beautiful past always has a future.
Preston North End, Sunderland, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn Rovers, West Bromwich Albion, Huddersfield Town, Portsmouth, Leeds United, Derby County and Nottingham Forest.
Ten clubs that acted in the Championship or League One in the 2018/19 season and have one thing in common: they all became national champions at some point. Add UEFA Cup winner Ipswich Town to that and you have an illustrious list of fallen superpowers from the time when sheikhs and investors were not yet all-determining. Those who go to England and have an eye for history can indulge themselves (or her of course)!
Sir Bobby Robson
Sir Bobby Robson was not only an excellent coach, he also knew what football was all about, as this famous quote from ‘Newcastle. My kind of Toon’.
‘What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.’
This story first appeared in Panenka 19 and it is still available through the webshop of the soccer cult magazine of the Netherlands, in which the editors of In de Hekken are also regularly allowed to make a nice contribution.