|The Nearly Men|
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Saturday, 2nd Mar 2019 20:23
Throughout the Robson years, Town built an enviable reputation for producing homegrown talent. Young players seemed to slip into the first team almost on demand. For over a decade the team prospered with only the occasional ‘missing piece’ sourced from elsewhere.
Less well remembered are the players who emerged as teenagers, flickered brightly, but didn’t quite make the transition to first team regulars. Yet they made for whatever reason, a lasting impact on the club. These near forgotten heroes are Town’s nearly men.
Eddie Spearritt, Chris Barnard
The iconic programme for Town’s exciting first season back in 68/69 had the team photo on the front. Match after match, sitting amongst the players every supporter of a certain age remembers by name are Eddie Spearritt and Chris Barnard. Long-forgotten midfield players who sort of filled in for injuries and played prior to the arrival of Diesel Morris.
Barnard played 21 times for Town before leaving for an equally bit-part role at Southend, Spearritt made more of an impact, playing 72 times before forging a successful career at Brighton.
Today Chris Barnard is long forgotten and Spearritt perhaps better known as Hannah Spearritt’s uncle – a poor epitaph for contributions that effectively helped ensure Town’s return to the big time.
Bobby Bell was a towering and somewhat agricultural young centre-half that Town clearly hoped would replace Bill Baxter, or the uncompromising and frequently less than reliable Chopper Jefferson.
Bell had something about him and played 32 times, but not quite well enough in a struggling team as Town began to slide towards the relegation abyss. Bobby Robson wanted to replace him – and his ambitious target was Northern Ireland stalwart Allan Hunter.
Hunter became a towering icon at the club and remains a legend to this day. And all because of Bobby Bell. Curiously, within weeks, Bell was on his way to Crystal Palace for twice what Blackburn had paid for him.
His moves were not a success, though Bell earned another note in the history books by becoming Norwich City’s first-ever loan player. His time at Ipswich was just about as good as it got. But his gift to his old club lives on as a key role in Robson’s best ever signing.
John Peddelty was a fine central defender whose misfortune was to emerge at the time Hunter and Beattie looked to have those positions nailed down forever.
He actually played 44 times over a five-year period having made his debut as a teenager at Anfield. But his pivotal role, like Bell’s before him was as a makeweight. Robson needed a new striker after Johnson left for Liverpool.
A freakishly good goal on Match of the Day had put Blackpool’s Mike Walsh high on Robson’s shopping list, because Paul Mariner of Plymouth was a man in demand.
Sadly the deal did not end well for Peddelty. He had already suffered a fractured skull whilst at Town and soon injured his head again – a career-ending injury. He was just 22 – but happily forged a successful career with Suffolk police.
Like Beattie before him, Peddelty’s career was destroyed by injury – but his legacy was immense, albeit through the arrival of Paul Mariner.
Keith Bertschin was very nearly a very good player indeed. He ended up being the kind of player that kept Town at the top for almost a decade. A nearly man good enough to play (and play well) when required and therefore seem a tempting prospect that could be sold for substantial funds that could be invested elsewhere.
Like many before him, Bertschin made a startlingly effective start to his career. He scored on his debut against Arsenal with his first touch – and scored again two days later against West Ham for good measure.
Town clearly had another prospect on their hands. But where would he fit in? He played 30 times whilst Town came third in 76-77. But was sold, soon afterwards, to Birmingham for a not insubstantial £135,000.
He then endured a spectacularly inept relegation with Stoke before repeating the feat with Sunderland. But he played a major role when Sunderland rose again the following year.
In all he notched 114 goals in nearly 500 games. Despite his meteoric start he only managed eight for Town.
Rod Belfitt, like Allan Hunter was a pivotal signing for Bobby Robson. Or to be more accurate, a nearly pivotal signing, as his destiny was to be the pivot in a truly pivotal signing.
A long-standing reserve in Revie’s Leeds team, Belfitt scored against Town when Revie had thrown in the towel at the end of a particularly frustrating season and played his reserves at Portman Road.
A grateful Town duly scraped home 3-2 in a controversial match which helped them stay up. Belfitt clearly made an impression and was soon recruited the following season for a then very hefty £55,000.
Needless to say he got off to a flying start, scoring in his first two games against Wolves and Crystal Palace. By season’s end 26 games later he was joint top scorer with Mick Hill.
He continued his fine form the next season, starting with what must have been a highly satisfying goal against Leeds. By mid-October he notched his ninth of what was promising to be a prolific season against Everton. Harry Catterick must have been impressed and probably surprised Robson by trying to sign the suddenly prolific Belfitt.
What happened next is the stuff of legend as the much younger and electrifying David Johnson came in the other direction, with Belfitt the makeweight in a truly gob-smacking deal.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Johnson was the spark that ignited Town’s golden period under Robson. Belfitt however, never saw such giddy heights again. He scored 13 league goals for Town in 40 games – effectively less than a season of toil.
In true nearly man fashion he was to score only 15 more in the rest of his career. A shame really as Belfitt was a solid and popular player.
Meanwhile, David Johnson blazed an ultimately painful trail across Europe, played for England and even won the European Cup with Liverpool after leaving Town as one of their greatest and most popular players.
Another product of the seemingly endless Carlisle production line, David Geddis emerged from under Trevor Whymark’s shadow after Whymark suffered a serious injury in the Norwich game of Boxing Day 1977 – in those far off days when ‘derby games’ were played on proper football days at proper football times.
He stayed in the team more or less until the end of the season (much to Robin Turner’s chagrin no doubt). He earned his place in Ipswich folklore whilst still a teenager by brushing Sammy Nelson aside en-route to the Wembley touchline before pulling the ball back for Osborne…. 1-0!!
And then it was largely downhill. He was never as prolific as Bertschin – but enjoyed a good career. Transferred to Aston Villa for a massive £300,000 in 1979, he effectively funded Muhren and Thijssen almost on his own.
He stayed four years at Villa, largely as a stand in for Peter Withe and Gary Shaw, but hung around long enough to play in the European Cup.
From Villa he drifted through seven other league clubs eventually mustering 77 league goals. But none are perhaps remembered as fondly the one he created at Wembley
Robin Turner is the ultimate nearly man - the man who effectively won the FA Cup for Town in 1978, yet didn’t get a medal. The man who nearly played his entire career at Town but only scored two league goals.
Nowadays his vital role in Robson’s only domestic triumph is all but forgotten. He was yet another in the stream of fine players that came down from the Carlisle area, spotted by legendary scout Town John Carruthers (who surely sounds better suited to a cloak and dagger role in MI5). He played just 48 times in 12 years – astonishing longevity for a ‘reserve’. The sort of career that is utterly unknown nowadays.
He first came to my attention in the FA Youth Cup-winning team of 1973 alongside George Burley – but like many of that fine team his career was stalled by the talent ahead of him. His best season was 1977-78 when Town had a season-long injury crisis.
His best moment was at snow-covered Eastville for the fifth round FA Cup tie. Town were on the brink of going out before Turner notched his second goal in the 85th minute to give Town a thoroughly undeserved 2-2 draw.
What might have been but for Robin Turner’s intervention? He played in the replay and he played in the quarter-final against Milwall too and in the semi before seeing David Geddis given a tactical role in his place and Mick Lambert take on the substitute role at Wembley thus missing a date with destiny that his Eastville heroics surely deserved.
Turner played in the Charity Shield the following season, but Town’s disastrous second Wembley appearance is rarely mentioned in polite circles. He also played in Europe. Fine achievements all. But when he finally left for Swansea he promptly scored two goals on his debut, equalling his Town league total in just one game.
A bittersweet moment perhaps hinting at what might have been if only he hadn’t been quite to loyal to the club where he became the ultimate nearly man.
Nowadays Robin Turner, a dependable bit part player throughout almost all of Robson’s tenure is all but forgotten. His key contribution in rescuing a seemingly hopeless task at Eastville has faded into icy history (unless you were there to see it). He lives on however in a tricky a pub quiz question. Name two Ipswich Town players who have played for Germany. (Clue: the other one is Laurie Sivell).
Today, sadly, nearly men are nearly a thing of the past. Players don’t seem able to almost establish themselves before moving on. Matt Clarke, perhaps being the closest I can think of in recent times. But he had barely played and showed whilst on loan at Portsmouth that he could well have been better than Adam Webster at the time, let alone what might happen in the future.
Nowadays players come and go at bewildering speed and are seemingly encouraged to leave by the next manager on the merry-go-round before they get their feet under the table.
Continuity and throwing young players in at the deep end being long-lost concepts. Horrendous and pointless loans somewhere ghastly are now somehow seen as a good career move for young players – and inevitably point unerringly to the exit.
This is, I think, all something of a pity. It perhaps explains why so few young players break through any more. It’s certainly why ‘average players’ shall we say, the Micky Stockwell or Roger Osborne types who are not naturally the most gifted, but well capable of becoming the heart and soul of a team no longer emerge.
It is also why there are no longer any nearly men. Young players now rarely get anywhere near the team before they are let go. Those Bertschin and Geddis type fringe players and the subsequent transfer fees that provided vital income to keep the team going simply no longer occur.
Nearly men may be an extinct species for now - but it is nice to look back and reflect on players who emerged at Ipswich, departed, often for obscurity, but left profoundly important legacies in their wake.
It may well be that because these players are no longer found, developed and sold for the benefit of the team that the team has declined to such a point that we are now poised to be back where it all started in division three.
So I urge you to join me in saluting these nearly men (and the many others I have doubtless forgotten). We may well owe them nearly everything.
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