|John Cobbold’s Ace Gardener|
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Friday, 27th Dec 2019 10:13
For newer Town supporters perhaps, the name Colin Viljoen has disappeared into the mists of time. But for those of us who started supporting Town in the 60s his name is fondly recalled as a true great. His highlights reel alone (alas it exists only in memory) would mark him out as someone special.
Remarkably he was the only one of Bill McGarry’s promotion team to become a fixture in Bobby Robson’s glory-seeking teams of the 70s. (Mick Mills, lest we forget was kept out of the team by ‘Mr Reliable’, Billy Houghton).
Make no mistake, Colin Viljoen holds a unique position in Town’s history, and for someone who scored relatively rarely – he also had an impressive penchant for dramatic hat-tricks
Viljoen was something both unusual and exotic in 60s football. He wasn’t British. As his name suggests, despite gaining England caps, he was South African. He’d come to McGarry’s attention as a teenage sensation for Johannesburg Rangers, whose home ground was rather grandly called Wembley. The team played in back and white stripes and the crowd was just as starkly divided – whites on one side, blacks on the other.
It seems unbelievable now, but in the mid-60s South Africa unorthodox approach to race relations had made them international sporting pariahs. So much so that the teenage Viljoen was allegedly employed as John Cobbold’s gardener whilst the simple expedient of an English passport made Viljoen a more acceptable sporting commodity.
I seem to remember that Viljoen had made the long journey from industrial Joburg to rural Ipswich on the recommendation of Roy Bailey – a recommendation he clearly didn’t extend to his own son. Or maybe it was an old pal of McGarry that was coaching the young Viljoen.
No matter, the quietly spoken good looking young South African arrived in England, played a few reserve games and was thrust into the first team against Portsmouth in 1966 – and promptly netted a hat-trick. For someone who was to establish himself as a silky-skilled midfielder, the start of Viljoen’s Town career was both explosive – and curious.
This amazing achievement has been somewhat devalued by Grant Ward recently – but at the time it caused quite a stir. Clearly Town had a real star on their hands. Viljoen finished the 1966/67 season with 10 games and six goals, not bad for a teenage midfielder in a foreign land.
Remarkably, Viljoen had fled back to South Africa - McGarry had to fly out to Johannesburg to persuade him to return, telling the young Viljoen that a first-team future was there for the taking. Now Viljoen was clearly here to stay.
Season 1967/68 proved a pivotal year for Viljoen and Town. Bill McGarry had by now completely transformed Town’s fortunes. The silky skills of Viljoen were complemented by the adept footwork and control of Danny Hegan – and latterly, an inspired signing from Mansfield. Diesel Morris. Town supporters of a certain age still go misty-eyed at the memories those players inspired.
Two high-scoring matches in early February stand out. On February 3rd Town won a roller coaster of a local derby 4-3 at Carrow Road. Viljoen wrote himself into club folklore with another hat-trick.
The feel-good factor of this astonishing achievement was still burning bright at the start of the following season when Tony Garnett crowed in the League Cup programme against Norwich that no Norwich player had scored a hat-trick against Ipswich Town. Hugh Curran promptly thumped in three goals!
But I digress. On February 10th, Canary-crushing Town came down to earth with a bump, thrashed 4-1 at Carlisle. This abrupt reverse inspired McGarry to enter the transfer market with two signings that utterly transformed Town’s season. From mid-February the midfield balance and stability provided by Diesel Morris and the glut of goals provided by John O’Rourke propelled Town on an unbeaten run and into the top division.
The showdown in the sun at Portman Road with promotion rivals QPR provided a lifetime of memories packed into one match. Viljoen, by now an ever-present was a cornerstone of the team. He played 42 matches, scoring seven goals and was now about to launch himself on the biggest stage.
It’s fair to say Town’s early days in the top division were difficult. McGarry’s team of low budget would-be superstars, complemented with Championship-winning veterans Baxter and Crawford took to the top division like provincial ducks to water.
O’Rourke was knocking in the goals, Viljoen looking every inch the top division midfield maestro. Before it suddenly all went pear-shaped with McGarry’s abrupt departure for the greater potential (and salary) on offer at Wolves.
The established authority figure of McGarry was replaced by an inexperienced seemingly lack-of-authority figure in Robson. Some of the players were as unimpressed with Robson as some of the crowd. Better players like Hegan and O’Rourke had their heads turned, combative players like Baxter and Carroll got into combat – and some like Crawford and Hancock left for reasons that were not entirely clear.
Slowly but surely a new team and reinvented manager developed and gelled together. David Best proved a godsend – a goalkeeper whose breath-taking displays sometimes defied belief and once had Bobby Charlton almost tearing out what little remained of his hair. Mills was in to stay. But goals became a seemingly insoluble problem with both O’Rourke and Crawford having moved on to pastures new.
Viljoen stepped into the yawning breach. As Town’s second and third seasons proved desperate relegation struggles, it was Viljoen who was to be top scorer in both attritional seasons. In 1969/70 he top-scored with six – and if memory serves, four of them were penalties! The next year he top scored again with 12. Town and Viljoen were very much on the up.
By now Viljoen was something of a star. A cool penalty taker whose dead ball expertise outside the box was also something to behold. Cunning chips and floated freekicks were a Viljoen trademark. His one touch control was effortless. And he could pass too. Diesel was still there, and by now, injuries permitting, was Ian Collard. In a team of willing workers, this was some midfield.
He carried with him a bit of glamour too. After the players ran out to March of the Gladiators and did their pre-match kickabout routine, Viljoen could be seen bending and stretching near the centre circle never touching the ball. He was just a bit different and had something of an aura about him.
Back in the day, the Football League Review that came inserted as a freebie in the club programme had a curious competition where supporters submitted their votes for the most good-looking player in their team (and hence the league). Viljoen was locked in a season-long battle with a long-forgotten Pompey bombshell called George Key.
In a previous season the same august organ had searched out the most promising young players in the league. Top choice was the teenage goalkeeping sensation at Leicester – Peter Shilton. But Viljoen was not very far behind. Viljoen had most certainly arrived. But he seemed very much at home at Ipswich and I don’t recall him agitating to leave, nor any bigger clubs coming in for his obvious talents.
It is ironic that as Town’s fortunes began to rise, Viljoen’s were about to fade. He was never to score double figures again. But his Town career was by now at its dizzying peak. His best season coincided with Town’s heartbreak 1974/75 season when he played a remarkable 51 times. By now he had tested his skills against some of Europe’s best in the UEFA Cup – and also embarked on one of the briefer international careers.
In an international career lasting a dizzying four days he played in two of that season’s home internationals – uninspiring draws against Wales and Northern Ireland. 1975 also saw him crowned Town’s Player of the Year – the first time anyone other than Kevin Beattie had won the trophy.
Alas the end was now in sight. After his all-conquering performances in 1975, injuries saw Viljoen’s career fall of a cliff. He played just 13 times the following season – and no games at all in 1976/77. Quite how someone so mild-mannered who Robson gave the nickname ‘Ace’ could fall out with his manager and team-mates is unclear. But something went badly wrong.
The curious season of 1977/78 proved a strange epitaph. Town’s FA Cup win wouldn’t have happened without Robin Turner’s two-goal rescue act at Eastville. But Colin Viljoen, another who wasn’t to feature in the final, also chipped in with two goals as Town profited from easy ties against lower league opposition.
He’d played scarcely a dozen games in two years – but Robson gave him a chance of sorts to prove his fitness in the last game before Wembley. Alas Town barely turned up and were thumped 6-1 by Aston Villa at Villa Park. The embarrassing game passed Viljoen by and Robson chose to rely on the more prosaic skills of Roger Osborne – and the rest as they say, is history.
Injuries meant that Viljoen was but a shadow of the player who had so recently played himself into the England team. All too soon he was on his way to Manchester City for £100,000. Time has given his post-Town career something of a veneer – he played (just) for both Manchester City and Chelsea, though his two-year stints at both clubs were at low water marks in their recent history.
After Chelsea came retirement. Like so many ex-footballers he ran a pub for a while, the somewhat uninspiring Nine Styles in the slightly anonymous, urban wasteland known as Uxbridge. I popped in once or twice on business trips - alas without ever meeting mine host.
The local football team using the pub as a post-training watering hole found their new landlord a willing and generous coach who passed on the nuances of one touch football and the advantage of being able to pass where you intended to. The local football club was transformed – winning a rare Uxbridge double.
Like some other Town greats of those far-off years, Viljoen left under something of a cloud. But the relative suddenness of his demise cannot dim the brilliance of his achievements throughout a momentous decade which saw Town transformed from second division also-rans to one of Europe’s powerhouse clubs.
The statistics hint at his importance to the club’s history – nearly 400 games and over 50 goals – most at the highest level. Just two caps picked up in throwaway international matches in the course of half a week do little justice to his sublime talents.
My own rose-tinted theory is that Viljoen’s legacy was overshadowed by the immediate arrival of Thijssen and Mühren. Together with Johnny Wark these two briefly created what was probably the best club midfield in Europe. Even Viljoen’s enviable reputation as a cool penalty ace was eclipsed by Wark. And he tended perhaps to go his own way, never a very good idea in a team game.
But when you think back to what Town and Viljoen achieved together – firstly with Diesel, Hegan and Collard, latterly with Bryan Talbot and frequent (and frequently forgotten) midfielder Mills, Colin Viljoen can hold his head up high.
To my mind he is the principle reason Town maintained their first division status in those two years of desperate struggle in the early 70s. Without him, who knows what Town (and Robson) might not have achieved?
As the only player who starred for McGarry at the top of the Second Division – and Robson at the top end of the First Division, Viljoen holds a unique place in Town’s history – and surely deserves to be revered as an all-time great.
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