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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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66notout added 10:43 - Dec 27
A very enjoyable read but please correct the spelling of Osborne.

Colin_Viljoen added 11:51 - Dec 27
I remember him well!

IP12 added 12:31 - Dec 27
I may be wrong but wasn't Mick Mills debut in the ITFC first team in the same game as 'Ace'.

fifeblue added 14:18 - Dec 27
Colin Viljoen's debut was against Portsmouth at home in March 1967, not 1966. I know because I was there. Viljoen scored a hat-trick on his debut in a 4-2 win. Colin Viljoen was indeed one of Ipswich's best ever players and Bobby Robson described him as the most skilful player at the club as late as 1978 just before the falling out and his departure. He was picked for England by Don Revie but his style did not quite fit the England set up despite his ability.

ElephantintheRoom added 16:45 - Dec 27
Mills played a few games as back up in McGarry's promotion team - along with Chris Barnard, Eddie Spearrit and Bobby Hunt. I may be wrong but I vaguely remember Mick McNeil being preferred to the cherubic Mills, even though he was so rarely fit. Mills was seen as one for the future back then. The pecking order of McGarry's team can be gleaned from the photo that adorned the home programmes in that far-off first season back in the first division.

Bildestoned added 18:02 - Dec 27
Great to hear the name of Diesel Morris again. Now all I need is a namecheck for Steve Stacey!

budgieplucker added 20:54 - Dec 27
I can testify to the quality of Colin Viljoen, having started following the boys in the 60’s and having had the privilege of witnessing many of the best players to wear the Town shirt.

As much as I cannot get out of my head the superb midfield blend of Muhren, Wark and Thijjsen - Colin Viljoen stands very closely shoulder to shoulder as being one of Towns all round great midfield players.

Thank you @elephantintheRoom for bringing back the memories of one of town’s true greats.

oldegold added 10:18 - Dec 28
Excellent article.....and Viljoen deserves all the accolades if belatedly.

pablovian added 12:45 - Dec 28
A heart-warming tribute to a truly great player!

Can you possibly do a historical retrospective on the wingers of that era, including Frank Brogan and Jimmy Robertson, and at least mentioning Joey Broadfoot and Mick Lambert? It would be greatly appreciated, at least by me ...

VulpineBlue added 16:55 - Dec 28
Oldegold Sorry, I meant to give you a positive mark not negative - a bit of a stutter on my keypad! As a teenager watching Town in the 1970s I saw Viljoen many, many times. A fine dependable player.
Fond memories (apart from the pre Cup final match at Villa Park - their minds were totally on the final).

Oldsmoker added 00:24 - Dec 29
I was in the North stand when he played his debut against Portsmouth.
One of his goals was a diving header that went up about 15 ft and dropped into the far post. You could hear the intake of breath from the North stand fans as it looped up, then a moment of silence followed by a crescendo of noise as it went in.
Thanks for the memories Elephant.

SpiritOfJohn added 07:55 - Dec 29
Great blog- brings back good memories of a cultured footballer. Especially liked your reminiscence of Viljoen stretching in the warm-up. I guess he was always a bit of an outsider, but a classy midfielder with attacking flair - how we could do with someone like that now!

MBG added 12:29 - Dec 30
It's a pity he fell out with the club at the end of the 1977/78 season. He could have given the club that extra bit of depth which so often means the difference between winning silverware and just missing out. In particular, he would have been as asset in the 1980/81 season when the pile-up of fixtures cost us the league. I know many think of Colin Viljoen as an old stager but he would have been only 32 during the course of 1980/81. Mick Mills was only a few months younger. If only......

floridablue added 17:24 - Dec 30
Also there for his debut as a young teenager. Did one of his goals come off the underside of the bar north stand end or is my memory playing tricks? Another of my all time favourite Town players.

bushhillblue added 13:21 - Jan 1
Was at carrow road for that hat trick great game that

jabberjackson added 08:15 - Jan 11
My Mum definitely ‘admired’ Colin Viljoen’
But She would always get cross at the way his name was pronounced, she is Dutch, and as Colin was of Boer descent, she maintained it should be pronounced
And she is always right...

noel added 22:47 - Jan 12
Thanks for the great blog about my favourite player. He was class.

krizz00 added 15:35 - Jan 20
Superb blog! Great read.

Radlett_blue added 14:19 - Jan 23
I thought the situation in 1978 was that Viljoen wasn't popular with the rest of the Town squad as he was seen as rather arrogant & aloof. (e.g. stories of him - one of the first Town players to own a car - refusing to give other players a lift to the training ground). They were horrified that SBR was clearly intending to pitch Vijoen back into Town's Cup Final team ahead of Roger Osborne so he was effectively frozen out of the calamitous Villa game, with several of them refusing to pass to him. Sad that so talented a player - usually the best player in the team when started watching Town in the early 1970s - had his Town career end in such a way.

bazgammon added 21:44 - Mar 1
Little know fact is that he was a friend of Robert Mutt Lange famed Rock Producer of AC/DC. Def Leppard, Bryan Adams and it was this link that got him to produce Ipswich, Ipswich get that goal the 78 song. Much better player than Osbourne. Viljoen met my mum and dad and brother when my brother had a foot operation at Ipswich hospital in 1975. They all said he was a nice bloke.
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