|And Along Came Jim|
Written by Moggasknockdown on Tuesday, 24th Mar 2020 12:43
Life without football is a funny old thing. Currently, in these most testing of times, the idea of missing football might seem like a triviality, an inconsequential itch amidst an existential crisis. Many of us miss the routine of it, the communality and regularity of it.
As obscene as this might seem, the club is a comfort blanket to many of us, shared experiences with our loved ones, close friends or even people with whom we share very little with other a Saturday afternoon at the ground. The same faces, the same smells, the same groans and gripes. It provides a familiar comfort - a regularity from which we can find solace.
Currently, I find myself reading about and watching football in whatever hit I can get it in. Perhaps it’s my own defence mechanism to the horrors that feel like they are closing in. In any form, it is helping to take me to a happier, and more content place right now, even if it is just for a second. These rambles are extremely therapeutic to me- so please forgive my indulgence.
And Along Came Jim
There was a kid in my school who used to claim that he supported four clubs. He once came into school wearing a York City scarf after they beat Manchester United in the League Cup.
Contrarily, he wore a Chesterfield shirt following their semi-final defeat to Middlesbrough in 1997 and spoke with a well-rehearsed reverence about Kevin Davies.
He also occasionally claimed to be a Town fan. What irked me most was this kid's rather coincidental interest in the Town from 1997, as our form became more consistent and promotion a very real possibility.
My instinct was to be cynical: You cannot hedge your bets with a football club - you are born with them, then over many, many years, they perpetually disappoint you. That is how it works.
I have often allowed my mood to be defined by Ipswich Town. A last-minute defeat at Blackpool a few weeks ago sparked a row over a cup of tea with my wife. That is the sort of hopelessly childish behaviour which seems starkly irrelevant now, but it is all part of the same threads of that comfort blanket that I have wrapped myself in throughout my life and am hopelessly clinging on to now.
In 1999, I was three years back from a year living in New Zealand in 1994. The year out provided a welcome distance to the profoundly chaotic relegation year in 1995, where of course we were the whipping boys (“no easy games apart from Ipswich,” chimed Alan Shearer) followed by the oft-repeated humiliation at Old Trafford.
I can still hear the headlines on Sports Report, the jaunty jingle as the clock struck five, followed by Arlo White (?!!); “Cole hits five and United hit nine” – ‘Jesus Christ’ muttered my Dad as he navigated the car out of the car park in town.
By 1999 through, following three years in the Championship, we had built a team of attacking brilliance with exceptional young home-grown talent in Kieron Dyer, Richard Wright and James Scowcroft, and shrewd recruitment over several seasons that saw Matt Holland and David Johnson join the experienced heads of Tony Mowbray and Mark Venus.
Add to that, a smattering of flair and delivery out wide from Bobby Petta, Fabian Wilnis and Jamie Clapham, we had a great team and were odds on for promotion as we won eith out of nine games from March to April.
Naturally enough, we blew it. Ipswich are, and probably always will be a bit of a soft touch, but this particular capitulation was a new level of bone-headedness. Crewe were always a dangerous proposition under Dario Gradi and had some skilful and gifted youngsters in Danny Murphy and Dean Ashton and crafty but talented pros like Mark Rivers.
It was a game that Town lost dismally 2-1, and with it any sense of control over our own destiny as a Paul Jewell-inspired Bradford hit their straps just at the right time.
With a tricky away game at Birmingham the following week (lost 1-0- classically Ipswich under George Burley was a penchant for withering under physical scrutiny at places like St Andrews and the Reebok) we completed the season at home to Sheffield United for the final game of the season (won 4-1 in odd atmosphere as we were glued to our radios for the Bradford score).
The Crewe loss was the fatal blow to a campaign that would see us lose to Bolton in a rumbustious play-off, finally defeated by a Bob Taylor brace in an ‘away-goals’ loss.
The bitterness of the Bolton defeat coupled with the capitulation against Crewe lived with me throughout the summer. A lack of character, leadership and depth in the squad lead to doubts that we would simply drift away and as the club sold Dyer in the summer those fears appeared well-founded.
I decided that I would not let myself be hurt like that again, the disappointment of being so close and failing would take years to get over. I would rather be a cold, distant non-believing cynic. They can't hurt you that way.
That summer, we bought Jermaine Wright and John McGreal with the proceeds from the Dyer sale, but the most important signing had already been made towards the end of the previous season, that of Jim Magilton on a permanent deal following his loan from Sheffield Wednesday.
Obviously, Marcus Stewart would follow halfway through the season 1999/00, a man to whom I would gladly give my car, house and wife if he asked, but Magilton was the centre piece, the orchestrator, the driving force.
He was a subtle genius, picking passes, setting tone and demanding more from his teammates when they stuttered. Matt Holland buzzed about him tirelessly putting out fires, but Magilton used to play games like a grand master, slowing and quickening the game, providing the subtlety to a midfield full of flair in 1999, truly finding his tune alongside Jermaine Wright, who brought positional discipline into a 3-5-2 system that held us in good stead through to Wembley and Nirvana.
In April 2000 at Charlton, as the season reached its finale, Magilton produced an imperious display on a hot and sticky afternoon at the Valley with two assists and a wonderful freekick. Our performance was full of character (more on that to come) and belied the Manchester City celebrations on the pitch on the night before, such was their certainty that we wouldn’t beat the Addicks and that promotion was theirs.
His assist for David Johnson's goal was classical Magilton - amongst swamped by red shirts amongst broken play in the middle third, a dreamy weighted pass as at just the right time- Johnsons run behind, Richard Rufus haplessly in no man's land. The ball dropping on Johnson's right foot to hit on the half-volley and double the lead.
It was Bolton, of course, that came again in the play-offs following a similarly odd final game at home to Walsall that eventually saw City promoted despite being 1-0 down to Blackburn in the first half. At the Reebock we were, predictably, 2-0 down in the first leg, beset by injuries and facing another desperate failure at the last.
I remember turning the radio off and sitting in a numbed silence in my car having heard the Bolton second go in. I cursed the club for yet another withering and wilting performance, and cursed my softening that had allowed them to hurt me like this again.
An hour, and two Marcus Stewart goals later, and I had dumbly about-turned again and was back as a fully paid believer.
The second leg was the greatest game I have witnessed. An emotionally and physically draining event that still brings with it those waves of emotion. The ground swelled. The desire for victory; the sheer, guttural longing for our beloved club to finally overcome this most cruel of stages was as profound as anything I have experienced watching Ipswich.
The game swayed and rocked, unstable but exciting, and one man stood at the bridge of the ship amidst all of the chaos and dragged his team from the brink. Watching Magilton that night was like watching a great musician at his peak. He was peerless. Physical, demanding, feisty, driven and balletic all in one 120 -minute performance, as many of his teammates waivered.
They looked to Magilton. They needed him. Defensively we were dreadful, an exploding clown's car of a performance; giving a snarling, snapping Bolton team any impetus they desired often on a plate.
Crisis after crisis followed, Magilton fought them single-handedly, and provoked them, hilariously. He stood up to them, one at a time, and bested them that night almost on his own. Missed penalty aside, his performance was one of the greatest ever seen at the ground and will surely not be surpassed any time soon.
I remember watching a lady trying to comfort her tearful son with minutes left on the clock. I watched people edge towards the exits as the clock slipped into overtime. That familiar knot in my stomach. My Dad, speechless, spent, hugged me as we waited for the inevitable shriek and death knell of the whistle followed by a carnival of cheers from the top of the Cobbold, where the Bolton fans were cavorting like dolphins.
Then Venus brought the ball forward one last time and sent another missile into the Suffolk night, towards the forehead of Tony Mowbray. The North Stand stopped. Magilton, centre-stage, lined up. Seconds later I was under the arm of my Dad over some seats in the lower Cobbold - pure, unadulterated abandon and joy.
Four years of hurt forgotten in a second. When, eventually we confirmed victory following some hilariously thuggish behaviour in extra-time by Bolton, I ran onto the pitch, past a steward who tried to stop me but saw the lights were long gone and nobody apart from a kid expressing pure unabated joy was home.
Thing is, that sort of a moment doesn’t have the same meaning unless you have lived through the pain. Jim will always be my favourite player to wear the blue and white, for that night alone probably. For balance, he had his critics, but I for one won't hear any of it. He brought a sense of identity to the town team, a waspish, tempestuous character on the field, he demanded more from his teammates than anyone else, truly a player of great personality.
Often teams would try to stop him, sometimes cynically. Most of the time, even in his later years, they were rarely on his wavelength. “The first few yards are upstairs” is what people used to say of Teddy Sheringham, and the same was true of Jim. I loved him as a player and then as a manager, and was gutted that it didn’t last.
He was the one that gave me my happiest night watching Ipswich, he was the one that brought the greatest of great of endings to a promotion story that I had started to cynically dismiss as make-believe, and he was the one that made it all worthwhile in the end.
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