|Big Club, Little Club|
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Monday, 10th Jan 2022 09:41
When I first started regularly going to Portman Road, Town had recently won the league as ‘upstart country cousins’.
They were undeniably a small club from the sticks, despite just having played (and beaten) winners-to-be AC Milan in the European Cup at Portman Road.
Back then, I’m not sure anybody disagreed with the notion that Town were a small club, albeit one very well run with affable charm by the Cobbolds and punching well above their weight. Even a year later when they were struggling in the old Second Division, just three years after winning the league.
In the early sixties, staggering achievements at Portman Road were a recent memory. But here’s the thing, so were humble beginnings in the Third Division South and fleeting memories of the Second Division.
So it was indeed easy to remain grounded and not to expect to win the league again any time soon. We were happy with our status as a well-run little club from the sticks.
It helped I guess that one of the stands was a rickety wooden contraption, the ground was next to a cattle market – and the pub was called The Sporting Farmer.
And so it came to pass that when Bill McGarry developed a hugely talented team in double quick time and Town returned to the top division in the late sixties, nobody had any great expectations. Least of all McGarry himself, who promptly jumped ship for the greater potential of Wolves. Or indeed star players such as Danny Hegan, who went to West Brom and John O’Rourke, who went to Coventry City.
It’s easy to mock those decisions now – but at the time Wolves and Coventry, who were promoted together the year before Town, both had exceptional and exciting sides – and both were soon enjoying forays into Europe long before Town got there. You see Town were still a little club.
By now Town were beginning to struggle without their stars – Ray Crawford and O’Rourke were huge losses. Ron Wigg and Mick Hill didn’t quite cut it as replacements – and relegation battles were both annual events and to be expected. But all seemed well, because Town were a small club, punching well above their weight.
Gradually, year by year, things began to change – until, suddenly, Town appeared quite good. I’m not sure what triggered the change. The signings of Ian Collard and Jimmy Robertson, FA Cup winners, no less, playing for Town? The signing of Allan Hunter? Winning the Texaco Cup? But by the mid-70s Town were a very good team indeed.
Then, almost unbelievably, Town were in Europe which they took to like a duck to water. I remain convinced that this was the best of times (and worst of times) to be a Town fan.
The FA Cup run of 1974/75 was by far the most exciting cup run Town have ever been on. Record crowds, stunning come backs and epic replays of epic replays. Occasions that cannot and therefore never will be repeated.
But even as they knocked out holders Liverpool and champions Leeds, Town were the underdogs – a small town club now competing toe to toe with the big boys. Until that season Town had never made it to the quarter-finals. No cup run had gone beyond the third tie, but never mind, we were a small club. Cups were for the big boys. Now, but for Clive Thomas, actually winning it seemed possible.
But I digress. Europe. In an era where if you drew ‘mighty’ Real Madrid or Lokomotiv Leipzig from behind the Iron Curtain, the players were gloriously exotic – and the football almost unbearably tense and exciting.
Again the first run was by far the most gripping – Real Madrid champions of Spain in waiting, Gunther Netzer strolling around the Portman Road turf – a real pinch yourself moment.
Lazio – champions to be of Italy and not one but two nights of footballing infamy. FC Twente brought a whiff of Dutch sophistication in the total football era.
And so it went on until the damp squib of being out, despite having won at home to a pretty poor Leipzig team. But never mind – Town were a small club, it was a privilege to be there. John Cobbold milked every moment and Town became much more than unknown opponents for many of these clubs celebrated with alcohol infused evenings for club dignitaries from far and wide that spewed into legend so to speak.
But somewhere along the way things changed. Town were no longer a small club – but a BIG club. The wooden East Stand had long gone, carefully replaced by a concrete megastructure in stages, so as to be affordable. Then came the ill-advised Pioneer Stand. And the rest as they say is history.
I remember being very blasé about Town’s success. I assumed European football would go on forever. I even allowed myself to be persuaded to hand over my FA Cup final ticket to my brother’s girlfriend on the understanding that I’d get his next time. You see, in my mind Town were now a BIG club and a second cup final seemed a logical expectation.
Two things stand out as flagging the moment Town were about to implode. The first was building the Pioneer Stand just as Robson was about to depart. And the other was assuming that Mick Mills could be replaced by Irvin Gernon. You see back then Town’s youth production line seemed like a well-oiled machine. Town were now a BIG club with BIG players and it would go on for ever.
When Town finally bit the dust in the top division only four other clubs had been there longer, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and... Coventry City. So I guess big club delusions were to be expected. We were after all bigger than Manchester United and Spurs, let alone Manchester City and Chelsea.
Other than Manchester United, Spurs and Chelsea contriving to get relegated, the other stand-out stat is Coventry City’s longevity. To those of you who think Town are a BIG club, as I once did, I give you Coventry City, winners of one domestic cup, just like Town. Or Oxford United. Or Wigan, Or Wimbledon. Or Portsmouth. Or perish the thought, Norwich City, who might even have two.
You see when it comes to domestic trophies Ipswich Town are pretty small beer. Looking back it’s staggering just how little Robson’s excellent teams actually won, which may be a factor of the strength of the top division in that era when the European Cup was seemingly won on an annual basis by English teams with British players.
Two more recent moments of big club delusion for me are the 2000 play-off final – basically a Wembley trophy for coming third (even if you came sixth) – and the catastrophe of signing ‘European experience’ after that memorable qualification for the UEFA Cup.
David Sheepshanks and George Burley never seemed to consider that Ipswich Town became a BIG club by gaining European experience, not buying it (with other people's money). Oh, and I suppose quietly forgetting the Pioneer Stand debacle and building not one, but two new stands is a stand out moment of complete and utter BIG club delusion.
So the 21st century saw Town as firmly believing once again they are a BIG club. Like all BIG clubs we belong in the Premier League, despite going backwards for 20 years and now residing in the third division on merit, that BIG delusion remains firmly in place.
And so to franchise status, ’bought’ by some Americans who see ‘value’ in an undervalued club. They too have been persuaded that Town are a BIG club, one that can be transformed with the stardust of borrowed money.
Town contrived to lose nigh on £100 million sinking from the fringe of the second division play-offs to third division mediocrity in Marcus Evans’s tenure. That is quite some achievement. Yet still Town seem a good punt in far-off Arizona.
So for now we certainly have BIG club trappings. The photos of yesteryear on the stands, a BIG backroom staff Barcelona might question, BIG signings, BIG budgets and a man with a BIG smile in an open-necked shirt fronting all the BIG success to come. I do however get a distinct and worrying feeling of deja-vu. Paul Cook reminded me of Paul Hurst. And Mark Ashton reminds me of David Sheepshanks in that I wouldn’t buy a used car off either of them.
To return to Coventry City, the four divisions today make for sober reading. Lost amongst the also rans are bound to be more than one or two of the Ipswich Towns of the future. Small clubs that most of us are barely aware of on the way to better things. And that’s before we consider BIG clubs that belong in the Premier League.
Not many perhaps in the fourth division – though Swindon and the soon-departing Oldham might look wistfully upwards. Not many in the third division either - where Sunderland, Bolton, Charlton, Wigan, Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday may feel they are slumming it along with Town. All the BIG talk is justified really. Promotion ought to be easily attainable if only a modicum of common sense is applied. IF.
But the second division where Town currently cast covetous eyes? For me, only Peterborough (surely the Norwich City of the Championship) and perhaps Luton Town don’t see themselves as BIG clubs awaiting their rightful time in the Premier League.
Lurking in there are similar-sized clubs to Town that won two European Cups and two league titles in Robson’s time. How sick must their supporters be feeling? One even recently won the Premier League. Many, maybe even most have tasted the rarefied air of the Premier League since Town’s last all-too brief and suicidal appearance at the top table
And therein lies the problem. If and when Town get promoted, they will effectively be a small fish in a big pond once again = this time in the second division. It might help if the new brooms at Portman Road dial back the hype and take on the small club mentality that once did the club so proud.
I for one have come full circle and once again think of Town as a small club – admittedly currently punching below their weight. And I see hope in the recent and surprising success of Coventry City for Town to become a small (and dare one hope, well-run) club, punching spectacularly above its weight. A phoenix rising perhaps.
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