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Muhren and Thijssen Back at Town
Saturday, 26th Sep 2015 20:17 by Mel Henderson

Blues legends Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen were back at Portman Road for today’s game against Bristol City for a feature for the Dutch magazine Voetbal International and Mel Henderson, Town’s public relations officer during their time at the club, caught up with them for TWTD.

They were special times, the very best of times and those of us privileged to witness them will never, ever forget them.

It is the same for the players who provided us with so much entertainment, enjoyment and on-the-field success under the astute leadership of Bobby Robson, who did more than anyone else to put Ipswich on the map.

New signings may have been few and far between but they were always worth the wait, no more so than in the case of the Dutch duo. Messrs Muhren and Thijssen made such an impact that they will never be forgotten in these parts for the huge contribution they made as trailblazers for today’s invasion of foreign talent.

True, Tottenham Hotspur also signed World Cup-winning stars Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, who received the lion’s share of the publicity in the summer of 1978, but while Muhren’s arrival in Ipswich may have been less heralded it was no less effective in terms of what he brought to the team and when Thijssen joined him in Suffolk six months later things really started to take off.

Muhren remembers how the move came about. “I had some problems with FC Twente so I didn’t want to play for them any more,” he recalled.

“I was training in my home town, Volendam, to keep fit and Volendam wanted to buy me from Twente but they didn’t have the money. So all of a sudden I had Mr Robson in my house, asking me if I wanted to go back with him to Ipswich.

“He said ‘You will like it. It’s only a small place but it is a lovely club.’ So I had to make a decision in one or two days. We went from Amsterdam to Ipswich in a small, private plane and when I arrived I was amazed at the number of people who were at the airport.

“I looked around and wondered if Paul McCartney was arriving but they said it was me they had come to see. There was a lot of interest because I was the first foreign player to come to Ipswich and one of the first in England. We had flown over the stadium before we landed. He had told the players to wave and I could see them clearly.

“I remember it well, how I had to make a decision in 24 hours. I didn’t have an agent at the time and I didn’t really have a clue what to do.

“Contracts can be complicated but Ipswich wanted me to sign before 12 o’clock and then I would have been eligible to play against AZ Alkmaar in the first round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup that season. But I couldn’t make a decision in that time.

“The whole morning we were here, there and everywhere, at the club and going to look at houses. But I decided not to do it, although I was very impressed with the board of directors.

“They took me for dinner before I left to go back to Holland and they told me ‘You are always welcome if you want to come back’. That impressed me because normally if you go to a club and you don’t sign you would expect them to say ‘Enjoy your flight’ and that’s the end of it. But Mr Robson just said ‘If you change your mind let us know’.

“Their hospitality and kindness made such an impression on me and all the way home I was thinking about it. When I get back I said to my wife ‘We have to go’. I had a very, very good feeling about it so I got myself an agent and we went back to Ipswich to sort everything out.”

But Muhren, who went on to win the supporters’ Player of the Year award at the end of his first season – it was handed over by Ardiles before the home win over Tottenham – readily admits he was anything but an overnight sensation. In fact, his debut in a 3-0 home defeat by Liverpool could hardly have signalled a worse start to what eventually proved one of the most enjoyable chapters of a wonderful career.

He remembered: “They told me about Terry McDermott and said I had to stay with him. I had about three touches of the ball and a stiff neck from watching it going over my head all the time.

“I went to see Mr Robson and told him ‘If you want to get the best out of me you have to give me the ball, otherwise you would be better off with anyone, even someone who works in the office, in the team. It’s football, you play it with your feet. If you don’t give me the ball I can’t show you what I can do.”

His new colleagues’ match-day routine also took Muhren by surprise. He said: “It was my first game and I remember there was nobody in the dressing room half an hour before the game so I went to the treatment room and I was sitting on one of the beds.

“I waited and waited then Tommy [Eggleston, the club physio at the time] came in and said ‘What are you doing here?’

“I said ‘Can you loosen up my calf, it’s what I did in Holland’. He said ‘Son, what you have to do is when the game kicks off make two, three or four good sprints and that’s the best warm-up you can get. You will never beat that’.

“There was no massage, I was told just to run. It was all about three o’clock – roll up your sleeves and off you go lads.

“I used to be in the gym before a game with a ball. Somebody said to me before my first game ‘Where are you going?’ and I said I was going to warm up in the gym. There was no such thing as warming up for the other players.

“But after a while, once Frans had been at the club for a while, the other players started to come to the gym with us – but not to do warming up, just talking and maybe playing head tennis.”

Thijssen smiles as Arnold recalls his early days as an Ipswich player then adds: “When Arnold and I were in the gym warming up the other players were in the players’ lounge watching the horse racing. I had to warm up because I had a lot of problems with pulled muscles, hamstrings and calves.

“I just made it to the UEFA Cup final against AZ after thinking it would be impossible to play. I was struggling to play for 90 minutes but I managed it. Tommy, the physio, sent me to the hospital with my problems and I got injections so I couldn’t feel anything.”

But the pair are in total agreement that while their contribution was hugely significant, the transformation to a continental-style system of play would never have been so smooth had the rest of the players not been similarly blessed with special skills, so that the whole thing dovetailed perfectly.

Thijssen said: “It was something for Arnold to come to England back then but you have to remember it was also a gamble for Mr Robson. Okay, maybe we weren’t too expensive to sign but he was also taking a risk.

“It was only when Arnold contacted me and was very positive about playing in England and for Ipswich that I agreed to come over, although I always had the thought in my mind that I would like to come and play here.

“I liked the idea of playing in front of much bigger crowds. We were not players who thought only about the money. We liked the football and we had good players around us. It was a great time for both of us.”

Muhren added: “We had a different style of playing football in Holland and at that time England wasn’t looking for players who could tackle or were good in the air because 90 per cent of English players could do that. They were looking for more creative players and they had to change things to accommodate us. So, yes, it was a gamble by Mr Robson.

“It didn’t work just because of us. We had great defenders, great strikers in Mariner and Brazil with Gates playing off them, creative midfield players and John Wark scoring all those goals. There wasn’t a lot of difference in the money – remember Mrs Thatcher was taking about 70 per cent from us in tax!

“It was completely different here to what we were used to in Holland. In the beginning, if I beat an opponent and then kicked the ball against the corner flag instead of the goal it was a standing ovation, everybody was clapping. I was thinking ‘I can’t do anything wrong here’. Very positive!

“When it became known that I was going to Ipswich I had people in Holland telling me ‘It is not your style. It’s kicking, bad pitches and physical, too strong for you’. But they were not waiting for players like that. Ardiles and Villa did well for Spurs – and they were completely different as well.”

Thijssen gesticulated with his arms to make a further point. He said: “Terry Butcher and Russell Osman, they normally played this ball, back to front. But slowly we started to play football.

“Brazil and Gatesy, they didn’t like the long balls. Paul Mariner didn’t mind too much because he was strong in the air. Warky was so good at making the runs from deep and every penalty was in, it seemed he never missed.”

That point jogged the memory of Muhren, who was quick to add: “Alan Brazil, one against one with the goalkeeper, goal! It was unbelievable that season [1980-81].”

Then Thijssen’s sense of humour kicked in and he came back: “I hear Alan has put a little bit of weight on. I haven’t seen him for a couple of years and he was big then!”

The pair remember beating Manchester United 6-0 at Portman Road in March, 1980, when Ipswich-born goalkeeper Gary Bailey, whose father Roy won a League Championship medal with Town, saved the Reds from an even more humiliating scoreline, saving a Thijssen spot-kick and another from Beattie, which was twice-taken.

But that is not the game they remember above all others, both plumping for the sensational 4-1 quarter-final win over St Etienne in France en route to capturing the UEFA Cup. Muhren said: “They had Johnny Rep plus Platini, Battiston, Larios, all French internationals, and they hadn’t lost a game at home for years and years. I used to play with Johnny at Ajax and he was so surprised to lose.

“He couldn’t believe it and said ‘What happened?’ He made it 1-0 to St Etienne but then we were all over them. Butcher scored, Mariner scored, Warky scored and I scored. A special performance from everyone.”

Thijssen added: “My memory’s not that good but to win 4-1 there was a special result. Our problem was that we didn’t have enough players to cover when there were injuries. We only had 14 players to play most of the games.”

Muhren’s turn now: “I remember we were 1-0 up at Middlesbrough, our last away game of the season, then Bosko Jankovic scored two. Aston Villa were at Arsenal and they lost but they still won the league that day. If only we had won that game at Middlesbrough.”

Such was their impact at Ipswich, it was no easy task to keep the pair when their contracts expired. Muhren’s initial deal expired in 1980 and he could have taken his pick from a plethora of clubs, both in England and on the continent.

But Robson convinced him to sign another two-year deal with the proviso that he would be granted a free transfer, leaving him to negotiate a more lucrative deal for himself in 1982.

Muhren laughed: “Maybe Mr Robson thought ‘He’ll be 32 by then, it will be the end of his career’. But I went on to play for another seven years after I left Ipswich.

“At Manchester United they thought the same thing. When I was 35 I had an agreement for one more year. Johan Cruyff became manager at Ajax and he phoned me up. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked me.

“He said ‘You have to come here, I don’t care about your agreement. I need you here to help the younger players.’ I told him ‘I’m 35, Johan. I’m walking with a stick almost’. But he said ‘I don’t care, you can play football’. He needed some experience in the team.

“So I went to Martin Edwards, the chairman, with tears in my eyes and told him I had to go back home. He thought it was the end of my career and let me go.

“But there was more to come – in 1987 I won the European Cup Winners’ Cup with Ajax against Leipzig when we had Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp in the team. Apart from me everybody was about 20 or 21.”

It was Muhren’s second spell with the Dutch giants, having first moved there at the age of 19 when they were, he firmly believes, the best team in the world. He added: “Ajax had just beaten Panathinaikos in the European Cup final at Wembley.

“But can you believe this – we were playing in front of 13,000 in Amsterdam. Absolutely unbelievable and I don’t know why it was. When we played European games we moved to the Olympic Stadium and there were 50,000 people there.”

Mention of van Basten brings us to the European Championship and the Dutch success over the Soviet Union – a certain Sergei Baltacha was in their squad – in the Olympic Stadium in Munich. At the age of 37 it was Muhren, galloping down the left, who supplied the cross for the striker to volley his side’s second goal in a 2-0 win.

Modestly, Muhren said: “It wasn’t actually a great ball. I looked up and it was my intention to put the ball a couple of yards in front of him for him to run onto. I think people were looking at the ball – it went so high in the air – and they were thinking ‘What has he done?’ But Marco turned it into a good cross because he scored such a great goal from it, a goal that looked impossible.”

Both players were full of praise for Sir Bobby’s part in their success in England. Muhren said: “Before he passed away I phoned him. We spoke about the old days and how good the team was. He was speaking slowly and I could tell it was a strain for him. But I’m so glad I did that.

“He wasn’t like the Dutch coaches. He was not only interested in how we were playing football but also our family situation. How is your wife, does she know the good shops, are the children doing well, are they in the right school. He realised that if players were happy at home they would be better on the pitch.”

Thijssen, who later joined Nottingham Forest under the management of Brian Clough, added: “Bobby was totally different to Cloughie. I don’t think he cared about anybody. He was a bit like a dictator, he ran the club and things had to be done his way.

“I think the players were scared of him – he ruled by fear. I think Roy Keane was the same at Ipswich. But it worked for Cloughie, he got the results. And he had good players.

“I joined them from Vancouver, where I had a great time. I came back to England in the winter period and I chose Nottingham Forest. I could have gone to some Dutch clubs but I remembered Forest from my time in Ipswich.

“I didn’t have a good time with Cloughie because it was totally different to my time with Mr Robson here. I was only there six months but that was too long for me. I went back to Holland after that.

“Hans van Breukelen, another Dutchman, was the Forest goalkeeper. I remember we went to Belgium to play Anderlecht and the day before the game we went for a walk.

“Cloughie took us into a pub in Brussels and told us all to have a drink. Hans wanted a Coke but was told he must drink beer. I didn’t mind but Hans did – that was a crazy side of Cloughie.”

Thijssen had a stint in Australia as coach with Brisbane Roar, departing earlier this year, and laughed: “I like to have a beer but when I was in Australia, would you believe I couldn’t find Foster’s lager. Can you believe that? I drank Heineken, it was fine, but no Foster’s in Australia. Isn’t that crazy?”

Thijssen, who managed Swedish side Malmo as well as Dutch clubs Vitesse, De Graafschap and Fortuna Sittard, had a spell in the Middle East. He said: “I’m 63 now and I don’t know what will be next. If the phone rings I will answer it and hear what they have to say. But if not, no problem. I am happy and have two grandchildren – but Arnold has four so he is beating me there.”

A year older at 64, Muhren is sporting two new hips and looks as slim as he was in his heyday. He eventually finished with Ajax at the age of 39 and is still connected to the club. He said: “I don’t coach any more, which I did with the younger players for many years. I am an ambassador and I visit other countries – I do some coaching and look for players.”

Both ex-players agreed their time in England was extremely worthwhile, Muhren adding: “When I came to Ipswich I remember Mick Mills telling me not to go back to Holland without playing in the FA Cup final. Ipswich had just won it then and his words were always in my mind.

“I was fortunate enough to win the trophy with Manchester United – I scored a penalty in the replay against Brighton – and that was an amazing occasion. Better than the European Championship win in 1988, believe it or not. But they were happy times at Ipswich. We loved the football, everything really, and we laughed a lot.”

Photo: Action Images

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SpiritOfJohn added 21:07 - Oct 8
Great insight into a bygone era. Top players and it seems like they enjoyed playing for Ipswich almost as much as we enjoyed watching them.

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