Twenty Years Ago Today Town Went to Derby Chasing the Champions League
Wednesday, 19th May 2021 06:00 by Dan Botten
Twenty years ago today Town went to Pride Park, Derby with a chance of making the Champions League. Dan Botten is writing a book about the Blues’ 2000/01 season and looks back at that memorable first campaign back in the Premier League with some of those who played starring roles.
“I remember looking at the bench and the gaffer and David Williams (physio) were just looking at me and cracking up. I was in bloody agony with cramp and wanted some help, but they were not having any of it.
“You know it’s bad when even George is laughing at you. I got my revenge on the post-season tour in Majorca a few days afterwards though!”
These are the words of Jim Magilton at the end of a gruelling season which saw Town enter the last game of the season with an outside chance of qualifying for the Champions League.
Magilton, still an iconic Town legend and a pivotal name amongst a stellar cast, was a shining light in the momentous 2000/01 campaign in which Ipswich achieved the unmatched feat of qualifying directly for Europe following promotion from what’s now the Championship but was then known as Division One.
A season that saw tremendous scalps on the road at Leeds, Liverpool and Everton all came down to the final game of the season at Derby County with a Champions League place on the line, although Blues were the outsiders in a three-horse race.
Town needed victory in the East Midlands and hope that Leeds or Liverpool slipped up against Leicester and Charlton respectively in order to make Europe’s greatest club competition.
The Blues’ superb away form that season gave them heart as did a fully-fit squad and a sold out away end for a game that Sky did not show live.
Manager George Burley, pictured above with his assistant Dale Roberts, was adamant they were in with a shout: “You have to believe your chances and we hadn’t given up. No way. They nicked the win against us at Portman Road, but we went there full of belief.”
Unprecedented demand from Ipswich fans saw their allocation extended three times in the run up to the game. For many of those who couldn’t get a ticket, it would be a case of following via whatever means possible and praying and hoping others fell away but early injuries in the game were a portent of what was to follow.
The Blues found themselves on the receiving end of some overzealous tactics from the home side, Danny Higginbotham clattering into the back of Marcus Stewart after 20 minutes and then Jermaine Wright limped off six minutes later.
Things went from bad to worse when Malcolm Christie put the Rams ahead on the half hour at literally the same time that Leeds took the lead against Leicester.
After the break, Town would come out guns blazing and Richard Naylor scored soon after the restart with a deflected strike.
But despite constant Town pressure and constant backing from a fancy-dress bedecked raucous Suffolk following, the game petered out as news filtered through that Leeds and Liverpool had stretched ahead in their games to grab the last two spots.
A fantastic season came to an end before tired bodies where whisked away to enjoy a mini-break to Majorca as an end of season celebration for their heroic efforts.
The sun-dappled Spanish island was the location where Magilton with the help of John McGreal got his revenge.
“It was the day of the 2001 FA Cup final and John and I were big Scousers, so we sat round the pool and as you do started on a few beers. The physio Dave Williams was a Gooner, and Chris Makin was a Manc, so they were cheering on Arsenal.
“The beers flowed early but it was looking bad when Arsenal took the lead. However, two late Michael Owen goals gave us the win and John and I were doing handstands in the end by the pool. Dave and Chris were gutted. We just carried on drinking!”
Martijn Reuser, Ipswich’s flying Dutchman, had more vague memories of that post-season jaunt: “All I remember about that trip was just about surviving it! We had such a great team spirit. We built on the season before with the same squad, so the confidence was high and the few additions we did make were all good lads.
“You still had to perform in training every day to keep your place. My playing rival was Jamie Clapham, but we got on well. It summed up the squad.”
Looking back, how did this band of seasoned journeymen and highly talented youngsters chart their way to European success? Promoted teams should not have been expected to challenge for Champions League spots, let alone a side that had struggled for three years in the play-offs before gloriously winning at Wembley and returning to the top table.
Things started off at on a sunny August afternoon at Tottenham Hotspur and White Hart Lane, a crackling atmosphere and a home side displaying the magisterial talents of new signing Sergei Rebrov.
Town, bold as brass, took an early lead through a Mark Venus deflected thunderbolt and the away fans dared to dream only for mistakes to be made and a 3-1 defeat handed out to the visitors.
New signing Hermann Hreidarsson, the summer’s big addition from Wimbledon for £4 million, however remained confident after his debut baptism of fire.
“I thought we would be OK, I genuinely did,” he said. “I knew Ipswich played good football, but we really did match them at times that day and I was pleasantly surprised even though we lost.”
That feeling was emphatically strengthened when champions Manchester United visited Portman Road under the lights the following Tuesday and Town tore into them from the off. A superb early goal from Fabian Wilnis put them in front which the Dutch full-back remembers well.
“We broke from a United attack and I knew Ryan Giggs was behind me, I just set off. Then Johnno [David Johnson] had the ball in their half, and I just kept running.
“I was screaming at him, ‘Johnno! Johnno!’ to put me through and eventually the ball reached me. I just hit it and saw it finish in the net.
“Oh man! I turned and ran towards the crowd, I was out of control, it made it even better that my brother and his mates were there and going mental!”
Although United hit back and claimed a point via a fortuitous David Beckham free-kick which crept past Richard Wright, who was to be among the Blues stars of the season, Town had left their mark firmly on the division, Alex Ferguson stating that the Blues “fought like tigers”.
Confidence hit new heights in the following game when emerging tyro Titus Bramble sauntered through the Sunderland defence to register a second-half magnificent finish and notch the first win of the season.
As Wilnis again remembers, “We had got off to a good start. Four points was an OK haul, but we had played well in every match. Most of us in pre-season didn’t think we would get four points from the first four games, although I think George Burley and Jim Magilton said we would get nine!”
Back-to-back narrow defeats to Leicester and Aston Villa tempered the buoyancy but a trip to Elland Road on 16th September 2000 saw Town claim a fantastic 2-1 win against Leeds who had just played Barcelona in midweek. Indeed, the hosts would reach the semi-finals of the Champions League that season.
Suffolk-born forward James Scowcroft equalised an early Lee Bowyer strike with his first Premier League goal, before midfielder Jermaine Wright claimed the winner in the second period.
“We played so well that day, we always went into every game thinking we would get three points, but I remember my goal, the cross came in and I just took it early,” Scowcroft recalled.
“That for me was a victory that really set us up and we realised we could do more than just survive.”
That game also saw the emergence of the chant and nickname of the season. Although it had been occasionally heard in previous seasons, the travelling Blues’ response of ‘2-1 to the Tractor Boys’ following some yokel-related ribbing from the home fans stuck for the campaign and beyond.
That win at Leeds was followed by two more of away victories, at Everton and Bradford. The dominant 3-0 triumph at Goodison Park was remembered by manager George Burley for one reason.
“I remember us winning at Goodison away,” recalled Burley from his Ipswich back garden two decades later. “And we were magnificent that day. Walter Smith was to my right and kept shooting me looks. We caught up at the end of the game and he said to me that everything that he and his team did we had an answer for.
“To be honest, that made me so happy. I knew we were progressing, and I knew we could hold our own.”
Another Town legend with clear yet different memories of the Goodison trip was skipper and midfielder Matt Holland.
An ever-present, the box-to-box dynamo began to realise that at every Ipswich attacking corner he was being marked by Paul Gascoigne would walk up towards him and stare down at his arm.
“After the third or fourth one, I asked Gazza what he was looking at,” Holland said. “He told me that he had written down “Holland 8” on his wrist after training so he could remember who I was and that he had to mark me in the box!”
Town showed further solid form after that Merseyside victory and soon after they paid another trip to Liverpool, this time a Sunday afternoon at Anfield saw the visitors seal a magnificent 1-0 win thanks to a composed Marcus Stewart finish.
What does the Bristolian remember about that goal? “I just had that vision, you know? I knew when I got the ball I had a chance, but players kept trying to tackle me and kept on missing.
“I decided to carry on and then when the chance came along, I stuck it in with my right foot, my weaker foot. It was a dream goal in a dream game. And let’s face it, it was a dream season.”
Stewart notched 19 goals and ended up as the highest scoring Englishman in the season above Michael Owen, Teddy Sheringham, Emile Heskey, Kevin Phillips and James Beattie.
Amazingly, international recognition did not come his way, but he left indelible memories with both Ipswich fans and football followers across the country.
What was the secret of his success? “That season was my moment. I was really settled in the town and my boy Finlay was born there. I came bouncing into pre-season wanting to be as fit as possible and it started from there.
“I tell you what though, training was bloody tough. We used to replicate match situations and I was up on my own against our three centre-backs and they kicked me about.
“It was not easy, but it really sharpened me up. George Burley was a top manager, he really knew how to get the best out of me.”
Just before Christmas, Town visited Old Trafford and lost 2-0, a game in which Scowcroft admits the Blues were very much second best.
“One of the toughest that season. The first half they completely outplayed us,” he said. “It was a hammering.”.
The Blues had further significant reverses soon afterwards, losing 4-1 at both Sunderland and Chelsea.
However, once again the bouncebackability that the club showed all season came to the fore as they brushed off their poor form and doubled both Bradford - the 3-1 home win famed for Hreidarsson’s stage dive celebration of the third goal - and Everton before two tremendous wins at West Ham and Southampton.
Reuser’s free-kick special registered the points in London as the Blues won 1-0 and that was followed by a wonderful 3-0 win at Southampton in front of the watching millions on Sky and England manager Sven Goran Eriksson in the stands.
Star of the show again that night was hitman Stewart with a magnificent treble including a memorable ‘Panenka’ penalty.
“I knew I was in the frame for England and was told that Eriksson was there. I had mates, family and the press in my ear so I was fully aware!” Stewart remembers.
“It was one of those days when everything clicked. As for the penalty, yes, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. The main thing in those situations is not to change your mind, do that and it’s fatal.”
He continues: “Look, if England happened that would have been great, but I have no regrets. Circumstances meant it did not happen and it is what it is.
“To win the Golden Boot would have been quite something but it did not mean everything to me, it was just great to score goals for the club and us to have such a brilliant season.”
There were now seven games to go as Ipswich approached the business end of the season. Europe was firmly in their sights and another three wins against Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Coventry saw them nudge sixth.
The victory over the Sky Blues, who were destined for relegation after their long stay in the top flight, confirmed a place in Europe for the first time since 1982.
Sir Bobby Robson made an emotional return to Portman Road but went home having been beaten by a late Stewart spot-kick and then Middlesbrough were turned over 2-1 thanks to two great strikes by Alun Armstrong, a January signing and new strike partner for Stewart.
A blip at Charlton was followed by a memorable 2-1 win under the lights against Manchester City – relegating the Joe Royle-led Citizens in the process.
Two great goals by Holland and Reuser turned the game around in front of an ear-splitting Portman Road atmosphere.
“Blue moon, you got promoted too soon, now you’re going back down and Europe’s coming to Town,” the North Stand sang to the City fans, whose side had beaten the Blues to automatic promotion a year earlier.
Nearly two weeks later and Town were on their way to Pride Park for a huge game at the end of a huge season. Despite just missing out on the top four, they finished fifth, the Blues completed their 38 games three points off third place. Had they somehow managed to convert two of their six draws that season into wins they would have finished third, rising by a full 20-team division within a single calendar year.
In addition to qualifying for Europe, George Burley was crowned Manager of the Year by his peers at LMA as the club accumulated 66 points in total and another memorable chapter was written in Ipswich Town folklore.
Ipswich Town: The Blue Storm is Dan Botten’s third Ipswich Town book and will be published by Pitch Publishing. Town’s incredible season is documented in meticulous detail and speaks to players, management and supporters providing new insight from a wonderful campaign.
Photo: Action Images
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