UEFA Cup 40th Anniversary - Wark: We Didn't Have a Weakness, We Were Strong in Every Department
Thursday, 20th May 2021 06:00 by Mel Henderson
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Town’s glorious UEFA Cup final victory over AZ Alkmaar in Amsterdam. To mark the occasion the club’s former public relations officer, Mel Henderson, speaks to club legend John Wark about the European success that rounded off what is considered to be the greatest season in the club’s history.
It was 40 years ago today that our club, Ipswich Town, joined football’s European elite by winning the UEFA Cup, a feat that will never be repeated.
The competition is no more, instead reformatted in its current guise as the Europa League, although the famous trophy lives on and could be back in England as early as next week when Manchester United face Villarreal of Spain in the 2021 final.
The previous paragraph seemed necessary, since so many of today’s supporters need to know about Town’s former glories, and that far from being a ‘millstone round our necks’ – as one former chairman famously described it – the past is always worth celebrating, if only to act as inspiration to the club’s new owners as they embark on their journey into the unknown.
I know many of those currently engaged in purchasing season tickets, and keen to return to Portman Road after an absence of more than a year due to the Covid pandemic, have had to rely on videos, books and down-memory-lane articles such as this to have any hope of understanding the sheer scale of what Bobby Robson’s team achieved four decades ago.
But those fortunate enough to have been around at the time, many of whom would have been among the 6,000 fans that travelled across the North Sea to be present at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium to witness the club’s historic triumph over AZ Alkmaar, will never tire of reliving the occasion.
More than that, of course, the 1980/81 campaign was actually about Town’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to capture a unique treble of major honours – League Championship, FA Cup and UEFA Cup – which represented a 66-game marathon that stretched the club’s modest resources to breaking point.
The title was surrendered as injuries, plus the fact that the club had to cram too many fixtures into too short a space of time, took their toll, while interest in the FA Cup, won so memorably by Town in 1978, ended at the semi-final stage.
And so it transpired that the club’s only hope of completing an unforgettable campaign with a tangible reward for their outstanding efforts depended on victory in Europe over Dutch opponents determined to add the UEFA Cup to the domestic title they had already secured.
Back in 1981 the competition concluded with a two-leg final and who better than Town legend John Wark to help us relive not only that special occasion – he scored in both games – but to select his own highlights from a season in which he also gained significant personal recognition with accolades both at home and in Europe.
Wark was the UEFA Cup’s leading marksman that season, netting 14 of his 36 goals to equal a long-standing record by Jose Altafini, who had scored the same number in the 1961/62 competition for winners AC Milan, who, coincidentally, had eliminated Town along the way.
The Scot, who arrived from Glasgow in 1973, was also named European Youth Player of the Year and PFA Player of the Year as he finished ahead of team-mates Frans Thijssen and Paul Mariner in the annual poll of the country’s professional footballers.
Typically, although his 64th birthday is on the horizon, I caught up with Woolpit-based Wark after his weekly five-a-side session in Great Cornard. “I love it,” he laughed, “But I always struggle the morning after when I walk a bit like Douglas Bader.”
That seems an appropriate juncture to divert to an incident that took place earlier in the 1980/81 campaign, which Wark describes as his best-ever. It was March 3rd and the day before Town were due to take on the formidable task of facing a St Etienne side en route to a record tenth French crown and having lost just twice at home in 30 previous European ties.
Wark recalls: “We had a morning training session and it was Bobby Ferguson, the assistant manager, who told us we could have the afternoon off and suggested we could go into the town centre if we wanted to do a bit of shopping. One or two might have bought some items but when we found a little boozer the shopping became the last thing on our minds.
“I think there were eight of us – I call them the usual suspects. There was me, PM [Paul Mariner], Gatesy [Eric Gates], Coop [Paul Cooper], Pele [Alan Brazil], Russell [Osman], Cally [Kevin O’Callaghan] and big Butch [Terry Butcher]. You know how it works; one drink leads to another and so on.”
Doing his best to keep a straight face, Wark added: “We didn’t go stupid – we only had six or seven pints. It was the day before the game, remember.”
He continued: “We eventually got back to the hotel and Bobby (Robson) smelt the drink on our breath. I remember saying we had only had two each but he wasn’t daft. ‘You’re all fined a week’s wages,’ he said. “It shows we weren’t earning big money because I immediately panicked. I was thinking ‘How am I going to pay the mortgage?’”
Fast forward almost 24 hours and the Town players arrived at an already full Geoffroy Guichard Stadium, with only a small sprinkling of Town fans making up the numbers in a 42,000 crowd. As Wark and his mates ventured out to look at a saturated pitch that was to cut up badly, they were bombarded by all sorts of fruit.
As we all know, of course, by the end of the night those same spectators cheered the same players off after Town recovered from the early shock of falling behind to Dutch star Johnny Rep’s 16th minute goal and replied an amazing four times through two goals from Mariner and one each from Arnold Muhren and Wark.
Wark added: “It was an incredible display on what I called a Sunday morning pitch. When we reached the dressing room the first thing Bobby said was ‘Right lads, forget the fine’. One of the other guys, who had not been involved in the drinking session, piped up ‘What fine?’ The gaffer replied ‘While you four were shopping the other lot were in the pub’.”
That story goes down particularly well when Wark takes himself and his after-dinner routine to functions in the area, so apologies to those who are attending one such event in Brightlingsea tomorrow evening. You heard it here first.
Wark also loves to tell the story about meeting up with then-UEFA president Michel Platini in Manchester a few years ago, the first time he had encountered him, not only since Town’s 7-2 aggregate thumping of St Etienne, but the European Cup final of 1985, by which time the Frenchman was in the Juventus side that defeated Wark’s Liverpool in a game overshadowed by the Heysel Stadium disaster.
“I made a point of approaching him,” said Wark. “I hadn’t spoken to him on the earlier occasions but there was no way I was going to return home without a quick chat. He looked a bit confused at first. I just told him I was in the Ipswich team that beat St Etienne in 1981. He muttered something about it being a close game and I couldn’t believe it. ‘No’ I said, ‘we battered you’ and he sort of smiled.”
Wark was central to what Town achieved that season – he scored the first goal of the season at Leicester and also the last, in Amsterdam – and his final tally of 36 still raises eyebrows 40 years later. “Don’t forget I was the defensive midfielder,” he said. “There are still people who point out that a few were penalties. Well, so what? They still need to be put away, don’t they?
“Actually, every time we were awarded a penalty my first thought was ‘Goal’. I think I only missed four of the 57 I took for Ipswich and that was because I made the fatal error of changing my mind in the run-up. I even missed one for Liverpool against Everton but we still won so that let me off the hook.
“Another funny story. Years ago I was signing copies of my autobiography in Ipswich and Gatesy was in town. He was just walking past and when he looked into the shop and saw me he shouted at the top of his voice ‘I should be signing that book as well – I got him most of his penalties!’
“I suppose he had a point. He used to get kicked up in the air a lot but I wound him up by saying ‘You were always diving’. Honestly, it was some season. I remember going into it thinking I might get 15 goals. I shouldn’t have a moan but by the end, thinking about the chances I had missed along the way, I was annoyed I hadn’t got 50.”
Wark recalled how he and his team-mates felt going into the last-chance saloon in Amsterdam. A comfortable 3-0 win in the first leg at Portman Road seemed ideal preparation but he said: “We were all the same, thinking ‘We’ve got to win something’. We just couldn’t imagine ending up with nothing to show for it.
“We managed to hold on for a 5-4 aggregate win and it wasn’t easy. We were running on empty before the end and the final whistle was a huge relief. It was great for the fans as well because they made a real din over there and we felt great that we could give them something to shout about.
“The fans were a big part of our success, not just that season. We used to go out for a drink, a group of us, and we’d meet them in the pubs around Ipswich. We never had any problems, no arguments. It was a great time to be an Ipswich supporter. I think a lot of them used to turn up at the home games just expecting us to win, and so did we.
“I loved the European nights under the lights at Portman Road. We didn’t just beat teams; we battered them and scored a lot of goals. And they were all good teams – we put five past Widzew Lodz and they had knocked out both Manchester United and Juventus in the earlier rounds.
“In the semis we beat Cologne, who had knocked out Barcelona, home and away without conceding a goal. We didn’t have a weakness. We were strong in every department. With Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren either side of me I really believe we had the best midfield in Europe that season. In fact, we were probably the best team.
“But the bottom line when I think about the 1980/81 season is that we didn’t have the depth to our squad that we needed. I call it a privilege to have played in that great team but the reason we didn’t win the treble was that we had too many games and the schedule was ridiculous.”
The Town squad’s togetherness was a major factor in their success and they remain a close-knit group.
“You should see us when we have the reunions,” Wark added. “We don’t need small talk to get us going. We have a bond that will always keep us together.
“I call the other lads my football brothers and I hope we can still have a proper 40th anniversary celebration dinner. Obviously, it didn’t happen because of lockdown – but it shouldn’t be forgotten altogether.”
I’ll drink to that.
Photo: Action Images
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