UEFA Cup 40th Anniversary - Town’s Greatest European Journey
Thursday, 20th May 2021 06:00 by Phil Houseley
Phil Houseley, one of the two brothers who organised Town fans’ travels in Europe over nine years, reflects on the UEFA Cup-winning season and the organisation that went into the away trips.
Phil and his brother David wrote down their memories in a book, On a European Journey: With Ipswich Town in Europe 1962-2002, which was published in 2011 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the triumph, which can still be ordered from the publisher. Phil reflects further on those times, and speculates on the next chapter.
Imagine a world without the Internet, computers, mobile phones or low cost flights and you are travelling around Europe. Welcome to the UK in the 1970s and early 80s. That was how life was when Ipswich Town were ruling Europe and their fans were trying desperately to follow them.
It certainly wasn’t easy for them, the team or the travel organisers. Very often the draw only gave ten days’ notice for the first leg, and if that was away, then stress levels went through the roof. Bobby Ferguson, Bobby Robson’s right-hand man and first team coach, usually went on a spying mission before the first leg – and sometimes that was not possible.
Remember that in those days, only one English team was allowed in the European Cup (now the Champions League) unless another had won the competition the previous season. This meant that the UEFA Cup (now the rather different Europa League) was a very strong competition with many of the form teams of Europe for that season taking part.
Ipswich had originally entered European competition in the European Cup after being crowned League Champions in 1962 and competed in the now defunct Cup Winners Cup (officially absorbed into the Europa League) having won the FA Cup in 1978.
Both competitions were regarded as higher ranking than the UEFA Cup, but because of 1980/81 and perhaps also the wonderful journeys we enjoyed before and since, we see it somewhat differently, perhaps as it should be.
In the season prior to the UEFA Cup-winning season, Ipswich had gone out to Grasshoppers of Zurich in round two. In season 1980/81, Town were drawn against Aris Salonika and then Bohemians Prague, followed by Widzew Lodz from Poland. Ties that were decided by emphatic first leg wins at Portman Road.
The away legs were not easy to organise. Extremes of weather did not help – it was hot and sunny in Greece and well below zero in both Prague and Poland. And scoring five goals in the first legs against Aris and Widzew did not stop fans from travelling to the away games.
And then came the big boys. Round four and we were drawn against St Etienne. Favourites for the Cup and the French league leaders, their team included iconic superstars Michel Platini, Johnny Rep, Patrick Battiston and Jean-François Larios.
We, the travel organisers, needed to find aircraft at short notice, so that we could offer a variety of tours of both one-day, two-day and three-day, plus a longer but cheaper option of ferry and coach.
The first leg was in St Etienne and those that were there reckoned it was the finest game that any Ipswich Town team had ever played. On March 4th 1981, the scoreline read St Etienne 1 Ipswich Town 4. Paul Mariner scored twice, Arnold Muhren and Johnny Wark headed in his 30th goal of the season, to complete the rout.
The home leg was won by Town 3-1 to warn all of Europe that Ipswich were a team to be feared and respected. Bobby Ferguson had scouted St Etienne, and Bobby Robson asked him how they should keep Platini quiet. ‘Easy. If he plays deep, we put Wark on him. If he plays forward, then Osman will pick him up.’ It worked like a dream, and we played our short game, kept their fans quiet and produced a display to be proud of.
It should be remembered that this was the height of the ‘hooligan era’ and English fans were not welcome anywhere in Europe. Ipswich fans would change this perspective very quickly, and were the exception to this negativity.
Ipswich had been regulars in European competition for getting on for ten years and had the enviable record of having no fans arrested anywhere in Europe in that time. This was because the football club had made their travel providers – Felixstowe Travel/Anglia Tours – their sole official agents. They had full control of all tickets for away games so that any black market activity could be tracked, and nobody could obtain a match ticket without ID, a European Travel Photo Card (David's son Andrew Houseley's pictured below).
There were also strict conditions of travel regarding alcohol, arrival times in cities ahead of matches, numbers of stewards employed per 100 fans to travel with the fans, amongst others. So impressed were UEFA by this action, that they discussed it with us and then implemented it for all clubs across Europe – British or not.
Suddenly Ipswich Town were in two major cup semi-finals! The FA Cup semi-final – against Manchester City – was due to be played three days after the UEFA Cup semi-final first leg.Heady days indeed! None of us involved, nor the fans or the players or even Bobby Robson, believed that this success would ever end. In Bobby’s case of course, it never would.
The UEFA Cup semi-final paired us with FC Cologne. The home leg was at Portman Road on April 8th and Town won by a John Wark goal. For the away leg we were inundated with requests from British Army Forces serving in Germany. We were a little wary about this but we were assured by commanding officers that there would be a strong Military Police presence. In the end there was little trouble and from the Ipswich fans themselves, none at all.
Town lost their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City and were determined not to lose this one against Cologne. Their magnificent stadium was filled with a crowd of 50,000 and it was Terry Butcher who scored the decisive goal, sending Town through to the final on an aggregate score of 2-0. It had been a long coach journey for those who didn’t travel by air and we were met at the stadium by Mr Patrick (Cobbold) the Town chairman.
The final in those days was a two-leg affair and we realised immediately after the semi-final that we would be playing AZ Alkmaar in less than two weeks. AZ had decided already that their stadium was far too small for a European final and had switched their home leg to the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam.
We had driven from Cologne through the night and reacquainted ourselves with our friends at Alkmaar, having worked with them in 1978 when Ipswich were drawn against them in the Cup Winners Cup.
At least we knew we would have plenty of tickets available. Felixstowe Travel were also involved in organising overseas football teams to stay in Ipswich or Felixstowe for ‘warm weather’ winter training, mainly from Scandinavia.
We had invested in my old school – Everton House – in Ipswich for just those occasions. It had three full-size football pitches, all-weather surfaces, athletics track and swimming pool with hotel and dormitory accommodations.
When the manager of AZ asked me to organise their stay in Ipswich, they were specific: a four or five-star hotel near the sea and near to a training pitch. Videos of Ipswich Town and a large room in the hotel for eating and meetings.
So, in the middle of one of our busiest fortnights, I was staying with the players and management of AZ Alkmaar at the Orwell Hotel in Felixstowe. Try as I might, I could not dislike them! The first leg was at Portman Road on May 6th and Ipswich won comfortably 3-0 and had one hand on the UEFA Cup!
There were to be 7,000 Ipswich fans in Amsterdam for the final on May 20th. It was a dream for our fans with ferry connections from Felixstowe and Harwich and flights from Norwich, Cambridge and Stansted. This was the largest exodus we had overseen, and again – no hitches and no arrests.
In fact the Commissioner of Police said to my brother, David, afterwards: ‘In 35 years of policing this city, I have never seen anything like this. We had no problems and no incidents. Oh, just one. One of our police dogs bit one of your fans. But it was the fault of the dog and his handler, and we made sure the person received treatment and was put back on the correct coach.’
The game itself was a cliff-hanger and is described elsewhere here. Ipswich lost the game 4-2 but won the tie on aggregate 5-4.
There was a coach drivers’ strike in Amsterdam and 20 of our coaches were late picking us up after the match. We had chartered the Sealink Harwich–Hook of Holland ferry for 1,200 of our fans.
Richard Powell and I were in charge of this operation. Richard was an important part of Ipswich Town’s back office team and he was liaison between the football club and the Supporters Club – also he knew most of the fans well and they respected him. We got on the last coach to leave the stadium car park and arrived at the Hook just as the ferry was preparing to sail.
Everyone managed to get aboard, even if Richard and I had to jump on to the car deck as the ramp was being raised!
Stuart Jarrold, BBC and Anglia TV sports reporter and latterly with Sky Sports (pictured below interviewing Mick Mills after the final), had a scary time on the day of the match. His cameraman had been mugged in Amsterdam the night before and his special prescription glasses had been smashed – he could see nothing! They found an optician who performed a miracle, and made a duplicate pair for him.
Everyone who was there that night in Amsterdam will never forget the experience. And the welcome home on the Cornhill for Bobby Robson and the team was quite incredible. Those really Were The Days!
The future? Well, there is certainly light at the end of the long dark tunnel at last. There is no quick fix these days. Remember how long it took Alex Ferguson to turn around Manchester United, and it was the same at Ipswich with both Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson. We live in hope that the good times will return.
The first 50 UK orders will receive a copy signed by Kevin Beattie and Mick Lambert. EU orders will also receive a signed copy. USA copies are unsigned.
Photos: Action Images/Andrew Houseley
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