Newly-promoted clubs tend to find the transition to the demands of the Premier League tough. The vast disparities in wealth, experience, wage budget and infrastructure that exist at the top level mean that many struggle simply to survive. Understandably, little was expected of Ipswich Town when they went up through the play-offs at the fourth attempt under George Burley in 2000.
Against all the odds they finished fifth, just four points behind runners-up Arsenal, to qualify for the UEFA Cup with a group of solid yet unremarkable players who’d spent the majority of their careers in the lower leagues. In an increasingly cosmopolitan Premier League, Ipswich were something of a throwback, with the core of their squad being English.
There were up-and-coming academy graduates like Richard Wright and Titus Bramble, as well as old campaigners like Tony Mowbray and Mark Venus. There were no stars or egos, and that seemed to suit them. They proved that a united dressing room, a clear sense of direction and a style of play that everyone subscribes to could still carry teams a long way.
“There were a lot of players in that team who hadn’t played in the Premier League before,” says Marcus Stewart, whose instinctive goalscoring ability came to the fore. “Pretty much all of them in fact. There was a lot of hunger in the team to get to the top level and do as well as we could. We wanted to do well in our debut season and we had great team spirit too.
“I wasn’t playing a lot at the start of the season. I was a substitute most of the time. I went and had a chat with George [Burley] and he said I’d get my chance eventually. He stayed true to his word. As a striker, when you get that chance you’ve got to take it. Luckily I did. I scored my first Premier League goal at home to Aston Villa and it just went on from there. We had a good team but we also got on really well.”
The Tractor Boys caused plenty of surprises after a mixed start to the season, and spent several weeks in third, with Champions League qualification a distinct possibility. Liverpool and Leeds came back to overtake them at the last but it was a remarkable achievement all the same.
“There was the excitement of getting into the Premier League and the year after that there was still a slight chance of making it into the Champions League going into the final day,” recalls Stewart. “We had to win at Derby and hope that Liverpool lost. We ended up drawing 1-1 and going into the UEFA Cup, which was another source of excitement. We enjoyed almost constant success for those two seasons.”
Despite having never played in the Premier League before, many of the Ipswich squad made the step up look seamless. Stewart scored 19 goals to finish second in the race for the Golden Boot behind Chelsea’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, leading to calls for his inclusion in the England squad. The opportunity never arrived but he became a true cult hero and led the club’s first European charge since 1982.
It started at home to Torpedo Moscow in the UEFA Cup first round. Titus Bramble, just 20 years old but already a first team regular, was at the centre of the action. His stray pass gifted the visitors possession and they pounced to score through Dmitry Vyasmikin. Fortunately the centre back made amends late on when he equalised after a scramble in the area. In between the two goals, Stewart had missed a penalty.
He remembers an unusual tactical battle. “They played a really weird formation, with a sweeper and another player even further back. I thought I was in on goal at one point but there was another player far deeper than I expected him to be. It was quite strange and I think we found it hard to get a grip of the game if I’m honest.”
“It was a new experience. Even just playing on a Thursday, and then on a Sunday, I’d never done that before in my career. There were a lot of things to look back on and try to learn from. There were variations in how the teams played. Torpedo Moscow used a different formation to what I was used to and played quite open football.”
In an eerie atmosphere at the cavernous Luzhniki Stadium, which was only around an eighth full, Ipswich somehow emerged victorious from the second leg. They should have fallen behind when Torpedo Moscow broke their offside trap and the ball was squared to Vyasmikin for an easy finish into an empty goal. He contrived to rattle the bar instead.
After that let-off, Ipswich struck twice early in the second half to put themselves in control of the tie. Finidi George tapped in a corner from close range and the Nigerian was then manhandled in the area to give Stewart the chance to redeem himself from the spot. He made no mistake, and not even a late consolation could prevent the Tractor Boys from marching on to the second round.
Helsingborg were their opponents and another draw in the home leg gave Ipswich plenty to do on their travels. Goalless and uneventful at Portman Road, the second meeting between the two sides in Sweden was far more dramatic. An early mistake from Matteo Sereni, the Italian goalkeeper who’d arrived from Sampdoria that summer to replace Richard Wright, wasn’t the start they’d hoped for.
With six minutes on the clock, Sereni failed to hold onto a fairly straightforward shot from Hans Eklund, spilling the ball over the line. Helsingborg had several chances to extend their lead as Ipswich’s five-man defence looked vulnerable. It wasn’t until deep into the second half that George Burley’s side got back on level terms, as Hermann Hreidarsson turned in a free kick from the left.
That put Ipswich ahead on away goals and had the 2,500 supporters who’d made the trip to Sweden celebrating. Mark Venus’ set pieces were a constant threat and Marcus Stewart capitalised on another to score with a thumping header, which prompted a minor pitch invasion. Just minutes from the end the striker grabbed his second with a delicate chip over the advancing goalkeeper.
“Compared to Torpedo Moscow, Helsingborg had more of a British mentality,” says Stewart. “They were a hardworking team who looked to get crosses in the box. We were more used to how they played. It wasn’t too different to what we faced in the league. I remember the away game a lot more than the home one. After going behind it was about showing team spirit and conviction all over the pitch.
“It was nice to win the game and get through, particularly away from home. It was a different kind of feeling having spent a lot of my career in League One and the Championship, as it is now. It was great to expand your game and score goals at that level. Scoring in a famous international competition was a long way from the park pitches I played on growing up in Bristol.”
Unfortunately, even as their UEFA Cup run continued, Ipswich were struggling terribly in the Premier League. The momentum and unity that had been built up over previous years was fading as the squad changed, and they no longer offered the same surprise factor after that first season.
“It was second season syndrome. A lot of teams start to work out how you play. That’s what good, coaches, managers and players do – they work things out. I think recruitment comes into it as well. We had a lot of players coming into the club who probably weren’t team players in the same way. That didn’t help.”
“I know the key factors that get teams relegated and, looking back, we had them in abundance if I’m honest with you. That’s football, isn’t it? At the time you’re trying to do your best to get out of it but it’s only reflecting on it years later that you’re able to understand what went on.”
Europe provided a temporary yet glorious distraction from domestic troubles, particularly when Ipswich were drawn against Inter Milan, but their league form was wretched. By the time the Nerazzurri visited for the first leg in late November, the Tractor Boys were second from bottom and had gone 11 games without a win, a run which stretched back to the second match of the season. Stewart was also missing through injury.
“It was so disappointing not to be involved,” he says. “I broke my jaw about three or four weeks before that. I was close. I was able to train, ahead of the second leg especially, so I went to Milan. I trained on the pitch with the lads but there was no contact allowed with me because my jaw still wasn’t right. It was nice to be out there. It wasn’t like being in full competition but the lads did great.”
“It was just a training ground injury. We were playing a five-a-side. Pablo Counago was on one team and I was on the other. I went to head the ball and he tried to hook it away and his toe just caught me in the jaw. Straight away I knew something wasn’t right. I had to walk off the training pitch there and then.”
Having lost 2-1 to Bolton Wanderers at Portman Road four days earlier, Inter Milan were hardly the ideal opponents for a side in need of a confidence boost. While Ronaldo and Christian Vieri weren’t fit enough to make the squad, they still had plenty of world class players to call on. Clarence Seedorf was in midfield, while Javier Zanetti marshalled the defence.
There was a fantastic atmosphere for the occasion and Ipswich certainly made a game of it. Although Inter had most of the possession, they created few chances and Venus’ dangerous deliveries again caused problems. With 15 minutes remaining, Burley summoned Alun Armstrong from the bench. He’d missed the last three games with a virus but delivered an immediate impact.
After a strong run by Sixto Peralta, who was coincidentally on loan from Inter Milan, the ball was cleared to Jamie Clapham. His cross was met by Armstrong’s header at the far post and Francesco Toldo was beaten to seal a famous and unexpected victory. They had a narrow lead to take to Italy, but would it be enough?
Under Bobby Robson in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ipswich Town had competed with some of Europe’s best sides on a regular basis. Back then nobody would blink at the idea of the Tractor Boys travelling to the San Siro but times had changed and English football was now a very different beast. The days of Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen had long gone.
“One of the reasons that I joined Ipswich was the history that they had,” says Stewart. “They were close to being a Premier League team at that time and they’d obviously been in the UEFA Cup and even won it back in the day. It was great to give the fans who’d been around then another proud moment in having a home and an away game against Inter Milan.
“It would have brought back some nice memories for some older fans and created new ones for younger fans. That’s what you want to do as a player. You want to do well for yourself but you also want to please the people around you and the supporters of that club. You embrace the history of whatever club you go to and try to add to it.”
Stewart and the rest certainly did that. Indeed, there was something faintly absurd about seeing Ipswich walk out at the home of Inter Milan. But having enjoyed a dream run, reality cruelly intervened. The leaders of Serie A were simply a cut above and their class shone through. Christian Vieri had returned from injury to lead their attack, while Ronaldo was poised to make his comeback as a substitute.
Vieri, a world record signing when he moved from Lazio to Inter for £32million, was at his bullish and destructive best. He’d completed his hat-trick by the 62nd minute, as well as setting up Mohammed Kallon for the game’s other goal. At 4-0 down, Ipswich were out of the game, but at least had the chance to register a consolation goal as Matt Holland’s shot was blocked by Javier Zanetti’s hand.
As Ronaldo readied himself to come on in response, Alun Armstrong slotted home the penalty to make it 4-2 on aggregate. The sight of the Brazilian international, and two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, warming up was a reminder of the size of the task that Ipswich had faced. They might have come unstuck against Inter Milan, but there was no shame in that.