Long Reads

The Year Newly Promoted Ipswich Town Won the Hearts of a Nation

Ipswich Town's fifth place finish in Premier League 00/01 season
Credit: Andrew Parsons/PA

A lot of football fans will know that Ipswich Town suffered the heaviest defeat in Premier League history; it was a 9-0 humiliation at the hands of Manchester United and the Suffolk club were relegated in bottom position with a measly 27 points that same season but the Blues also hold a lesser known, more positive record for the Premier League era.

What is it? I hear you ask. Keep on reading.

The Journey Back

George Burley, a player from the most successful period of the club’s history, was appointed manager partway through the abysmal relegation campaign and after four years of failure – a seventh place finish and three play-off semi-final defeats – the final step would at long last be taken.

Burley had been forced to sell off some prized assets – Mauricio Taricco and Kieron Dyer spring to mind – over his tenure but a combination of shrewd dealings, homegrown talent and a positive philosophy saw Town finish third, missing out on the automatic promotion places by two points. It was a good season but it was the dreaded play-offs – again.

The side who defeated them in the prior year’s semi-final, Bolton Wanderers, were the opponent again. Sam Allardyce’s Bolton raced into a 2-0 first leg lead after 25 minutes at the Reebok but Marcus Stewart, the final piece of Burley’s jigsaw that cost around £2.5m from promotion rival Huddersfield in the January, bagged a superb brace to level the game and in the home tie a Jim ‘Magic’ Magilton hat-trick helped Ipswich win the game 5-3 AET to set up a final with Barnsley. Burley and his boys triumphed 4-2 in an enthralling encounter and Ipswich were back.

The whipping boys

When the new campaign dawned and having made few alterations to the squad that won promotion, Ipswich were widely tipped as the team to finish bottom. In fact, some Norwich City fans were so convinced Ipswich would become the whipping boys that a countdown to their rivals relegation was started in one of Norwich’s local media publications – The Pink Un.

Regardless of what the Canaries and others thought, Burley’s team had momentum, a team spirit that felt unbreakable and a genuine belief that they were capable of not only surviving in the Premier League but competing in it.

A season underway

On a results front, the season didn’t get off to a flyer for Town as they took just four points from the opening five games, which was relegation form whatever way you cut it. The results didn’t tell the whole story though; the side continued to play the ‘pass and move’ football that won them promotion and one of the points they’d picked up was a 1-1 home draw with Manchester United in the second fixture; that result reaffirmed their belief that they belonged with the big boys.

The sixth game of the season was away at Leeds, who were a decent side at that stage, and Town came away with three points. Next up was a home match with Arsenal, which saw another point added to the total and then a three goal thrashing of Everton at Goodison preceded a run of three games where Burley masterminded seven points from nine.

Ipswich had arrived and the Pink Un’s countdown to relegation was duly – and embarrassingly – pulled.

To the New Year and beyond

It’s been seen many times before where a newly promoted side gets some early season form behind them but it generally drops off pretty quickly; not for Ipswich though, as the halfway stage rolled around they were fifth and just two points adrift of second place having recently stuffed Tottenham at Portman Road, come from two goals down to draw with Chelsea and, thanks to a cool headed Stewart goal, won at Anfield.

January and February, however, didn’t follow the same pattern as two 4-1 defeats either side of a 2-0 home victory over Leicester, as well as two subsequent defeats at the hands of Arsenal and Leeds, raised questions over the team’s ability to see the season out on a high and concerns were not eased by a heavy second leg League Cup semi-final defeat burst their dreams of lifting a major piece of silverware for the first time in 20 years.

The final chase

Despite the emerging doubts outside of the club, the Tractor Boys ploughed forwards and only lost one of their next nine games – winning seven – to well and truly put themselves in the hunt for a Champions League spot, which was then awarded to the top three, with just a trio of games remaining.

The first of those games, an away trip to the Valley to face Charlton, served what proved to be the key blow as Ipswich fell to a narrow defeat to all but end their quest for qualification to the biggest club competition in the world. The entertainment for Town fans wasn’t over though as the next match – their last home game of the campaign – saw them beat and relegate Manchester City!

The achievement 

The final match of the season was a 1-1 draw at Derby County and Ipswich, the relegation favourites, had managed to finish fifth in the table and higher than any other newly promoted team has ever finished in the Premier League – remember that positive record I mentioned at the start? Well, you’ve just read it.

Ipswich hadn’t just achieved a remarkable finishing position though; they’d done it whilst playing in a style that endeared them to every neutral in the land.

The squad was blessed with some real quality despite a relatively small outlay with people like Richard Wright, Titus Bramble, Hermann Hreidarsson, Magilton, skipper Matt Holland and Martijn Reuser just a few of the worthy mentions (I could, and probably should list the entire team). Of course, the standout star was Stewart, who scored 19 league goals – more than any other Englishman in the league – and he can consider himself very hard done by not to have earned an international call up.

Finally, let’s not forget the mastermind of it all, Burley, who was rightfully named manager of the season.