Fear, confusion, drama, relief, agony and ecstacy - the story of Town’s great escape in 1994
- Credit: Archant
Today marks 26 years since Ipswich Town pulled off a great escape to avoid relegation in 1994. ANDY WARREN takes a look back at a dramatic afternoon.
The clock’s ticked past 4.45pm on May 7, 1994 and it’s desperation time for Ipswich Town.
The Blues are drawing 0-0 at Blackburn Rovers on the final day of the season and are staring relegation in the face. Goalkeeper Craig Forrest is being sent up for corners because, if they don’t score in stoppage time, they will be relegated from the Premiership.
The signs have been pointing to this day for a couple of months. A dramatic slide down the table has led Town to this point after they picked up just three points from their last possible 30.
They’re not alone. Four teams were in the mix, wuth one final relegation place alongside already-doomed Swindon and Oldham that must be filled on final day.
Everton, in 20th, must beat Wimbledon to have any chance of staying up, while Sheffield United (18th) and Southampton (17th) need something from their games with Chelsea and West Ham to be assured of safety.
Ipswich started the day outside the relegation zone, 19th but, given the fact John Lyall and Mick McGiven’s men were heading to the home of second-placed Blackburn, led of course by Alan Shearer, in horrible form, there was a sinking feeling on the team bus during the four-and-a-half hour drive north.
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What followed remains one of the most dramatic climaxes to any top-flight campaign.
“We were in freefall,” midfielder Simon Milton admits, as he looks back on the most dramatic of days.
“If you’re struggling at the bottom of the league and you’re on a bad run you’re thinking ‘Christ, we need to pick up some points’ and then you look at it and see you’re going to Highbury, Old Trafford and White Hart Lane.
“But to be in a position to stay up on the final day of the season is so dramatic.”
“We needed at least a draw really but thought we needed a win to give us a chance and that was pretty daunting, because Blackburn were a very good side,” striker Ian Marshall added. “There was some trepidation there because Kenny Dalglish was building something special with Jack Walker’s money.
“John (Lyall) and Mick (McGiven) were great. John was a brilliant man and he encouraged us throughout but we knew it was going to be tough. We weren’t overly confident, especially because of the way results have been going.”
The opening exchanges were frantic as the Blues, backed by thousands of travelling fans, soaked up pressure and needed Forrest to come up big to save from Ian Pearce before Jason Wilcox fired over when he really should have done better. The big Canadian then kept out Shearer with a superb save.
“We were quite cautious in the first half,” midfielder Geraint Williams said a few years later. “We knew we had to pick something up and if we were two or three down by half-time that would’ve been impossible.”
“Blackburn were doing most of the attacking,” John Wark added. “It was like Custer’s Last Stand. We had a flag planted on the edge of our box.”
The plan was working and as they reached the dressing room at the break the Blues would have known their heads were still above water. Everton trailed Wimbledon 2-1 and were surely down and out, but Southampton were drawing 1-1 at West Ham and the Blades were a goal up at Chelsea.
Milton said: “All of the games kicked off at the same time obviously and I remember listening out for other results. I think Clive Baker on the bench would have been the one running up and down the touchline with information about what other times were doing.”
As Everton fought their way back to eventually take the lead against Wimbledon in the second half, everything changed. For the first time that afternoon, the Toffees were out of the drop zone and Ipswich occupied the final relegation place.
“One minute it’s ‘defend, defend, defend’ and then it’s all about attacking,” Milton said. “It’s relentless.
“There were times during the game when we were on the ropes and others where we were pushing to try and score. I’ve never played in a game like it – one last game.
“Marshy had a great chance to score as well and you would back him certainly because he was a really good finisher,” Milton recalls.
“I don’t actually remember that but if I’d scored all of the chances I had I’d have been the best striker in the country,” Marshall said with a chuckle.
“I’m told it was Milts who played the pass for it though, so it doesn’t surprise me he mentioned it.
“I was fortunate enough to play with Tim Flowers a few years later at Leicester and he’s a great goalkeeper, so it really doesn’t surprise me he was able to pull off a good save.”
At this point the equation had become a simple one for Ipswich. Score or be relegated.
Forrest said: “It was a different time and communication wasn’t so easy. We had people on the bench making phone calls to find out what was happening in other games. I was going up for corners because we needed to win then sprinting back again. I could hardly breath. Then we got another corner, looked over to the bench and told me to get back. That was so confusing.”
Marshall said: “It was crazy. Most of the information was coming from the crowd and there must have been at least half of them listening to other games with transistor radios in their hands. Their reaction impacts your feelings and it was certainly tense.”
The full-time whistle went at Goodison. Everton had won and were safe, making the Blues’ situation all-the-more perilous.
That was until Mark Stein, who had earlier equalised for Chelsea against Sheffield United and would later play for Ipswich himself, slammed home a dramatic winner for his side at Stamford Bridge in stoppage time.
Ipswich were staying up by a single point.
“A few players jumped in the air and some sank to their knees, but then the bench came running on so we knew we’d done it,” said Williams.
“The celebrations at full-time were brilliant,” Marshall said. “I’ll always remember them.
“There’s a great picture of me and John Lyall at full-time and I can remember him coming up to me to talk about it all and pat me on the back.”
Milton added: “To get the result was unbelievable, it was skin-of-the-teeth stuff. It’s surreal. They are some brilliant memories with some brilliant people and it will live with us forever.
Just as all seemed lost, the job was done. Now it was time to celebrate.
“We stopped at an off-licence somewhere around Blackburn and Lyall told us to go and load up with alcohol,” Forrest said. “We got absolutely s***-faced on the way back to Ipswich and could hardly get off the bus when we got back.”
Marshall said: “That was the great thing about playing for Ipswich Town – every away game was a very long trip. But that did mean that if you got a good result you could have a lot of fun on the bus on the way home.”
“I think a few of the lads probably fell off the bus when the door opened at Portman Road,” Milton joked.
Forrest continued: “We went into the stadium and were smashing golf balls around, hammering them into the stand off the first-team pitch and it was so much fun. We certainly hit the clock and broke that a bit, meaning it had to be repaired. But it was dark and we had no idea where the balls were going.
“I’m not really sure who had that idea. Probably Warky, that seems like his kind of thing. He isn’t a golfer but I think a good few of us got involved. Nobody said anything to us about it afterwards.”
“I wasn’t a part of that!” Milton insisted (to the extent you would probably just about believe him). “I was playing golf at that stage in life but I can’t remember that.”
“I don’t remember that one... I probably wasn’t involved. I’m not saying anything. I plead the fifth,” Marshall said.
“I remember getting home to watch Match of the Day and saw Mark Stein’s goal so I remember toasting a few beers to him.”
Looking back at a remarkable day, Milton concluded: “That was such a good group of lads to play with and we achieved a lot over the years together and played a lot of games.
“You have good times and you have bad times and, even if you feel a bit of a fraud celebrating on the pitch after finishing fourth from bottom, they are special memories which I am sure will be with us for a lifetime.”