UEFA Cup glory, 40 years on: 'The best season in Ipswich Town's history' - from the man who reported on all 66 games

Bobby robson

Bobby Robson and the UEFA Cup he guided Town to in 1981 - 40 years ago this month - Credit: Archant

HE was the man who reported on all 66 games for Ipswich Town for the East Anglian Daily Times, Ipswich Star (then Evening Star) and Green'Un, during that wonderful 1980/81 season, culminating in the Blues winning the UEFA Cup in the 66th and final one. NEAL MANNING tells of that incredible season - and what it was like reporting on it.

What a season 1980-81 was, and in my opinion the best in Ipswich Town's history.

There may be one of two other contenders – winning the First Division Championship in 1962 and the 1978 FA Cup triumph – but 1980-81 was indeed something special.

Paul Cooper pictured before the second leg of the 1981 UEFA Cup final in Amsterdam

Mick Mills leads the Town team out in the second leg in Amsterdam - Credit: Archant

Bobby Robson’s team played 66 competitive matches that season – and I saw the lot.

It was a campaign that started so well and ended with lifting the UEFA Cup in Holland. Town were the best team in the country, no doubt about it, and one of the best in the whole of Europe.

And when it came to the crunch, winning a major European competition more than made up for not winning the Division One title.

Right from the 1980 mid-August kick-off, there was a distinct feeling that this could be Town’s year. It was not until October 28 that they suffered their first defeat of the season when they were beaten in the fourth round of the League Cup by Birmingham City.

Neal Manning was umpiring during a cricket match. He made a controversial decision and was assaulted

Neal Manning - covered all of Town's 66 games that UEFA Cup-winning season - Credit: Archant

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In many ways it was a blessing in disguise. Town had bigger fish to fry. Despite operating with a small squad, Town continued to thrill crowds home and away with their brand of football and their season did not end until May 20, 1981, with the second leg of the UEFA Cup final.

That date is significant because Town had the chance to complete a memorable season and with a 3-0 first leg lead in the bank. At one time Robson’s men were fancied to complete a league, FA Cup and UEFA Cup treble, but Easter week virtually put paid to that.

John Wark and Terry Butcher celebrate the UEFA Cup semi-final win over Cologne in 1981

John Wark, left, and Terry Butcher celebrate victory in Cologne, as Town made it to the UEFA Cup final in 1981 - Credit: Archant

On Easter Saturday they lost at Portman Road for the first time in almost 50 matches, and on Easter Monday lost by the only goal at Norwich. Straight after the game they flew to Germany for the second leg of their semi-final against FC Cologne, holding a 1-0 lead.

That tie took place on the Wednesday, and just to complete a week that today’s Premier League clubs would be up in arms over, they arrived back in Ipswich on Thursday morning before traveling to the Midlands the following day for an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City that they lost after extra-time.

Three trophies became two, and although they went back to Villa Park three days later and beat the eventual champions to keep their title hopes alive, the Easter week programme had virtually scuppered their chances.

Defeat at Middlesbrough and at home to Southampton meant Town would finish as runners-up to Villa who had far less on their plate. In between those two final league games, Town raised themselves to establish a 3-0 first leg lead against Alkmaar. Now the fans were planning the short trip across the North Sea for the second leg.

By plane and boat the supporters travelled in their thousands, but little did they suspect they would be made to sweat before the celebrations could begin.

An early Town goal put Alkmaar on the back foot. Although a 5-4 aggregate win made it close in the end, two first-half Town goals had given the Blues breathing space. Dutchman Frans Thijssen and John Wark were the goalscorers who had made the overall score 5-3 going into the second half.  Alkmaar scored once more but it was not enough.

UEFA 1981

John Wark celebrates his goal in the final against Alkmaar in the second leg in Amsterdam - Credit: Archant

Even so it was nerve-wracking for the fans and the Ipswich media in the Press box.

We were not neutral, far from it, and showed our true colours. Although many of the supporters had to head back to England straight after the game, there were enough left in Amsterdam to paint the city blue and white.

The UEFA Cup campaign had as many twists and turns as an Agatha Christie thriller, starting in Greece when Town took a 5-1 lead to Aris Salonika and then found themselves 3-0 down at half-time. Eric Gates scored with a quarter of an hour left to take Town through to the second round.

Kevin Beattie also scored on this day in 1980 as Town won in the UEFA Cup

The greatest Town player ever. Kevin Beattie, celebrates scoring for the Blues against Bohemians of Prague, on the way to UEFA Cup joy that season - Credit: Archant

It was a similar story in the second round against Czechoslovakia side Bohemians. A 3-0 victory at Portman Road in the first leg became 3-2 either side of half-time in the second leg. However, Town inspired by Kevin Beattie, wearing a sleeveless shirt on a bitterly cold night, defended superbly to see the tie out.

The third round paired Town with Polish side Widzew Lodz who had beaten Manchester United and Juventus in previous rounds. Wark’s hat-trick inspired Town to a fabulous performance at Portman Road that ended in a 5-0 victory. 

Before the game the Widzew manager asked Bobby Robson if he would like a bet, but the Town boss declined!

(from left) Kevin O'Callaghan, Paul Cooper, Alan Brazil and Eric Gates take a stroll around St Etien

Left to right: Kevin O'Callaghan, Paul Cooper, Alan Brazil and Eric Gates take a stroll around St Etienne before the quarter-final clash in France - Credit: Archant

The quarter-finals pitted Town against the favourites St Etienne, but the first leg in France saw Town give arguably their finest ever performance, beating their hosts 4-1. L’Equippe, the renowned French sports paper, said: “It was a classic performance by Ipswich - and St Etienne were completely outclassed.”

A routine second leg victory gave Town a semi-final against FC Cologne who had England international Tony Woodcock in their side. Two tight games, in which the Town defence excelled, were both won 1-0, and so it was a final here we came.

And what about this for leadership. After arriving in Germany for the Cologne second leg, Robson decided training was out and instead took the players to a theme park for rides on the big dipper! And one of two players (no names) had a few beers as well.

Happy days, probably never to be repeated.

UEFA 1981

Bobby Robson salutes the crowd on the Cornhill steps at the reception of the Town UEFA Cup-winning team - Credit: Archant


First round: Aris Salonika (Greece), 5-1 (h) 1-3 (a). Agg. 6-4

Second round: Bohemians (Czechoslovakia), 3-0 (h), 0-2 (a). Agg 3-2

Third round: Widzew Lodz (Poland), 5-0 (h), 0-1 (a). Agg. 5-1

Quarter-final: Saint-Etienne (France) 4-1 (a), 3-1 (h). Agg 7-2

Semi-final: Cologne (West Germany) 1-0 (h), 1-0 (a). Agg. 2-0.

Final: AZ 67 Alkmaar (Holland) 3-0 (h), 2-4 (a). Agg. 5-4

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