IPSWICH V VILLA VIDEO: Did Paul Mariner’s goal cost Blues league title?

It’s arguably the best team goal Ipswich Town have ever scored – but it also cost them the biggest prize in English football. As Town prepare to take on Aston Villa in the FA Cup, TERRY HUNT recalls bitter-sweet memories of a meeting between the two sides in 1981.

As Paul Mariner slammed the ball past Jimmy Rimmer in front of the North Stand, I thought it was the best team goal I’d ever seen Ipswich score. Now, 32 years later, I still believe that.

It knocked Aston Villa out of the FA Cup at the third round stage, which was naturally enough cause for great celebration. Villa were, after all, our great rivals for silverware that season. But I also believe that Mariner’s goal ultimately condemned Town to miss out on the English football’s biggest prize – the League Championship.

I’ll explain why in a moment, but first let’s remember the sheer brilliance of that goal at Portman Road on Saturday, January 3, 1981. It all started with the twinkle toes of Frans Thijssen, in his own half. He performed some magic, before giving the ball to his fellow Dutchman, Arnold Muhren. He launched a pinpoint diagonal pass, from left to right, on to the head of John Wark on the right wing.

Warky nodded the ball into the penalty area, where Alan Brazil controlled it (with his arm, the Villa players would claim), before turning and pulling the ball back to the near post. Paul Mariner swooped to knock the ball past the helpless Rimmer.

Sheer brilliance. A superb move involving nearly half the team, and using the players’ sublime individual skills to their best effect. It was the only goal of the game. Villa were out of the cup at the first hurdle, and Town’s season was going from strength to strength.

But, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the defeat was the best thing that could have happened to Villa that year – and just about the worst thing we could have done.

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As we all know, Town went on to lose to Manchester City in the semi-final, ironically at Villa Park. It was Kevin Beattie’s last appearance in a Town shirt, the club’s greatest player forced off with a broken arm.

Fighting on three fronts – league, FA Cup and UEFA Cup – Ipswich played a mammoth 66 competitive games that season and, inevitably, the sheer workload took its toll. As first-team regulars suffered injuries, Bobby Robson’s small squad started to creak. Reserve team players like Mich D’Avray, Robin Turner and Tommy Parkin were forced into action. No disrespect to such loyal club stalwarts, but they were not in the same league as the likes of the Dutchmen, Mariner, Brazil, Gates and co.

Villa, on the other hand, only had the league to worry about. They played a total of 46 games – 20 fewer than Ipswich – and used the grand total of 14 players! Seven of them were ever-presents as Ron Saunders’ squad stayed clear of injuries and he was able to select a settled side, week after week.

Ironically, the FA Cup win was one of three Town victories over Villa that season. We also beat them twice in the league, most memorably going to Villa Park late in the season and coming away with a 2-1 win. Surely that was the title clincher?

Sadly, it wasn’t, and our hopes finally ended when we lost 2-1 at Middlesbrough, thanks to two goals from Bosko Jankovic, after being 1-0 ahead at half-time.

Losing out on the league title was a crushing disappointment when Ipswich were so clearly the best team in the First Division. It remained Bobby Robson’s biggest footballing regret. It was also a real blow to my generation of fans, who had been too young to remember Alf Ramsey’s title winning side of 1962.

Of course, we did win the UEFA Cup that year but, without wishing to appear ungrateful, that always felt a bit like a consolation prize.

We never really came so close to winning the league again. All too soon, Robson had gone to manage England and his great side started to break up.

If we’d lost that third round tie to Villa – and if Mariner hadn’t scored that great goal – then we would have been disappointed. But I’m convinced that we would have ultimately clinched the most prestigious trophy in English football, which would have been a fitting way to cap Robson’s glorious reign at Portman Road.

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