Jason Dozzell: Champions! A dream Blues season 30 years on
- Credit: Archant
It's 30 years ago this month Ipswich Town won the Second Division championship to take them into the inaugural Premiership. MIKE BACON spoke to JASON DOZZELL about that 1991/92 season, and his life at the Blues.
Jason Dozzell has time to reflect these days.
Time to reflect on a successful football career, time to reflect on the highs and lows of life, time to reflect on what Ipswich Town has meant to him.... still means to him.
It's almost 40 years ago Jason made his debut for the Blues against Coventry City at Portman Road. It was February 1984 the fresh-faced Chantry High School pupil not only making his debut, but scoring, as Town won 3-1. He was 16 years and 57 days old at the time.
Fast forward eight years and on his way to almost 350 appearances for Town, Dozzell was part of a Blues squad that won the '91/92 Second Division title 30 years ago this month, and with it guaranteed their place in the newly-formed Premiership.
It was a great season for the Blues. You can hear the joy in his voice as Dozzell begins that reflecting.
"Yeah, 1992. They were great memories," he said.
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"We were not expected to do anything that season to be honest. There were about 8,000 fans at Portman Road for our opening game." (8,937 against Port Vale.)
"But we started well, lost a couple early on and a few in November but by Christmas we were riding high. Over Christmas and New Year we blew everyone away.
"We went top of the league and the fans started returning. After January I think they realised something was happening. They got us over the line, they started to go everywhere with us.
"It doesn't matter what league Ipswich are in, if they are winning, the fans come."
Town were indeed flying. From Boxing Day 1991 to the middle of April 1992, John Lyall's side lost just two and drew just two of 18 league games.
"We got on a roll," Dozzell said.
"When I think back to the start of the season, on opening day we drew at Bristol Rovers. I scored and I think there were about 30 Town fans with us then! But come January it had all changed.
"I remember going to Southend near the end of the season. We had three stands full."
Ipswich won 2-1 that day and, after a comeback win against Newcastle United at Portman Road (3-2), they were closing in on promotion.
"It was a big game against Newcastle," Dozzell said. "They were 2-0 up, Gavin Peacock got them both, but we came back to win 3-2, Chris Kiwomya got the winner."
Ipswich were right up there by this point in April with just a handful of games to go, but defeats to Sunderland and Bristol City caused a wobble, before successive draws with Grimsby, at Portman Road, and then away at Oxford, secured promotion.
The Blues clinched the title at home to Brighton on May 2, 1992. The attendance was 26,803. Lyall's team had attracted 18,000 more fans to Portman Road on the final day of the season, from that opening day fixture with Port Vale!
"We drew with Grimsby, I thought we were going to win it that night," Dozzell said. "It was a sickner. I hit the post. I so wanted to be the one who scored the winner to put us up. I really did."
But Dozzell and Town didn't have to wait long, the celebrations came at Oxford four days later, where a Gavin Johnson goal secured a 1-1 draw and promotion.
"It was a great day at Oxford," Dozzell said.
"I'll never forget that day. I'm on my brother's shoulders on the pitch. Driving back along the motorway, cars beeping us. We all went to Alan Brazil's pub back in Ipswich, it was a brilliant day, brilliant year.
"When you look back and reflect, you think wow! Now I've stopped playing and reflect, it's a great story that day, that season.
"And we went on to beat Brighton on the final day, that's how professional we were even though we were already up, we so wanted the title."
Dozzell remembers the celebrations that unfolded as the Blues toured Ipswich town centre on an open top bus.
"That day took me back to '78 and '81 when I was just a Town fan," Dozzell said.
"When we won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup there were bus tours and I was on the Cornhill both times. So now I'm on the Town Hall with the team in 1992, but I'm thinking where was I sitting in '78 and '81? I think I was on a roof somewhere, near Top Man!"
There had been some barren times through the mid to late '80s for the Blues, but Town fans and the team were one again.
"Our fans started to come back," Dozzell said. "I think many had got disillusioned. A bit like here now over the past few years. People were getting fed up. But we gave them something to come back for.
"As that season went on, we were feeling it, they were buzzing, we were buzzing."
Town's final day 3-1 win over Brighton clinched the title. They finished four points ahead of second-placed Middlesbrough.
A season with little expectation had burst into glory. And Dozzell says he knows why it happened.
"We had big relationships on the pitch," he said.
Neil Thompson and Steve Whitton, opposite sides of the pitch. Thomo would launch the ball to Whitton, who was 6ft. 2in. He would bring it down, feed it into me and Chris (Kiwomya). We all had a really good relationship.
"You had John Wark and David Linighan at the back, Mick Stockwell and Gavin Johnson. Simon Milton scored some great goals. Paul Goddard, Romeo Zondervan, Craig Forrest, what a keeper, we all excelled in that year. The whole team excelled at the same time.
"We had a never-say-die attitude. We would go till the end, we had a mental toughness and even when we would go to places where we would get kicked off the park, we stayed strong."
The Blues had flirted with the Second Division play-offs a couple of times in the late 80s.
However, it was when John Lyall joined Town in May 1990, things began to improve on the pitch, the former West Ham boss bringing a steely determination to the squad.
"John had an aura about him," Dozzell said.
"He was very tough though. I didn't really get it a lot, but some players did. He had that respect though. You wanted to run through walls for him. But he was always fair and you would listen to him.
"In fact John remembered me from my schoolboy days. I didn't sign for Ipswich as a schoolboy until I was 15. Before that I was at West Ham. I was training with them. I was playing in the Essex Leagues on a Sunday and most of the Ipswich coaches didn't see me, so I trained with West Ham.
"But when John joined Ipswich, he said to me, 'ah, got you at last'. I didn't even know he knew who I was, but he did. His knowledge about the game was second to none. His door was always open. As soon as he walked on the training field the sessions stepped up.
"I got on with most managers at Ipswich. But Bobby Ferguson was the one who did so much for me....."
.... Bobby Ferguson was the manager who gave Dozzell his Ipswich Town debut in 1984. The Northumberland-born boss had been handed the unenviable task of taking over from Bobby Robson, when Robson left to become England manager in 1982.
Financial constraints didn't help Ferguson at Portman Road as the 1981 UEFA Cup-winning team was disbanded and Town were relegated from Division One in 1986.
However, speak to many players and they will tell you how much Ferguson helped them in their careers. Dozzell is one of them.
"Bobby was under a bit of pressure at the time when he gave me my debut, so for him to do what he did for me and put me in the team at such a young age took a lot," Dozzell said. "After that he was like a father-figure to me."
Dozzell's story is Roy of the Rovers material. Not dissimilar to Kieron Dyer, Dozzell lived close to the ground. Like Dyer, he could walk to Portman Road.
"My association with Ipswich started when I was 10 or 11," Dozzell said.
"I sneaked into the ground at half-time one Saturday afternoon, I think it was about 1977 we were playing West Brom at home and won 7-1. Goals were going in everywhere, Kevin Beattie got a couple. I was mesmerised.
"I was a big fan. I went to the Cup Final at Wembley, loved the '81 side, walking down to the ground, they were the happiest days of my life.
"And then I was playing for Ipswich in 1984. If you had said to me in 1981, I'd be playing in the first team with some of those '81 players a few years later, you'd have been locked up!"
Dozzell scored on his debut as a 16-year-old. He's gone through that day in his life so often but he never gets tired of telling it again.
"I was still at school as everyone knows. It was my last year," he said.
"I'd scored on my debut for the reserves and then I got a call to say I wouldn't have to go to school on that Thursday as I was training with the first team.
"So that Thursday I walked from my house to Portman Road. I was so nervous, so scared, the thought of walking into the changing rooms with these big stars, John Wark, Terry Butcher, Mick Mills.
"I actually got half way to the ground, and went to turn round, I was so nervous. But I thought, no. Then when I got to the ground, near the changing rooms there is a boiler room and I went and hid in there for 20 minutes.
"You have to remember these were my heroes I was going to meet. Anyhow, someone found me and took me into dressing room.
"I was hugely into that '81 side. I used to be one of the first into the ground in the North Stand as a fan. I was hooked on that team."
But Dozzell was no longer set to be singing with his mates in the North Stand, his debut as a first-team player was just around the corner.
"On the Saturday we were playing Coventry and I was in the squad," he said.
"I walked to the ground, it was only 800 yards, I couldn't drive. We had pre-match meal, chicken and beans, then Bobby Ferguson named me as sub. You only had one sub in those days.
"Lo and behold I was on after 29 minutes because Eric Gates got injured. At the time everything just went over my head. But looking back now you think, how did I do that?"
And then Dozzell scored.
"As I said, I used to stand in North Stand as a kid with my mates," he continued.
"I could see all my friends in there, my brother and everyone else. We were 2-1 up, Terry Butcher knocks the ball in, John Wark headed it down and I've slid in ahead of their centre-half and managed to get a good connection on it and it's flown in over the keeper's head.
"I think I went hysterical at the time, who wouldn't? So much was happening.
"One thing I remember is wanting to play for my Sunday League side, Langham Lions the next day after the Coventry game. I took my boots and everything, but the papers turned up, so I couldn't play!"
Dozzell played another season for the Blues, in the Premiership where, after a bright start, things faded for Lyall's side and they finished the season in the bottom half of the table.
In August 1993, he was sold to Spurs, for £1.9m. It was something he looks back on with a degree of upset.
"Everything happened so fast," Dozzell said.
"One minute I'm negotiating a contract with Ipswich. We were on tour and I wasn't looking to move, the next an agent calls me and asks if I want a move to Spurs.
"I said okay, but I wish I hadn't done it. I went home and cried after I'd signed. I wondered what the hell I had done. All the emotion of being at Ipswich from a kid and now I was leaving.
"Then again, I started well at Spurs, but I had a few injuries, which I'd never had before.
"I don't regret going to Spurs though. Although I do regret my celebration in front of the Town fans when I scored at Portman Road. I looked a right idiot. I apologised at the time. It was an emotional day and I just lost it."
Dozzell came back to Ipswich for a loan spell in 1997, but didn't get a contract. "After that my love for the game disappeared to be honest," he said.
Not that Dozzell's football career ended, he still made more than 100 appearances for Northampton and Colchester combined, but in 2001 he called time on his professional career, a persistent toe injury not helping.
Fast forward another 15 years and Jason Dozzell is sat at Hillsborough watching his son, Andre make his debut for Ipswich Town. And, déjà vu, at 16 years and 350 days, Andre does exactly what his father did 32 years previous... He came on as a substitute and scored on his debut for the Blues, as Town drew with Sheffield Wednesday.
A proud father. But a father who also understood the pressure Andre was under from the word go at Portman Road, a totally different experience to when he made his debut in 1984.
"With Andre there were high expectations from the off," Dozzell said.
"He was under a lot of pressure for who he was. I don't think it was the right time for him to come into the Ipswich team, the way it had been at the time, not just for Andre but for all the young players coming through in the last 10 years with the team struggling much of the time.
"The club has been on a bit of a downer. Young players coming into a struggling team is always hard. It was easy for me. When I came into the team I had great players around me, many still from the '81 squad. Big characters and big players who helped me through it."
Today at Portman Road, Dozzell's role has changed slightly.
He still coaches at the Ipswich Community Trust, Monday to Friday, but enjoys Saturdays off going to watch Andre.
When I do this interview, Jason has his Ipswich Town tracksuit on.
"Not only as a player, but also as a fan, Ipswich Town have given me so much pleasure," he says.
I smile and then remember my final question. Have you still got your Second Division winner's medal from that 1991/92 season, then Jason?
He smiles...30 years ago it may have been... but for Jason Dozzell, it was if it were yesterday.... "Oh yes, very much so," he says.