Few in Ipswich could have predicted what was to come when Bobby Robson replaced Bill McGarry at the helm of the Suffolk side in the cold winter of 1969 but by the time he left Portman Road in 1982, he had become immortalised in the club’s history forever.
His appointment wasn’t exactly met with delirium in East Anglia and, at 36, Robson was still a relative newcomer to management. In fact, his previous spell in the dugout had ended in disaster, with Robson losing 21 of his 36 games in charge of Fulham. His first few years at Ipswich didn’t ignite much enthusiasm among the faithful either, finishing 12th, 18th, 19th and 13th in his first four seasons. Things hit the nadir in the 1970/71 season, a defeat to Leeds United causing friction between Robson and two of his most senior players, Billy Baxter and Tommy Carroll, allegedly resulting in the manager and players coming to blows.
The relationship between Robson and legendary club chairman John Cobbold, and then later his brother Patrick Cobbold, is a famous chapter in the history of Ipswich Town Football Club, and their faith in their man would soon be repaid when the Tractor Boys finished fourth in the First Division alongside winning the Texaco Cup, beating bitter rivals Norwich City in the final.
It was the dawn of something great at Ipswich and in the following nine seasons the club finished below sixth just once - 1977/78 - although a 1-0 win in the FA Cup Final against Arsenal that same season certainly made up for drifting outside of the top six.
Robson’s crowning glory at Portman Road, and to this day the club’s most remarkable achievement, came in the 1980/81 season when he guided his unfancied side to the UEFA Cup final, brushing aside a Saint-Étienne team that included Michel Platini 7-2 on aggregate along the way, before defeating Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in the final.
During his 13-year tenure with Ipswich, only 14 players were brought in from elsewhere. Robson had instead opted to nurture fresh talent from within the club and a number of the players he brought through the ranks are some of the best footballers to come from these shores including Terry Butcher, Kevin Beattie, John Wark, Mick Mills, George Burley and Trevor Whymark, among several others.
By the time Robson’s phenomenal spell was over, he’d taken them to their first and only FA Cup win, their first and only UEFA Cup win, twice league runners-up and installed a faith in the youth system that, while not as prominent, still exists at the club today.
Robson would go on to find success across Europe and England after but Ipswich have never yet reached the dizzy heights they did under his guidance. What he did with a club of such a modest stature will always be a glittering chapter in the history of English football. RIP Sir Bobby.
This article was first published in The Sportsman on 31/07/19