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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

How qualifying for Europe condemned Ipswich Town to 17 years of steady decline

Football's Front Lines: "You can probably say that cup run has cost us to this day. I think we've been in decline since then."

European football; all shining lights, all glitz and glamour.

Fans are supposed to savour the journey as they tick off iconic cities on their adventures across the continent, rain or shine.

But European football can be the cruel undoing of a club. Just ask Ipswich Town fans.


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A long and arduous decline

Getty Images - Getty
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A long and arduous decline

Two seasons in Europe just after the millennium effectively condemned the Tractor Boys to years of steady regression which, so far, has been irreversible.

After a stunning debut season in the Premier League, Ipswich hit the big time in 2001/02 by qualifying for the UEFA Cup.

Moscow and Milan awaited, with Ronaldo, Christian Vieri, Clarence Seedorf and co eventually eliminating George Burley’s side in the third round.

Unstoppable force meets immovable object

Reuters
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Unstoppable force meets immovable object

But juggling sizeable European commitments forced the bread and butter to fall apart, as the club suffered relegation from the top flight that very same season.

Now after 17 years of treading water in the Championship – the longest current streak of any English side in a division outside the Premier League – Ipswich are now rock bottom and facing almost certain demotion to League One.

“This is a living example of the detriment of European football,” Ashley Symonds from Ipswich Fanzone told me on my visit to Portman Road on Saturday.

“You can probably say that cup run has cost us to this day. I think we’ve been in decline since then.”

Ashley at Portman Road

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Ashley at Portman Road

Without the right resources and acumen, European football can do more harm than good.

Portsmouth and Wigan can both vouch for that in the last decade, suffering multiple relegations after dipping their toes in the bigger continental competitions.

Burnley too have struggled to replicate the dizzy heights of last season, their league form suffering after taking part in a gruelling Europa League qualifying campaign in the summer.

Ipswich have steep European pedigree, winning the 1980/81 UEFA Cup under Sir Bobby Robson while boasting an unbeaten home record.

Sir Bobby

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Sir Bobby

“The club has a rich heritage in Europe, Town fans will always cherish that,” Ashley added.

“For a fan, the UEFA Cup run was worth it, yes. But for the club, no.

“We put in too much too soon and that’s cost us in the end.”

Ipswich actually stunned Inter at home before a 4-1 second-leg trouncing at the San Siro, Vieri proving too much for Titus Bramble and Hermann Hreidarsson.

Alun Armstrong scored in a 1-0 win over Inter

News Group Newspapers Ltd
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Alun Armstrong scored in a 1-0 win over Inter

Domestically they fell apart, winning just one of their opening 17 league games before a 5-0 defeat at Liverpool on the final day signed their Premier League death warrant.

Their struggle to balance multiple expectations was compounded the following season when they again qualified for the UEFA Cup through the fair play rule, despite playing in the second tier of English football.

“I think it was detrimental,” Steve Doe, Treasurer of the Ipswich Town Supporters Club, said. “Playing in Europe – we just didn’t need it.

“We certainly didn’t win many games after playing in the UEFA Cup in midweek. I would have put out that reserves.

“Football has to have a purpose but while it was great fun, we didn’t need it.

“The quality is so different now. Matt Holland, Darren and Marcus Bent; players like that don’t even think about Ipswich anymore unless they’re at the a*** end of their careers.”

Steve in front of the Sir Bobby Robson statue

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Steve in front of the Sir Bobby Robson statue

The Tractor Boys are nine points adrift of Championship safety after just three wins all season – so why are the fans in such buoyant spirits?

Gate receipts are up considerably on last season and singing group ‘Blue Action’ symbolise the positive mood around Portman Road, belting out a rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Don’t Worry About A Thing’ after falling 1-0 behind to Stoke on Saturday.

Persona non grata Mick McCarthy is gone, his fractious five-and-a-half-year reign ending in a typically dramatic final press conference last March.

That came not long after telling Town supporters to ‘f*** off’ during the East Anglian derby, while just over 8,000 fans saw a home stalemate with Burton Albion almost exactly a year ago.

Ipswich never finished below 16th under the now Republic of Ireland boss, but relations between manager, fans and board turned sour.

Now, after a truly dismal start to the season that saw McCarthy’s replacement Paul Hurst sacked in October, Paul Lambert is putting smiles back on faces despite their perilous position.

“McCarthy’s football was pretty hard to watch at times in the last two years,” Steve added.

“After two years of slowly slipping down the league, fans were very tired and the relationship got quite aggressive really.

“Mick did well and brought in a lot of ‘proper blokes’ – you can see we’ve lacked that experience this year – but it was completely unwatchable at times.”

Slick Mick is public enemy number one

Getty - Contributor
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Slick Mick is public enemy number one

Fast forward 12 months from the Burton bore-fest and well over 15,000 turned out to see their side snatch a late point off a Stoke side still brimming with Premier League experience.

“It’s funny to say the fans have actually come back together considering where we are,” Ashley laughed.

“The atmosphere now is completely different to the last 10 years.

“There was a massive disconnection under McCarthy. Lambert is far more hands on.

“Nothing would have changed under Mick. He was a good manager but he wasn’t the right one.”

Lambert has brought the feel-good spirit back

Reuters
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Lambert has brought the feel-good spirit back

There is some suggestion that a relegation could benefit the club long-term simply to break up the tedium of the last 17 years.

A case of taking one step back to move two forward.

There is, of course, no guarantee of instant bouncebackability and financially they will face some serious challenges.

Generally, many fans feel this might be the sobering moment the club needs to shock them back into life.

Lambert has suggested his future lies in Suffolk beyond the end of the season, while the academy is producing youngsters like Teddy Bishop, who is being coveted by Arsenal and Man United.

Bishop is an exciting prospect

Reuters
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Bishop is an exciting prospect

“Everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong this season,” said Benjamin Bloom, host of the Blue Monday podcast.

“But most people are ready for it now. We’ve gone through the other stages and now we’ve accepted it.

“When relegation does come, we’ll be OK with it.”

Ben runs the Blue Monday podcast

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Ben runs the Blue Monday podcast

The Championship has twisted and turned at both ends on an almost weekly basis this season, emphasising its status as arguably the most competitive league in the world.

And Benjamin beautifully summed up the carnage with a pertinent analogy.

“I’d liken it [the Championship] to the Grand National.

“Any other horse race is kind of normal, but the Grand National is twice the length and has twice as many fences.

“It’s just absolute chaos. The margins are so fine; if you’re not at it someone will snipe you and take your points. It’s a unique league.”

Is this the end of the misery?

PA:Press Association
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Is this the end of the misery?

Ipswich may be dead and buried this season and that last-gasp point on Saturday too little too late, but you can’t deny the newfound cheer around Portman Road.

They now have the opportunity to rebuild after nearly two decades of steady decline, backed by a fan base who are behind the cause.

Crucially, in contrast to 2001/02, there are also no unnecessary distractions.

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