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The Class of 2001: Ipswich Town take us all by surprise

March 16, 2011

Plenty of sides have enjoyed early success in their Premier League lives. Sometime it is short-lived. Hull City, for instance, began their first top-flight campaign brilliantly, before clinging on to 17th place. Sometimes success is more long-term. Sunderland have now become well established in the division and Bolton fans also think of the Premier League as home. Indeed, the survival of Allardyce’s team in 2001-02 cost Mark Lawrenson his moustache.

Ipswich Town’s experience is a little different. No facial hair was lost but plenty of eyebrows were raised. Their stay in the first tier of English football following promotion in 2000 lasted a mere two years. The second of these seasons saw them relegated and prompted incessant use of football’s favourite piece of alliteration: “second season syndrome”. But it is the season before that with which we concern ourselves here. In 2000-01, Ipswich finished fifth. At the time it was considered remarkable. Indeed, a BBC Sport article at the start of the season claimed that “Ipswich will rightly regard it as a triumph if they can stay in the Premiership.” Considering the situation at the pinnacle of English football now, it is perhaps even more noteworthy, simply for the fact it is unlikely to happen again.

The situation at the top of the league in 2000-01 was roughly as follows. Manchester United were dominant, sauntering to the league title. Arsenal were behind them, but only a season away from winning the double. Liverpool were undergoing a resurgence under Gérard Houllier and won both domestic cups and the UEFA Cup. The Leeds team of Kewell, Viduka and Smith reached the semi-final of the Champions League. In short, this wasn’t a bad quartet of teams to finish beneath. The intensity of the competition is different today though. In 2000 Abramovich had not bought Chelsea. Sheikh Mansour had not bought Manchester City (they were relegated in 2001). Tottenham supporters were almost resigned to mid-table finishes. How times change. Fast forward ten years and the situation is hugely different. If the prospect of a newly promoted team finishing in the top five was slim ten years ago, it is unthinkable now.

The changes in the English game over the past decade should not spoil the success of Ipswich though. According to Paul Tomkins‘s book Pay as you Play, George Burley was fielding the 17th most expensive team in the league. Merely finishing in the top half would have been considered a fantastic achievement. To put this into perspective, Mick McCarthy’s Wolves were the 17th most expensive side last season. There was never much prospect of them finishing much higher than their eventual 15th.

Both new signings and established players contributed to Ipswich’s success. Richard Wright was viewed as one of the most promising young English goalkeepers. Herman Hreidarsson was an astute defensive purchase, lining up alongside the likes of Jamie Clapham, Fabian Wilnis and John McGreal who had helped the club secure promotion the previous season. The midfield was built around the likes of Matt Holland, Jim Magilton and Jermaine Wright. New signing Martijn Reuser stepped up with six goals during the season. The forward line was led by Marcus Stewart, assisted by Alun Armstrong and James Scowcroft. Netting 19 times in 34 appearances, he scored nearly a third of his team’s goals during the season.

You might think that the members of such a surprisingly successful side would go on to enjoy spells in the Premier League after Ipswich’s relegation. While some remained in the top flight, many were never afforded the same publicity again. Jim Magilton carved out a career in management with both Ipswich and QPR. Holland is probably the most famous of this side, particularly in light of his media career since retirement. He moved to Charlton in 2003 and spent six years at The Valley. Wright secured a high-profile move to Arsenal but never lived up to his promise. Hreidarsson is still playing at Portsmouth; like Holland he too moved to Charlton from Ipswich. Finally, Stewart may be residing in the Football League now, but he did prolong his Premier League career with a move to Sunderland. The likes of Makin, Wilnis, Wright and McGreal, however, remained in the Football League, either at Portman Road or elsewhere.

Ipswich’s fifth-place finish in 2001 looks like a watershed moment for the Premier League. Everton ended the 2004-05 season in 4th, but they had years of top flight experience and could take advantage of the failings of a Liverpool side in the first year of a rebuilding phase. They also failed to win their Champions League qualifier and so missed out on the riches that the competition provides. Aston Villa have threatened to breach the top four barrier at times, but they have backing a level above that afforded to George Burley’s team. A few years ago people spoke of “the big four”. Now we have six teams with Champions League aspirations. Mid-table consolidation is a dream for promoted clubs. The route from the Championship to the continent is now much more arduous.

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