If somebody were to suggest that one of this season’s newly promoted sides would break into the top 6 of the Premier League and challenge for a Champions League place, they would most probably be laughed at.
However, in the 2000/01 Carling Premiership (as it was called back then) season that is exactly what Ipswich Town did. In fact, the ‘Tractor Boys’ were in contention for a Champions League spot right up until the final day of the season. Whilst Liverpool and Leeds won their matches, Ipswich could only manage a draw and had to settle for 5th place and an automatic UEFA Cup spot.
Yes, you can argue that the Premier League now is a completely different animal in terms of the financial divide between the division’s top and bottom end clubs, but Ipswich’s achievement should never be underestimated.
To this day they hold the record for the highest number of points won by a newly promoted side. Perhaps their greatest achievement since the times of Sir Bobby Robson all those years ago.
… and that’s nothing short of remarkable for any club, leave alone them by that point!
For Ipswich fans, who have had very little to cheer about in recent times, the achievements of that season is something that will never be forgotten, and for many it is the best they have witnessed since supporting the club.
The team entered the 2000/01 season on the back of finally achieving promotion via the Division One play offs. Manager George Burley had seen his side fail at this hurdle for three successive seasons beforehand, so to say everyone associated with the club was relieved would be an understatement.
The Premiership campaign was Burley’s sixth full season in charge at Ipswich, and within that time he had developed a solid squad he could trust. Richard Wright was a full England international goalkeeper; Titus Bramble had also graduated through the Ipswich academy, whilst Matt Holland was an ever-present in midfield. Up front he had the reliable James Scowcroft and the dangerous David Johnson to support Marcus Stewart.
He was therefore happy to keep faith with the team that earned promotion, only adding three new players in the summer. Dutch wide man, and cult hero, Martijn Reuser‘s loan was made permanent, and the defence was bolstered through the arrivals of Herman Hreidarsson and John Scales.
Perhaps following in Sir Bobby’s footsteps when it came to assembling such a well-rounded squad.
The lack of transfer activity meant Ipswich entered the season as strong favourites for relegation straight back to where they came from. Despite a creditable draw against reigning champions Manchester United, Ipswich lost 3 of their first 5 games, increasing the doubt on whether the team could perform at this level.
However, the turning point came on match day 6, where the Blues grabbed an excellent 2-1 away win against Leeds United. This result clearly gave the team confidence as they only lost 3 more matches until the new year – a remarkable run of form that included 10 victories, one of which came at Anfield.
Leaving Ipswich sitting in an unprecedented 3rd place in the Premier League heading into January.
Every single player had stepped up as Burley predicted, but one key man in it all was striker Marcus Stewart. Stewart hit 19 league goals, 15 of which came before February, seeing him finish only behind Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in the golden boot race. The striker’s form even led to cries for Sven Goran Eriksson to call him up to the England squad, something that never quite materialised.
Though they were stacked with strikers themselves at the time, so that’s pretty fair enough!
The turn of the year brought a bad run of results, with 4 defeats in 5 games and a three match ban for starman Stewart, giving the club’s fans a good old fashioned reality check. Many within football thought the bubble had finally burst and, as other promoted teams had done so before, Ipswich would begin tumbling down the division.
Yet this incredible team regrouped and produced 7 wins from the next 9 games, leaving them sitting in 4th place and 2 points behind Arsenal in 2nd. Miraculously, Ipswich Town were in with a genuine shot of Champions League football with 3 huge matches remaining.
They just needed to hold strong, keep their eyes on the prize and get the job done …
They were up against the best English football had to offer, however, and unfortunately class shone through. Liverpool picked up maximum points from their final 3 matches to send them into the Champions League, whilst Arsenal and Leeds managed 6 points from their fixtures to see them finish in 2nd and 4th respectively.
Ipswich’s 4 points from their set of fixtures meant they finished the season in 5th place on 66 points.
The team won plaudits from all over England – not just for qualifying for Europe, but the manner in which they had achieved it. George Burley received the LMA Manager of the Year Award ahead of the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Gerard Houllier, who won the treble that season …
… which highlights how much of an effect his team had on those that saw them play.