The 2000-01 Premier League season was a bizarre one, ranging from the mundane to the improbable: On one hand, Manchester United won the title by 10 points, on the other hand, it was delivered with a poor Middlesbrough side winning 3-0 at Highbury. Whilst Man United, Arsenal and Liverpool were the top three, Peter Reid’s Sunderland were second in late January. Yet despite this, going into the season, Play-off victors Ipswich Town were looking dead certs to go straight back where they came from. As an early 21st Century promoted club, they could expect to follow a defined path:
The life of a 21st Century promoted club tends to go one of three ways – a) you do a Wigan, a Reading, or even a Hull and end up very high up the table at Christmas for no discernible reason other than momentum, spirit and form. You then tail off a little at the end of the season (or a lot) but you stay up. Just.
b) You do a West Brom, a Norwich, a Crystal Palace, or a Charlton - (not strictly 21st Century, but go with me) play easy-on-the-eye football, nearly stay up, but go down because your defence is, in short,
crap not very good.
c) You do a Stoke, a Birmingham, or a Bolton – i.e. Stay up reasonably comfortably, by being “tough to beat” (kick lumps out of opponents), “direct” (long ball merchants), brilliant at home (brilliant at home) or all three.
This Ipswich Town side had a bit of everything – momentum, spirit, good football, and were more than able to handle themselves. Especially away from home: Only Leeds and Manchester United were better away teams – and they ended up in Europe.
Their first XI was nothing special on paper: Richard Wright was a promising young keeper who held genuine England chances; but Fabian Wilnis and Herman Hreidarsson were journeyman defenders from the continent, Hreidarsson one of the full backs of the year with his suprising pace, teutonic heading ability and remarkable subtlety; John McGreal was a decent, if limited centre half and Titus Bramble was a promising yet dozy central defender with a turn of pace. “He’ll be an England regular one day” George Burley said before the promise became a joke at Newcastle. They weren’t one of the great central defensive partnerships, but they more than got the job done.
Midfield was slightly better – Irishmen Jim Magilton and Matt Holland were central midfielders who dovetailed superbly: the former relied on nous, simplicity and no little technical ability, while Holland was a perfect counterpoint with his hustle, bustle and steady passing. Holland won the ball, gave it to Magilton and ran forward, and Magilton would feed it out wide, in came the cross: BANG! Another goal for Ipswich. So simple, incredibly effective.
Out wide – on either flank – was dutchman Martijn Reuser – plucked from Ajax at the start of the season – who had a decent turn of pace, solid technique but two real assets: Pinpoint crosses and bludgeoned shots. Two fantastic strikes against struggling Bradford in early March at Portman Road were a turning point* after three straight defeats: Soon to be relegated Bradford were leading at Half Time to a Benito Carbone (remember him?) free-kick, and The Tractor Boys were reeling until Reuser struck with a skilful cut inside and a fizzing drive that left the commentator Martin Tyler purring “The mood has changed at Portman Road… from depression to delight!”. A stunning free kick led to a 3-1 win. A collapse wasn’t in the offing, and they stayed pretty strong until the end.
On the other flank it was generally youngster Jamie Clapham, showing a crossing ability, good technique and most pertinently a left foot that briefly raised hopes of an alternative to Michael Gray and Chris Powell down England’s left. It was not to be. Another key player during this season was the industrious, solid technician Jermaine Wright, an Englishman replacement for Newcastle-bound Keiron Dyer who offered a quite attacking midfield a bit of balance. He didn’t score many, but he didn’t make many mistakes. A major part for any successful promoted club is that your lower league players adapt well to the Premier League, and Wright did that.
Up front was a one season wonder for the ages. Marcus Stewart. In 3 seasons in the Premier League for Ipswich and Sunderland, passed 10 goals once. In season 2000-01 he scored 21. Using an underrated heading ability, an eye for goal and a canny knack for being in the right place at the right time, he scored goal after goal, penalty spot header after penalty spot header, cool finish after cool finish as he became THE HIGHEST ENGLISH GOALSCORER of the season. Ahead of Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Andy Cole, Robbie Fowler, Emile Heskey and PFA and FWA Player Of The Year Teddy Sheringham. In fact, he finished as the second highest goalscorer of anyone in the Premier League that season – behind only Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and ahead of Thierry Henry, Mark Viduka, Dennis Bergkamp, Dwight Yorke, need I go on? For a man who had only played lower league football until then, this was an extraordinary performance. Ok, so he was playing against the likes of Gianluca Festa, Andy O’Brien and a 1000-year-old Richard Gough every week, but no-one else (nearly) shot as many fish in that particular barrel, an achievement lost in the sands of time. A hattrick in a 3-0 win at Southampton prompted muted calls for an England squad place, but with Teddy Sheringham enjoying a stellar season, there was probably not enough room for two pretty paceless strikers in the same squad.
This victory at the Dell – where the Saints were also chasing Europe – took the side back up to third, meaning that there were genuine hopes of Champions League football as the season entered its final three games. Sadly, a defeat and a draw in two of their last three games, and a Liverpool win at Charlton meant that they finished just three points adrift of The Promised Land in fifth.
It was not meant to be, but the fact that they were oh-so close to Champions League football has been overshadowed by subsequent events: Manager of the Year George Burley, instead of keeping the nucleus of his successful squad and adding a few more bodies, brought in Finidi George and Pablo Counago – for big money (£10m for the pair) – and with far too lofty expectations. The loss of goalkeeper Richard Wright to Arsenal was a blow – to all involved, as it turned out: Wright had two England caps and seemed to be Seaman’s successor for club and country, instead he had a nightmare first season, ended up at Everton (on the bench mainly) for five years and is now back at Portman Road, one of the numerous Great English Hopes (Titus Bramble, Michael Gray, Francis Jeffers, Luke Chadwick, Scott Parker) that ended up falling by the wayside just as they were about to take their biggest strides and get into the national side. For Ipswich, a fantastic season was followed by a horrible one: They were relegated, George Burley ended up leaving and everyone seemed to regret their eagerness to rock the boat.
So, you may ask, why is this a story worth telling? Well who’d have thought that of all the teams in that season who seemed ready to make a challenge – Leicester were top after eight games, Sunderland were second in January: both collapsed horribly – it would be Ipswich Town who’d be the team to get amongst the big boys? It also shows how times have changed in just eight years: Could a promoted club finish above Chelsea now? Could a promoted club get into Europe now? Unfortunately, for the time being at least, the answer is no.
(*Alright, this wasn’t a particularly good Bradford side – chairman Geoffrey Richmond said that the signing of Stan Collymore would “act as a catalyst” for Bradford’s second great escape. It didn’t. – but they were still a doughty bunch of scrappers with a bit of quality (Dean Windass, Carbone, Dean Saunders) and were fighting for their lives.)