When Ipswich Town were promoted to the Premier League via the First Division play-offs in 2000, many bookies had them as favourites to go straight back down. What happened next was quite remarkable, as Ipswich came within touching distance of the Champions League…
On paper, the Tractor Boys appeared to have a pretty weak squad, not helped by the fact that they had a net spend of less than £3million during the season, with well over a third of that being splashed out on Sunderland defender Chris Makin towards the end of the season in March.
— Football Memories (@footballmemorys) March 4, 2016
However, Marcus Stewart quickly became the star of a team that will forever go down in Ipswich folklore. Nineteen league goals left the journeyman striker second in the Premier League Golden Boot behind only Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. This sadly wasn’t enough to earn him an England call-up but certainly was the catalyst for firing Ipswich into Europe for the following year.
Stewart wasn’t the only key player; captain Matt Holland began to show why he was a Premier League standard central midfielder, scoring five goals and showing the consistency that would eventually land him a move to Charlton Athletic in 2003. New signing Hermann Hreidersson also was a familiar name in the league, although has been relegated with every Premier League side he ever played for. Goalkeeper Richard Wright, Titus Bramble (who manager George Burley claimed would become an England regular!) and others all played vital roles as well.
— Renegade Statman (@chompx3) August 19, 2015
Ipswich started the season quite slowly, with just one win in their first five league games. However, nine wins in their next thirteen matches saw Ipswich rise from a lowly 16th all the way up to a comfortable third place, which would mean Champions League qualification for 2001/02. During this time, Ipswich were able to secure memorable wins away at Elland Road and at Anfield against two of their main rivals in the battle for European football.
Ipswich remained in Champions League contention over Christmas, but a run of four defeats in five league games at the start of 2001 threatened to derail their campaign as they quickly fell to sixth and in danger of no European football at all.
But what followed was arguably Ipswich’s best ever spell of Premier League football, winning seven of their next nine games to charge back into the top three. With just three games left, and with all the games against favourable opposition, it looked like The Tractor Boys would be coming out to the famous Champions League anthem next season.
Had Ipswich won those three games, it would have been enough to finish second. Unfortunately however, a defeat to Charlton Athletic and a draw against Derby County meant that Ipswich finished in fifth place on 66 points, still magnificent, and still enough to secure UEFA Cup football for the following season.
The Suffolk side could arguably have won the League Cup as well. Ipswich went all the way to the semi-finals of the competition, including knocking Arsenal at Highbury on the way with a memorable last-minute goal from James Scowcroft.
At that stage, they were drawn against lower division opposition in Birmingham City, and won the first-leg at Portman Road by a goal to nil. However, when they travelled to Birmingham, the tie gradually unravelled, losing 4-2 on aggregate after Extra Time. Considering the Blues took Liverpool all the way to penalties in the final, it could be seen as a missed opportunity.
The Ipswich fairytale would only be a one-season wonder though. The UEFA Cup journey was ended in the Third Round by Inter Milan, albeit despite a famous 1-0 victory at Portman Road against the Italian giants in the first-leg.
Alun Armstrong scores the winners for Ipswich against Inter in the UEFA Cup pic.twitter.com/xZI5lh8pHa
— The League Magazine (@Theleaguemag) March 22, 2014
The 2001/02 Premier League season would be a disaster. Whilst not helped by George Burley splashing the cash earned from last season on flops such as Pablo Counago and Finidi George, balancing European football and a domestic campaign proved too much for Ipswich’s threadbare squad to handle early on in the season. Despite a promising run of form over the Christmas period, The Tractor Boys were relegated back to the First Division.
Even though their success was short lived, Ipswich fans can always look back on the 2000/2001 season knowing that it was easily their best achievement in the last 30 years. It may have even provided the inspiration for Leicester City’s amazing charge to the Premier League title last season…