Muhren & Thijssen: When Ipswich Went Double Dutch

It has been 15 long years since Ipswich Town have been back in the second tier of English football. The last sojourn in the top flight began in 2000, a season bringing back memories of a time the East Anglian side rubbed shoulders with the footballing elite. Gaining a reputation as the neutrals favourite, the Tractor Boys backed by 19 league goals from Marcus Stewart saw themselves challenging for a Champions League berth most of the season. The expected drop in performance never came and a fifth-place finish meant UEFA Cup qualification after their first season back in the top flight. 

The following season saw an increase in expectations, expensive stadium renovations alongside some big-name additions to the squad. The grind of European competition coupled with the new squad failing to gel, Ipswich found themselves in a battle against relegation. A 1-0 first leg UEFA Cup win over Inter Milan at Portman Road a highlight in an otherwise bitterly disappointing season, succumbing to relegation on the final day with a 5-0 defeat at Anfield. Administration and periods of austerity followed, new ownership brought fresh hope but the relegation is something the club is still recovering from. 

The sight of Ipswich Town in the upper echelons of English football was reminiscent of the glory days of the 1970’s and early 80’s under the guidance of Bobby Robson. Last month saw eight years since their former manager sadly passed away. The impact he made on the game reaches far and wide, no fewer than twenty of his players going on to forge managerial careers of their own. His willingness to share knowledge and expertise is well known, even being more than happy to give an opportunity to his inquisitive translator at Barcelona. 

Having took over at Portman Road in 1969 it took nine years for Robson to capture his first silverware. The 1978 FA Cup final win over Arsenal though masked a mediocre domestic campaign, an 18th place in the league with only 11 wins left Robson looking to freshen up his over-exerted squad. In his 13 years with the club he signed only 18 players, a testament to the quality of players that came through the ranks. Two of his most important signings were on the horizon. 

The summer of 1978 saw the beginning of a new era in English football. Tottenham Hotspur manager Keith Burkinshaw signed two of Argentina’s World Cup winning squad, Osvaldo ‘Ossie’ Ardiles and Ricardo Villa for a combined £750,000. This transfer coup for the north London club signified a sea-change in the English game as more and more teams looked abroad for additions, much to the chagrin of the player’s union. Arnold Muhren arrived at Ipswich that August, following a £150,000 switch from Twente Enschede. The gifted Dutchman became the club’s first overseas signing, with a European Cup winners medal to his name from his time at Ajax, Muhren was a key acquisition for a club challenging on four fronts that season.  

Robson used the personal touch to persuade Muhren to make the move to Suffolk, arriving unannounced at his home in Volendam. Muhren had left Twente after a managerial fall-out and was training with his hometown club. Having been tipped off on his potential availability during a pre-season tournament Robson knew he had to move fast. Lack of finances had scuppered a move to Volendam, leaving the door open for Robson to step in with his charm offensive. The evening was spent researching Ipswich, wife Geerie consulting her atlas for its whereabouts with Muhren remembering the time he played there in a Mick Mills testimonial. No lasting impression was made and upon looking at the previous seasons league table he saw a mild flirtation with relegation’ which hardly whet the appetite. Word spread of Robson’s arrival in the small northern town, Muhren fielding a call from a suspicious local journalist. An opportunity to play overseas was a risk but also a chance to kick start his career. 

The following morning the Muhren’s boarded a private plane hired by Robson and headed to England. An hour after leaving Amsterdam the Suffolk countryside came into view and the plane descended to give its passengers a closer look at their potential new home. Below Ipswich coach Bobby Ferguson was conducting training on the pitch adjacent to Portman Road and had the players give the incoming guests a welcoming wave. A nice touch thought the Muhren’s, as they stepped off the plane to be greeted by a crowd of fans waving and shouting Arnold’s name.  

Robson was keen to get the deal concluded so Muhren would be eligible for an impending European Cup Winners Cup tie but refused to apply any pressure to his would be signing. Despite the impressive hospitality they returned home without agreeing to a deal, leaving Robson disappointed but understanding. No sooner had they arrived back in Volendam, Muhren, impressed by Robson’s approach during the visit decided to take the plunge and the move was on.  

Muhren’s debut came in Ipswich’s first home game against Liverpool. Being given the role of man marking Terry McDermott, he was a virtual bystander. The game passed him by in midfield, ball after ball sailed over his head to the forwards. Speaking to his manager after the 3-0 defeat Muhren convinced Robson that to get the best out of him a change in tactics was needed. Overnight the style of play at Portman Road shifted, Muhren being given the green light to orchestrate the team’s attacks. 

As the team came to grips with the new-style of play Robson knew that Muhren needed further help. That would arrive on Muhren’s recommendation the following February in the shape of Frans Thijssen, his fellow Dutchman arrived from Twente Enschede for £220,000. Having previously played at Portman Road twice in the UEFA Cup, Thijssen was the vital cog in ensuring Ipswich stayed away from the long ball and kept the more fluid passing based system that would propel them up the division.  

Ipswich finished the season strongly securing sixth position with a 4-0 win over Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the season. Town won 10 of the 16 games after Thijssen’s arrival, losing only once. In Europe progress in the European Cup Winner Cup was halted by eventual winners Barcelona on away goals in the quarter finals, a second successive European exit to the Catalan giants. The influx of overseas signings in the English game increased tenfold over the 1978/79 season with more and more teams looking at ways to get an edge over the opposition. The common concern in the modern game of how quickly signings can adapt to a new culture and style of play. This was no concern for Robson who melded his side to suit the Dutch duo.  

A full season of Muhren and Thijssen in midfield combined with the goal-scoring capabilities of Paul Mariner, Alan Brazil and John Wark had Ipswich earmarked as potential champions in pre-season. A familiar slow start to the league campaign saw eight defeats in the first 12 games, giving the Suffolk side an uphill task to capture their first league title since 1969. Defeats to biggest rivals Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United begged the question of whether the new era was over. An early exit from both the League and UEFA Cup could have derailed the season completely yet this seemed to harness the player’s minds as the calendar turned to November. 

Two defeats from their final 28 games saw the Suffolk side finish third, seven points behind champions Liverpool and five behind runners up Manchester United. Ipswich had beat the Red Devils 6-0 at Portman Road, even missing two penalties but paid the price for the disastrous start to the season.  

The 1980/81 season will be remembered by Ipswich fans as one of the most memorable yet tinged with what might have been. The slow start that plagued Town the two previous seasons was nowhere to be seen, other than a League Cup exit, they didn’t sip their first taste of defeat in the league until November. A Thijssen goal was enough to defeat title rivals Aston Villa and with score draws at Anfield and at home to Manchester United, the Suffolk side were early season pace setters. 

As the nights drew in and winter hit the true test of the side began, 1981 opened with a home tie against Aston Villa in the FA Cup. A Paul Mariner goal saw Ipswich win by the closest of margins, a victory that would work in the defeated sides favour as the season wore on. The battle on three fronts was in full swing, the fourth-round of the UEFA Cup pit Ipswich against Michel Platini’s St Etienne. Two ties that fell either side of three games in the league and FA Cup, a trip to France and the Geoffrey Guichard Stadium up first in what would prove to be an energy sapping March. 

St Etienne coach Robert Herbin had been at Portman Road to see Ipswich defeat Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-1 stating after the game that his side would do well to progress in the competition. Surely mind games from the manager of a side boasting the likes of Dutch World Cup star Johnny Rep, Patrick Battiston and the aforementioned Platini? This appeared to be the case as they raced out to a one goal lead in the 16th minute, Rep scoring in sticky, muddy conditions in the Loire. This would be all that the Les Verts faithful would have to cheer for the rest of the evening as Ipswich clicked into gear, Paul Mariner with a trademark header levelling the tie after 28 minutes. Shortly after half time Muhren stunned ASSE with a 30-yard effort, two more goals from Mariner and John Wark secured an emphatic 4-1 away win. The elated victors even given a standing ovation from the home fans, with Herbin describing them as “the English steamroller”. 

A 3-3 draw with Nottingham Forest in the quarter finals and subsequent 1-0 win at Portman Road in the replay three days later saw Ipswich one game away from a Wembley final. Tottenham Hotspur were duly despatched 3-0 in the league the following Saturday, the arrival of St Etienne for the second leg would be the fifth game in 14 days. 

Young defender Kevin Steggles made his debut for Town with the squad being stretched to the very limit, any advantage the French side thought they had was pushed aside with a resounding 3-1 win for the home team. A 7-2 aggregate victory lined up a two-legged semi-final against FC Koln. 

The Tottenham Hotspur game proved to be a turning point in the title race. Perhaps feeling the effects of the high intensity game’s the title challenge fell into a slump, defeats at Manchester United, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion handed the impetus to Aston Villa. The distraction of a UEFA Cup semi-final first leg at Portman Road worked in Ipswich’s favour, a 1-0 victory giving them a slim lead to take to Germany for the second leg. Any talk of a treble was scotched the following weekend as Manchester City came out on top after extra time. A gruelling 120 minutes at neutral ground Villa Park saw the Citizens belie their mid-table position and secure a 1-0 win. 

With both sides level in the league Ipswich completed the double over Aston Villa with a 2-1 win at Villa Park to edge ahead in the table, yet injuries were mounting. Thijssen was amongst a number of regulars missing from a defeat to third place Arsenal and a disappointing loss in the East Anglian derby to relegation candidates Norwich City. Ipswich stumbled into the second leg against FC Koln with their season threatening to unravel. The Rhine side boasting Rainer Bonhof, Harald Schumacher and England international Tony Woodcock in their midst looked to nullify the Ipswich threat with Holger Willmer deployed to man mark Alan Brazil. The Germans pressed and tested Paul Cooper in the Ipswich goal but were undone from a set-piece. Terry Butcher placing a header into the bottom corner, a statuesque Schumacher hoping to will the ball wide. 

Before any thoughts of a UEFA Cup final with AZ Alkmaar attention was immediately turned to domestic proceedings. The incessant run of games, travel, injuries and pressure had taken its toll on the modest squad though. Two further defeats in the final three games handed the title to Aston Villa, a gut-wrenching end to the season, hopes of a first title in twelve years turned to dust.  

All eyes were on Portman Road for the first leg of the UEFA Cup final, the last chance to win a trophy in a season that once offered so much. Ipswich were rampant taking out any frustrations on the Dutch outfit. Alkmaar perhaps feeling the effects of the weekends celebrations when they were crowned Dutch champions, failed to impact the game. A John Wark penalty gave Ipswich a 1-0 half time lead with Thijssen converting a header for their second goal shortly after the restart. Paul Mariner added a third on 56 minutes to give Ipswich a commanding 3-0 lead to take to the Netherlands for the second leg.  

Around 7,000 Ipswich fans made the trip across the North Sea to the Olympic stadium in Amsterdam for the second leg, Alkmaar’s Alkmaarderhout ground deemed too small for the occasion. A game deemed a formality by many looked even further out of reach for the Kaaskoppen when Frans Thijssen volleyed the visitors into a three-minute lead. Going behind lit a fire under Alkmaar, goals from Austrian international Kurt Welzl and future star of the English game Johnny Metgod gave them a foothold in the tie. A close-range effort from John Wark drew Ipswich level on the half hour mark leaving AZ Alkmaar needing three goals to level the aggregate score.  

The Dutch side regained the lead on 40 minutes through Pier Tol but Ipswich still went into the break in a relatively strong position. Alkmaar besieged the Ipswich goal in the second half, smelling blood Kaaskoppen poured bodies forward. When Jos Jonker smashed a 30-yard free kick beyond Paul Cooper in the 74th minute the comeback was almost complete.  

Ipswich survived the onslaught to secure their first European triumph. The relief of not ending the season empty handed was palpable as the team headed home to a civic reception. A rollercoaster end to a season for the ages, Thijssen received the football writer’s player of the year award and was recalled to the Dutch national squad alongside his compatriot Muhren.  

This proved to be the beginning of the end for Ipswich’s glory days. Muhren departed at the completion of his contract to Manchester United where he helped them lift the FA Cup before enjoying further success with Ajax. He played the role of wily veteran for the national team in Euro 88 providing the cross for ‘that goal’ from Marco van Basten in the final. Robson followed the route of the Alf Ramsey to take the poisoned chalice of the England managers job. Thijssen unsettled by rumours of a move to AC Milan and struggling with injury stayed at Ipswich until 1983 before moving on to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.  

Over a quarter of a century later this side is still revered in the blue part of East Anglia, used as a barometer for all teams that have come since. The squad assembled at the turn of the millennium is the closest they have come, though fans still cherish a proud history when their unfashionable club went out on a limb and almost won it all.