Night to remember for Euro heroes

SOME had to take a roundabout route, while for others it amounted to little more than a five-minute cab ride.But the Boys of '81, scattered all over the place these days, were determined to get together and celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of the most significant achievements ever by an English club in Europe.

SOME had to take a roundabout route, while for others it amounted to little more than a five-minute cab ride.

But the Boys of '81, scattered all over the place these days, were determined to get together and celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of the most significant achievements ever by an English club in Europe.

Nothing, for example, was going to stop Paul Mariner, who was in Japan earlier in the week and had just about enough time to return to his home in Phoenix, Arizona, then pack all over again for another tiring trip to England.

Goalkeeper Paul Cooper jetted in from his base in Tenerife, the famous Dutch duo of Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen made the journey across the North Sea for the umpteenth time and Robin Turner travelled from his home in County Mayo.

The clock was approaching midnight before Russell Osman, the only player with a 100 per cent appearance record in that marathon, 66-game campaign, put in an appearance after completing his commitments for ITV Sport at the Second Division game between QPR and Bristol City.

Sadly, there was no sign of his defensive sidekick, Terry Butcher, forced to send his apologies because he was somewhere in the Mediterranean, fulfilling a coaching engagement on a cruise ship.

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The ex-players and other guests enjoyed a champagne reception before tucking into a sumptuous meal – but the main item on the menu was a large helping of nostalgia.

Video highlights helped to recall the magnificent, 12-game run that saw Town capture the UEFA Cup in a season when their hopes of landing an unprecedented treble were only dashed as the finishing line came into sight.

"Did no one else score?" joked one of the heroes as the legendary John Wark relived his record-equalling haul of 14 goals – exactly half Ipswich's tally of 24 in Europe in that unforgettable 1980-81 campaign.

The scene was set by current chairman David Sheepshanks, who praised the efforts of everyone involved in establishing the club on the Euro map.

He beamed: "We salute you all and we are as proud as punch to be trying to emulate your achievement 20 years on."

The chairman joked that a book had been opened as to who would speak the longest, himself or Bobby Robson. It was no contest, as one-sided as many of Ipswich's games in that golden era.

Robson stole the show with an emotive speech, singling out the heroes of 81 as the best of all the teams he assembled during his 13-year managerial reign.

"It was just the perfect jigsaw," he recalled. "We only bought five players and the rest were entirely home-spun. They were highly motivated, tremendously ambitious, had a great work ethic – no doubt about that – and a great spirit.

"They were also pals off the field, which helped, and they had an abundance of collective grit and determination when it got a bit rough. They had to show a lot of character in some away games that year and they had a lot of that. They were good to be with and a lot of fun.

"After winning the FA Cup in 1978 we had to develop a new team and we felt we had to get little Gatesy in. We didn't play with wingers, but we used the full width of the pitch. We were difficult to play against because our opponents couldn't work us out."

Robson, now 68 but whose football appetite has never been keener, recalled the huge influence that former chairman John Cobbold had on the club prior to his death in 1983.

"He loved the European trips," joked Robson. "It gave him a chance to stock up on the duty frees!

"I remember a game at Leicester and we're two down. Mr John turns to me and says 'Our boys are rather enterprising today. Have you been working on something special in training?'

"I had to explain that we were the away team, it was Leicester who were playing in blue and that Ipswich were losing two nil!"

There were roars of laughter when Robson revealed Mr John's very own European routine.

"He would write his name on one shirt cuff and his hotel on the other," Robson said. "It wasn't just that he didn't know where he was, but who he was!"

Robson couldn't resist pointing out how his Town team were pipped for the League Championship by Aston Villa, who only used 14 players to injury-hit Ipswich's 21 that year.

"We beat them three times so that tells that story," he emphasised.

He also rhymed off several other achievements, including European Team of the Year, and the way Town dominated the individual awards.

Not only did Frans Thijssen scoop the Footballer of the Year accolade, but colleagues Mick Mills and John Wark completed the top three.

Wark was crowned PFA Player of the Year, with Thijssen runner-up and Mariner third, and it was the first time that one club had dominated both awards in this way.

"Doesn't that speak volumes for the players we had?" added Robson to loud applause.

"Paul Mariner also won the Roy of the Rovers Centre-Forward of the Year award," he continued, before glancing in the ex-player's direction and adding: "You were my favourite centre-forward, too, son."

In a speech tinged with humour, Robson paid tribute to Osman's feat in playing all 66 games, praised Wark's incredible record of 36 goals in all competitions and also made special mention of goalkeeper Paul Cooper.

"He kept 27 clean sheets that season and there wasn't a better goalkeeper in the country," Robson said. "I paid £23,000 for him – they're on that a week now – and I even tried to negotiate a bit less."

Unable to resist a swipe at the former number one's now portly frame, Robson laughed: "He's so wide now it would be even harder to get the ball past him."

Robson had praise for his backroom staff and others who worked behind the scenes, while singling out his team's outstanding 4-1 win in St Etienne.

Town fell behind in France to an early goal and recovered in style. "It was one of the greatest-ever European performances – by any team, anywhere," he insisted.

"There is no football club in the world better than Ipswich," added Robson. "I had the happiest time of my life here.

"You are back in Europe now and remember, records are there to be broken. I would just say this – go out and do it."

There was an impromptu speech from Mick Mills, the team's inspirational skipper, who said: "I was here from 1965 to 1982 and it is 19 years since I left.

"Since then I have worked for many clubs – sometimes successful, sometimes not – but when I meet people they always associate me with Ipswich and I am happy with that."

Robson and Mills both paid tribute to the club as generous hosts, while earlier in the night current boss George Burley proposed the loyal toast and director John Kerr, a former chairman, proposed another, to the club's future and absent friends.

The official proceedings over, the players who brought European glory to Ipswich were able to mingle again for another meander down memory lane.

The reminiscing lasted well into the night – just like the celebrations in Amsterdam 20 years ago when Town finally earned their reward at the end of a season to savour.