On This Day In History - 13th May 1981 A Win Needed For A UEFA Cup Spot
Wednesday, 13th May 2020 09:40
Saints travelled to Ipswich knowing only a win would do if they were to be in the following season's UEFA Cup, ironically this game was delayed as the Tractor Boys were in the middle of winning the competition themselves.
I am not quite sure why this game was played in mid May, Saints last League game had been on 25th April and I had assumed before starting this article that given the season was due to finish on 2nd May and we didn't play on that day, that this was the fixture, but the record books show that Ipswich payed themselves on that day.
Whatever the reason Saints had a three week break between their penultimate and last game of the season whilst Ipswich had been busy, they had come close to winning the title, being pipped on the final Saturday of the season by Aston Villa who had won at Arsenal whilst they lost at Middlesbrough, the game against Saints could have been a title decider.
I would suspect though that Ipswich fans consider the day they lost it as being the when they lost at local rivals Norwich with four games to go a defeat that handed the impetus to Villa.
Anyway I digress, those defeats meant that with this last fixture to play and a four point gap between them and the top they were now firmly in second place and this was an inconvenience sandwiched in between the two games against AZ 67.
A week earlier Ipswich had destroyed the Dutch side 3-0 at home in front of 27, 532 so it was a surprise that cup fever wasn't still in full swing for our visit the attendance of 19,504 containing around 2,500 Saints supporters.
If the game meant nothing for Ipswich it did for us, our season had been exciting being the first in the Kevin Keegan era, but defensively we were poor and just one win going into this game meant we dropped from 3rd place to 7th and that meant we were out of the UEFA Cup placings.
Back then a trip to Ipswich was a real pain, there was no M25 orbital motorway so you had to go up to London and battle the traffic around the North Circular, it took as long to get to Ipswich as it did Liverpool.
Add to that the car we went up in was not exactly in the luxury bracket and started to stutter once it went over 50, it was a long trip up.
Despite the break between games we went into this one with a patched up team, player of the season Ivan Golac was out injured as was midfield general Steve Williams, these two arguably our most important players that season given that Keegan would miss 15 of the 42 league games.
Saints still had Chris Nicholl and Dave Watson at the heart of the defence, but with the full backs being 18 year old debutant Steve Baker on the right and fringe player Mike McCartney playing his last game for the club on the left, they would need to be holding the back four together.
Add the experience of current and past England captains Keegan, Channon & Alan Ball in the line up to make it four England captains in all and it was a case of one extreme to the other.
Ipswich included future Saints defenders Mick Mills and Russell Osman and as Ipswich fans will know Mills captained England in the absence of Keegan through injury the following year in the 1982 World Cup.
So it was do or die for Saints at Portman Road and they didn't take long to get off the blocks Kevin Keegan scoring after just 5 minutes with a close range header from a Nick Holmes flick on.
Steve Moran was the breakthrough player of the season and was our leading scorer and when on 19 minutes he was put clear by Mick Channon he made no mistakes in that sort of situation.
If the travelling red & white army thought this was good they were still celebrating when Moran scored again two minutes later to make it 3-0, suddenly what looked like being one of the toughest away games of the season seemed the easiest.
But the cheering soon switched to the other 17,000 in the ground, on 26 minutes Alan Brazil reduced the arrears and then 10 minutes later John Wark brought the game within sight for the home side.
Somehow there was no other score before half time and at the break it looked like Ipswich had the impetus, it was going to be a long night and with the two top scoring teams in the 1st Division on the field no one was betting on there being no further goals.
Saints had briefly overtaken Ipswich as top scorers with 76 goals when they went 3-0 up, but the Tractor Boys had retaken the lead with their two replies and were now on 77.
Amazingly there was no further goals in the second half, whether with an important UEFA Cup 2nd leg final the following week , Ipswich took their foot off the gas I don't know, certainly back in those days before multiple substitutes etc, teams just went out and player, even testimonials were contested like cup finals.
Perhaps mentally Ipswich switched off a little, but I don't think that it was intentional, certainly we were battling for our lives and I remember the game being a tense ending, they were playing with the freedom of having no pressure on them and we were digging in to stop the one goal that would break our hearts.
At the final whistle there was pandemonium in the away section, we were now off on a European tour, back in those days there wasn't the kissing of the badge and applauding the supporters that there is now with players, but the Saints team came to their celebrating fans as the home crowd went off into the night, this defeat already forgotten about and the next match now firmly in their minds.
Bobby Robson said afterwards " I don't ever recall anyone hitting us as hard and as quickly as that, although we managed to get back into the game we had left ourselves too much ground to make up"
After leaving the ground there was no time for celebrating with a pint, we had a long trip home in a car that could do no more than 50 miles an hour, we drove back through the centre of London and I remember the eerie deserted streets and us still buzzing about the game, normally on a trip like this only the driver was awake by 20 miles away from the ground, but on this one we buzzed all the way home.
After everyone was dropped off and I got home it was around 4am, a note on the mantelpiece from my Mum saying congratulations and just about time for 3 hours sleep and then up for work, I didn't really care , nights like these were the very reason why we all go to football.
A week later Ipswich lost 4-2 in the UEFA Cup 2nd leg but won 5-4 on aggregate, 6,000 travelling Ipswich fans went though a similar experience as we did at Portman Road, hanging on in there and at the end they were celebrating just as much as we all where a week earlier.
Photo: Action Images
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