When Ipswich won the title as a newly promoted club under Alf Ramsey

Sport

Suffolk’s reputation as a sedate, humble sort of a place is mostly well founded. Its countryside is soothing rather than spectacular; the locals’ sense of regional pride is expressed with modesty rather than flamboyance. Accordingly, the Ipswich Town Supporters’ Association handbook for 1962-63 – the season following the club’s only Football League championship – commences by offering “the highest praise and congratulations to all our players, management, etc”, before moving straight on to the important business of reminding members about their entitlement to accident insurance.

Sixty years on from that title in the 1961-62 season, it’s surprising that it doesn’t have a more prominent place in the history books. Ipswich won the league in the season after their first ever promotion to the top flight – something never achieved before or since – only 24 years after joining the Football League. Remember Wigan reaching the Premier League in 2005? Imagine if they had won it straight away. That’s what Ipswich managed six decades ago.

In 1955, Town’s long-serving manager Scott Duncan had stepped down and his replacement was 35-year-old former Spurs and England full-back Alf Ramsey. “I sincerely hope that our association will be a happy and successful one,” Ramsey wrote to supporters on his appointment. He could hardly have guessed how successful it would be.

Ramsey joined with Ipswich having just been relegated back into the Third Division South after their first, brief taste of life in the second tier. Within two seasons, Ramsey had got the club back up into the Second Division, where they spent three seasons consolidating before finishing above Sheffield United and Liverpool to win the division in 1961, and reach the top level of English football for the first time.

Now managing an unfancied team in the First Division, Ramsey began to show the sort of innovation that would later take him, and the national team, to the “wingless wonders” triumph of 1966. At Ipswich, Ramsey was arguably one of the first British coaches to approach the game from a truly tactical perspective, working out how best to utilise his players to create problems for the opposition, rather than dogged adherence to the WM formation that Herbert Chapman had previously established as definitive.

The season started slowly for Ipswich, but accelerated dramatically at the end of August with a 6-2 home victory over Burnley, a giant of the game at that time. Wins kept coming steadily. The Spurs team that had won the Double in the previous season, and were expected to retain their title with ease, were beaten home and away. The 28,778 supporters who watched the first of those wins at Portman Road in October was almost double the average crowd for Ramsey’s first season at the club. The 1961 census recorded Ipswich’s population as just 113,000, so the centrality of the football club to this attractive but unpretentious town was becoming established – and has remained constant ever since.

Most of the team’s goals were scored by Ray Crawford and Ted Phillips, the former one of only two members of the side to gain full international honours (two caps and one goal for England), the latter famed for his thunderous shooting power. But Ramsey’s tactical nous was the real inspiration. Jimmy Leadbetter, a spindly, wizened figure, was ostensibly playing at outside-left, but was told to drop back and spray passes forward for Crawford and Phillips – something unheard of in those rigidly positional times, causing unprecedented dilemmas for the opposition. Four years later, Ramsey would deploy Alan Ball and Martin Peters in similar roles at Wembley.

Leadbetter, a wide player with no pace, was hugely popular with supporters and teammates. Crawford later recalled: “He couldn’t run, but he had this lovely drag back which always left the opposition on their bottoms.” He was one of five players who became the first to win championship medals in three divisions with the same club, another being goalkeeper Roy Bailey, whose son Gary later played for Manchester United. Only 16 players were used in league matches throughout the season. Inside-right Doug Moran and captain Andy Nelson played in all 52 league and cup fixtures. Nelson was part of a defence which also included Billy Baxter, who would remain with the club until 1971, when his long service was ignominiously ended after a dressing-room punch-up with Bobby Robson.

Town’s ascent of the league was steady. They were sixth at the end of September, fourth at the end of October, and second at the end of November. By the end of March, Town reached the top of the table, two points clear of Burnley, but with only six matches remaining compared to Burnley’s 10. The Clarets, however, were stuttering their way to the end of the season and the title was won on the final day, as Ipswich beat Aston Villa and Burnley could only draw with relegated Chelsea.

Football history had been made, but the celebrations were characteristically muted. The Supporters’ Association diary entry for that last game notes: “After the match Andy Nelson led his team in a triumphant run around the ground joined by hundreds of supporters.” The club chairman, John Cobbold, arrived in the dressing room with champagne, after which the players simply went home.

Cobbold, to whom the word “eccentric” was widely if somewhat euphemistically applied, claimed that he was the only witness to Ramsey performing a solo lap of honour around an empty Portman Road that evening. Even the open-top bus parade and civic reception had to wait a couple of weeks, as the players had to catch a boat from Harwich for their post-season tour of Europe, two days after winning the title.

It fell apart almost as quickly as it had come together. Within two years, Ramsey had left for England and Ipswich were back in the Second Division. But, looking back, what Ramsey accomplished at Ipswich was perhaps the most remarkable of his achievements and one that’s unlikely to ever be emulated. Just don’t expect to hear anyone shouting about it.