It is entirely appropriate that Ipswich Town should have chosen last Saturday’s home league match against Barnsley as an opportunity to rename their South Stand as The Sir Alf Ramsey Stand, for this month marks a very special anniversary in the history of the club. It is fifty years ago this month the Ipswich Town became, against all odds, the champions of England, an achievement made all the more remarkable for the fact that just five years earlier they had been playing in the Third Division South of the Football League and was playing its first ever season in the top division of English football.

Even so much as a place in the Football League had come relatively late to Suffolk. Ipswich Town were voted into the league in 1938, having played amateur football until 1936 before spending just two seasons as a professional club in the Southern League. Their election into the Football League came at the expense of Gillingham – who would be readmitted twelve years later – but their introduction to league football would be a brief one, with the outbreak of war interrupting the clubs progress after just one full season. When league football resumed in 1946, the club settled into a comfortable existence in the then-regionalised bottom division, and it would take a forward-looking appointment as manager in 1955 that would begin the clubs rapid ascent to the summit of the English game.

Ipswich Town had won the Division Three South championship in 1954, but their stay in Division Two was a brief one, with the club getting relegated back in bottom place in the table. Manager Scott Duncan, who had been with the club since 1936, resigned his position and took up an administrative role within the club and was replaced by a managerial novice in the former Tottenham Hotspur and England right-back Alf Ramsey. Ramsey was amongst the first of a newer generation of English coaches who’d had their playing careers disrupted by the war and were interested in treating tactics as something greater than an optional extra.

By modern standards, there was nothing exceptionally sophisticated about the system that Ramsey came to adopt at Portman Road during the late 1950s and early 1960s. By moving inside-forwards Roy Stephenson and Jimmy Leadbetter into wide midfield positions, his team played the original incarnation of the “wingless wonders” that would win the 1966 World Cup for England – a formation that pulled opposing full-backs from the positions in which they expected to find themselves and created space for the ball to be moved swiftly forward to two immensely powerful forwards, Ray Crawford and Ted Philips. The results of Ramsey’s appointment were almost immediate. After narrowly missing out on promotion at the end of his first season in charge, they won the Third Division South championship in 1957 and, after three mid-table seasons in the Second Division, then went one further and won a second promotion into the First Division of the Football League for the first time in the history of the club.

The omens for Ipswich Town’s first season of top division football weren’t especially promising before a ball was kicked. The club did splash out to an extent during the summer of 1961, £12,000 to bring Dougie Moran to the club from Falkirk, but the early 1960s were a time of increasing financial belt-tightening for many clubs as crowds fell off after their post-war spike (they fell by 750,000 between the 1960/61 season and the 1961/62 season alone), and the total cost of the entire team was no more than £30,000. The team started the season as slowly as many had predicted, with just one point from their opening three matches before clicking into gear with a 6-2 against Burnley in their fourth match of the season.

The story of Ipswich’s run to the championship that season was one of a simple plan played out with the maximum of effect. Crawford, Moran and Phillips scored 33, 13 and 28 goals respectively, while only three other players would score in the league for them all season. When they crashed, they really crashed – 5-2 at Everton, 3-0 at Aston Villa and 5-0 at Manchester United – and their FA Cup run came to an early end when they were beaten at home by Norwich City in a Fourth Round replay, but their early exit from this competition – albeit at the hands of local rivals –  turned out to be something of a blessing, as Tottenham Hotspur, who had won the league and cup double at a canter the previous season, laboured under a chase for the FA Cup, the First Division title and the European Cup which resulted in only the FA Cup returning to White Hart Lane.

They were also a little lucky in one or two other respects. Amongst the sides that might have been expected to challenge for the First Division title, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United both had poor seasons and finished in the bottom half of the table, whilst the team spent the whole season relatively untroubled by injuries, to the extent that both Crawford and Phillips played in all forty-two league matches throughout the season. This, however, seems like small beer when considering the gulf in terms of experience and resources between Ipswich Town and the other clubs at the top of the First Division at the time, but their rapid success would also mean that their time at the top had a limited shelf life.

Another disappointing England performance at the 1962 World Cup finals finally led to the end of the discredited selection committee process and the end of Walter Winterbottom’s time as team coach. His departure left a gap that Ramsey was the natural successor to fill, and he in turn was replaced as the Ipswich Town manager by the former Newcastle United striker Jackie Milburn. The 1962/63 season, however, would be very much the beginning of the morning after the night before for Ipswich Town. With opposing teams now familiar with the way that the team played, the goal threat of Phillips and Crawford was largely nullified and Ipswich Town slumped to seventeenth place in the table by the end of the season whilst their European Cup adventure came to an end in the second round against Milan, and worse was to follow a year later when they were relegated back from the First Division altogether.

It would take the work of another manager destined to end up in the England managers job, Bobby Robson, to take Ipswich Town back up to the top division in 1969. Further trophies would follow in the form of the 1978 FA Cup and the 1981 UEFA Cup but, in something of a reversal of fortune when compared to 1962, Ipswich would miss out in their most sustained bid to take the league championship back to Suffolk in 1981 when their team, fighting on three fronts in the league, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, was overtaken by an Aston Villa team unburdened by major distractions and one which only played fourteen players in forty-two matches as Ipswich tired in the closing stages of the season.

Four years after Ipswich’s league title win, England would win the World Cup using the system that Alf Ramsey had perfected at Portman Road, but there would be other unexpected longer-term significances to their success that season. The following year, Anglia Television, emboldended by the success of the team, would pay £1,000 to for the exclusive rights to thirty games that season involving four East Anglian clubs. Along with Tyne-Tees Television, who also started broadcasting highlights of local matches that season, a template was created that would reach its logical conclusion two years later with the appearance of Match Of The Day on the newly-broadcasting BBC2. The televising of league football, then, could be regarded as having its roots, at least in part, in the success of a team from the provinces that a local broadcaster subsequently took an interest in.

Since 1962, success in major English competitions hasn’t been solely reserved for the biggest cities, although provincial clubs – Derby County and Nottingham Forest spring immediately to mind, both champions of England during the 1970s – continued to have success in fits and starts before the industrialisation of football was complete. None of this, however, should detract from Ipswich’s achievements of 1962. The high life may have ended up being a transitory experience for the club at the time, but it was managed for a while on a shoestring budget and under the guidance of someone that had never managed in the top division before. Four clubs in the entire history of English football have won promotion into its top division and won the league title the following season. Of this four, Ipswich Town were the last but one, and they are also the only ones ever to have done it without playing in that division before. It is entirely fitting that such a unique and singular achievement should have been commemorated in the way that it has been. It is highly unlikely that it will ever be repeated.

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