04-03-1981: St Etienne 1 Ipswich Town 4 (UEFA Cup Quarter-Final 1st Leg) Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, St Etienne, France
On March 4th, 1981 seven-hundred Town fan’s assembled at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in St Etienne, France to watch, arguably, the best performance ever by an Ipswich side. The 4-1 victory in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Quarter-Final, against a side many fancied to win the cup themselves, was hailed across the Continent.
Les Verts, considered to be one of the top sides in Europe at the time, boasted a side bristling with Internationals such as Michel Platini and Johnny Rep. European Cup finalists five years earlier, the nine time French Champions had beaten SV Hamburg, one of the top German sides of the era, by five clear goals in the previous round. Away from home.
The 40,000 odd home fans in the capacity crowd – who were already ear-splittingly loud – notched things up a few more decibels when St Etienne took the lead just after the quarter-of-an-hour mark. And they may have been forgiven for thinking that Rep’s goal would signal the start of Town’s undoing but the Dutchman’s header had quite the opposite effect as Bobby Robson’s men began to find their touch.
The Blue’s withstood a further ten minutes of exerted pressure from Les Verts – Kevin Beattie and Russell Osman outstanding at the heart of the defence – until a moment of class from Arnold Muhren led to Paul Mariner’s equaliser. Muhren sent over a curling cross to the far post where Mariner out jumped the St Etienne defenders to head the ball powerfully into the back of the net.
They had to defend for the remainder of the first period but as the second half kicked off Ipswich were considerably more composed, started to play the ball around as we Town fans knew they could, and within four minutes had gone ahead, Muhren’s firing home a fierce shot from 25 yards out. Us Town fans were in wonderland and watching replays of Muhren’s strike 30 years on still gives me Goosebumps!
As Platini and co pushed forward for an equaliser they left themselves open to some classic counter attacking football and eventually fell even further behind. Terry Butcher just failed to convert Alan Brazil’s cross but the rebound fell kindly for Mariner to sidefoot home his 20th goal of the season to make it 3-1. And with fifteen minutes to play Les Verts they were caught again as Butcher’s cross was headed home by John Wark. Warkies 30th goal of the season, and 10th in this competition.
“A tremendous almost faultless performance” enthused Bobby Robson afterwards. “We have demolished a good side with one of the best victories anyone has achieved in Europe in the past 10 years”.
St Etienne manager Robert Herbin was magnanimous in defeat “I compare Ipswich with the great Ajax side of the 1970’s. Or the Liverpool side which eliminated us from the European Cup in 1977. They have a very solid formation, very dynamic, made up of good athletic technicians. It is very much a British side at heart – but their attacking style is more continental.”
Off the pitch Ipswich fan’s did their bit to restore the reputation of the English game. Despite arriving a good hour before the game we found the standing area in which we had been assigned tickets packed but still managed to squeeze our way in.
There was no attempt by police or stewards at segregation and the reception we received from the St Etienne fans was hostile to say the least. The last time an English side had visited St Etienne was four years earlier when Manchester United’s fans had gone on the rampage and the French were clearly ready for a repeat. As the game kicked off a steady stream of bottles and other rubbish reigned down on us.
But credit to everyone we kept our cool and were rewarded admirably by Robson and his team and their display of “Total Football”.