Ipswich Town 5 ABBA 5

The football season is over save for the silly play-offs, and now it’s the height of Spring,  and with little else to occupy him a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of the Eurovision Song Contest;  or maybe not.  But last week’s transmission of the bizarre, annual , musical  television ritual extravaganza was inevitably accompanied by the airing of a clip show on BBC4 of past performances by the competition’s only notable success, Abba.  I have never bought, stolen, borrowed or owned an Abba record, tape, download or CD, but I will admit to being unable to suppress a smile when I hear one played.    Equally, I couldn’t resist watching that clip show and felt rewarded when it brought back memories of a road trip I made in the summer of 1995, which took me and my then girlfriend via Parkeston Quay, DFDS Seaways ferry, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Uppsala and Sundsvall to Pitea in northern Sweden, where we stayed with my girlfriend’s pen friend and her husband.  It was a very long drive for which the soundtrack for several stages of the journey came courtesy of a CD of Abba Gold belonging to my girlfriend.

The experience of listening to Abba on that road trip has stayed with me and it led to an article in the erstwhile Ipswich Town fanzine A Load of Cobbolds.  Now, in the spirit of nostalgia inspired by the fortieth anniversary of Ipswich Town’s UEFA Cup win and  in the absence of anything better to do I have reproduced that article below, updating it to modern times where necessary:

When you’re an eleven or twelve year-old football and pop music loom large as pre-pubescent priorities.   I bought my first record (Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon & Yoko Ono) in 1971,  the same year that I started watching Ipswich Town, and I  soon began to feel that footie and pop music were somehow inextricably linked. The late Sixties and early Seventies was a time when it was easy to confuse footballers with pop stars and my two worlds satisfyingly collided.  The fashion for any bloke who aspired to being hip and trendy was an enormous thatch of hair coupled with equally vast sideburns.  Squeezed into a pair of bollock-hugging, crushed-velvet flairs and sporting a deafeningly loud shirt,  Ian Collard or Rod Belfitt might have been members of The Hollies, or Kevin Beattie a member of Nazareth.

The similarities in the appearance of pop stars and footballers subsided a bit as the Seventies wore on and sadly, sartorially Punk Rock never seemed to catch on with any footballers at all.  There were however still some startling lookalikes within the ranks of the PFA, I thought.  It could have just been my addled perception, but I always felt that Arsenal’s Frank Stapleton and Shakin’ Stevens were the same bloke.  Moving on into the 1980’s the separation at birth of Oldham Athletic’s Andy Ritchie and Jimmy Somerville was ‘well documented’ at the time, but less well-known is the fact that Roy Keane and Sinead O’Connor were also twins.

More amazing than these superficial similarities, which admittedly are largely the invention of my fevered imagination, is the very precise correlation between the success of one particular football club during the 1970’s and early 1980’s and a particular pop group.  Both were at their peak between 1973 and 1982. The football club of course was Ipswich Town and the pop group was Abba.

If you take time to trawl through the collected works of the famous Swedish songsters, as Dave Allard might have called them, you will not only enjoy a richly rewarding aural experience, but you will soon reach the conclusion that the fact that Town and Abba were both at the peak of their powers over precisely the same period of time is no coincidence.   Listen carefully to the lyrics and you will be able to trace the history of the Town’s success through that glorious era.  You will find that listening to Abba Gold (Greatest Hits) is as close to a religious experience as you can hope to get;  something akin to an Ipswich Town Dreamtime, harking back to an epoch when Portman Road was inhabited by ancestral figures of heroic proportions who possessed supernatural powers.   In the film Muriel’s Wedding the eponymous Muriel says that Abba’s songs are better than real life.  Now, as we sit in the murky depths of the third division and look back at Town’s glorious past you too will believe this is true.

As you might expect from Europe’s foremost supergroup many of the songs make reference to Town’s European campaigns of that era in the UEFA and European Cup Winners’ cups.  It is likely that it was through Town’s exploits on the continent that the talented Swedes first became Town supporters, although we were actually only drawn against Swedish opposition  once when in 1977 we met Landskrona Bois and most inconveniently The Stranglers played the Ipswich Gaumont on the very same night as the home leg.  Naturally, I missed The Stranglers concert and sadly never got a second opportunity to see them.    There is clearly a reference to Town’s UEFA Cup triumph over Lazio in the title of the number one hit ‘Mamma Mia!’, a song which also contains a lyric that suggests one of Abba had perhaps had a brief flirtation with a Town player or supporter and may explain the uncanny connection between Abba and the mighty Blues;

“Yes, I’ve been broken hearted, Blue since the day we parted.”

The moving ballad ‘Fernando’ is sung to an imaginary Spanish fan and recalls those sultry September and cooler autumn evenings when we entertained Iberian opposition from Real Madrid, Las Palmas and Barcelona.

“There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernando….

Though we never thought that we could lose, there’s no regrets. If I had to do the same again I would, my friend Fernando”

That last line referred to the fact that Town were twice drawn to play Barcelona, whilst the line  before that refers to our having lost both ties despite being confident after winning the first leg.  Another song, ‘Super Trouper’, whilst still referencing games played under floodlight, perhaps because of the lack of daylight hours in Sweden during the English football season, refers to an individual player and employs little-known Swedish rhyming slang in a thinly disguised paean to goalkeeper Paul Cooper.

“Super Trouper lights are gonna find me shining like the sun, Smiling having fun feeling like a number one”

In the 1978 Abba hit “Take a chance on me”   the subtle Swedish Blues fans reveal the little known story of how Frans Thijssen successfully pleaded with Bobby Robson to let him join his compatriot Arnold Muhren at Portman Road and to try his luck in English football. 

Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me. If you need me let me know and I’ll be around. Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie, if you put me to the test, if you let me try”.

Although those days were such wonderful times for Town, not every song described a happy or uplifting event.  There were sad days too at Portman Road back in the Seventies and hard decisions had to be made for the good of the team.  The 1977 ‘Number One’ hit ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ was about the departure of former Portman Road favourite David Johnson, the one-time ‘King of Portman Road’, who left Town to join rivals Liverpool.  In the song, the reflective Scouser looks back on the good times he has had at Portman Road since his move to Town from Everton four years earlier.

  “Memories, good days, bad days, they’ll be with me, always”

David appreciates however that his recent form has not been good and in the circumstances a move is the best thing for everyone.

  “Knowing me, knowing you, there is nothing we can do, we just have to face it this time we’re through; Breaking up is never easy I know but I had to go, Knowing me, knowing you it’s the best I could do”.

Back in the Seventies, money wasn’t the driving force in football that it is today.  Nevertheless, the spending power of clubs such as Manchester United, who were able to make expensive signings virtually every season despite being rubbish, rankled with Bobby Robson and he longed to be able to make big signings for Town.  Abba’s “Money, Money, Money” was a song about his frustration. 

“In my dreams I have a plan, if I got me a wealthy man…  “

”All the things I could do if I had a little money…”

“Money, money, money, always sunny in a rich man’s world”

Both ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Money, Money, Money’ showed something of the downside of those glory years and as we look back on those days from the fag-end of the first quarter of the miserable twenty-first century a melancholy aura pervades our memories, in part because ultimately Town failed to win the League Championship that we deserved, but perhaps also because even at the time we knew it all had to end one day, and when Bobby Robson left to manage England in 1982 we secretly knew it had.  Abba knew it too and two of their hits put these feelings in to sharp perspective.  The haunting melody of ‘Winner takes it all’ explores the pain that looking back on the good times would bring; it begins:

 “I don’t want to talk about things we’ve gone through, though it’s hurting me now it’s history”

Abba’s last big hit ‘Thank you for the music’ is sung from the perspective of our legendary club captain Mick Mills who reminisces, having regretfully left Town for Southampton, about the joy and beauty of those days between 1973 and 1982.  If you’ve listened to the slightly dull monotone of Mick’s summaries as he sits alongside commentator Brenner Woolley on BBC Radio Suffolk, you will appreciate the opening lines to this song; 

“I’m nothing special in fact I’m a bit of a bore, If I tell a joke, you’ve probably heard it before…”

But Mick’s talent was as full-back and captain of the greatest Ipswich Town side ever and this was the ‘music’ referred to in the title of this most moving of Abba songs.  This was a song from the heart of ‘Mr Ipswich Town’, Mick Mills, and it is truly uncanny how Mick with his blond locks and luxurious facial hair even looks like a bit like a composite of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson the song’s composers.  This song is the ultimate celebration of those ten seasons at the top in which Mick thanks fate for the glorious hand he was dealt.

“I’ve been so lucky, I am the girl with golden hair

I want to sing it out to everybody

What a joy, what a life, what a chance

So I say Thank You for the music

The songs I’m singing

Thank you for the joy they’re bringing…”

The songs of Abba define and encapsulate a golden period in the story of the twentieth century and the time before Thatcherism and neo-liberalism destroyed your innocence.  Abba’s songs, their success and the glory of Ipswich Town, the nicest professional football club the world had ever known did not happen together by coincidence.  The proof is in the lyrics of the songs, and shows that cosmic forces were at work.  Those of us who lived through the 1970’s were truly blessed to have experienced the music of Abba as it happened, but we are doubly blessed to have been Ipswich Town supporters too.

Thank you for the music Bobby Robson and Mick and all the lads who played for us between 1973 and 1982 , and thank you for the music Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.

Ipswich Town 1 Leeds United 1

If this was 1973, what a fixture this would be, and it was, but Leeds won back then, nil to three, in front of a crowd of 27,513.

Dirty Leeds.   Northern bastards.   Tetley bittermen.  They never won anything fairly said Brian Clough; cheats the lot of ‘em. They should have put their medals in the bin.    And this is why you have to love a fixture against Leeds United today.  The weight of such history can’t be lifted and why would you want it to be.

Everybody hated Leeds United in 1973 and, if we have an opinion, a lot of us still do.  In these times of image and branding, Leeds United still retains a strong hold on the minds of supporters because of what they were forty years ago.  That all white home kit, that so 1970’s curvy LU badge, the garters on the socks and those players, Bremner, Lorimer, Norman ‘bite ya legs’ Hunter, ‘Sniffer’ Clarke , Gray, Madeley, Jones, Reaney and Cooper.  That Leeds United defines a time and place, the nasty early 1970’s of IRA bombs, the three day week, power cuts, industrial unrest, Baader Meinhof,  tank tops, platform shoes, Chicory Tip and the Wombles.  Leeds United with all their nastiness were a reflection of the age; a footballcentric Clockwork Orange.   In their stark white kit they were the ruthless professionals who replaced the likes of the homely Matthews and Finney; Leeds United was the monolithic new Arndale Centre that swept away the Victorian streets, and the teased coiffure and the feather cut that usurped the plastered down Brylcreemed pates of the 1950’s for ever.   Efficient, impressive, modern, but ugly and lacking a soul.

Of course in Ipswich we never had an Arndale Centre; we had the Greyfriars Shopping Centre but the locals ignored it and didn’t go there, and only moaned about it, so a bit like Ipswich Town today really.

And then there were the Leeds supporters; how the Sunday papers loved the stories of smashed up trains and pubs and bovver booted rampages through the streets, but Manchester United and Chelsea and West Ham supporters were no different, they were all a bit lairy back then, that was the fan culture before ‘fan culture’ existed, before it was labelled, sanitised, branded by TV as the theme for betting adverts and the larky back drop to Super Sundays.  Leeds supporters have a bad reputation still, their coaches were parked right outside the away stand today so they could befoul as few as possible of the streets of Ipswich with their short vowels and bile and phlegm.   Because they sing continuously whatever the score, Leeds United fans are an oddity in Ipswich, the locals don’t understand and stare cow-eyed, mouths agape.  Ipswich Town is a football club where most of the crowd have forgotten or have simply never known how to support their team.  In Ipswich people don’t seem to know that showing support by shouting and singing is actually what they should be doing.  They think they should just sit quietly, not cause a fuss.  It makes a difference.  How else are the players going to know if anyone really cares about the result, there’s got to be more to the beautiful  game played well than just a win bonus, especially when your ordinary weekly wage is so bloody vast in the first place.

In Ipswich, the club’s fan base was built up in the 1970’s, probably reaching its zenith in 1975 as Town epically overcame Leeds United in a third replay to reach their first ever FA Cup semi-final.  (None of this penalty shoot-out bollocks back then; it’s like the FA just wants to get the whole thing over and done with now, roll on the close season.) Courtesy of Bobby Robson the team was ridiculously good for a small provincial town.  Ever since Robson departed in 1982 the Town have at best been middling, and when Roy Keane became manager they became virtually unwatchable.  Those fans from the 1970’s have stayed loyal to the Town however, but people don’t age disgracefully in Ipswich and the silent silver-haired majority in Churchman’s now look on impassively, saving themselves in case they have to boo at the end.  The young fans have no role model to follow and like when they see monkeys shagging at the zoo, pre-pubescent boys turn to their dads and ask what the Leeds fans are doing.  “Just watch the game son” is the likely reply.

Misunderstanding their past Leeds United wore white shorts and yellow jerseys today and there was no stylised LU to be seen on the club crest, or garters on their socks.  But to be fair, it is no longer 1973; thank the time space continuum for that, but I imagined how it was and I think the Leeds fans did too.  Pantomime villains they may be, but it would be a crappy pantomime without Leeds United, as it sadly often is at Portman Road when your best days are Behind You!

Footnote : Had Bobby Robson not died in 2009, the day of this Leeds game would have been his 84th birthday.  Consequently, in the 84th minute of the match there was a minute’s applause for Sir Bobby; a sort of birthday greeting sent out by Town fans to beyond the grave; the idea apparently of local radio person Mark Murphy see tweet @MarkGlennMurphy.   An awkwardly sentimental idea, because people don’t really have birthdays once they’re dead, it is also flawed because, as my wife pointed out to me, if it is to be repeated after Saturday 18th February 2023, games will have to routinely start going into extra-time; I’m not sure the Football League would agree to that, but you never know.    If anyone thought Sir Alf Ramsey was deserving of the same sort of post mortem birthday greeting then I regret to tell you that  that particular funeral barge has already sailed because he was born in 1920 and so would already require at best Manchester United style time added-on but more probably, that hard-to-sanction extra time.

Oh, and finally, if you are at all intrigued by the Leeds United of the 1970’s and haven’t already read it then be sure to buy, borrow or steal (depending on lifestyle choice) a copy of ‘The Damned Utd’ by David Peace, it is an excellent novel and one of the very best books about football.