IN the mid-1970s, there was a certain fascination for all things Dutch among the football fraternity. Some managers, such as Dave Sexton, Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson, were students of the European game and attempted to bring elements of the continent to England. It didn’t always work, for English players were not schooled in the same way as their European counterparts, but these managers at least demonstrated they were willing to learn from Germany, the Netherlands and other countries.
English football was still somewhat xenophobic, however, and clubs rarely saw a glimpse of a foreign player. In February 1978, the European Community decreed that the football associations of member states had to allow players from abroad access to England. In the summer of 1978, the Football League lifted a ban that dated back to 1931. Some clubs moved quickly, notably Tottenham Hotspur, who signed two members of Argentina’s victorious World Cup squad: Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa. It was more a trickle than a torrent of new talent, but by the end of 1978-79, clubs like Ipswich Town, Southampton, Chelsea, Manchester City and Birmingham City had all signed foreign players.
By sheer virtue of the fact they were “not from round here”, most of these players were popular, their foreign status making them a curiosity. Ipswich Town acquired two Dutch players, Arnold Mühren and Frans Thijssen, arguably the best overseas duo to enter the Football League in the 1970s. They were certainly more consistent than the Spurs pair and helped create a better team than anything that came out of north London during that period.
Ipswich, under Bobby Robson, had a reputation for purist football and represented a solid challenge to Liverpool, often undone by their lack of strength in depth. They were a small club, playing in front of just 23,000 people at their homely Portman Road ground. They were also a popular club outside their own environs. Between 1972-73 and 1976-77, Ipswich finished in the top four on four occasions. In 1977-78, a season that saw them flirt with relegation, they won the FA Cup, only their second major honour after their shock 1961-62 title win when Alf Ramsey was in charge.
Robson was looking for something different to make his team into championship contenders. Kevin Beattie, a player that was once rated the future of English football, was plagued by injury and Brian Talbot, an industrious midfielder, departed for Arsenal in mid-season. Robson’s first venture into the overseas market came in the summer of 1978 when he signed Mühren from Twente for £ 150,000. Mühren had mixed in good circles, growing up among Ajax’s golden generation that included Johan Cruyff. He had won the European Cup in 1973 and was still only 27. His cultured left foot was a joy to watch, although his debut against Liverpool was a setback, a three-goal home defeat. Mühren was anonymous as the game bypassed him, prompting a post-match discussion with Robson. The message was clear: “I need the ball”.
It wasn’t long before Robson started to adapt Ipswich’s style and also to take notice of some of the methods adopted by Dutch football clubs. Mühren noticed the lack of pre-match preparation, something that was important to clubs like Ajax and Feyenoord. Pretty soon, his team-mates were warming to pre-match gym sessions.
Ipswich were still inconsistent and after the Boxing Day draw with Norwich, they were 16th in the first division and had won just seven of their 21 games. Robson signed Thijssen from Twente for £ 200,000, providing Mühren with a like-minded partner in midfield.
Ipswich’s form in the second half of the season was impressive. They lost just twice in 20 games, winning seven of their last eight. They also reached the quarter-final of the FA Cup and were narrowly beaten by Barcelona on away goals in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
The following season, Ipswich were seen as possible champions, but their start to the campaign was disastrous, with Robson’s men losing eight of their first 12 games. But after losing to Coventry at the start of December, they went 22 games without defeat and finished third, just seven points behind champions Liverpool.
By now, Mühren and Thijssen were the driving force of Ipswich’s free-flowing style. Robson said of Mühren: “I cannot think of anyone I would rate higher as a professional. No one worked harder.”
Thijssen, speaking some years later, recalled that when he arrived from Twente, Ipswich played like most other teams: “The English style was to kick it forward as much as possible, so when you played midfielder you had to run forward and if you didn’t get the ball, you would have to run back. Bobby [Robson] changed the srtyle, telling the defenders to play it to the Dutch guys in the midfield. That style suited our team very well.”
The 1980-81 season was supposed to be Ipswich’s finest hour. Ipswich had an excellent starting XI and played a compelling brand of football. They were unbeaten in their first 14 games and were chasing the title all season as well as fighting on the European front and in the FA Cup. Ipswich lost in the FA Cup semi-final and eventually finished second in the league, four points behind an Aston Villa team they had beaten three times during the season. Frans Thijssen, who was named Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award, missed the last five league fixtures with hamstring problems and Ipswich lost four of them. Ipswich did win silverware, though, lifting the UEFA Cup in a two-legged final against AZ 67 Alkmaar. Thijssen scored in both games.
Ipswich finished runners-up in the league again in 1981-82 and at the end of the season, Bobby Robson departed. So, too did Mühren, joining Manchester United. A year later, Thijssen signed for Nottingham Forest.
The club’s golden era was drawing to a close and in 1986, Ipswich were relegated. Mühren finished playing in 1989 and Thijssen hung his boots up in 1991.
Both players remember their time at Portman Road with affection. Thijssen recalled: “We came very close to winning the championship, that is the only pity. We had a small group of players and injuries at the end of that season cost us the title.”
Mühren paid tribute to the way Bobby Robson brought something new to English football. “Ipswich played like a Dutch team and proved it was possible to play that way and be successful.”
With a little luck, and a bigger squad, Arnold Mühren and Frans Thijssen may have ended their Suffolk jaunt with a few more medals. But they left behind some wonderful memories of a time when Dutch flair made Ipswich one of the best teams in the land.