James Scowcroft looks back on a golden campaign for Ipswich Town 20 years on from winning promotion to the Premier League
Two decades have now passed since George Burley’s Ipswich Town finally went all the way in the second tier play-offs to clinch their place in the Premier League. RUSSELL CLAYDON caught up with James Scowcroft for his memories.
Despite the remarkable top-six finish in the Premier League that followed, James Scowcroft is in no doubt it would be Ipswich Town’s 1999/2000 campaign he regards as the standout season of his career.
But as the years have passed by the Stanton-based former Thurston Upper School pupil has had to learn to cope with the strange cocktail of emotions thrown up by it.
On the one hand, there is the sense of failing to deliver what he clearly felt they should have in automatic promotion behind runaway leaders Charlton Athletic. Joe Royle’s Manchester City came from behind at Blackburn to pip them to it by two points on the final day.
But on the other, the sense of overwhelming pride that they managed to overcome the mental and physical challenges a fourth straight foray into the play-offs dealt them.
On a personal level, there was the huge satisfaction at having been a vital cog in the team as they hit their promotion target in what he felt was their last shot at it together.
His reinvention as an advanced midfielder proved a Burley masterstroke. It saw ‘Scowie’ return the best goals tally of his career (15) coupled with his intelligent touches helping others such as top scorer David Johnson to flourish too.
None of this was lost on the blue army who recognising the then 24-year-old’s role by crowning him their Supporters’ Player of the Season.
But with a Wembley embroidered shirt he has never worn and a play-off winners’ medal he never received until he returned for pre-season, there is a sadness forever infiltrating those memories.
As the fans poured on to the Portman Road turf with unbridled joy after Burley’s boys overcame Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers in that amazing 5-3 semi-final second leg, Scowie was battling with both mental and physical pain.
“I remember in the game going up for a header and the back of my leg just literally tearing,” he said.
“That night I was one of the last to leave Portman Road and from going from a high – it was brilliant scenes – I knew I wasn’t going to play in the final.”
What proved to be an 8cm hamstring tear was something he had been desperate to overcome. But despite trying to run on it three days before the club’s first game at Wembley since the 1978 FA Cup final triumph, there was never a hint of him making it.
“I wasn’t even close which made it easier for me really,” said the player picked up by Ipswich’s academy aged 11 from Stowupland Falcons.
“It was what it was but for all of us, individually, as a team and as a football club, it was really important that we got up.
“I was 24, and we weren’t young players any more and it was now or never for us.”
Fortunately, the Blues were able to come through another see-saw play-off encounter without their attacking fulcrum, beating Barnsley 4-2 despite Johnson’s early injury.
“It was an excellent game and typical us, we went behind and made it a little bit hard for ourselves but we came back and I think second half we were far the superior side and it was just a brilliant, brilliant day,” said the player who went on to represent Leicester City, Coventry City, Crystal Palace and Leyton Orient before finishing up at Bury Town.
“Driving back to Ipswich afterwards it was full of Ipswich fans going back to Suffolk and from about Colchester onwards everyone was on the bridges and there was Ipswich banners and flags everywhere.
“We went back to the Suffolk Showground and had a party that night because I think the next day was the Suffolk Show so it was planned in advance. It was a great night.”
The celebrations continued the next day with an open top bus parade through Ipswich.
The side, with only a few additions, were to go on to take the Premier League by storm, remarkably taking a chance of a Champions League spot down to the very last day.
The summer of 1999 had seen star player Kieron Dyer depart for Newcastle for a reported £6million, but Burley brought in John McGreal and Jermaine Wright, the latter who Scowcroft roomed with on away trips.
The signings of Marcus Stewart (a then club record £2.5m) and the initial loan of Martijn Reuser then both served to energise a team which had lost some of their early season momentum.
“All of those players were good players,” said Scowcroft.
"What the club did very well back then was yes, they had to sell and Keiron was always going to go off and play in the Premier League, but they did reinvest and push as hard as they could as a club off the pitch to be competitive. And they probably took risks in doing that as well.”
But what made that side, one which went on an 18-game unbeaten run from November to March, capable of doing what the ones before them could not?
“The balance was really, really good,” said Scowcroft. “I think the nucleus of our team was in our mid 20s so it was all right for us and then we had some excellent senior players like Mark Venus and Tony Mowbray in the team as well.
“A lot of lads had come through the youth system, some had come through the lower leagues, some had played at the top, it was just a perfect mix and blend really.
“We tried to play good football. George was always a manager who wanted to play good football but football with a purpose.
“We were more than good enough to get out of that league. We probably should have finished in the top two – we beat Man City at home, should have have got a result at theirs and we beat Charlton home and away that season. But doing it that way and having a day out at Wembley made it even more special.”
And despite injury preventing him getting that shirt on, there is no doubt it forever represents what Scowie played a big part in achieving.