When Ipswich Beat Inter: 8 Of The Unlikeliest European Campaigns

1) Ipswich Town (2001/02)

Now the longest serving, longest suffering club in the Championship it’s easy to forget that shortly after the turn of the century Ipswich were representing the Premier League in Europe. They got there thanks largely to the goals of Marcus Stewart who took the division by storm following Town’s promotion via the play-offs in 2000, with the Bristolian racking up 19 goals as Ipswich finished fifth.

For a while in the autumn however it looked like the Tractor Boys would pay for their European involvement with their Premier League lives, registering just one win in their first 18 games. During that time they edged past Torpedo Moscow and Helsingborg to set up a mouth-watering UEFA Cup third round tie with Inter Milan, who duly dispatched them from the tournament with a 4-2 aggregate win, but not before Alun Armstrong had given Portman Road its most famous European night since Bobby Robson was in charge by scoring the only goal in a famous 1-0 win. Armstrong had only been on the pitch three minutes when he headed Town to victory and duly kept his place for the return leg in the San Siro, notching his second European goal, but only after his side had been well beaten by a Christian Vieri hat-trick.   

What happened next? – After their mauling in Milan Town rallied in the league and went on a winning spree that propelled them to 12th, but the wheels were to fall off spectacularly. A single victory between February and May meant a return to the Football League for George Burley’s side, although their disciplinary record meant a return to Europe the following season via UEFA’s Fair Play league.


2) Bradford City (2000/01)

Stuart McCall : News Photo

As Bradford battled against the odds to survive in the Premier League in 1999/00 somebody at City obviously had far loftier ambitions for the club’s immediate future, applying for one of the league’s two undersubscribed Intertoto Cup places. As a result the Bantams kicked off their competitive season as early as July 1st against FK Atlantas of Lithuania, going on to score ten goals in their first four European games before coming up against Zenit St Petersburg in round three.

The Russian giants proved to be far stiffer opposition and dispatched Chris Hutchings’ side 3-0 leaving City to concentrate on their daunting task of surviving a second season in the big time. Given that they were out of the Intertoto before a Premier League ball was kicked there can be no suggestion that European commitments were in any way responsible for a miserable return of five wins that saw them relegated in mid-April. One man who will remember City’s European adventure more than most however is former Arsenal and Russia star Andrei Arshavin; he made his debut in professional football at the Bantams’ Valley Parade home.   

What happened next? – The 26 points collected in the league is one of the smallest totals in the Premier League era, with chairman Geoffrey Richmond’s gamble on a host of big name signings to consolidate in the division failing to pay off. City came within a game of returning to Europe in 2013 when Swansea City beat them 5-0 in the League Cup final, but it could be some time before anyone from Bradford is racking up substantial air miles in the future.


3) Leeds United (2000/01)

Lee Bowyer : News Photo

Though it may be the closest that a whole generation of Leeds fans will ever get to glory, the effects of the club’s audacious run to the Champions League semi-final in 2001 are still being felt and show no sign of abating. In the early days of the hyperinflation of the transfer market (£7 million for Seth Johnson anyone?) chairman Peter Ridsdale splashed millions on an all-star cast against the security of regular Champions League football, only to see that dream crumble along with the club when the team failed to deliver.

Young fans whose first tastes of football at Elland Road were League One outings against Cheltenham and Plymouth will have a hard time grasping that Lee Bowyer once struck a last minute winner against Milan there, though they will have heard the story often enough. By no means the most talked about but perhaps the most impressive (certainly the most important) game of the run came in Rome’s Stadio Olympico when an Alan Smith goal snatched a 1-0 win against Lazio that set United on their way to the quarter finals. To Leeds fans it feels like another lifetime.

What happened next? – Losing to Valencia in the semi-finals was a blow but it paled in comparison to the fourth place finish which meant Leeds failed to qualify for the Champions League the following season. Pipped to the post by Liverpool, David O’Leary’s team was soon haemorrhaging talent as the money began to dry up and Ridsdale’s empire fell. 

READ: Relentless Liverpool Present a pressing case for a top four finish 


4) Birmingham City (2011/12)

Birmingham City FC v CD Nacional- UEFA Europa League Play-Off : News Photo

Birmingham were trudging along happily in mid-table in the Premier League when they were gifted a passport to Europe by a comedy mix-up in Arsenal’s back four in the League Cup final in February 2011. It was a high point from which the club are still tumbling nearly four years later; relegated at the end of that season after their form collapsed, they are still struggling to make their hefty presence felt in the Championship.

They began the 2011/12 season as an oddity in Europe, participating in the Europa League despite being demoted to the second tier, but punched brutally above their weight. There were victories away to Maribor and Brugge, two sides with a long history of European competition, before defeat in Portugal to Braga brought the brave Blues’ continental adventure to a premature end. City pulled in over 27,500 for their qualifying match against Nacional and bore worthy testament to the strength of England’s second tier, even in comparison to some of Europe’s domestic champions. Failure in the Championship play-offs in May however meant it would be some time before St Andrews would again be infused with an international flavour.

What happened next? – The club’s owner Carson Yeung was indicted in his native Hong Kong on money laundering charges and, marooned in the Championship, the Blues began to lose direction. They narrowly avoided a second relegation in four seasons in 2014 with a goal in the last minute of the season.


5) Bangor City (2011/12)

HJK Helsinki v Club Brugge KV - UEFA Europa League : News Photo

There is very little that is worth saying about Bangor City’s Champions League campaign in 2012, other than that they were eliminated 13-0 on aggregate by HJK Helsinki. In doing so they suffered an unnecessarily thorough 10-0 dismantling away to the Finnish champions, following what turned out to be a commendable 3-0 defeat in Rhyl a week earlier. However few could deny that Bangor had earned the opportunity to be hit for double figures by one of Europe’s minnows, after they dropped only ten points en route to the Welsh title the previous season; one for each goal they shipped in Helsinki.

In fact they didn’t do much worse than their compatriots have fared in recent seasons. In 2009 Rhyl were thumped 12-0 by Partizan Belgrade in the same competition, and the combined scorelines of all Welsh clubs in the Champions League in the past six seasons is 40-1. But Bangor take the prize for the single most emphatic contribution to that collective mauling, coming as it did 33 years after their finest hour in Europe when they defeated Napoli 2-0 in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.

What happened next? – Wales’ oldest club haven’t managed another domestic title since the shambles in Helsinki, which has at least protected them from the champions of Macedonia, Moldova and every other country with teams capable of putting double figures past them. The part-time set-up of the League of Wales means its sides continue to struggle in Europe.   


6) Pacos de Ferreira (2013/14)

FC Pacos de Ferreira v FC Zenit St Petersburg - UEFA Champions League Play-offs: First Leg : News Photo

The involvement of Portuguese provincial outfit Pacos de Ferreria in the Champions League in the 2013/14 season looks at its most bizarre if viewed from the vantage point of the season’s end. In May they scraped a 3-1 victory over second division Desportivo Aves in the relegation play-offs to preserve their top-flight status by the skin of their teeth, having been saved from direct relegation by virtue of their head-to-head record against doomed Olhanense. Nine months earlier the same players had lined up against Russian giants Zenit in the Champions League play-offs for a place in the world’s most prestigious football tournament.

So did the club wildly over-achieve or was the flirt with relegation a drastic fall from grace? The answer is probably neither, since the club traditionally inhabit the mid-table nether-zone in Portugal, but that’s not to say that beating league heavyweights Sporting and Braga to the third Champions League berth wasn’t a major shock. It’s likely that Pacos would have been routinely demolished in the group stages however so the defeat to Zenit should best be thought of as a mercy killing.

What happened next? – Normal service has been resumed at Pacos with the club currently sitting equidistant between the wild extremes of the last two seasons.


7) Arsenal (1991/92)

George Graham : News Photo

Not so much unlikely as doomed by circumstances, Arsenal’s European Cup campaign in 1991 was the first by an English side since the UEFA ban which followed the Heysel disaster. The European game had predictably moved on in the five years since England’s clubs had been away and it showed, with the Gunners outclassed by Benfica in the first leg at the Stadium of Light and then dumped out in extra-time at Highbury.

It was the start of a depressing trend that saw clubs from England struggle to re-acclimatise to European football, with Leeds and Manchester United failing to make the group stages of the newly re-structured Champions League in the following two seasons. In fact no English side looked likely to end the run right up until the moment Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s stoppage time volley sailed over Oliver Kahn in the Nou Camp in 1999 to snatch the title from Bayern Munich.               

What happened next? – Sky and a host of global broadcasters have ensured that English sides will likely never again fall on stony ground in Europe.

READ: Why Theo Walcott's Arsenal Future Is Hanging by a thread


8) Sunderland (1973/74)

Sunderland Side : News Photo

Back in the days when European competition was divided up nicely according to the ways in which teams had qualified, the UEFA Cup Winners Cup offered the ultimate in knock-out competition. Since fortune always plays a part in spiriting a team through to the final of any tournament, the Cup Winners’ Cup was often a drama of whose luck could hold out the longest. In 1973/74 it wasn’t Sunderland, but then it was never likely to have been.

Legendary Mackems manager Bob Stokoe had just masterminded the Wearsiders’ famous victory in the FA Cup but European football was not so polarised in the 70’s in favour of English clubs and Sunderland fell early to Sporting Lisbon (who incidentally had defeated Cardiff City in the previous round). Prior to this Sunderland had chalked up their first and to date only European victory against Vasas of Hungary.

What happened next? – More interesting is what happened previously. On April 27th 1895 Sunderland beat Hearts 5-3 in the World Championship at Tynecastle to take the title of world champions. The match was arranged between the winners of the English and Scottish football leagues and, given that organised football was yet to be formalised anywhere else in the world, it was probably an appropriate accolade.