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Burley: Why Ipswich can be the surprise package again

By Adrian Kajumba 25 Jun 2024
George Burley and Wes Burns

Manager who led promoted Tractor Boys to fifth-place finish in 2001 discusses season ahead

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Former Ipswich Town player and manager George Burley recalls the Tractor Boys' last top-flight spell, and reveals his hopes and expectations for the 2024/25 season to football writer Adrian Kajumba.

As Ipswich prepare for their Premier League return after a 22-year absence, few people are better placed than Burley to offer them some advice.

Before current manager Kieran McKenna did it via incredible, successive promotions from League One, Burley was the previous manager to lead Ipswich to the Premier League back in 2000. 

And he did not just keep them there. 

Although Ipswich were widely tipped to go straight back down in 2000/01, Burley instead inspired them to a fifth-place finish.

That earned Ipswich qualification for the UEFA Cup and Burley the Premier League Manager of the Season award ahead of some illustrious names after he delivered on his post-appointment promise - scoffed at when he made it - to bring European football to Portman Road. 

They are all achievements which leave him well-placed to share some words of wisdom.

George Burley
George Burley with his Manager of the Year award in May 2001

“We just stuck to our plan," Burley says. "The nucleus of the squad was there. We built and built, got the spirit going and got stronger and stronger.

“That’s what Ipswich have done in the last couple of seasons. You can see they’ve got fantastic spirit. Never beaten, scoring lots of late goals, coming from behind.

“The attitude is spot on. So more of the same. Somebody said to me, ‘You can't play football like they have in the Premier League.’ But I’m a believer that you’ve got to stick to your principles.” 

Watch Ipswich celebrate promotion

During their Premier League absence, Ipswich dropped as low as League One, and interest in them fell accordingly. 

But a football-related feelgood factor has returned to the town, reminiscent of the days when Burley’s side were scaling the heights.

“I've been living back in Ipswich for about 11 years, and for probably seven of those before Kieran took over, it was hard times,” Burley says.

“There wasn't really much interest in football. People were a bit 'take it or leave it'. So in the last two-and-a-bit years it’s been great.

“There's a great atmosphere about the town. I can walk from my house to the ground and we've got a lovely big park next to us.

“You’re taking the dog for a walk, and everybody's speaking about football, how the game was, with a big smile on their face.”

Burley cannot speak highly enough of McKenna, 38, as a manager and as a person.

The Northern Irishman and his family have endeared themselves to the locals by fully integrating themselves into the community, an element Burley believes has been crucial. 

“What Kieran has done, there is one of the top managers in Britain for sure," he says. “When you look at the amount of games they’ve won in the last two years (56 out of 92 in the league), his results have been second to none.

“He brought in League One players two years ago, now they’re Premier League players. He’s improved them on the training ground. That’s one of his big strengths. 

“He’s a laid-back type of lad, easy to speak to, not overpowering and doesn’t get too carried away. It’s tremendous what he has done for the club.”

McKenna celebrates promotion
Close links with the community and supporters - Kieran McKenna celebrates promotion with Ipswich fans

Regardless of what is to come, keeping hold of McKenna - who signed a new four-year contract in May after media had linked him to vacancies at both Brighton & Hove Albion and Chelsea, along with Manchester United - might be the most important piece of summer business Ipswich do.

And as a big advocate of continuity, the importance of that will not be lost on Burley.

Reflecting on guiding Ipswich to promotion himself, he recalls how only making “small tweaks” underpinned their successful adjustment to the Premier League.

Ipswich were promoted via the playoffs under Burley in May 2000 so had little time to celebrate - never mind plan for the new campaign - before they were back for pre-season. 

For once, they did not have to sell a key player to balance the books thanks to their promotion windfall.

But they did not spend excessively either, with only versatile defender Hermann Hreidarsson being a big-money signing from Wimbledon as a replacement for Tony Mowbray. 

Hermann Hreidarsson, Ipswich
Hermann Hreidarsson rises above Man City's Shaun Goater to score in a 3-2 win at Maine Road

There will be no gentle introduction to the Premier League for Ipswich this season, since they have been pitted against Liverpool and Manchester City in their first two fixtures. But they can take inspiration from how Burley’s men began the 2000/01 campaign. 

Two of their first four home matches were against Man Utd and Arsenal, the two dominant forces of the early Premier League years. 

“A good start, of course, is important," says Burley. "We competed against them both. They weren’t lucky [1-1] draws. It wasn’t as if we were hanging on. We certainly were equal.

“The beginning of that season gave us the confidence to grow in strength and belief that we could stay in the division - and we more than did that.”

Some memorable away days brought further encouragement, particularly early on.

“We had some great victories," Burley recalls. "At Anfield I never won as a player there, but did twice as a manager. Marcus Stewart’s goal to win at Anfield that season was great.

“We won at Leeds [2-1], at Everton we scored three [3-0], Southampton we scored three [in a 3-0 win].” 

Stewart was a prime example of another key factor that served Ipswich so well that season - players raising their game after stepping up a level, something McKenna will hope his men do too.

“Marcus [Stewart] scored 19 goals, a phenomenal amount for any striker," says Burley. “Coming from the Championship into the Premier League you don’t expect that from one of your players.

“He was very unfortunate not to get picked in the England squad. Marcus won us a lot of games and points that season.” 

Burley was the mastermind of it all, and his role was recognised with the 2000/01 Manager of the Season award - the first time the award went to a manager who didn't win the title.

The 68-year-old, who made 394 appearances for Ipswich as a player, recalls: “When I came from Colchester [to Ipswich in 1994] I said I wanted to take the team back to Europe and the reporters looked at me. ‘Europe?’. I said, ‘Yep. That’s where we played in 1972 to 1982.’ So we managed to do that, and the top accolade was the Manager of the Season.

“I’m very proud of that. Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, Liverpool had Gerard Houllier. There were great managers but a newly-promoted club, fifth in the Premier League, third for a lot of the season and didn’t have many resources, maybe they thought I deserved it.

“Whatever life or business you’re in, you always want to get to the top and I was fortunate to be able to do that.”

But it won’t require a similarly huge overachievement from Ipswich’s current crop for 2024/25 to be considered a good season, according to Burley.

“Ipswich have a winning mentality, great group of players," he says. "They’ll certainly not roll over. If we can get a mid-table finish that will be a really successful season.

“But any team that comes up, if they finish fourth-bottom, it’s a winner.”

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