Great Britain

Eric Gates has gone from UEFA battle to herding cattle – as Ipswich legend reflects on 1981 European glory

FORTY YEARS on and Eric Gates is in no doubt  — he would give up the Uefa Cup in a heartbeat.

Sir Bobby Robson’s Ipswich side were chasing an unprecedented Treble, so to end up with just the one trophy was a crushing blow.

FA Cup semi-final heartbreak against Manchester City was  followed by four defeats in their last five league games to hand the 1980-81 title to Aston Villa.

But this was far from a bottle job, rather a season and team remembered as the greatest in the Suffolk club’s history.

Sir Alf Ramsey won the league in 1962 while Robson lifted the Cup in 1978, so the completion of the holy trinity was far from a shabby  consolation.

But for Gates, a vital cog in behind forwards Alan Brazil and Paul Mariner, the pain still lingers. He said: “I look back and I’ve still got disappointment but, 40 years later, what an achievement.

“The one I wanted to win was the FA Cup though.”

Does it still eat away now?

Gates snapped back: “Paul Power bending a free-kick in and losing 1-0 to City in the semi, you’re f*****g right it does!

“If we were to lose one it would have been the Uefa Cup, without a shadow of  a doubt.

“But you then win the Uefa Cup so you think: ‘Thank f**k for that’.

“You’re happy, but I wish I’d won the other two. At the time you don’t think about it, but looking back, so many games caught up with us.

“Were we the best side in the country? The best team was Villa because they won the league.

“But we beat them three times, so make your own mind up. We were certainly the most entertaining.”

Living back in home town County Durham, Gates, 65, enjoys the quiet life without a mobile or email, but get him talking about Ipswich and he does not stop.

SunSport tracked him down to a farm just outside Durham and spent two hours reminiscing.

A core of 12  shouldered the majority of the marathon 66-game season which, in the end, proved too much. To fans of a certain  vintage, the names roll off the tongue — Paul Cooper, George  Burley, Mick Mills, Steve McCall, Terry Butcher, Russell Osman, John Wark, Arnold Muhren, Frans Thijssen, Gates, Brazil, Mariner.

Back then the Uefa Cup, a knockout competition, was a big deal, with only the champions making it to the European Cup.

It began against Aris Salonika in a feisty first-round affair that saw Town, who are today facing a third season in League One, take a 5-1 lead to Greece.

Gates recalled: “I detest flying — the cup run was a nightmare. I was scared stiff on every journey and used to come out in sweats.

“Going out to Greece for the  second leg, we were passing through passport control and the fella looked at my passport and then gestured with his hand that I was going to get my throat cut.

“There were 40,000 there and it was hostile to say the least. We went 3-0 down but I made it 3-1.

“The final whistle went, we were through, and I stuck two fingers up at the crowd and ran down the tunnel.

“One of the armed guards then tripped me up and stuck his rifle straight into my head.

“The bus was pelted with bricks, windows were broken and we were just glad to get out of there.

Antonin Panenka’s Bohemians Prague were seen off in the second round before a third round 5-1 aggregate win over Widzew Lodz.

After thrashing them 5-0 in the first leg at home, some sub-zero Polish conditions made life difficult.

Gates explained: “There must have been 2ft of snow on the pitch.

“They got a digger to take some off before a roller flattened it and they painted the lines red — it was a carpet of snow.

“It could have been cancelled but, being 5-0 up, Robson thought it best to play.

“It was stupid . . . Alan Brazil would be throwing snowballs  at me.

“You’d be taking it seriously  and all of a sudden you’d get a snowball in your face!”


Then came arguably that side’s greatest performance, a quarter- final first-leg 4-1 hammering of Saint-Etienne, who went on to land the French title and boasted a prime Michel Platini.

Gates, Brazil, Paul Cooper and Kevin O’Callaghan found an English pub in the afternoon pre-match for an impromptu session.

Gates said: “The French locals started coming in and realised who we were when we got louder. They were shouting ‘We’ll beat you tomorrow’ and we were giving it ‘F**k off, we’ll batter your lot’.

“They must have thought we were world beaters, seeing us pissed the night before and then winning 4-1.

“We were in there all afternoon but had a team meeting after dinner.  We had a rule, just keep quiet and whatever happens don’t start talking.

“I’m sure Robson knew but that is where he was so good.

“If we’d lost they would have been on us like a ton of bricks, and we knew we had to  perform.”

Ipswich backed it up with a comfortable 3-1 home win at home  before seeing off Rinus Michels’ FC Cologne 1-0 in the semi-final first leg at Portman Road.

Defeat against City three days later in the FA Cup was followed by a 2-1 league win at Villa  before costly defeats against Arsenal and Norwich.  

The second leg came just two days after that Carrow Road loss, leading Robson to think outside the box. Training the day before facing the Germans was binned for a  trip to the local amusement park, with big dippers preferred to set-piece practice.

And it worked a treat, with Terry Butcher’s towering header making it 1-0 to set up the final against Dutch champions AZ Alkmaar.

A  3-0 first-leg win was followed by a nervy 4-2 loss in Amsterdam’s Olympic stadium to clinch the Uefa Cup 5-4 on aggregate.

Afterwards, Robson reflected: “The season has been worth it  after all and our football will be remembered.”

More than 50,000 fans crammed into the town centre to salute their conquering heroes.

Gates left for Sunderland in 1985 and has been on the farm for 20-odd years with wife Dorothy.

With a cheeky grin he describes himself as the ‘general manager’.

He said: “I walk around and feed the animals — we’ve got Highland cattle, chickens and Welsh  mountain ponies.

“But I’m a footballer, not a  f*****g farmer.

“For a daft sod from the North East who left for Ipswich at 16, I’m a lucky lad."

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