Billy Baxter: Ipswich Town stalwart who flourished under Alf Ramsay but came to blows with Bobby Robson
Saturday 18 July 2009
Billy Baxter, who has died aged 70, was a member of the Ipswich Town team which became unlikely League champions in 1962. In the process, he earned the ardent admiration of the team's manager, Alf Ramsey.
Baxter, a wing-half in the fine tradition of Scottish ball-players who could also look after themselves on the park, started his footballing life with the Scottish junior side Broxburn Athletic. He began playing for the Suffolk side while he was stationed at Aldershot during his national service with the Royal Engineers. He made his debut in 1960, in a Christmas fixture against their local rivals Norwich City as an emergency replacement for the injured first-choice right-half, Reg Pickett. Baxter made such a big impression on Ramsey that he quickly became a regular in the team. Ipswich won promotion at the end of that 1960-61 season as Second Division champions, and Baxter was a key component of the team that Ramsey built to challenge for the First Division title the following season.
The East Anglians pulled off the rare feat of winning the Championship in their first season after promotion, and much of the nation's attention was focused on the team's free-scoring strikers, Ray Crawford and Ted Phillips. But Ramsey was well aware of the debt he owed the dependable Baxter, who anchored the middle of the field, defended staunchly, and won possession for Town's star strikers to shine. Although he was only 5ft 8in he was also renowned for his ability in the air, and scored a remarkable number of headed goals for a man of his stature.
Ramsey prized Baxter's ability to play different roles in the team as circumstances and the opposition demanded, and he had no hesitation in naming him his captain towards the end of his spell at the club, before he took over as England manager. Ramsey, the man who promoted Bobby Moore to be his on-field lieutenant for England, knew a leader on the park when he saw one. "I think he could play well in any position for the team," he said.
The glory of winning the title was intoxicating while it lasted, but Ipswich's ambitions quickly ran into the sand. Two seasons later they were relegated in bottom place, and Ramsey's replacement as manager, the legendary Newcastle United centre-forward Jackie Milburn, proved to be the wrong man in the wrong job. On the day Milburn left the club in September 1964, a disenchanted Baxter tabled a transfer request, telling the chairman, John Cobbold: "I don't see any future at Portman Road."
Cobbold, desperate to stop the break-up of the team, overhauled the wages structure at the club in an attempt to buy the loyalty of his senior professionals. "We are managerless, almost pointless, and we cannot afford to be Baxter-less," he said. Baxter stayed, but the episode ushered in an era of player power at Portman Road that had consequences down the line.
The new manager, Bill McGarry, led Town back into the top flight as Second Division champions in 1968, and Baxter and his team-mates enjoyed another open-topped bus tour around the town. But McGarry quit early in the new season to join Wolves, and Baxter's nemesis walked into the manager's office.
Bobby Robson was the new man in charge at Portman Road, and he quickly grasped that his dressing room was in the grip of a clique of senior pros, including Baxter, who fancied themselves as more powerful than the boss. For all his avuncular reputation in later years, the young and ambitious Robson was no soft touch, and he showed all the toughness bred into him from his Durham mining background to stamp his authority on the club.
Early on in his tenure, the inevitable showdown came after Baxter had been dropped for a match against Leeds United. Robson said in his autobiography: "Baxter [was] another who had been making the dressing room an uncomfortable place, while testing me to the limits of my endurance. We lost the game 4-2 and they revelled in our misery, laughing and joking and ordering a bottle of champagne to celebrate the defeat."
It was just one more source of friction among many – including a disagreement over which players' wives were permitted entrance to the club's guest room. Robson went on to describe the violent fracas which ensued, and how he stood "toe-to-toe" with Baxter, swapping punches with the Scot until other players intervened. But Robson won the power struggle. The majority of the players backed the manager, and Baxter was sold to Hull City soon after. He had made 409 League appearances for the club, and it was a desperately sad finale to a career that had brought much honour to Baxter and to Ipswich Town.
If Robson had lost his personal battle at Ipswich, it is unlikely that he would ever have made it as a manager. He had, after all, already failed at Fulham. But he followed his Ipswich predecessor, Ramsey, in becoming a much-respected England manager. Baxter's career, meanwhile, was on the wane. His best days in football were behind him.
When Baxter's 11-year stint at Portman Road ended in 1971, he endured a couple of unsuccessful seasons at Hull before taking over as player-manager of Northampton Town in 1972. It was not a success. The Cobblers finished 91st, second from bottom, in the Football League and were obliged to seek re-election at the end of his only season in charge. He later joined Nuneaton Borough as a manager before retiring from the game. He suffered from cancer at the end of his days, and died in hospital.
William Alexander Baxter, footballer: born Edinburgh 23 April 1939; played for Ipswich Town 1960-71, Hull City 1971-72, Watford (loan) 1972, Northampton Town 1972-73 (player-manager); managed Nuneaton Borough; died Dunfermline 25 May 2009.
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