John Elsworthy: Cornerstone of Ipswich Town during the reign of Alf Ramsey
Thursday 21 May 2009
John Elsworthy was a colossal cornerstone of the Ipswich Town side which featured in one of the most romantic of all footballing success stories. The lanky Welsh wing-half was a dynamic midfield driving force as the hitherto unfashionable Suffolk club ascended from the lower reaches of the Football League to its very pinnacle under the inspirational guidance of Alf Ramsey, who was destined to lead England to World Cup glory only four years later in 1966.
When the men from Portman Road lifted the First Division title – the equivalent of the Premier League crown today – it was hailed as a sporting miracle, and its essence was personified by the largely unsung Elsworthy. In a patchwork team, stitched together expertly but frugally by the shrewdly imaginative Ramsey, he was a bastion of strength and reliability, but also a key creative influence. He held a unique record, being the only man to collect a championship medal at the League's every level, and he was unswervingly loyal, too, serving only the Town during a professional career which encompassed nearly 450 games.
Gifted at most sports, the teenage Elsworthy chose football over cricket and rugby, spurning a chance to join Glamorgan County Cricket Club, enlisting instead with Newport County as an amateur. Spotted by Ipswich while excelling for the Somerton Park outfit at youth level, he signed on at Portman Road in May 1949.
There followed two years as a part-timer while he completed his national service in the RAF and it was not until the 1952-53 campaign that Elsworthy, then an inside-left, secured a regular first-team berth, contributing 18 goals in senior competition for the perennial strugglers in the Third Division South. In 1953-54 he tasted professional triumph for the first time as Ipswich topped the table, but he barely figured during the next season as they were relegated from the Second Division.
However, the defining watershed of his career was approaching. For 1955-56, Ramsey replaced Scott Duncan as Portman Road manager and Elsworthy moved back to left-half, a position in which he spent more time facing the play and in which he proved immeasurably more comfortable. Under new management the Town narrowly missed promotion at the first attempt, but secured it in style as champions in 1956-57, with the composed Elsworthy proving ever more integral to their industrious yet entertaining style.
By now he was reaching his peak, and during an FA Cup encounter with Manchester United in January 1958, only 12 days before Matt Busby's wondrous Babes were to be decimated by the Munich air disaster in which eight players died, he gave the finest performance of his life. In an Old Trafford quagmire likened by one observer to "black porridge", Elsworthy tackled tirelessly and tailored his passes cannily to the atrocious conditions, even drawing a favourable comparison in several newspapers with United's young titan Duncan Edwards, who was playing in his last FA Cup tie before his tragic end. By common consent Edwards was one of England's greatest-ever players, so those journalistic parallels with Elsworthy might be a tad fanciful, but clearly he shone on that murky Manchester afternoon, although he was unable to prevent a 2-0 defeat.
Not surprisingly he was drafted into Wales's preliminary squad for that summer's World Cup finals in Sweden, but he failed to make the cut when the party was reduced from 21 to 19 to save money and, sadly, was never awarded a full cap. But consolation on the club front was to be immense. As Ramsey continued to develop his side – in which the prolific twin strikers Ray Crawford and Ted Phillips, and the spindly little play-making winger Jimmy Leadbetter, were outstanding – Ipswich first consolidated in the second tier, then topped it in 1960-61.
If this provoked surprise in many quarters, it was nothing to the seismic shock which rippled through the football world in the spring of 1962 when the Town overhauled much-fancied Burnley and the mighty Tottenham Hotspur – whom they beat home and away – to become Football League champions. Ramsey's so-called "miracle on a shoestring" owed plenty to every member of his team, but no one did more than the indefatigable Elsworthy, who was absent for only one game, and who toiled and prompted constantly. It was a remarkable achievement for a player who had been troubled periodically by injuries, including one potentially life-threatening instance when a cut leg led to a blood clot and hospitalisation.
"Big John" – so dubbed both for his physical stature and his enormous input to the team effort – played his part in the Town's first (and still only) European Cup adventure, scoring in the 10-0 home annihilation of the Maltese champions Floriana, and showing up splendidly when the star-strewn Italians Milan were beaten 2-1 at Portman Road. But harrowingly for Ipswich, an era was about to end. Alf Ramsey left to become England coach and the Town declined under his successor, Jackie Milburn, suffering demotion in 1964. By now at the veteran stage, and failing to respond to the hectoring style of the next manager, Bill McGarry, Elsworthy retired in 1965, having captained Ipswich on his last three appearances.
He left the game, to run a grocery business and then a post office, both in Ipswich. But he remained close to the Town for the rest of his life, becoming honorary president of the supporters club and rarely missing a game.
John Elsworthy, footballer: born Nantyderry, Monmouthshire 26 July 1931; played for Ipswich Town 1949-65; married (one son, one daughter); died Ipswich, Suffolk 3 May 2009.
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