The Tractor Boys roll into town


In 1941 14,000 Australian troops formed the bulk of the Allied force defending the port of Tobruk in Libya, besieged by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The Australians proved hard to dislodge. The Germans needed Tobruk for their assault on Egypt because there were so few natural harbours along the North African coast. The defenders were derided by the Nazi propagandist Lord Haw Haw on Radio Berlin and described as being caught ‘like rats in a trap’. It struck a chord with the diggers and thereafter they referred to themselves as the Rats of Tobruk, a designation which became a badge of honour for all the men involved in that campaign. Eventually the term gained legendary status.

Ipswich Town have made similar use of a label that was meant to ridicule them. Back in 1998/99 the team was being well beaten at Birmingham City. The Birmingham fans starting chanting “No noise from the tractor boys! No noise from the tractor boys!” The supporters from the massive urban conurbation were mocking the visitors’ rural heartland and agricultural origins in Suffolk. Ipswich is nowhere near the size of Birmingham and is that county’s only professional club.

Nevertheless, Ipswich supporters began to accept the moniker and refer to themselves with pride as the Tractor Boys. Not everyone was happy. Former player and manager Jim Magilton, who held the reins at Melbourne Victory for three months in 2012, felt it conjured up the image of “carrot crunching yokels.”

It’s fair to say that the club has traditionally punched above its weight. Ipswich joined the Football Association in 1938 after turning professional in 1936. They were First Division champions under Alf Ramsay in 1962 and FA Cup winners under Bobby Robson in 1978. For the last fifty years they have survived in the first and second divisions.

Tonight Preston is hosting them in an FA Cup third round replay after the teams were locked at one apiece at Portman Road on January 4. Ipswich is in ninth place on the Championship table. Their manager Mick McCarthy blamed himself for the draw with the League One visitors because he made  seven changes to the team that drew with Charlton Athletic on New Year’s Day.

I saw an Andy Murray interview on the Channel 5 news. He was critical of the decision to allow players at the Australian Open in Melbourne to compete in temperatures of over 40 degrees. The temperature in Preston tonight is about one tenth of what Melbourne is currently experiencing. The Snowgum jacket I bought for the trip from Westfield Doncaster is doing a pretty fair job of keeping me alive as I make my way through the freezing rain to Deepdale.

Tonight I am about to have a different experience of watching the soccer. Due to the hospitality of Preston North End I have been issued with a press pass for the match. The press room is full of pundits working away on laptops and speaking on their phones. I could have saved on the chicken tikka and rice I ordered at Sandos on Church Street if I had known that the club actually provides a meal for match reporters.

We are issued with the exact team lists for the night’s encounter  before being seated in a row at the very back of the Tom Finney Stand on the wing. Preston manager Simon Grayson has followed the lead of Mick McCarthy from the previous match and made seven changes to the line-up which went down to Wolves three days ago.

I am sitting next to the correspondent from the Daily Mail. He lives in Stockport and mainly covers games in the north-west at venues such as Manchester, Bolton and Blackburn. He hasn’t seen Preston play since the opening round of the season. When I remark upon the hardy souls from Ipswich standing in the middle of the Bill Shankly Stand he confirms that with a five-hour trip back to East Anglia ahead of them after the final whistle they won’t be getting to bed until after 3:00AM in the middle of the working week.

He types away on his laptop throughout the match. The reporter on my right provides regular crosses to a radio station.

The rain continues to tumble and neither team troubles the scorer in the first half. The ground has a capacity of 23,000 and looks about a quarter full.

Early in the second half spectators all of a sudden stand to their feet and applaud. The applause lasts for around a minute and seems to have nothing to do with the action on the pitch. I’m mystified and thinking that maybe Sir Tom Finney, Preston’s greatest ever player and favourite son, has defied both the elements and his advanced years and been spotted in the executive box. Then everybody sits down again.

I am determined to solve the mystery but loath to disturb my companions.

In the meantime Preston is dominating possession but going without reward. Then in a scenario well known to the supporters of battling clubs of any code contending with better-credentialed opposition, an error leads to disaster. Ipswich’s Paul Anderson crosses from the right and Preston defender Tom Clarke knocks it back to keeper Declan Rudd. The ball is misdirected and Rudd lunges to knock the ball back into play to avoid conceding a corner. In doing so he slides over the goal line. Ipswich striker Frank Nouble taps the ball to his left before blasting it into the unguarded goal.

Grayson immediately swings leading goal scorer Joe Garner into the action from the substitutes’ bench. Minutes later Paul Gallagher loses his footing when delivering a corner kick from the left. The ball flies to Garner on the edge of the box. Garner nods the ball toward the goal and it somehow pierces  the crowd of arms and legs and crosses the line for the equaliser.

Ipswich has the centre clearance but relinquishes possession straight away. The ball is swept to the front of Preston’s goal and Garner chests it down before unleashing a low shot which rockets into the back of the net. That’s two to Garner in 40 seconds! Pandemonium breaks out in the stands.

But McCarthy has an ace up his sleeve. He sends out his own leading scorer, David McGoldrick, who netted against the Northenders in the drawn game at Portman Road. Two minutes after he arrives on the field he is on the edge of the box in plenty of space. Skipper Carlos Edwards delivers to him and he has little trouble in heading it home.

Scores are locked at 2-2 and the match which was fairly pedestrian in the first half has exploded into life.

With two minutes of normal time remaining Garner dispossesses Ryan Tunnicliffe, turns and curls it past the extended right hand of keeper Sam Loach. Hat trick to Joe Garner! I’m the only member of the press contingent to jump to my feet and yell “Yeeeeah! Talk about excitement.  Not even six minutes of extra time is sufficient for Ipswich to come back. Preston’s 3-2 victory is the second time they have defeated a rival from the section above them, having beaten Blackpool in a Capital One Cup clash earlier in the 2013/14 season. They will have to overcome another Championship club, Nottingham Forest, in the fourth round to keep their FA Cup hopes alive.

More pleasure awaits as I follow my new colleagues to the opposite side of the stadium to the post-match interview room. Simon Grayson enters. Everyone is silent as he dons headphones and answers questions from Radio Lancashire. Then he gives his attention to those assembled in the room. Grayson expresses his belief that it’s important for a team to have a “winning mentality” whatever the context and that “winning breeds success.”

Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy has his turn. He has a patrician-like appearance with his distinguished grey hair and beard. A former manager of the Irish national team, he is subdued and expresses his disappointment that his team came off second best tonight. He laments the fact that his players had not defended well enough and expressed his hope that they would apply more defensive pressure to Millwall in Saturday’s upcoming game.

Hat trick hero Joe Garner is next. He confirms that while he has scored two goals in a game “five or six times” in his professional career this is the first time has scored three. In fact it is the first time in its history that any Preston player has achieved this after coming on as a substitute.

He hadn’t been happy to start on the bench but accepted the gaffer’s decision in the light of the need to manage the squad with three games to play in the space of eight days. Garner admits that there might be some doubt as to whether he had actually netted his first goal, as teammate Josh Brownhill had let fly as the ball rolled past him and an Ipswich defender may have had the final touch in an attempt to clear it from the line.

“I’ll claim it,” he grins.

Garner’s clubmates have signed the match ball for him as souvenir of his achievement.

As he departs I hold out my hand, the only one present to do so.

“Congratulations Joe, unforgettable.”

I mean it, too.

“Thanks mate,” he replies, returning my handshake.

The following morning I discover from the club website the reason why spectators had stood and applauded soon after the half time interval. It was to honour long-time supporter Mick Murphy. He had been present in the executive box at Deepdale for the victory over Port Vale on New Year’s Day. He had also travelled on the coach to watch the Lilywhites play at Ipswich on the following Saturday. It was his last game. Mick had been in the last stages of lung cancer and passed away on Wednesday January 8.

He was 54 years of age and the ovation was timed to take place in the 54th minute of Preston’s encounter with the Tractor Boys.



  1. Beautiful. Poetic, Riveting.
    They have you in the press box John, because you are immortalising their season far better than any regular scribe to whom it is just more ‘grist for the mill’.
    It was never that for Mick Murphy.
    I suspect the authorities will not let you leave until their season is over. You are their talisman.
    Still you do have the Tigers to look ‘forward’ to.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Brilliant john am loving your articles you explained Ipswichs history re the tractor boys perfectly . Love your passion basically ditto Peter B above ! Thanks John

  3. Really enjoying your stories – and your road trips – JG. Of the many things they are describing, the sense of connection with people, place and community is a stand-out, and the fact that has appeal to you as a supporter and, thanks to your story-telling, to us as readers. Very grateful to you from here in the Australian heat.

  4. As the others have said, loving your work. It’s a cliché I know but I almost feel as if I’m there in the stand. And what a wonderful acknowledgement, honouring the passing of a long time supporter with an ovation at the 54th minute. Goosebumps. Keep ’em coming. Cheers

  5. Troy Hancox says

    Great story John!
    Good win over the tractor boys.
    Being a Wolves man, and knowing Mick McCarthy (Ex Wolves & urguably one of our best recent managers), that is a great result…… i can hera MM speech at the whistle…. “We put a shift in” but couldnt pull it off tonight. (it was like pulling the cord on the puppets back and hearing the same one liners)
    He got Wolves punching above their weight at the time.

    Anyhow, 1 month to go til the AFL pre season……. The Migthy RICHMOND TIGERS are looking extremely fit!
    Roll on round two…… CAAAAARRRRRRLTON!
    Already looking for cheap flights to Melb (from SA) to watch us smash the blue baggers!

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