At this stage of this Championship season, it’s rare to see a fixture without significance. As the table becomes more and more congested, teams who thought they had nothing to play for a few games ago now find themselves aiming for the play-off places, and others who were coasting to a comfortable mid-table finish now peer worryingly at the Championship trap-door. This Saturday at Portman Road is no different, as in form Bolton Wanderers travel to play Ipswich Town. Bolton, after winning their last five games, are now a win away from 6th place, and Ipswich look vulnerable in 20th after one win in five.
But, added to all this is a tie with historical intrigue. Back in May 2000, when the two sides last met at Portman Road in the second tier, the scene was the second leg of the then First Division play off semi-final. After a Marcus Stewart inspired fight-back for Ipswich saw the first leg tied at 2-2, it was destined to be a fraught affair. But what occurred was nothing short of stunning.
The result itself was fantastical enough, a 5-3 Ipswich victory after extra time which saw them go through 7-5 on aggregate after a game featuring three penalties, two of which were converted, two red cards and twelve yellows. But, staggeringly, these were all against Bolton players.
After Dean Holdsworth had twice put Bolton ahead in the first half, sandwiched between the first Ipswich penalty which Jim Magilton converted after being clipped in the box, Bolton were 2-1 up at half time. Magilton had also found time to miss a second penalty, given after a Paul Ritchie foul. In the second half, Magilton made amends with another couple of goals, and an Allan Johnston strike saw the tie enter extra time locked at 3-3. But, in the dying embers of normal time, Wanderers defender Mike Whitlow saw a straight red after his foul on Marcus Stewart, deemed by referee Barry Knight to be denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. In extra time, Knight gave Ipswich yet another penalty after Ritchie grappled with David Johnson in the box, which Jamie Clapham duly converted. After Robbie Elliott was sent off, 9 man Bolton were out of it, and Reuser’s fifth only confirmed matters.
Barry Knight’s display has gone down in Wanderers folklore as the most inept refereeing performance ever seen at the highest level. Then boss Sam Allardyce, speaking after the game, said that he “didn’t think he [Knight] should ever referee another game in the Football League”. Bolton centre half Ritchie labelled it an “absolute disgrace”, and even Tony Mowbray, then playing for Ipswich, called his performance “bizarre”. Murmurings persisted about the game long after the final whistle.
As that feisty spring evening fades into memory though, perhaps Barry Knight was done a disservice. Looking back at the game’s flashpoints, many of his decisions were probably correct. Certainly the first and third penalties were blatant, as was Elliott’s second yellow after a desperate lunge. The second penalty was probably a little harsh as Ritchie took ball and man, but it was only Whitlow’s red which was worthy of derision, sent off as last man as two Bolton players looked able to get back.
Ipswich fans will also tell you a different story. They’ll say that their side was regarded as a soft touch by Sam Allardyce, and he sent his side out to play aggressively to try and win the game. Certainly, their players seemed up for the occasion and hounded Knight after decision after decision went against them. But many others would have reacted the same.
Although Knight went on to referee in the Premier League, he never referred another Bolton game again before retiring in 2008. Bolton were to go up the following season, and their 4-1thumping of Ipswich back in 2002 all but condemned the Tractor Boys to relegation from the Premier League.
But to many Wanderers fans, that game all of thirteen years ago still leaves a bitter taste. As Bolton and Ipswich square up again tomorrow, they’ll be hoping referee Stuart Atwell keeps his cards in his pocket.
Blast from the past: