As exciting development plans for Portman Road commence for the first time in almost 20 years, this article reflects on the ground’s place in history and significance to Ipswich Town while it comes close to 140 years old as a football stadium. Reporting by Jolyon Wright.
Portman Road has been the home of Ipswich Town’s football since 1884, before the club even turned professional in 1936.
The stadium, located in the heart of Ipswich, is one of the oldest in Britain still in use today.
It has seen the ups and downs of English football, witnessing First Division and UEFA Cup victories, as well as play-off heartbreaks and relegations.
The team now sit in Sky Bet League One, finishing in 11th position and 13 points off play-off positions this season.
Ipswich have clear ambitions of reaching the heights of their past thanks to new ownership and changes in atmosphere around the club.
The stadium developments are symbolic of this change, exciting anyone affiliated with the club, and certainly bode well for the future.
Prior to the settling of the football team, Portman Road was primarily used as a rugby ground and to entertain cricket in the summer months.
The Tractor Boys, as Ipswich are commonly known, moved to Portman Road just six years after they were formed in 1878.
Despite a very gradual approach to the stadium development, Portman Road became one of the first grounds to introduce goal nets in 1890.
Nonetheless, it was a significant improvement on their former home – Broomhill Park. They would play on muddy pitches and use the local pub as dressing rooms, reminiscent of today’s Sunday League Football which is loved for its humour and fights more than the quality of football on show.
After turning professional, Town first sprang into prominence with the appointment of Sir Alf Ramsey in 1956.
Over a period of six years, the team progressed from the Third Division (South) to the First Division Championship, bringing all three titles home to Portman Road along the way.
Ramsey became the first of two Ipswich Town managers to leave for the England National team job after success at Ipswich, with the second, Sir Bobby Robson, being appointed in 1969.
Robson reintroduced Ramsey’s winning ways with a FA Cup victory in 1978, exactly 100 years after the club was formed. This was followed by winning the prestigious UEFA Cup in 1981, where Ipswich crucially gained a 3-0 advantage over AZ’67 in the first leg of the final at Portman Road.
Both of these club legends have been immortalised using the stadium. Both have a stand in their name, as well as a road running alongside Portman Road being named Sir Alf Ramsey Way. The World Cup-winning manager also has a statue where the corner of his road and Portman Road meet.
Continuing the acknowledgement of their most impressive achievements, the grounds have been used to pay tribute to arguably Town’s greatest-ever player Kevin Beattie after his passing in 2018.
A statue has been erected with the defender having won the FA Cup, UEFA Cup and inaugural 1972/73 PFA Young Player of the Year while at Portman Road.
The Premier League debuted in the same year as Town returned to the top flight and Portman Road is one of only 60 stadiums to have hosted English football’s new first division.
After fluttering between the leagues, Ipswich achieved their highest league finish since the 1981/82 season, coming fifth in the 2000/01 Premier League campaign.
Portman Road has also had the honour of being written into international football history. It has hosted numerous England Youth matches as well as a senior international friendly against Croatia in 2003.
The stadium has served other events too, hosting athletics meetings, international hockey and music concerts.
Over the decades, Portman Road has become a prominent feature in its home county of Suffolk and is deep-rooted in the history of the town and football club.
In the 41 years since the UEFA Cup victory, Portman Road has only undergone renovations once.
Major reconstruction in 2002 saw the stadium capacity increased to an impressive 30,311 to make it the largest in East Anglia, beating fierce rivals Norwich City’s Carrow Road of 27,360.
However, a takeover completed in April 2021 now sees Gamechanger 20 Ltd in charge of Ipswich and with big plans for the stadium.
They have introduced invigorated promoting and have helped the fans breathe new life into the stadium – and it seems like Town supporters are finally going to see Portman Road receive some upkeep.
“We knew when we took over that it was a big club that had been run down and needed investment,” club CEO Mark Ashton said in an interview with Ipswich Town’s media team in March.
This season, Portman Road has the third-best average attendance in the Sky Bet League One. It has allowed the fans to get behind the team throughout a change of management and push for promotion, despite falling short and being confirmed for another season in the third tier.
The fanbase, however, is buoyed by the improvements so far and are hopeful of Championship football returning to Portman Road once next season concludes.
Development plans submitted to the local council show ambitious and inspiring proposals for Portman Road.
Firstly, they outline work to renovate a tired and neglected corner of the stadium that hasn’t been used by spectators for years. What would be thought of as temporary scaffolding is finally being removed, along with a disused concrete standing section to allow for a large opening for future vehicular access.
It was announced mid-March that this access will be a necessity in order to complete the installation of a new Desso pitch with under-soil heating. This will aid the fresh and expansive football being played under new manager Kieron McKenna and is proposed to be in place ready for the start of the 2023/24 season.
With new space obtained from clearing the corner, the owners also plan to fit a big screen – something that has become a cornerstone of modern stadiums. This will replace one of the digital boards currently fitted but will use more advanced technology that will provide the fans with “digital entertainment”.
The final proposal of the development plans is to update the current tired and weary-looking dugouts. Through taking a small amount of seated stand for the expansion, the dugouts will be equipped with 16 “high-quality” padded seats and plenty of space for substitutes and other club staff.
These redevelopments are designed to match requirements of the Premier League, showing the aspiration and commitment of the new owners after a positive year at the helm, as the Ipswich Star’s Andy Warren explains. They have also purchased land surrounding the stadium, but their plans for this area are yet to be released.
Ashton added: “We’ve got to improve infrastructure which will ultimately improve the environment. There’s huge investment from the owners, again, I can only thank them because they’re determined to have the infrastructure in place to take this football club forward.
“Just looking around the stadium reminds me of how big it is, but we need to give it some love, care and attention and bring it into the modern age.
“There is a lot to do.”
As Portman Road nears 140 years in use, its buzz and spirit has quite possibly not been this high since the title successes of the 1970s and 80s.
Once again, the fans are genuinely enjoying their trips to Ipswich’s stadium and the exciting schemes of the new owners are only going to make the stadium loved even more.