‘I was lost and alone... I needed a clean break’ - Wembley hero Mowbray on rebuilding his life in Ipswich
PUBLISHED: 06:00 26 May 2020 | UPDATED: 09:16 26 May 2020
As we celebrate Ipswich Town’s Wembley victory over Barnsley, 20 years ago this week, ANDY WARREN spoke to Tony Mowbray about his time with the Blues.
Tony Mowbray’s Ipswich Town career could not have ended more perfectly.
Friday marks 20 years since the central defender signed off in style, thumping home a typically powerful header against Barnsley to set the Blues on their way to promotion at Wembley.
The images of Mowbray towering over Barnsley’s Keith Brown are iconic ones, capturing the veteran at his powerful best, and that’s how his five years as an Ipswich player will be remembered.
But his start to life in Suffolk was extremely difficult. He was broken, lost, following the death of his wife Bernadette following a long battle with breast cancer and needed time and space to heal.
The decision to leave Glasgow and Celtic in October 1995, just 10 months after losing his wife, was a difficult one as he continued to grieve. But it ultimately proved to be a move which allowed Mowbray to rebuild both his life and career.
“I was in Glasgow and George Burley had been phoning,” Mowbray said. “It was a difficult time for me because I had just lost my wife to breast cancer and I was trying to resurrect my football career. I was trying to get back on the grass and play for Celtic.
“George kept phoning and there were some days I wouldn’t take his call and would think ‘it’s George Burley from Ipswich, again’. I wasn’t ready to move away and was visiting a grave every day for six months of my life with flowers.
“It was such a difficult decision for me to move on with my life. I didn’t make that decision because it was George or because it was Ipswich, it was more because it was a place such a long, long way away and I’d decided a clean break would be best for me. So going from the north west of Scotland to the south east of England seemed like a good idea.
“I went to Ipswich with great sadness and I was lost, really. I was on my own and Ipswich helped me get my love of football back. Once I made my mind up I was coming I gave it everything I had. I anticipated being there only a few years because you don’t know how long you will play for.
“I had a manager who trusted me and team-mates who were a pleasure to play with. We achieved some great things.
“I met the next love of my life in Ipswich, married her and now we have three great kids. So Ipswich will always be in my heart.”
The journey to becoming a Wembley hero wasn’t always an easy one, though.
“My first few months at Ipswich were really difficult and I was taking a lot of criticism,” the 56-year-old recalled.
“I remember driving home from a game and listening to the radio where one fan rang in to say ‘it will be a cold day in hell the day Mowbray’s any good for this club’. But I’m a fighter by nature, if you push me in a corner, I’ll come out fighting.
“But I grew into it, settled into the area and starting meeting people. Some good people were signed, like Veno (Mark Venus) from Wolverhampton and everything fell into place, really.
“My experience was a good thing for that team I think and as you get into your mid-to-late 30s you’re not the player you were in your 20s.
“I did bring a good organisational skill to the team which has allowed us to press up the pitch and condense the pitch, which helped because it allowed our technical players to play in the opposition’s half most of the time.”
Mowbray’s words sum up his role in Burley’s class of 1999/00 perfectly. By this point the veteran was already beginning to make the transition onto the club’s coaching staff and barely featured on the pitch as the Blues started the campaign like a train.
But, after a run of just one win in five league games, Mowbray was brought back into the fold and missed just one more match en route to Wembley - and a goal which was 30 years in the making.
“That’s to dare too much,” the former defender admitted, when asked if he foresaw what was to come. “Although I had known throughout my career I was capable of scoring goals.
“When I go to my mother’s now in Redcar there’s still a bent scaffolding tube on the washing line with a ball hanging from it. That’s how I learnt to head the ball. My dad was a scaffolder all his life so I remember him setting that up for me. Heading was what I was all about and that’s how I developed that skill.
“When the cross came in, it went out and then in again for me to head it in. That picture’s in my games room at home. The lad I’m towering over, Keith Brown, lives very close to the training ground at Blackburn doing agency work and we often talk about that day and that goal. It’s an amazing memory.
“I have three boys and every now and again I’ll show them the video of it to remind them what their old man could do. That epitomises what I was about in terms of being aggressive and attacking the ball.
“The leap, the jump and the contact is all pretty clear in my mind.
“It was an important goal to get us back in the game and believing again. We always believed we would win that game and to get the job done was an amazing feeling.”
And that was that for Mowbray’s playing career. He walked off the field a Wembley winner and with a medal around his neck, never to play another game.
Except, he very nearly did.
“I had a year left on my contract so that would probably have been George’s decision,” Mowbray said.
“I was in the team in the training game in the lead-up to the first Premier League game against Tottenham and I’ll be honest, I was terrible and I dropped out. It was only going to be if my experience would have helped us.
“I was 37 and Hermann Hreidarsson had been signed and he was a monster – fast, strong and a beast of a man. It made sense for him to play and obviously things rolled pretty well that season so I was happy to sit on the sidelines next to George and be a part of a truly special season as the club finished fifth in the Premier League.”