It is time to look at another great British American football team: The Ipswich Cardinals. This is a team with a long and distinguished pedigree in the realms of British American Football (Britball). Founded in 1986, they played their first league season in 1987. The Ipswich Cardinals are a Britball team 10 years removed from their silver anniversary. Having played 320 regular season games over 35 years up to the 2019 season. Along with seven bowl game appearances.
This is part of a (very) intermittent series and follows on from previous looks at the Scunthorpe Steelers, Glasgow Lions, Manchester Spartans, Leicester Panthers, London Olympians, London Ravens and the Birmingham Bulls.
Not the Cardinals you think
You might think the Ipswich Cardinals are named for the bird. After all, plenty of American football teams are named after the small red bird native to North America. Perhaps the founders were supporters of the University of Louisville Cardinals? Or one of the many college teams carrying that moniker. Being founded in 1986 it would be more likely they were named for the then St Louis, now Arizona Cardinals of the NFL.
In reality the name is something of a pun. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. He was also a famous son of Ipswich. And thus, the name was born. the Ipswich Cardinals refer not to the bird as so many teams do, but instead to a sixteenth century Tudor statesman!
Ipswich Cardinals – the early years
The Cardinals were founded by two Suffolk based American Football enthusiasts – Colin Cox & Mark Leport. Over 100 people turned out for the teams first tryouts. So the appetite was there for a team. In that first year they played just one game. A friendly match against the long forgotten Stevenage Aerostars. That first ever game finished in a 12-12 tie. Perhaps that was an impressive result because I can only find one other result for Stevenage. A 40-0 win against the Orpington Owls in another friendly contest.
It was a sign of things to come for Ipswich. The Cardinals were tremendously successful over their next five seasons of league play. From 1987-1991 they would go 43-6-2 and appear in four straight championship games from 1987 to 1990.
In 1987 they were a 12-0-0 juggernaut in the United Kingdom Football League. But, in the final they were beaten 28-26 in a thriller by the St Helens Cardinals. This was followed by losing 48–34 in the final to Herts Phantoms in the Budweiser Division 1 Championship in 1988. And an 18-9 defeat by the Norwich Devils in the 1989 British National Gridiron League Division 1 title game. The last one doubtless hurt the most because Ipswich and Norwich have have a long standing rivalry and that is no different on the Britball scene.
In 1990 the Ipswich Cardinals took their first title. Following a 9-1 regular season they beat the 9-1 Clydesdale Colts by a score of 34-22 in the title game.
A slump for the Cards
This was followed by a 6-2-1 season and 50-0 semi-final defeat by the London Capitals in the 1991 season. But worse was to come than not making a title game.
From 1992-1999 the Cardinals posted a 32-41 record. The nadir was a 1-9 1994 season that saw the Cards relegated to the third tier of British American football for the first time. The high point was an 8-2 1996 season which saw Ipswich losing 14–0 to the Winchester Rifles in a playoff contest.
Going into the twenty-first century the Ipswich Cardinals were a second tier team coming off a 2-6 1999 season. But things were about to improve once again for the Cardinals and their supporters.
Back to the playoffs – and another title
The Ipswich Cardinals had a hugely improved season in 2000 going 8-0 and making it to the British Senior League Division 2 Championship game. Unfortunately they were well beaten 41-7 by the Farnham Knights in that one. 2001 would see them go one better however.
Although they were slightly less impressive in the regular season (5-2-1), they made it back to the British Senior League Division 2 Championship game. It was a chance at revenge with their fiercest rivals, the Norwich Devils. Twelve years after the disappointment of losing a championship game to the Devils they wiped that memory out with a dominant 47-15 win this time around.
From 2000-2007 they made the playoffs seven times out of eight seasons. This included being promoted to Division One in 2002, where they reached the quarter-finals in their first season. In 2003, they stayed competitive and defeated the PA Knights in the wild-card game in the playoffs before losing to the East Kilbride Pirates 12-7 away from home in the semi-finals. They continued their good form in 2004 finishing third in a tough Southern Conference and clinching a wild-card slot. However they were outgunned by the London O’s 46-0 in a wildcard game.
The Ipswich Cardinals now
The Cardinals had a solid silver anniversary season in 2010 going 8-2 before falling to 34-10 to the East Kilbride Pirates in a playoff semi-final. However that level of success was not being reflected by the time of their 30th anniversary in 2015. That year they were 1-9 as part of an aneamic 6-54 run between 2012 and 2017.
But you can’t keep the Cardinals down. They may have down cycles, but if their history has proven anything, it is that they will find a way back. By 2018 they were posting a 6-2 record in the BAFA Southern Football Conference Division 2 – East. That was followed by a 4-2-2 run in 2019 both seasons ending in playoff appearances ending at the quarter final stage.
Following the absence of a 2020 Britball season, the Cardinals found themselves in the BAFA National League East Anglia Division for 2021. This was probably one of the best structured divisions of the re-alignment. The Cardinals found themselves in with a strong Cambridgehsire Cats team, and in the mix once again with their old foes the Norwich Devils among others. They finished the season 3-5 and will look for better times ahead.
Who would bet against the Ipswich Cardinals bouncing back? They are a longstanding team on the Britball landscape who have seen their share of ups and downs. Perhaps the greatest tribute to them however is their endurance through thick and thin. They have been around for over 35 years now – here’s to many more.
Banner Image: Senior Airman Jamaal Payne turns out for the Ipswich Cardinals. Image from stripes.com