IPSWICH Town are preparing to celebrate a very special anniversary.

This May will mark the 20th anniversary of their famous play-off final victory against Barnsley, at Wembley.

The Blues' 4-2 triumph ensured their return to the Premier League - a mindboggling thought, given the club's current plight - and also created history, as it was the last match at the old Wembley Stadium.

Town's class of 1999-2000 - the likes of talismanic skipper Matt Holland, goalkeeper Richard Wright, defensive linchpin Tony Mowbray, pass master Jim Magilton and goal kings David Johnson and Marcus Stewart - have rightly gone down in the annals of Ipswich history.

And another player at the heart of the club's success that season was full-back Gary Croft.

The former England Under-21 man had already carved a reputation for himself at Grimsby Town and Blackburn Rovers, gracing the Premier League during his time at Ewood Park.

So it was no surprise when former Town boss George Burley swooped to bring Croft, now 46, to the club in September 1999.

His spell there lasted until July 2002 and it proved a highly eventful time in Town's history.

"We had some very good players and competition was fierce," said Croft, reflecting on the promotion season in which he made 21 appearances, scoring on his debut against Manchester City.

"In addition to their quality, several of the boys were also very versatile and you knew that if your performance levels dropped, you'd probably end up missing a game or two.

"You couldn't afford to let your standards slip.

"I certainly respected George (Burley).

"He was good to me and I can't fault him, in that respect.

"As a manager, he was very demanding and had high standards.

"That season was fantastic for the club but it's a crying shame things unravelled after that first year in the Premier League (when the club suffered relegation).

"As for our promotion year, it was amazing and I felt privileged to be part of such a fantastic group.

"They were all excellent characters, in terms of their professionalism and work ethic, and we were very tight-knit.

"Everyone was made to feel a part of the squad and no-one was out of favour.

"For me, it was something completely different as I'd never played in a 3-5-2 formation.

"It worked really well, though.

"We had talent and experience in abundance at the back, great passers in midfield and strikers who always scored goals and looked a threat.

"Across the pitch, we had real quality and it was a very well-rounded team.

"We were very close to securing automatic promotion and had we not gone up via the play-offs, it would have felt very unfair."

Croft, who now works in property and has built his own very successful estate agency in Cleethorpes, emerged as a late substitute in the semi-final play-off first leg, against Bolton Wanderers (a 2-2 draw).

However, he was in from the start for the second game - one of the most extraordinary matches in Ipswich history as they won 5-3 after extra time to secure a 7-5 aggregate success and book their trip to Wembley.

"Jamie Clapham was in top form and nailed on to start at left-back, but the right-back spot was a toss-up between myself and Fabian (Wilnis)," said Croft, who went on to have spells with Wigan, Cardiff and Lincoln after leaving Portman Road.

"Obviously, we were both desperate to play and didn't find out until the morning of the match.

"We were both sweating on it, especially knowing it would be our last chance to play at the old Wembley.

"To get the nod, and be in the team, was a dream come true. Absolutely amazing.

"The scenes before the game and as we came out of the tunnel were spectacular, with the divide of blue and red inside and outside the stadium.

"There was still a job to be done, though, and we knew what we had to do.

"As it turned out, we were worthy winners and the better team on the day.

"In terms of the scoreline, it was tight until the end but we outplayed them and when that fourth and final goal went in there was a sense of absolute elation.

"I remember being completely out of puff at the end. My legs were gone.

"Getting promotion was a huge moment for the club and a massive relief, after so many near misses.

"It was a weight off our shoulders, with people wondering if we were ever going to do it.

"You could feel and sense that pressure among the players, supporters and local media.

"Had we not gone up, players would have moved on. It could have turned the course of Ipswich's history.

"It was definitely one of my best days in football, although I was also fortunate enough to play for Cardiff in a play-off final at the Millennium Stadium.

"That was another amazing experience.

"Cardiff are a huge club and so getting promoted that season - in their city - was iconic for the club.

"When we left the stadium and walked into town, there was blue and white everywhere. It was crazy and we were treated like heroes."

Although injury later hampered him, Croft looks back with huge fondness on his time in East Anglia.

He built firm friendships with the likes of Magilton and Stewart and still owns a property in Ipswich, in the Churchman's building right next to the stadium in Portman Road.

"I had some really good friends in the squad and was particularly close to Marcus and Jim," said Croft, who made his England Under-21 debut against Brazil in 1999. Coincidentally, David Beckham made his bow in the same match.

"I'd played against Marcus the season before, when I was at Cardiff.

"I remember being impressed with his movement that day. He was always going to be a brilliant addition, when he joined Ipswich.

"We still speak regularly and I manage a couple of properties for him.

"Jim and I were really good buddies, too, and he was generally my room-mate.

"We had the same sense of humour and there was always comedy, whenever we were together.

"We're still in regular contact online and he came to see me when I did my coaching badges in Ireland.

"I'll always look back with fondness and still have a penthouse apartment next to Portman Road.

"I was planning to pop down and visit - I need to fix a shower there! - and take in a game, but obviously that's on hold at the moment because of the coronavirus.

"It's a hard time for the club at the moment but I'm sure they'll rise again.

"I'm still involved in football and am a radio summariser covering Grimsby matches.

"I really enjoy it. They're my local club and a club close to my heart, having played there in two spells.

"So I still go to games and love chatting about football, but obviously I've grown a different business away from the game.

"My days as a footballer seem a lifetime ago but I look back on my career with huge satisfaction.

"Despite my injury problems, probably missing something like three years in total, I feel proud of my achievements.

"I played around 450 games and played in the Premier League, with and against some top-quality players. It was a special time in my life."