Clegg on your face: The words of a clown at Ipswich Town

For many clubs, it’s time to push on towards security – securing that play-off place, securing that place in a division for another season. For those, like Ipswich Town fan Gavin Barber, safely in mid-table without fear up of heading up or down after the final ball is kicked, talk starts to turn to whether you are willing to go through it all again for twelve more months…


“What is a club anyway? It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city” – Sir Bobby Robson

Oh look – the season ticket renewal brochure has arrived! For a club like Ipswich, all too depressingly accustomed to another year of grinding underachievement, it must be an annual challenge for the marketing department to come up with new incentives to tempt a jaded supporter base back for another year: or at least to find a new way of saying “look, we know it’s been crap, again, but please come back next season, please, please, it’ll be better, honest…”

As it happens, the timing could be worse for Ipswich. Town are on an enjoyable if unfamiliar run of good form at Portman Road – five consecutive home wins at the time of writing. But attendances are way down on hoped-for figures: only twice this season has the 20,000 barrier been broken. The current run is nice, but it will take something more sustained than that to bring back those who’ve become disaffected by years of mediocrity. So what have the club come up with?

A price freeze – that’s good. A 12-month interest free payment plan – also good, and a welcome response to supporters’ requests, as is the introduction of a new under-20 price category in the North Stand lower tier. A 50% rebate if Town are promoted next season (stop sniggering at the back). Online renewals! How very 21st century.

So far, so good. It is, overall, a fairly decent and affordable package, as these things go. But enough of the numbers – what stirring words are within the pages of the brochure, to rally the faithful? What motivational bon mots are here to convince the doubtful West Stander that next season – next season, definitely – will see the glory days return to Portman Road? What is there to tug at the heartstrings, touch the soul and convince the wavering fan to trust hope over experience and tick that box that says “renew”?

Look no further than page 2 where Chief Executive Simon Clegg lays the sentimentality on with a trowel:

“It’s important, towards us standing on our own two feet, that we optimise future opportunities and minimise risk”

Sorry Simon, run that past me again?

“Optimise future opportunities and minimise risk”

Right, well. That should get the missing thousands flooding back through the turnstiles shouldn’t it? Picture the scene at breakfast tables across East Anglia. “Hey!” yells Mr or Mrs Undecided Season Ticket Renewer to their partner, spluttering cornflakes everywhere, “have you seen this? I wasn’t going to get a season ticket for Portman Road this year, what with the football having been so crap and everything, but now I know they’re optimising future opportunities and minimising risk, I’m getting my incentivised ass down that ticket office before you can say ‘benefits realisation plan’.”

The game, as Danny Blanchflower famously observed, is about glory – doing things in style. Many of those who receive these brochures grew up watching Bobby Robson’s Ipswich. There are some whose memories stretch as far back as Alf Ramsey: a larger proportion fondly recall the good times under George Burley. We keep coming back because we cling to the hope that we might start to see something – even just a spark – to suggest that Portman Road could feel that exciting again. We bring our kids because we can just about convince them that Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’s skills and Michael Chopra’s goals are exciting enough to make the more mundane bits worthwhile – and because we don’t want them to miss out if the glory days do return.

It’s too easy to romanticise the past, of course. Ipswich’s decades under the stewardship of the Cobbold family are spoken about in reverential terms, but it was Patrick Cobbold who sanctioned the redevelopment of the West Stand in the early 80s, a financial miscalculation which forced the break-up of the team that Robson had built. Another former chairman, David Sheepshanks, was well-regarded for being a genuine fan but was in charge when the club went into administration in 2003.

Clegg’s message to the 2012 generation is designed to tell a story of financial responsibility. I get that. I get that it’s important and I get that these conversations have to happen in the boardroom. What I find depressing is the idea that anyone at the club would think that words like “optimise” could help to sell season tickets: that any kind of management-speak could re-kindle the dying embers of emotional connection between club and fans.

The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein once made the mistake of suggesting, whilst in the studio with the band, that the track they were recording should be played a different way. “You stick to your percentages, Brian”, came John Lennon’s withering retort, “we’ll look after the music”. When Clegg tries to talk about the experience of being an Ipswich Town supporter, it’s similarly hard to avoid the sense of irritation that comes with hearing someone stray out of their own field of expertise and stumble into yours.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to deconstruct a single phrase from the brochure and extrapolate all this stuff. Perhaps I’m making too much fuss – perhaps I’m just out of touch. For all I know, the kids in the crucial 18-25 demographic may lap this stuff up (I somehow doubt that though). But I have a nagging worry that this is symptomatic of the current Ipswich administration’s failure to engage with supporters.

It isn’t the first time that Clegg has come across as high-handed and patronising in his communication with fans. I’m sure he means well – he just doesn’t quite get it. He doesn’t get that many of us hear phrases like “optimise opportunities and minimise risk” at work all week, and go to football for the specific purpose of forgetting about all of that. He doesn’t get that, after seeing a game abandoned due to a frozen pitch, supporters want to hear something more empathetic than having the club’s refund policy barked out over the BBC Suffolk airwaves. (In that instance, a good offer was eventually made on ticket prices for the rearranged game, but by then the PR damage had been done).

Fundamentally, he doesn’t have an instinctive understanding of the relationship between fans and their club. He’s learning about it, steadily, but there’s an extent to which this echoes Louis Armstrong’s famous response to the question “what is jazz?”: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t ever gonna know”. Either you get it, or you don’t.

Apart from being able to quote Bill Hicks on the subject, I am a very, very, very long way from being any kind of marketing expert. But I’d be willing to bet 3 or 4 instalments of my 12-month interest-free season ticket payment plan on the fact that Simon Clegg’s words won’t have been decisive in persuading anyone to sign up for another nine months riding the Portman Road rollercoaster*.

Here’s a tip that you can have for free, Simon. When this all comes around again next season, give your page in the brochure over to a picture of Bobby Robson and the text of the quote at the top of this article. It will speak to fans in ways that, with the best will in the world, you can’t. As Sir Bob himself might have said, just keep it simple. It is, after all, a simple game. You stick to your optimising Simon – we’ll look after the football.


*NB may not actually resemble a rollercoaster. Can sometimes just be more like a fairly slow roundabout. Or a badly-laid out Crazy Golf course.

The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.

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6 Comments on "Clegg on your face: The words of a clown at Ipswich Town"

  1. Chris Rand says:

    Chapeau, Sir. You wonder if other clubs have senior management like this, and you realise that of course they do: at least, the “big clubs” at the top of the Premier League, anyway. Something which Ipswich Town most certainly are not. And then you wonder why such a high-profile appointment as CEO was made in the first place, and you realise that it was a starry-eyed new owner putting in the preparation for the club’s instant transformation into one of the country’s big clubs. Gotta have the right people in place, you see. You wonder if he only appointed Roy Keane and Simon Clegg because Sven and Sir Clive were already taken.

  2. jim savage says:

    Agreed – pathetic

  3. Josh Tarrant says:

    It is sometimes a bit painful to see how much those ‘higher ups’ are out of touch with the ‘common man’!
    I know we are now in a day and age where football clubs are as businesses – and that business men run them – but it sure as hell shouldnt mean that the business men should speak to me as a business men. Show some passion, you want me to plump down 500 quid for a season ticket – sell it to me. Show me that you believe in this club as much as I do.

  4. Gavin Barber says:

    Thanks Chris. Don’t rule out Sven and Sir Clive arriving one day ;o)

    Josh – spot on. That shared sense of believe is exactly what’s lacking.

  5. Alex says:

    Just wait until your season ticket prices have doubled and you get that kind of patronising rubbish like Premier League also-rans do :(

  6. Adam says:

    Since this was written Clegg has been given the role of looking after the running kit for Guam in the olympics and carrying the olympic torch in Keswick, Cumbria, which speaks for itself really.

    The thing about football is that it is paradoxical – while sound business practice ensures that the club maintains itself, the passion of the people it represents demands elements of risk taking that are not sound business practice [transfer spending, borrowing, debt]. The days when clubs was maintained by sporting local chairman are, sadly, gone, and now clubs are corporate enterprises maintained largely by the wealth of those remote to the game [Marcus Evans]. With this comes the corporate speak of people like Clegg, who is a business man, not a football man.

    Unfortunately the sentimental footballist in me is sickened by corporate speak in an an arena of life that, to my mind, should be free of the kind of twaddle most of us hear day in day out at work. It should instead be full of love for the game [Sir Bobby] and desire for the club’s success from those who love the club, not the business. But the hard reality is that Marcus Evans money sustains the club, and they are a corporate enterprise praying that their punt of making a mint by getting to the promised land of the Premier League pays off. Without Marcus Evans where would the club be? Portsmouth?

    And there it is – the dilemma that I believe will last for the rest of my lifetime: I hate Marcus Evans and what his ownership represents, but in the now corporate world of football, where would the club be without his money?

    I renewed my season ticket for the 9th season running before the April offer dead-line. I continue to dream.

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