Ipswich Town are on the Up if the Boardroom will Let them
Few Championship teams will have endured a more curious season than Ipswich Town. Down among the dead men when Paul Jewell departed Portman Road in the autumn, the Tractor Boys embarked on a notable run under Mick McCarthy and ended up squarely in mid table. Here, TTU regular Gavin Barber and Susan Gardiner, purveyor of history blog, Those Who Will Not be Drowned, chew the fat over the Suffolk club’s recent fortunes.
Gavin: Mick McCarthy is arguably the Championship’s manager of the season. I’m sure Malky Mackay will get the actual award, and no-one can say he doesn’t deserve it for winning the League, but in terms of the value and scale of one manager’s achievements, we could make a strong case for Mick’s being the greatest. The facts have been often-quoted but bear repetition: when Mick took over on November 1st, we had 7 points from 13 games and were not only bottom of the league, but were 4 points off 23rd place, never mind safety. What’s more we had a team which appeared disinterested, disjointed and hopeless. To end the season in 14th place, 6 points from the bottom three and with the luxury of a game to spare, was an astonishing turnaround.
Susan: I agree that MM’s impact is little short of remarkable. For an outside observer, it would still be impressive – just looking at the facts that you’ve quoted there – he made such a difference. I think that I only expected some kind of damage limitation when he was appointed, that he might save us from an inexorable downward trajectory, but – even though there were a few bad defeats in his early days – it wasn’t just the fact that we won more games or accrued more points, or no longer looked nailed on for relegation. The real difference that Mick seems to have made is in relation to your description of the team under Jewell: ‘disinterested, disjointed and hopeless.’ They were – and after MM arrived, it changed.
Gavin: There was instantly a different, more professional feel to the team under MM, even when we didn’t win. And in that context it’s difficult to determine the extent to which Mick is, in fact, the magician he claims not to be, and the extent to which his predecessor was some kind of reverse-alchemist who could weave straw out of any gold he might potentially have had at his disposal. From the position of relative comfort in which we ended the season, it’s easy to forget (and yet, in other ways, all too painfully easy to remember) just what a shockingly dispiriting experience it had become to watch Ipswich Town under Paul Jewell. By the end, it was frankly embarrassing.
Susan: It was certainly embarrassing. I think it was even worse than that though. I may have reached my lowest ebb as a Town supporter at that time. Even after several seasons of low points – under Royle and Keane too, it should be remembered (less so, for me at least, when Magilton was manager) – I would find it difficult to find any positives about Jewell’s tenure. Even the victories seemed to be snatched from the jaws of defeat.
My lowest point was Jewell’s last game at Portman Road against Derby County. I’m rarely angry at football matches – despondent, frustrated, upset, all of those things, but not angry usually – but that was something else. Seeing him slumped on the bench, unable or unwilling to stand up and try to save his own career but more importantly MY football club, infuriated me. It didn’t help that I have a good view of the bench from where I sit. He was by that time an unprepossessing, indolent figure, a man who was appointed to improve the fortunes of Ipswich Town but who didn’t appear to be particularly interested. Perhaps that’s harsh, but he didn’t seem to have a clue and that cluelessness and apathy went on to permeate the entire team by the end. Of course, MM’s impact is always going to seem all the better in contrast, but the shadows of Jewell’s failings throw light on Mick’s qualities as a manager.
Gavin: There were some Ipswich fans who seemed to take the view that Jewell was a decent bloke who’d endured some bad luck. I never could see that myself. To me, he was always someone who seemed to display a complacent sort of contempt for Town fans: never more than in his oft-repeated promises — empty promises, as it turned out — to take a long-term approach to building a team. Either through lack of confidence in his own ability, or sheer blind panic, or some other factor, he could never see beyond the knee-jerk reaction.
By the time he left there were nine (NINE) loan or short-term signings in the ITFC squad. That seemed to me to be symptomatic not only of a manager who had lost any semblance of control over what he was supposed to be doing, but of a club that had no discernible plan or strategy for getting itself out of the mire that it had sunk steadily into since Marcus Evans’s takeover in late 2007.
Susan: It would be easy to see Jewell as an aberration, a poor appointment made by Evans (or his CEO, Simon Clegg), a mistake. He was certainly the wrong fit for a club like ITFC, far more so than Keane, in my opinion. Apart from the decline on the pitch, he made a couple of relatively trivial statements to the local media which brought home to me how wrong he was for Town. There were some remarks about an Academy Player of the Year, Gunnar Thorsteinsson. I realise he was trying to be funny, but I found it depressing that he could be so crass about a young player. The second was when he made an ill-judged statement about ‘the Ipswich Way’. I’m not a massive believer in it myself but the whole tenor of what he was reported to have said in that article demonstrates how little he understood the club and its supporters. And I do wonder whether that’s because Marcus Evans doesn’t really get it either.
The whole issue of short-termism and the number of players brought in on loan was key to our decline, I think. We had 42 (?) different players in the first team over the last season and 23 made their debut, many of them on loan. It was a strategy that was quite obviously going to result in failure. There were times when I genuinely struggled to recognise some players out on the pitch, something that I haven’t experienced before. I used to feel I almost knew Marcus Stewart and Jim Magilton personally (not that I ever met them). It would be good to be able to feel that way again.
Gavin: Again, it’s instructive to look at the simple changes Mick McCarthy has made — a settled side playing a settled formation, and, crucially, players made better by good coaching — to illustrate how dramatically the club had lost its way previously. And it’s quite right to highlight the role of Evans and Clegg in contributing to that. There seemed no basis — whether commercial or sporting — for the way that ageing players were being recruited to the club, at considerable cost, and then released ‘by mutual consent’ a short while later.
It didn’t help that Evans refused to face the supporters directly — and still doesn’t. That lack of visibility remains an issue, for me, even though performances have improved. The odd bizarrely-worded set of programme notes aside, Evans’s refusal to engage with the supporters who represent the very essence of the club that he owns seems to me to be an abdication of responsibility. If it were one of his other companies that was, for want of a better phrase, pissing money up the wall by spending it on expensive recruits who ended up failing so spectacularly that they had to be paid yet more money to go away, surely shareholders would get to ask some questions about it? But as stakeholders in ITFC, supporters were constantly given the message — particularly by Clegg, prior to his departure — that we should shut up and let the people who understand ‘the business’ get on with running it.
Susan: Which would be ironic, if ‘the business’ is football, as neither Clegg nor Evans appear to understand football particularly well. If the business is ‘business’, questions would still have to be asked. The arrivals (and subsequent departures) of the players you refer to being examples of bad business decisions as well as bad football decisions. Of course, the lack of openness makes it difficult to ask pertinent questions about those transfer deals and many other aspects of how the club is being run.
When Evans came in in 2007, I was generally more sympathetic than most, I think, about his anonymity. I believed it was because he was a reclusive individual who wanted to protect his (and his family’s) privacy. I’ve come around to your view though. His desire for anonymity has been a problem and remains one. Combined with the lack of transparency about the club’s finances, it generates mistrust and I find it difficult to understand what Evans wants from our club. There may be a simple and perfectly benign explanation, but until that explanation is forthcoming – and backed up by something more than PR – I’ll always have doubts.
Clegg’s replacements – Symonds & Milne – are definitely better at communication, but I still don’t have the feeling that they are anything more than placemen. They don’t strike me as football people. They’re just there to do a job for Evans.
Gavin: Evans wouldn’t be the first successful businessman to find that whatever rules he applied to achieve success in his other commercial ventures don’t necessarily succeed when it comes to running a football club. Though I agree that it’s difficult to see any ‘business’ justification for spending vast amounts of money on players whose reliability would have been brought into question by a simple Google search, never mind anything more sophisticated than that. Jimmy Bullard is the obvious example but equally there’s the question of Michael Chopra, still with a year to run on his contract, yet someone who Mick is now seeking to offload, presumably at substantial loss to the club. Whilst it’s sometimes too easy to romanticise the past, and view some of the misdemeanours that Bobby Robson had to deal with as the antics of lovable rogues, there have been a steady stream of what might euphemistically be described as ‘off-field distractions’ in recent years which have helped neither the reputation of the club or, more importantly, the team’s performances on the field.
This might all seem rather negative, in the context of a team which has shown play-off form since November 1st, but it’s important because, again, it puts Mick McCarthy’s achievements in context. What he inherited wasn’t just a failing team, but a club that seemed dysfunctional in all areas. The dismissal of Simon Clegg was another positive step in making Ipswich Town feel like a football club again, rather than a soulless commercial entity. I share your scepticism about Milne and Symonds but they do appear to at least acknowledge the value of meaningful communication with supporters, which is a start.
Clegg, incidentally, is now Chairman of GB Badminton, which is interesting because, from certain angles, his head looks a bit like a giant shuttlecock.
Susan: I’m prepared to give Symonds & Milne the time, certainly. It’s easier to understand what their role is at least. I never could quite see what Clegg’s was. Evans’ representative on earth, perhaps.
I’m sure we are romanticising the past when it comes to players’ misdemeanours and I’ve yet to hear about any recent players celebrating a Town defeat with champagne (imaginary or real) as Billy Baxter & Co. were supposed to have done when Robson first arrived, but what concerns us is the present. Would we accept the ‘problem’ players if they had been more successful on the pitch? Probably. Perhaps it’s the nature of the contemporary footballer, but there does seem to have been a depressing number of Town players hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons. I’d like to think that’s going to change now as MM imposes his personality on the squad. It strikes me that they’re a happier unit already, more cohesive on and off the pitch and, hopefully, the dysfunctional aspects – which undoubtedly existed – will be removed or resolved.
Gavin: I think you are exactly right that we’d be more forgiving of players’ off-field antics if they were successful on the field. Sometimes it’s possible to separate the two, but under Jewell I think it had got to a stage when it was difficult to separate cause and effect: there appeared to be such a complete lack of anything resembling professional discipline that it was hard to see how the team could become any kind of unit. Mick’s significant influence has been to bring unity to the squad, and a collective sense of purpose: one of the most encouraging things that I heard last season was when he talked about Frank Nouble as a player that he felt he and his coaching staff could improve. I’ll be honest, Nouble was a player who’d never impressed me in the past when he’d played against Ipswich, but there’s clearly something that Mick thinks he can work with, and that sends out a great message to the rest of the squad. The fact that the limited-but-improving Nouble was keeping the expensive-but-frustrating Chopra out of the side at the end of the season indicates an approach which I think the Portman Road crowd will continue to appreciate.
And that brings us on to next season. Against all my better judgements, I am feeling optimistic. McCarthy has already shown himself to be a shrewd judge in the transfer market, and if he can accept the limited budget which he’s being asked to work with, and if players such as David McGoldrick, Anthony Wordsworth and Cole Skuse can settle into the squad alongside home-grown talents like Luke Hyam and Tommy Smith, we might even dare to dream about the top six. At the time of writing I’ve just watched Crystal Palace’s play-off victory at Brighton, which was yet another example of how ridiculously tight this division is. Palace, for all their occasional flair, are basically a very limited side (indeed, a team that lost 3-0 at Portman Road just a few weeks ago) who are now 90 minutes away from the Premier League. In that context I don’t think it’s outlandish to think that we might, just might, spend more of next season looking ambitiously up towards the top of the table than nervously down towards the bottom.
Susan: I’m still unconvinced about Nouble, to be honest, although he looked far better during that 3-0 win against Palace when he appeared to gain a great deal of confidence from scoring his first goal. I’m prepared to give him time, he’s still very young and I think the worst thing Town might do is to continue on the reckless road to fast promotion. If we’re building a side, we can give players like Nouble and Hyam plenty of time to develop and improve. I think – I hope – that will be MM’s approach.
I presume Skuse is coming in as a replacement for N’Daw, which is fine. I’m pleased N’Daw isn’t staying. That’s for football reasons. If Skuse plays alongside Hyam we’re still lacking creativity in midfield, but I’m looking forward to seeing more of Wordsworth, who impressed before he was injured. I’m not sure what the situation with Stearman is. He’d be my top target for a permanent deal – but, for the first time in ages, I trust the manager to get it right!
I agree that if we can build on this current, quite young side we could do surprisingly well. Of course, I’d be thrilled with a top 6 finish next season, but I wouldn’t want a good start to the season to turn into pressure to push too hard for promotion. We must give the manager time. That’s what Ipswich Town always did in the successful years. One of the most positive things about MM coming here is that I don’t think he’s the sort of person who will allow the pressure to get to him or affect his decision-making. That has got to be good for Ipswich Town in the long term.
Gavin: Yes, a central midfield of Hyam and Skuse isn’t exactly Xavi and Iniesta, but it shows that MM has a plan in mind when building his team, and I agree it’s a step up from N’Daw – not to mention the fact that Skuse is on a three-year contract rather than being a loanee. Plus, Hyam and Skuse sounds like it might have been the name of a DJ/production duo from the early days of hip-hop.
I agree that giving MM time is a key to future success. He’s already shown that he can make progress and can attract players to the club who respect him and his methods. I’d be more than happy with any sign of upward progression this season, though I agree we shouldn’t expect too much too soon. It makes a pleasant change to be discussing a manager in whom we trust the long-term future of the club.