Ipswich Town: The worst team in the Championship?

Two months and one day since they looked the best team in the Championship, Ipswich Town could now be labelled the worst. Gavin Barber (and his forever increasing menagerie) laments the current decline of the Portman Road club.


Who’s the most interesting footballer of the last 10 years? Crazy-assed one-man-high-jinks-machine Mario Balotelli? High achiever and uber-pro Paul Scholes? Gonzo journalist and occasional Palace midfielder Aki Riihilahti? Maybe. But my vote would go to ex-Ipswich keeper Shane Supple.

You may not have heard of Shane. In fact, he’s not even a footballer any more, at least not in the way that you or I would most readily understand the term. A promising keeper, highly agile and a good decision-maker, who was part of Ipswich’s 2005 FA Youth Cup-winning side, Shane made 34 first team appearances for Town before walking into Roy Keane’s office in August 2009, at the age of just 22, and telling his gaffer that he wanted to quit. He wasn’t demanding a transfer, or a new contract (in fact, he’d recently signed one). He just wanted out.

That’s why Shane Supple is fascinating: someone who left his home country as a teenager to pursue a career in professional football, was good at it and could have forged a career that might conceivably have reached full international heights, just decided that he didn’t want to do it any more. He didn’t like it. He wasn’t enjoying it. So he quit.

Supple, who now plays Gaelic football for St Brigids (recent winners of the Dublin Senior Football Championship, as I’m sure hardly any of you need reminding) may have grown disenchanted with the game but he evidently hasn’t lost all passion for his former club. In response to this impressively forensic assessment of Ipswich’s current woes by Joe Fairs for the TWTD fan site, Shane (now on Twitter as @supersups1) had this to say:

“A brilliant blog and you have hit the nail on the head with most of it. [Marcus] Evans’ money might have saved the club financially but the day he came in a part of ITFC died. The heart was ripped from the club, budgets were cut, the academy suffered most from this. Not only have the quality of youth players coming through dried up but good people and coaches who understood the values of the club lost their jobs.

Now ITFC has its problems geographically in attracting players hence the large wage bill now but I feel they haven’t really looked at the character of a player before signing him and there has been no leader since [Jim] Magilton, [Jason] De Vos and even [Jon] Walters were there, but even then there was no spirit or hunger in the dressing room and for me you can’t go anywhere without them two qualities. Royle had the balance right in the 04/05 season but for a bit of luck would have made the Prem that year.

It’s tough times ahead and a serious overhaul has to happen before things get better. That’s just my opinion though. Great club, fans, facilities but needs the right people running it.”

I won’t attempt here to replicate the detail of Joe’s analysis (it’s very much worth a read, even for non-Ipswich fans, if only for the stats on the declining number of academy players appearing in the first team). However, it was less than two months ago when I was banging the drum like an over-excited majorette on these pages for an apparently resurgent Ipswich. Had Town beaten Crystal Palace on 22nd October, we would have gone second in the table. Instead, seven consecutive defeats later, we find ourselves kept out of the relegation zone by goal difference only. Not so much a case of reality biting as reality taking the form of a frenzied shark attack. By a shark called Hubris. If sharks had names. Which they don’t.

So what on earth is going on? Firstly, the standard disclaimers. This is a crazy division where anyone can beat anyone else (who says the Football League Show isn’t educational?) – so despite everything, it isn’t inconceivable that arch-Pools coupon dodgers Ipswich – only two draws all season – could revert to winning ways and be back in mid-table by the time the drumbeat sounds on the EastEnders Christmas special. And whilst the dramatic nature of the current slump brings a somewhat apocalyptic feel, we’ve had darker, or at least as-dark times before. Administration in 2003. Nonary humiliation at Old Trafford in 1995. Turning a 3-0 lead into a 4-3 defeat at Oxford in 1985, ultimately leading to the relegation of a team which had finished runners-up to Liverpool four years earlier.

Why are things going wrong on the pitch? The previously talismanic Jimmy Bullard now looks way off the pace. A defence briefly shored up by Ibrahima Sonko has been left badly exposed by his absence through injury. The hard-working front pair of Michael Chopra and Jason Scotland are feeding off scraps from a midfield that was playing total football a few weeks ago but now looks more at home on Total Wipeout. But still: if Sonko can get back to full fitness, and if the likes of Lee Martin and Josh Carson can get into any kind of groove, Town should, at the very least, be competitive in this league.

And yet, Shane Supple’s comments and Joe Fairs’s blog strike a chord because it’s hard to avoid the nagging concern that there is something more fundamentally wrong. Paul Jewell has been manager for less than a year. Some fans want to see a change: others are more circumspect. Before Jewell’s appointment in January, Roy Keane had lasted 19 months in the Portman Road dug-out: his predecessor Jim Magilton had been in charge for 3 years, but only 18 months under the ownership of Marcus Evans. As countless other clubs have learnt to their painful cost: if successive managers are failing, then maybe the manager isn’t the problem.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the current run of losses has been the frequency (three times in the last four games) when Ipswich have surrendered leads by conceding two goals in quick succession. Once the equaliser goes in, the goal which condemns Town to defeat quickly follows, with all the depressing inevitability of a grubby paparazzo chasing a hot young celeb. If the side was full of ingenuous young tyros this might be regarded as an allowable weakness, but the current Portman Road vintage is vintage indeed – some call it Dad’s Army, but at least Dad’s Army was funny. This is more like Last of the Summer Wine.

Lack of competence can be forgiven: lack of character less readily so. Is there, as suggested by Shane Supple, something lacking at the heart of the club? By far the most self-pitying, maudlin and depressing exercise for any Ipswich fan at the moment is to make a comparison with local rivals Norwich, so let’s make like a Smiths fan and do exactly that. Paul Lambert’s side are fully deserving of their places in the Premier League and perhaps the most galling thing for Town fans is that they’ve achieved it with much less financial resource than has been made available to Keane and Jewell. Lambert has truly built a team – the number of points that his side have won with late goals is testament to their spirit and determination. Ipswich have a squad which is well capable of arresting the current slump but which successive managers – the charismatic Magilton, the driven Keane, the experienced Jewell – have been unable to mould into anything cohesive.

Norwich’s current upward trajectory began in the third tier: as things stand there is a chance that Ipswich could be on the same launch pad next August. [It’s that shark again. The shark called Hubris. It’s just hubris really. The shark is only confusing matters. Forget the shark]. More likely is that Town will revive sufficiently to ensure another mid-table finish and yet another rebuilding exercise in the summer. All the rhetoric from Jewell, Evans and the chief executive Simon Clegg talks about planning for the long-term, but are wholesale personnel changes on an annual basis the best way to go about that?

Success in the Football League is not like trying to pass the proverbial camel [it’s camels now! It was sharks a minute ago: this is a metaphorical zoologist’s nightmare] through the eye of a needle. It’s possible to have both cash and character: for a well-funded club to build a spirit which strives for something more than the sum of the Bentleys in the car park. QPR arguably proved that last season: Wigan Athletic have done it in the past (you may recall who their manager was when they won promotion to the Premier League).

One of the factors that Shane Supple cited in his decision to quit football in 2009 was that “I got into the first team and I saw that some of the lads didn’t really care whether we won or lost”. If there’s even a hint of that apathy remaining then the vultures [I give up – David Attenborough] look set to circle Portman Road for some while yet.

The Seventy Two
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.

6 Comments

  1. Phil P
    December 7, 2011

    Interesting blog Gav, but my analysis of what has gone wrong is different to yours.

    Your analysis appears to be that lots of things are going wrong on the pitch (Sonko has been injured, Jimmy
    “talisman” Bullard is off-form, we condede late goals, Chopra isn’t hitting the back of the net as regularly
    as we all hoped) and that these problems are somehow symptomatic of a deeper problem, caused by either the
    fact that Marcus Evans is bankrolling the club, or that the direction from the top is somehow wrong.

    It is easy to make these links – things are going wrong on the pitch so it must all be the fault of the
    idiot at the top – but its very hard from the outside to provide any evidence of this.
    Newcastle fans spent some time doing that when under Ashley’s ownership they got relegated
    to the Championship, and then when he appointed Pardew to the hot-seat. He doesn’t look such an idiot now.

    Twice you suggest that it seems that there is something going wrong off the pitch:
    “it’s hard to avoid the nagging concern that there is something more fundamentally wrong”
    “if successive managers are failing, then maybe the manager isn’t the problem.”
    but never is it really clear HOW things are going wrong off the pitch.

    The main bone of contention for you (and Shane Supple) is that the talent pool from our fabled Youth
    Team is drying up. I see little evidence of this. Liam Trotter is doing a very good job for Millwall,
    and Connor Wickham was (sadly) just too good for us. If he’d been marginally less promising I suspect
    we would have built our side around him this season. We did last season. With him in the side things
    would look different. Our first team has also looked youth-team-graduate-light because Tom Eastman declined
    a contract, Josh Carson took a while getting his head round the fact that people were talking about him,
    Joe Whight is being held back because he is battling for a place with one of our few stars of the season
    and Tommy Smith seems to have gone backwards, having looked a good player for a while.

    I see no evidence that our academy is proving any less successful now than it has in the recent past. If
    any criticisms are to be made it is that the manager’s have been unable to turn promising youngsters
    into first team regulars. The lack of a decent reserve league probably plays a big part here.

    Your quotes from Shane Supple suggest two things to me. Firstly he states that the academy budget is reduced
    and that we have fewer coaches (and maybe scholars – I don’t know) than we used to. This may be true, and if
    so is concerning. Secondly, he also is saddened that some coaches have left, but I’m much less concerned by this.
    Our U18 coach is now Russell Osman. You can’t tell me that somehow Evans has ripped the heart out
    of the club by appointing him. When people leave companies they often comment (I have done) that all the
    good people seem to be leaving the company. This is (partly) because they are aware of the leaders, and know
    that the company would be weakened without them – but aren’t in a position to effectively judge their
    replacements. I hope that Supple’s comments are said from a similar background.

    So what has gone wrong? Mainly it is the way our managers have performed. It seems that for about the
    last 5 years we have taken a step back from the preceeding one. We gradually are moving backwards.

    Why? Is it pressure from the top demanding success? It doesn’t seem so. All the noises we hear are that
    we are looking to compete in the upper half of the division, but we don’t expect promotion this year,
    this is a long term goal. This is what we’ve heard from Evans since the day he walked in.

    I’m sure there is pressure from the top of the club (or ‘ambition’ to use a more positive word) but
    there always has been. Sheepshanks used to talk of continual improvement, and it just seemed to happen.
    Most of this was down to the alchemy Burley was able to perform despite having to constantly sell
    his best players.

    There really appears to be no different amount of pressure from the board now than there was in those days.

    No, I think that the weaknesses we have in our squad, and in our club, come from our managers. If our
    team is lacking in on-pitch leaders as Supple suggests (probably rightly) then that is not Evans’ fault,
    but instead that of the managers who haven’t bought replacements adequately. If our squad lacks pace
    (which is does) and youth (which it definitely does) then again this must be the fault of the manager.
    It can’t be the case that Jewell goes into the boardroom looking to buy a 22 year old from Brentford
    only to be told he can only get a 34 year old from Hull.

    One disappointing (but predictable) feature of the turnover in managers is the disruption is causes
    to our scouting system. Under Magilton we appointed a full-time foreign scout (Hunt?), who was largely
    responsible for us signing the unfortunate Civelli. Keane dismissed him, preferring to scout players himself.
    Jewell has arrived and decided to recruit 3 further scouts to scour the lower leagues looking for ‘gems’.

    One get the impression that if any one of these manager were able to stabilise the club on the pitch,
    and gradually get things moving in the short term, then their long-term plans to rebuild the squad
    would have a chance. Sadly none so far have proved capable of this.

    Finally one thing in our club has changed – and that is the fans. We now have a wealthy owner, and
    a large payroll. Expectations are high, and the mood on the terraces has changed. There is now a degree
    of restlessness, first evident when – hugely unusually for a club, but mirrored now at Blackburn – a
    significant minority of the fans turned on Magilton, only for the owner to dig his heels in and back
    him. Oh for Magilton’s underachiement now!

    The fans are also quite capable of, one the one hand, demanding young players from the Youth team
    play ahead of “aging journeymen” but then turning on those young players while they grown into the
    team. The hounding of Tom Eastman while he was being played out of position at right back was scandalous.

    No. When fans complain that the club has changed, I think that part of the club has changed, but it
    is the part that comes through the gates and cheers when we win only to boo when we lose that is new. Not
    the fact that our owner is now able to put his own money in to the club.

    Reply
    • Gavin Barber
      December 8, 2011

      Fine points Phil, worthy of a blog on their own.

      You’re right that I haven’t made any attempt to say what or how is going wrong off the pitch (or, more specifically, in the leadership of the club). That’s because I don’t know. I know that, as a supporter, the club feels like a different place to visit on a Saturday afternoon from what it felt like in the pre-Evans era. I can’t really put my finger on what’s changed, but something has. Nick Ames described it well in his excellent blog about Roy Keane’s departure (http://lastseatontheplane.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/roy-keanes-7-5-million-fatal-flaws/ – penultimate paragraph).

      I completely take your point that some of this change in atmosphere is attributable to a change in the attitudes/level of expectations amongst supporters. That is probably an inevitable consequence of being a moneyed club, and tells us more about the times we live in than anything specific about ITFC, but still – it’s a shame.

      I’m not blaming Marcus Evans for Jimmy Bullard’s loss of form. But, just like the staff of any organisation (large or small) respond either positively or negatively to the leadership shown by those at the top, I remain convinced that the ethos of the club – as embodied by the owner & CEO – influence the approach of the operational staff (that’s the players btw). Living in Oxford I observed Firoz Kassam’s mostly-disastrous tenure as OUFC chairman at close quarters. The most striking thing about it was that Kassam appeared to have no understanding of the importance of team dynamics. For him, “performance” equalled efficiency – something that could be measured on a balance sheet, and he didn’t see a link between his club’s fairly disdainful treatment of its players and their (lack of) commitment on the pitch.

      I’m not, I hasten to add, directly comparing Evans to Kassam, and I doubt that the value of most ITFC players’ contracts would justify the term “disdainful treatment”. But still. Pre-Evans, there was a sense that a player, whether brought through from the academy or bought from another club, was treated more like a colleague and less like a commodity. I’ve no evidence for that other than my own instincts and Shane Supple’s comments. But – in the main – performances over recent years haven’t indicated the sort of never-say-die I’ll-put-my-body-on-the-line-for-this-team mindset that we have seen in previous years (under Burley and Royle), and can currently be witnessed up the A140.

      Managers. Yes, indeed, they must be accountable for their own failings and mistakes. My concern, however, is the basis on which they are being asked to operate. The rhetoric from Evans/Clegg (Clevans?) is, as you say, always about building for the long-term, but the massive (for us) recent turnover of managers (and don’t rule out the possibility of Jewell not reaching his first anniversary as Town boss if things don’t improve btw) and playing staff, suggests otherwise. Of course you are right – if things could be stabilised in the short term then it would be easier to build for the long term. I just wonder if that long-termism is really being communicated to the managers and players who are being asked to deliver it or whether it’s a bit of PR. Yes, that is a bit cynical of me. But in the context of the sustained mediocrity of the Evans era, it’s difficult not to be.

      Or, to put it another way – if successive managers are failing (and at the time of writing that seems to be the case), are we appointing bad managers, or appointing good managers but not giving them the support they need to manage well? I do get the sense that expectations/pressure from the top of the club are different now from the Sheepshanks era. That partly comes from conversations that I’ve had with people who used to occupy elevated positions in the ITFC hierarchy, and of course their comments as ex-employees must be taken with the same pinch of salt that you rightly apply to Shane Supple’s.

      The academy. Quite right to pick up on the lack of a reserve league. That has certainly held back the progress of players like Troy Brown and Ronan Murray who could easily have been first-team players by now if they’d had more opportunity to develop in the reserves.

      As I said, I don’t hold Marcus Evans or Simon Clegg responsible for Carlos Edwards’ chaotic defending or Tamas Priskin’s crap shooting. My point, if I have one, is that the Evans years have been characteristed by poor performances and a lack of character on the pitch. Maybe you are right that this is coincidental or circumstantial. But it does need to be addressed if pride is to be restored in the club. If it can’t be addressed on the pitch then it needs to be addressed by the manager. If it can’t be addressed by the manager then the management situation needs to be addressed by the owner & CEO. Consistent failures by all of those parties are what’s shaken my faith in the running of the club.

      Finally I must ask if you will be in the Greyhound before the Derby County game on December 17th because it would be good to discuss this over a pint of Explorer.

      Reply
  2. Dave Harrison
    December 8, 2011

    First of, I’d like to say this is an excellent blog and also a great follow up by Phil.

    Something I know you have both touched on is the lack of a meaningful reserve league. Whilst the previous arrangement was inadequate, so it seems is playing ad hoc friendlies. Let’s not forget that Darren Bent scored over 30 goals in a season for the reserves before he given a chance in the 1st team. Whilst using loaning players out to gain in experience, there are two problems with this. As we have seen, what happens to a player like Hyam who was unable to secure a loan deal? His development will be stifled. Secondly, even if a player does go on loan, there is no guarantee he will play, as Shane Supple himself experienced.

    Secondly following today’s article in the local paper, it could be argued the current management of the club, and by that I mean Clegg, Evans and to a lesser extent in this instance Jewell it could be argued the club are not taking the Academy seriously and are not looking at the bigger picture. Obviously, the club are not going to produce a Bent, Bramble or Wickham (who, lets be honest fell into our lap due to his father’s situation) every year, but players like Matt Richards and Ian Westlake both played over 100 games for the club.

    I sincerely hope I am wrong but I personally feel that Clegg & Evans are only interested in the short to medium term, and The Academy could be sacrificed for the ‘holy grail’ of promotion. The extra investment required would be the equivalent of less than Lee Bowyer’s wage, or Tamas Priskin’s transfer fee for example. In the article Simon Clegg is quoted as saying

    “But realistically, how many parents from just outside Newcastle are going to let someone under the age of 15 relocate down to Ipswich? Most people who have young teenagers, in an ideal world, will want them to grow up at home and continue their footballing skills within the normal family environment.”

    Club legends such as Beattie, Osman and Naylor all moved down at young ages from outside the 90min rule. And I know the club will still be allowed to get players from other FAs so it wouldn’t affect Scottish and Irish players, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Wark and Burley also made the decision to move to Ipswich due to out Academy system. Surely this is more reason to invest, if we have the best academy, with the best coaches (who will surely all want to work with a Tier 1 system) then the promising players will choose to move to Ipswich.

    Ipswich is at a disadvantage in terms of location, drawing a circle of 90 minutes around the town and obviously a large part of that is the sea. so being able to ‘poach’ players nationally would help balance this out.

    Dave Harrison

    Reply
    • Gavin Barber
      December 9, 2011

      Belated thanks for your comments Dave. Following Clegg’s comments today, the Academy could become a defining issue in the relationship between ITFC and its fans. I just hope the management is prepared to listen to supporters on this one.

      Reply
  3. Fat Nakago
    December 16, 2011

    Barnsley 3 Ipswich Town 5

    So….what do you lads make of THAT?? I wonder what Paul Jewell told them at halftime. I mean, the team that marched up the tunnel for the 2nd half was a totally different team from the one that slunk down the tunnel at halftime.

    I’m a Norwich City fan, mind you, but I made yer match with Barnsley the lead story on my blog last week: El Clásico

    Since we don’t have to y’all anymore, I hope y’all get yer Minneapolis-Moline tractors fired up and plow yer way back up the table. Whatever Paul Jewell said…he better say it again, just for good measure.

    On the ball, Tractor Boys…on the ball. =D

    Reply
  4. Desperate Scouse Jibes: Poor Public Relations at Portman Road » The Seventy Two
    January 13, 2012

    […] – won’t come close to solving the deeper-rooted problems at Ipswich, which have been discussed at punishing length on these pages and elsewhere. What Fearn-gate has proved to an increasingly large number of Town fans is that […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

MENU