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.