The Two Unfortunates Health Checks: Ipswich Town
It may surprise people when I say that I haven’t felt so positive about my football club since the Millennium. Ipswich Town are bottom of the Championship and heading for third tier football for the first time since we squeaked past Torquay to win promotion to the old Division 2 in 1957. So you could be forgiven for metaphorically taking my temperature and suggesting that I go for a “little lie down.” I’m far from the only Ipswich fan who feels this way, so I’ll try to explain.
Everything changed when we were relegated from the Premier League in 2002 and subsequently went into administration. A new owner, Marcus Evans, took over in 2007. To this day, many supporters are grateful to him for saving us from going out of business altogether. In many ways I share the vision that he has for the club. It shouldn’t be necessary to simply chuck money into the transfer market and acquire big name players to succeed. Money doesn’t automatically buy success anyway, ask any Derby County fan. Far better to develop the youth system, scout for talent in the lower leagues, slowly build a team that plays good, competitive football. The trouble is, that may have been the plan, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, manager after manager spent unwisely and brought in talented players who were past their sell-by date (Lee Bowyer, Nathan Ellington, Jimmy Bullard, Michael Chopra, the list is long) and relied on too many loan players. We’ve been stuck in the middle of the Championship for seventeen long seasons, longer than any other club.
How did we get to this point? How has a club that everyone liked, the friendly club of “good people, good beer and good football” that commentator Pat Murphy described in 2000, morphed into a basket case whose manager felt able to publicly abuse its supporters, whose reputation is now one of being a walkover, for playing dour, rubbish football and which will almost certainly be playing in League 1 next season?
The Past Five Years
Mick McCarthy took over from the deeply unpopular Paul Jewell halfway through 2013/14 and kept us up. We ended that season in 14th place and many people were grateful to him for “saving” us from relegation. Personally, I felt that any half-decent manager could have achieved that and it soon became apparent that McCarthy’s team was not going to involve playing attractive passing football. His personal style quickly changed from “honest and forthright” to “abrasive and insulting.”
While the manager was new, the owner stayed the same and so did his approach to funding the club. Stung by the profligacy of previous managers, Evans clung limpet-like to a policy of asking his manager to acquire money for new players by selling or loaning out current ones. This was the law of diminishing returns. We had few players who could command high fees and when we did a good deal – £3,750,000 from West Ham for Aaron Cresswell in July 2014 and approximately £8m for Tyrone Mings – the transfer budget saw little of the money. Worse, those players were never adequately replaced. This wasn’t McCarthy’s policy. It preceded him and continues to this day. Critics might say that he was happy to go along with it though and, although his first few seasons were relatively successful – 14th, 9th and 6th and 7th place – the writing was on the wall. We’ve felt like a club in decline for a long time. Sometimes it has physically manifested itself. When we look around our ground, it has grown shabbier, there are holes in the fabric, trees growing out of the roof. Things aren’t fixed or cleaned up for years. The metaphors are obvious.
Also disastrous has been the loss of some of our most promising academy players. Jack Marriott is a case in point. Part of our academy since 2009, he went out on loan six times. Then, he made one full appearance for the first team before going to Luton on a free in 2015. Yes, there were rumours of personality issues and lack of fitness, but it would be hard to argue that it was a good piece of business. He’s now playing for Derby. You’ll still hear Town fans saying he wasn’t good enough for us, but – given our respective places in the Championship – perhaps we could have done with him, or one of the many other players we’ve let go over the past few years. As a club, we’ve allowed players’ contracts to run down, time and time again. We have a highly-respected academy and some superb youth coaches. Talented players come through as regularly as clockwork. Letting young players go for nothing, or very little, means the investment is wasted.
It’s not always the club’s fault. We never even saw Ben Knight play before he was hoovered up by Manchester City for £1m last year. As one local newspaper put it: “Ipswich could potentially have played hardball over the valuation of Knight but would have then risked the move going to a tribunal, where they would almost certainly have received a lower figure. Ultimately the Elite Player Performance Plan system means they were powerless to stop him moving on.” There continue to be examples of this. Only this week Town finally agreed compensation from Arsenal for the loss of 15-year-old Marcelo Flores last summer.
Then there was the football. Even when we won with McCarthy’s teams, it often felt like we’d lost. Whereas defensive, attritional play is intriguing in cricket, in football it feels negative and desperate. McCarthy’s teams played like they didn’t think they could win. It was obvious, listening to Mick’s pre- and post-match comments, he didn’t think they could win either. He set up his teams to scrape a point and his dour, negative football drove a lot of people – most worryingly, younger fans – away. The atmosphere at Portman Road was miserable.
For some people McCarthy’s team was only a “bit of tinkering” away from a promotion-winning side, but for others he was killing the club. Death by a thousand hoofs. Besides which, a manager who tells his own fans to eff off is clearly not planning to hang around for long. Before his departure was announced, I’d reluctantly decided I wasn’t going to renew my season ticket. With the appointment of Paul Hurst in May 2018, I changed my mind.
There isn’t much to say about Hurst. He was the young, up-and-coming manager we all craved, but in reality he changed too much, too soon. It’s as simple as that. Hurst’s most obvious failure was to let so many key players go at once. Martyn Waghorn, David McGoldrick and Joe Garner – all capable of scoring goals – were certainly replaceable but they weren’t replaced with anyone of the same quality. Likewise central defender Adam Webster went to Bristol City and Tommy Smith departed for Colorado. A stalwart defender who had the added value of being able to put the ball in the net at crucial moments, I don’t think we’ve yet appreciated what a huge loss Smith was. As Oscar Wilde nearly wrote: “To lose one centre back may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Once again, we never replaced them with players of the same calibre and often used full backs playing out of position.
Whether you blame McCarthy or Hurst (or Keane and Jewell before them) they were all responsible for our decline in their own special ways. Many fans are still grateful that Marcus Evans came in when we were facing oblivion following the financial debacle of the later Sheepshanks years, others are more critical. He’s worked hard to improve his relationship with fans, becoming less secretive and listening to criticism. This is welcome, but whatever your view of the owner, most people agree that his strategy for the club hasn’t worked.
Until now. In appointing Paul Lambert to replace Hurst, Evans has suddenly changed everything. Accident, design, serendipity – who knows? It was audacious to choose a manager most famous for his success with our feathered friends 70km up the A140. I was concerned some of our more tribal fans would reject him out of hand, but from the moment he arrived, he won us over with a combination of charm, passion and humour. The cynical might say it’s PR, but it seems more genuine than that. He gets us. Everyone who arrives at the club speaks of our history, our trophy-room, our community, but I don’t think any of the previous four managers really “got” Ipswich Town. Lambert does, in spades.
The Current Situation at Portman Road
We are bottom of the Championship and it looks very bad for us. More pleasingly, Evans has been quick to back Lambert by saying that he’ll stay on even if we’re relegated. This is probably what’s saving most of us from falling into a pit of despair. Lambert just might be the best thing that’s happened to ITFC for years.
On the pitch, we’re playing much better but it simply hasn’t translated into wins. It feels like we’ve had more than our fair share of injuries and crap refs, but ultimately we have to acknowledge that, although we’re improving, it’s too late. Nothing has really changed in terms of the fundamental causes of our demise. The football league is structured in the same way, our young talent is vulnerable to the predation of richer clubs, football is at the mercy of hedge funds, gambling companies and TV revenue. Our owner appears to be sticking to the same approach to loans and transfers that has brought us to where we are now. I agree with him that throwing money into a pit is not a good idea but Lambert needs to have enough financial backing to make those necessary improvements to the squad that make all the difference. It may only require a few players to come in, but we desperately need them.
Of the old guard, essentially McCarthy’s players, the Captain, Luke Chambers is the beating heart of our squad and if we’re going to get out of this, he’ll be essential in some capacity. Not everyone rates him as a player, but we need his passion and drive. The experience of Cole Skuse and Bartosz Białkowski is vital too, despite the effects of injury and loss of form respectively. Jordan Spence – who’s been too error-prone – seems to be out already and it looks as if Jonas Knudsen would like to leave. Sadly no one came in for him in January and we’ll probably lose him when his contract expires.
Looking at the list of players that Hurst brought in, I’m not sure they are all individually as bad as they seemed at first. It was too much of a step up for some of Hurst’s acquisitions, including Kayden Jackson (3 goals in 28 appearances), although even he is showing signs of improvement under Lambert. Along with Ellis Harrison, Jon Nolan, Gwion Edwards and Toto Nsiala, we already have a group of players who will do well in the third tier. Of Hurst’s loanees, Trevoh Chalobah, who came on loan from Chelsea, is going to be a very good player one day. Like a great, over-enthusaistic puppy, he makes mistakes but he compensates for them by his commitment and energy. Matthew Pennington, on loan from Everton, might be my choice for Player of the Season. Once again, though, we will lose these loanees. Relying on them does us no good in the longer term.
Lambert has brought some experience into the team with James Collins and Alan Judge. Will Keane will be an asset if he stays but the jury’s out on Callum Elder and Colin Quaner. Like his predecessors Lambert must rely on loans and freebies and he has the added problem of attracting players to a club that’s doing so badly. We have some wonderful academy products coming through (Andre Dozzell, Flynn Downes, Teddy Bishop, Myles Kenlock, Idris El Mizouni and Jack Lankester, for example) but is it fair to put them into a side with our current pressures? If we can keep them, we have the makings of a very good side. I no longer fear for our long term future.
The Next Five Years
Which leaves us with the biggest question. Will Marcus Evans back Lambert financially as well as verbally? His short termist approach has failed several times over. He needs to allow Lambert to build his own squad and give him enough time to make the major changes we need to recover. Maybe relegation will enable a proper reconstruction – and maybe that’s what we need. Next season we should feel free to play all our youngsters who are up to the job. It’s often forgotten that our U23 team is doing very well at the moment; comfortably at the top of their league. Relegation will take a lot of pressure off. We didn’t want it, but with a good set-up, led by Lambert, it should be used as an opportunity to make the fundamental changes we have needed for a long time.
Many Championship clubs are a run of bad luck away from where ITFC is today. The fundamental problems are with the way that football is run and the absurd (and unfair) financial imbalances that clubs must deal with. Having said that, Ipswich’s future remains in Evans’ hands. He has, at last, appointed a capable manager whom he can trust and fans can support. Now is the time to back him. If Evans is not willing to do that, then he should recognise it’s time to hand over to someone who is willing to put faith into this once great club and take us back where we belong.
When McCarthy left, many journalists warned ITFC supporters to “be careful what you wish for.” None of us wished for relegation, but I think we all wished we could go back to the feelings of pride and unity that we felt in the days of Bobby Robson and George Burley. Paul Lambert is doing that for us. He’s making us love our club again. He’s making it fun again. Recently I stayed behind in the freezing cold to applaud him and the players, even though we’d lost. Thousands of us did. The unity, the bond between fans and club that has been declining for years is returning and, for most of us, that’s a great feeling.