For those wanting to know what it is all about then see below
It does make for quite an interesting read - and backs up all that dear old Bill (no, not you plod) has been pointing out for years. And blows out of the water the nonsensical guff the farmhands have been not only believing but bleating out endlessly
"1pswich Town were flying high in League One when Joey Barton decided to “test the boundaries of their psychology” by describing Paul Lambert’s side as the worst in the club’s history.
There was some logic to his theory. Ipswich had not played in the third tier of English football for 62 years so, “nobody else really could be worse, could they?”
Barton, however, ended up “with egg on my face” because last October, Ipswich went to Fleetwood and won 1-0. Cleaners at Highbury Stadium would later discover a number of articles inspired by Barton’s damning assessment pinned to the inside of the door in the away dressing room.
“It clearly backfired,” he admitted five months later as he looked across Portman Road with the face of a football manager who had finally proven some of the naysayers wrong following a 1-0 victory against the same opponent, a result which sent Fleetwood into the League One play-offs and Ipswich down to ninth.
It had been an uncomfortable evening in Suffolk. The protests against Lambert and Ipswich’s owner Marcus Evans had started just before kick-off and ended after the final whistle. There were periods in the game where Barton felt his team were “drawn into the negativity,” which led to the pace of the contest dipping from a level that he preferred. Even with lethargy setting in, the discord on the terraces ultimately helped Fleetwood and Barton asked himself whether the challenge would have been different if “the place was rocking.”
Of the 15,678 supporters inside a half-full Portman Road, just 88 of them were from Fleetwood, according to Barton. Traditionally, you would say that this was a contest between the league’s second biggest club behind Sunderland and the smallest. In 2001, when Ipswich were beating Inter Milan on the same ground in the UEFA Cup having qualified for Europe by finishing fifth in the top flight, eight divisions separated them from Fleetwood, who were part-way through a campaign in the North West Counties League Division One in which they would finish 14th in a league of 23 semi-professional teams where many of the players were only being paid expenses.
Ipswich, meanwhile, have since had low moments in cup competitions but as league performances go, “Fleetwood was probably the worst in this century,” concluded Benjamin Bloom, a presenter on the Blue Monday podcast, who was sat in the main stand not far away from Lambert in his technical area where he was regularly spotted standing with his arms folded, looking down at the floor.
Barton’s team had out-fought and out-passed Ipswich — a club with two stands named after managers whose achievements with England had made them knights of the realm, the first being World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey. During the five-hour drive from Fleetwood to Ipswich, indeed, Barton had watched More Than a Manager — the documentary about Sir Bobby Robson, someone who was famous among players for his war references which translated into his own determination to go forth and conquer supposed bigger beasts.
Barton, seemingly, had summoned some of that spirit. “Ipswich will be really disappointed to have lost a key game to a promotion rival,” he reflected before offering a parting jab at “the Ipswich faithful.”
“The fact we are a promotion rival will irk a lot of them,” he suggested.
It has been claimed that Neil Warnock, he of a record number of promotions – eight in total, is in line to take over from Lambert should he get the sack. If Ipswich lose to top-of-the-table Coventry City on Saturday, it will be their third defeat in a row.
“I’m dreading to see what the mood will be like,” admits Bloom who describes the atmosphere at Portman Road on Tuesday in four stages: sarcasm came first before that was overtaken quickly by nastiness. After Fleetwood took the lead, he felt numb. And then came the sadness. For long periods in the second half, it was possible to hear crisp packets swirling across the pitch in the wind. “There was a lot of anger but a lot of people were away in their thoughts.”
Lambert believes he will not be fired any time soon. Following an encouraging start to the season, he agreed a new five-year contract in September, though the deal wasn’t signed off until New Year’s Day. Though there have been suggestions there is an option to release him at the end of the season if he fails to reach the play-offs, The Athletic has been reassured by two sources close to the manager and the club that such a clause that states he can leave without any compensation does not exist.
The future nevertheless depends on the decisions of Evans, who for the first time since his purchase of the club in 2007 is the subject of substantial supporter angst. He was present on Tuesday and sat next to general manager Lee O’Neill when supporters called for him to sell the club. How will he react? If Lambert is shown the door it would Evans’s sixth sacking in less than 13 years in charge, “it’s something he won’t be afraid of doing again,” says a separate source from inside the club, who believes the owner’s greatest achievement since buying Ipswich has been his ability to keep the heat off himself.
Evans had long paid his managers well and has leaned on their experience to run the team, “or almost run the club” in his absence, according to a former employee. Evans, a Suffolk native, has addresses in at least three different countries. He is a rich man but according to those who advise on his behalf, his wealth is nowhere near the £800 million figure that is regularly mentioned when discussing his trajectory after founding an events business in 1983.
“He’ll just have to sort it out himself,” is one of the lines Evans used to trot out privately when Mick McCarthy was manager. While some would hear that and view it as a show of faith, others detected a disconnection between Evans and developing concerns at a club where he holds a staff meeting once every month.
For Lambert, it might feel like history is repeating itself. In a former life at Aston Villa, he was used to operating alone in the Randy Lerner era but he never spoke about the challenges of that relationship publicly, resisting the temptation to brief journalists about the club’s problems off the record.
Lambert would be entitled to ask himself whether the mood at Ipswich would improve if Evans was on the ground more often. Could he address the public in periods of criticism? Or will Lambert prove to act as a fireguard? Evans has always paid someone else to try and offer reassurances. “It’s very unlikely he’ll ever change his approach,” says someone closer than most to the situation.
Lambert has been encouraged by the work going on behind the scenes at Ipswich — particularly the effort to reconnect with the town. The club’s original community initiative was disbanded a decade ago and this meant an end to free coaching in schools and youth centres. Though some parents now have to pay for such coaching sessions, “at least there’s an option to feel a part of the club at an early age,” says another source.
Nevertheless, Lambert had told friends in football at the start of the season that it wasn’t a given that Ipswich would return to the Championship straight away. Following meetings over the summer, it was agreed that he would have to revive the club via its academy because Evans was not going to spend big to heave the club back into the Championship. This has led to Lambert giving nine debuts to players from the academy in a season which has involved just one fee-paying signing and a modest loan buy in the January transfer window.
The play-offs, Lambert assessed, was probably the best hope given the inexperience and lack of depth in Ipswich’s squad. Could Ipswich’s young players really handle the big crowds and the expectations, whether they are realistic or not? The presence of 36-year-old Glenn Whelan in Fleetwood’s midfield was a reminder to Lambert of what he does not have. In a different economic reality, he would have competed for the Irishman’s signature in the summer when he signed for Heart of Midlothian and in January when he became available again. Instead, he went to Fleetwood because Ipswich’s wage budget would not stretch that far.
It was put to The Athletic by a former player that Ipswich had “once been the blueprint of how to run a medium-sized football club.” The catchment area in Suffolk means it potentially has an enormous fanbase. “The interest remains massive and that brings huge pressure,” the player says. But, there are sights and facts that remind you of where the club really is. For a long time, one of the signs on Portman Road remained blue and another, which received faced the sun on afternoons of good summer weather, had bleached in colour. “For years, nobody thought to change it, to smarten the place up,” the player rues. “It felt like they were ignoring the small details.”
Then you learn about Ipswich’s wage structure — still one of the highest in League One apparently, but by no means the biggest — and short of Fleetwood’s, a club that has progressed more than any other in England over the last two decades thanks to the investment of Andy Pilley.
Some of Ipswich’s key players are earning the relatively small sum of £1,500 a week, which is just above average by League Two standards.
Fleetwood may have turned Ipswich over. Yet should it really be regarded as that much of a surprise anymore?
The problems at Ipswich stretch back 18 years, or even further according to some supporters, who remind that former chairman David Sheepshanks overspent following one season’s overachievement in the Premier League, prompting some unlikely signings in the Nigeria winger Finidi George and Italian goalkeeper Matteo Sereni.
Relegation to the Championship came just before the system of parachute payments to former Premier League clubs was implemented. This was in the same period when Championship clubs missed out on television funding following the collapse of ITV Digital. Very quickly, Ipswich found their way wheeling backwards and financially, the problems mounted.
The mood shifted when Evans came in. “I thought we were made. We had a moneybags owner and in the first few years, he spent the sort of money that could have made a difference,” recalls Bloom. Yet Evans gave that money to Roy Keane and Paul Jewell, who were unable to kick the team further along. Evans began to think differently about his investment and pulled back on spending. Steadily, many of these clubs were being bought out by foreign owners and some of them were willing to take enormous risks. While Ipswich were going one way financially, their competitors were heading in the opposite direction. Ipswich were on the back foot.
Keane had achieved what Ipswich aspired to do by achieving promotion to the Premier League with Sunderland. Jewell had done the same with Bradford City as well as Wigan Athletic. McCarthy was next in line and, like Keane, he’d won the Championship with Sunderland as well as Wolverhampton Wanderers. In 2014-15, McCarthy went close to getting there with Ipswich as well and that, he was telling his friends in football, “would have been his greatest achievement in the game,” considering the financial challenges he was up against. Ipswich led the table at Christmas that season and McCarthy spoke to Evans about signing two new players, thought to be a striker on loan and a creative midfielder. Evans told him he was doing just fine — “that he didn’t want to risk the future” — that he believed McCarthy would “find a way.”
After defeat in the play-offs to rivals Norwich City, nothing ever really seemed the same under McCarthy, whose pragmatic and direct style of football went against Ipswich’s traditions. McCarthy invited pressure on himself by railing against criticism from the fans and on some occasions, taking them on publicly by offering his own critique of their support.
Behind the scenes, relationships across departments were getting worse. Internal differences are not particularly unusual at any club but listening to those representing Ipswich between 2015 and 2018 – the year McCarthy departed – it feels as though a cold war had taken hold of thoughts, impacting on decisions.
McCarthy, appointed in 2012, had long divided opinion inside the club between those with experience of playing and coaching at senior levels in professional football and those whose credentials were made based on their experiences in alternative backgrounds. With the former, McCarthy was viewed as honest and hardworking. He’d routinely arrive at the training ground in Rushmere at 7am and not leave until six. “It seemed that nobody could ever get in earlier than him,” says one observer who thought McCarthy was being “knifed in the back,” by another group spawned out of the club’s fabled academy, those who believed his methods were outdated.
It is claimed that some academy coaches would undermine McCarthy in front of young players because of his supposed long-ball tactics, telling them that his team’s style of play was not the way it was done at Ipswich and his time in charge would not last forever.
This was during a period where Ipswich’s youth department was under greater pressure than ever before following the introduction of Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) regulations, which meant each academy across the country was categorised and ranked according to investment and standards. Under these guidelines, it became easier for Category One clubs to take the best players from clubs rated in lower categories.
When Ipswich narrowly failed to gain Category One status in 2014, it left the club vulnerable — perhaps more than other initially — because of its geography. Traditionally, if a player came from Ipswich or the Suffolk region, he’d sign for Ipswich because of the town’s distance from other places. Now, players had other options because of the ease at which other clubs could take them away, with greater financial incentives often on offer elsewhere. The story of Ben Knight in 2018 was an example of this, a player who’d spent eight years at Ipswich where he’d been described by academy head Bryan Klug as “potentially the best I’ve ever worked with.”
Speaking in 2016, Ipswich’s former head of academy recruitment Steve McGavin — most recently employed by Norwich — had lost two young players because of EPPP: “Unfortunately, with the Premier League, we’ve created a monster. It’s like a runaway train that no-one knows how to stop. The money at the top end, as we all know, is huge and it’s filtered down into the Premier League academies. If a club wants to sign a player and the player and his family want him to go, then there is very little you can do about it.”
McGavin, a McCarthy supporter and whose son Brett is now in the Ipswich first team, would indeed leave for Norwich a year after his comments. Streamlining and a new direction would contribute towards departures for other former players-turned coaches like James Scowcroft, Micky Stockwell, Titus Bramble, Alan Lee and most recently, under-18s coach Kieron Dyer. Increasingly, Evans started to listen to the new key figures at youth levels where the most prominent voice was Lee O’Neill following his rise into becoming academy manager as 2015 blurred into 2016.
O’Neill’s playing career at Ipswich had not extended beyond a scholarship and, after coaching in the United States for a year, returned to Suffolk in 2005 where he worked as a recruitment consultant for Adecco before entering the education sector as a head of physical education for 11 and 12-year-olds at a secondary school. He had originally re-joined Ipswich’s academy as a part-time sports scientist, proceeding to work his way up the system until he became the club’s general manager in 2018, a role that meant he maintained controlling responsibilities at the academy.
O’Neill has been described to The Athletic as “intelligent, articulate and driven”, acting as the conduit between Ipswich’s owner and the club’s manager. He is in touch with fan groups, who think of him as approachable. O’Neill had identified in 2015 that the club needed to catch up with the world around it and introduce more technology at the training ground which would enable the club’s coaches to make more informed decisions about player development and fitness, particularly injury prevention.
McCarthy was resistant and had the support of Andy Liddell, the fitness coach with 583 appearances in the Football League behind him. Both Liddell and McCarthy agreed that the club did not need to invest in GPS vests, because they concluded the technology did not really help make more informed decisions. The data, it was thought, would only form the base for any discussion about a player’s fitness rather than be the conclusion itself. There was no GPS data, Liddell and McCarthy realised, for the sort of energy-sapping wrestling that goes on across the pitch — nothing that reflected the impact of a centre-forward backing into a defender and a defender using his arms to push him back. It was in those margins, McCarthy believed, that lots of Championship games were won.
McCarthy’s stance, also based on Ipswich’s financial priorities, brought frustration at the academy, where an alternative school of thought existed. McCarthy knew about the sniping that went on behind his back but trusted himself to carry on with his own methods. It was his belief that any player needed to be taken to his physical limits in training and for a manager and a player to form his own understanding of what that limit was. He was concerned that the technological options presented to him would only ensure that his senior players would get held back in training and that would ultimately result in some of them sustaining injuries in games.
McCarthy’s popularity had slumped. Even though the team was in a stable position in the Championship, attendances at Portman Road started to fall. This led to the unveiling of a new “Five Year Plan” in 2016, though the aims were rather broad and not very specific, which meant it would not be easy to assess in 2021 whether they had been achieved. Ian Milne, the club’s managing director, had been heavily involved in this process but when he was asked to name the stated aims and reflect on their progress a couple of years later at a supporter event held in London, it is said he could not remember one of them.
Milne hailed from a legal background and had worked with Evans before his appointment at Ipswich in 2013. He was described to The Athletic as being “highly insecure and keen to please” and he was jealous of figures with football backgrounds. This explains why his relationship with Simon Milton was not good before the popular former player left his role as an academy sponsorship director in 2017 following 30 years of service.
Gradually, Milne gravitated towards O’Neill, who was now on regular speaking terms with Evans. McCarthy was still producing solid results on the pitch but it was not enough for him to win support back on the terraces. When the decision was taken to let McCarthy leave at the start of 2018, O’Neill received a promotion with the backing of Milne. The scene was set for a new era.
McCarthy’s replacement was Paul Hurst, fresh from League One play-off final disappointment with Shrewsbury. There were still a few old pros left at the academy in the summer of 2018 but it took Hurst a fortnight to get in touch with any of them and canvass their opinions about their own roles as well as the way forward for the club as a whole. Hurst had a big job on his hands and he may have had other priorities but it seemed as though he was trying to avoid potentially awkward conversations. More departures behind the scenes would follow, including — eventually — Milne, though it was Hurst’s exit after just 14 games — ending the shortest reign of any Ipswich manager in the club’s history — that would generate the most headlines.
O’Neill and Evans had been warned by long-serving figures inside the club that Ipswich would get relegated if they attempted a culture shift in a singular attempt by placing their trust in sports science and cheaper signings from lower leagues. “But groupthink had already set in,” says one source. “Everyone got carried away with an idea,” insists another, who says one of the solutions to reduce injuries was less training in the summer of 2018. “Naturally, when the players went into game mode, they got injured because their bodies weren’t up to speed.”
Critics of the new regime believe there has been a grave misunderstanding about an academy’s function with too many assumptions that practices at junior level are appropriate also at senior standard. “This is because junior staff who are now in charge at the top of the club have had no experience of dealing the results driven business in the first team.”
Of the seven lower league players Ipswich signed in an attempt to overhaul their squad in the summer of 2018 at a cost of £6 million, only three are still at the club and one of those has already experienced a loan move back to the club from where he was recruited.
“Hurst signed the players for Ipswich he wanted to sign for Shrewsbury,” Benjamin Bloom thinks. It seemed to be forgotten by those leading the sales drive during the same period that even though £10 million was generated through the departures of Martyn Waghorn, Joe Garner and David McGoldrick, they had scored 34 goals in McCarthy’s last season in charge.
The success of Ipswich’s 2018-19 campaign would largely fall on whether Kayden Jackson could perform in the Championship having effectively jumped two levels having completed the previous season at League Two champions Accrington Stanley. By January 2019, Ipswich were scrambling about in the transfer market again, bringing in another seven players under another new manager in Lambert and by the end of the season, Jackson had scored just four times.
“The club had an idea of what it wanted to do then ripped it up the short-term plan when results didn’t click quickly enough,” Bloom concludes.
At least there had been the common sense to insert pay cuts on contracts of each of the new signings if relegation happened.
This was sealed on a miserable day in April following a 1-1 draw at home with another crisis club in Birmingham City.
A former player with lapsed Ipswich connections described the challenge of representing a sizeable football club located in the middle of nowhere. While Norwich is an hour-and-a-half drive north, it’s a shorter distance but a similar travel time to the fringes of the easternmost parts of London. He compared it to playing and living in Manchester where there are other places to be not far away and, “other interests — distractions and opinions.”
“Ipswich,” he said, “represents a whole county, not just a town. It means that the club has a gravitational pull. Traditionally, young players would sign there. It would provide work for ex-players. It takes care of its own. But it also means people tend not to go looking for a fight and anyone that does tends to receive an early brush off. There is genuine warmth but it can also be a bit insular.”
This perception frustrates people and naturally, supporters of its club. So does the famous line from former chairman John Cobbold, which is never far away from any Ipswich story: “The only crisis at Ipswich,” Cobbold once said about the good times under Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson, “is when we run out of red wine in the boardroom.”
When you learn that it took Ipswich 38 years to go through their previous seven managers before the manager Evans inherited in Jim Magilton, you realise that this is not a club that historically has tended to face crisis and therefore it means it is not always easy for those who are so invested in its fortunes emotionally to be able to identify what one looks like, and certainly — the causes of one.
It is especially hard to identify, indeed, when the crisis is the consequence of a slow decline and has been as long and drawn out as this. “A painful regression,” Mark Ramsay calls it. He is the head of the club’s official supporters association and believes that, gradually, important parts of club’s institutional memory has been lost.
“That comes from a lack of direct, day-to-day leadership — and too many changes behind the scenes,” he says. While he believes Evans’ faith in his appointments has been misplaced, it would help perceptions around his intentions if he was present in public a bit more often. “Getting things done can’t be easy when the person you need to sanction something is rarely around,” he suggests. Though there are other influences, it ultimately would have been easier to announce Lambert’s new contract when it was agreed in the autumn, for example, if Evans was on the ground. Instead, Ipswich’s form had dipped by January and the new deal did not feel necessarily like a cause for celebration.
Evans, apparently, is not a prolific communicator via email or text. His first big appointment off the field was Simon Clegg as chief executive and he arrived with an athletics background with no connection with the area. Milne job-shared after Clegg left and it was not always clear who did what. Now, O’Neill is attempting to balance a heavy workload, trying to do two jobs as once as general manager and academy chief but how long will that last?
Ramsay, meanwhile, acknowledges that the high watermark for Ipswich might not be quite what some fans think; that their success under Robson and later George Burley was overachievement rather than standard performance. “But,” he remembers. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect us to be competing higher than half way in the Championship.”
How does this all end — or can it get even worse? Ipswich are £95 million in debt but that debt is owed to Evans, who says he still invests between £5 million and £7 million a year. Ramsay is guarded against further protests inside the ground because he thinks it impacts on the performance of the team, “and it’s our job to get behind them, not undermine them.” He uses the words disappointing and frustrating but there is an underlying sense of hopelessness.
“It occupies nearly my all of my thoughts,” he says, concluding that it cannot always be the manager’s fault when it keeps going wrong. “What can we really do about it? We need to rebuild the squad but I’m not sure we really know for certain how to rebuild it…”