It's two years to the day since CEO Mark Ashton arrived at Ipswich Town. Mark Heath, who interviewed him on his first day, reflects on what he's achieved.

June 1, 2021, was a beautiful day. The sun shone down on Portman Road, and there was an air of anticipation as we in the press pack - perhaps too grand a word on this occasion - gathered to speak to Mark Ashton.

Fresh from meeting all the club staff and having his official photos taken, a smiling, friendly Ashton gave us 20 minutes of his time on what must have been a very busy day.

First impressions were strong. He spoke passionately about the club, the stadium and the challenge ahead. He went into depth about his relationship with the new American owners and why he decided to drop down from Bristol City to join Town.

East Anglian Daily Times: Mark Ashton on his first day at TownMark Ashton on his first day at Town (Image: Ross Halls)

It was a conversation which left one feeling very enthused about the club's future and ambition - and, of course, two years on and with Town now in the Championship, that feeling remains.

But, as my dear old granddad always used to tell me, judge a man not by what he says, but what he does.

Thus, I thought today would be a perfect opportunity to do just that...

East Anglian Daily Times: Mark Ashton talks to the media including Mark Heath, left, on his first day at TownMark Ashton talks to the media including Mark Heath, left, on his first day at Town (Image: Archant)

The Builder

Asked on that first day why he'd taken the job at Town, Ashton said: "I'm a builder, and if you look at where I've been in the past and what I've done, that's what I've done, I've built."

He added: "I talked today to the staff about togetherness. I can't do this on my own, the players can't do it on their own, Paul (Cook) can't do it alone, investors can't do it on their own.

"We need to make sure that we are fully engaged with the fanbase and the community, fully engaged with the staff, and bring people together.

"This stadium holds over 30,000 people, we're coming out of a pandemic, it's been a difficult time for everyone in the country.

"I think we have a moment in time where, if everyone can come together, we can build something very special here."

East Anglian Daily Times: Mark Ashton celebrates at Lincoln CityMark Ashton celebrates at Lincoln City (Image: © Copyright Stephen Waller)

Two years on, it's hard to argue that Ashton's not built a fair amount already at Town.

He's certainly been a big part of rebuilding the relationship with the fanbase, from leading fan forums to charging down the sidelines at Lincoln City high-fiving everyone in sight.

Regular sell-outs and those extraordinary scenes outside Portman Road before the Exeter City clash have all stemmed from that oft-quoted feeling that fans have got their club back. Ashton has driven that.

He's built structure too, adding the likes of Director of Venue Stuart Cox, Director of Marketing and Supporter Engagement Scott Paul, and poaching Sam Williams from Manchester United as Head of Recruitment.  

Then there's the actual bricks and mortar stuff - which brings us to....

East Anglian Daily Times: Mark Ashton is in the process of transforming Portman RoadMark Ashton is in the process of transforming Portman Road (Image: Archant)

Portman Road

Town's famed old stadium came up a lot on that first day. While Ashton was clearly taken with the history of it all, he stressed there was work to do.

He said: "Portman Road is our home, and I want to take pride in it. I don't mean this to be disrespectful, but you guys are standing here now and it could be sharper, it could be cleaner and it could be better presented.

"It's our home and we need to take pride in our home. We're not going to be able to do everything over night, but there are things that we can do.

"We need to make sure the stadium is clean, it's tidy, it's presentable, it's welcoming, that people can get a drink, that the food's right, that the beer's cold."

He's certainly delivered here - the look and feel of Portman Road has changed, from the outside and all those images and murals, to a sharper, tidier and simply better experience inside the ground.

East Anglian Daily Times: Portman Road is getting a new pitch this summerPortman Road is getting a new pitch this summer (Image: PA)

On day one, he continued: "I'll make no bones about it, one of the things I'm going to want to invest in is a modern pitch.

"We don't have time to do that for this season, but with a modern pitch comes undersoil heating, probably desso.

"There's no point in us putting a team together that probably plays the game in a certain way and by February the pitch has gone.

"But to do that we've got to make sure that we haven't got to slightly move the pitch, we've got to make sure that the dugouts that people keep telling me need sorting out are in the right position.

"Because if you put the pitch in and then have to start changing, with undersoil heating, you're taking one step forward and three steps back.

"We'll take a good look at the stadium. We'll want to upgrade it and if we think that the plan is right to develop one of the stands, or more, then we'll put a plan in place for that."

That pitch, is of course, coming this summer as part of a £2.5m investment. Last summer we got the big screen, digital advertising boards and the new-look dugouts referenced above.

And the club have purchased the land where the old Staples building and Better Gym stood, though no decision has been made on what to do with that yet.

Town have also applied for planning permission to add more executive boxes and office space to the Magnus Group West Stand.

A lot has changed in two years, with a new pitch on the way. All boxes ticked here, you'd say.

East Anglian Daily Times: Mark Ashton has brought key players like Wes Burns to IpswichMark Ashton has brought key players like Wes Burns to Ipswich (Image: Ipswich Town)

Recruitment

Ashton arrived in the 'Demolition Man' summer of Paul Cook, and with his famed data dashboards ready to go - so recruitment was discussed a lot on day one.

"It's one of the most important parts of any football club," he said. "We can have the best commercial departments, the best retail, the best conference and banqueting - but if we get decisions wrong in recruitment, it blows it all out of the water.

"We've got to make sure that we get the right talent into the first team and the under 23s, while also investing and developing the academy, and giving our academy staff the opportunity to bring young players through."

Clearly, recruitment in that first summer was probably more frenzied than Ashton would have liked, given Cook had essentially blown the existing squad up.

East Anglian Daily Times: Skipper Sam Morsy arrived under Ashton's watchSkipper Sam Morsy arrived under Ashton's watch (Image: PA Images)

But, looking back now, that's where the foundations for promotion were built. Sam Morsy, Conor Chaplin, Christian Walton, Wes Burns, Cameron Burgess, George Edmundson and Lee Evans all arrived that summer.

There were a few misses, of course - Scott Fraser, Louie Barry and Rekeem Harper jump out - but that's inevitable when you're signing 19 players.

Then last summer we had the likes of Leif Davis, Freddie Ladapo and Marcus Harness, before a brilliant January which really pushed Town over the line.

George Hirst, Massimo Luongo, Nathan Broadhead and Harry Clarke were all inspired signings - a big tick for the recruitment department there.

And, above all of that, Ashton's biggest recruiting win was Kieran McKenna - sacking Paul Cook and taking a chance on a young coach with zero experience as a boss was a huge gamble.

East Anglian Daily Times: Ashton took a gamble on Kieran McKenna - and hot the jackpotAshton took a gamble on Kieran McKenna - and hot the jackpot (Image: Ross Halls)

One promotion later - in his first full season - and McKenna is one of the hottest managerial properties in English football. Jackpot.

Perhaps the only area here where questions could be asked is around the production of young players and their path into the team. Kieron Dyer referenced it when he surprisingly quit his role as U23s boss last year.

Cameron Humphreys has been superb, obviously. Elkan Baggott broke into the team and has been mostly out on loan since, while Idris El Mizouni is returning from a superb season on loan at Leyton Orient this summer.

Tawanda Chirewa, meanwhile, seems to have faded out of the picture.

An area to keep an eye on, perhaps. Overall though, recruitment under Ashton has been tremendous.

East Anglian Daily Times: Town are back in the Championship - but Ashton will be aiming a lot higherTown are back in the Championship - but Ashton will be aiming a lot higher (Image: PA)

Ambition

Ashton oozed ambition on that first day. Thus, I asked him what a realistic ambition for Town would be.

He was forceful in his reply. 

"Don't put a lid on it," he told me. "Why should we put a lid on it? Why can we not do what Sheffield United have done? Why can we not do what Bournemouth have done?

"There's a club that's up the road they keep telling me, why can't we do more than they've done?

"There's no reason why. If we can get the right people together, working in the right direction, there is no limit on what this club can do.

"The fanbase is big enough to be competitive in any division. It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort, and I am absolutely so proud to be sat at the front of that group of people that we're going to put together."

Asked about the Premier League, he added: "The Premier League is a dream, a dream that I think we can make a reality here, but you've still got to make sure that your house is tidy, and it's functional, and it's professional.

"This football club deserves that, the fans deserve that, and we'll be doing that on the way through for sure."

Two years on, and it's very much game on. Town are back in the Championship, crowds are hitting record highs and most fans would probably admit to feeling pretty confident about their clashes with Norwich next term. 

The bookies too, think Town will mount another promotion push. The club is flying.

The Verdict

Two years on from that first interview, it's hard to say that Ashton has failed to deliver on any of what he promised in the Suffolk sunshine that day.

He'd be the first to say though, that the work is far from finished - and in many ways it's just starting.

Town are back in the Championship and everything is about to step up a notch.

But you wouldn't bet against Ashton being the architect who finally builds Ipswich a path back into the Premier League.