Bialkowski opens up on needing a fresh start, ‘no connection’ with Hurst, the end of McCarthy, Lambert’s Town takeover and relegation pain
- Credit: Archant
Bartosz Bialkowski discusses his best Ipswich Town memories, his need for a fresh start, his relationships with Mick McCarthy, Paul Hurst and Paul Lambert and the pain of the Blues’ relegation.
Bartosz Bialkowski is his old self again.
He's got that same glint in his eye we were used to seeing during three stunning seasons which saw him win three player-of-the-year awards during an unstoppable surge which ultimately took him to the 2018 World Cup.
But that spark was gone during a miserable 2018/19 campaign which saw him dip in form, lose his place in the side twice, suffer relegation and, ultimately, see his Ipswich Town career come to an end.
There are reasons for that, reasons he's happy to discuss as we sit in the living room of his family home on the outskirts of Ipswich.
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But what's immediately noticeable is that his move to Millwall, made permanent last month, has given him the fresh start he so clearly needed.
"It's still a bit strange because I spent so long as an Ipswich player and I obviously still live here, but I think the time was right," he said. "Probably for both parties.
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"I wasn't myself last season and I needed a change. I managed to do that and I'm doing well for Millwall so I have no regrets there at all but, at the same time, I regret that I've ended my time at Ipswich with relegation.
"That's still in me and it's still painful. I think it will be for a while. It was perfect for me here for four years from the first day I got here because everyone welcomed me with open arms. We're going to stay here for a long time because this is our house and this is our place but it was the right decision.
"After the end of last season I spoke to Paul Lambert about it and he told me the same thing. He said 'listen, you need a change, need to clear your head and go somewhere to enjoy your football again'. It was clear to see I didn't enjoy it and it was exactly the same with Marcus (Evans, owner) and then with Lee O'Neill (general manager of football operations) because they understood everything. They were very helpful.
"Everyone could see it. I had set the standards so high for myself with my performances and it just wasn't there. I still don't really know why although I do have a few reasons.
"No matter what I did in training, even when I tried to push myself even harder, it didn't help. I felt that if I trained harder I would be ok but it wasn't to be.
"I had a shorter summer (after going to the World Cup) but that isn't an excuse at all because all the best players in the world go to the World Cup and then come back and perform well for their clubs.
"There was pressure on me from myself to do it again, to push on again, and it was hard in so many ways.
"We didn't have enough quality to score goals so as the goalkeeper and as the defenders, we discussed things and, though it sounds harsh, if we didn't keep a clean sheet then it's going to be hard for us to get something from the game. That was the reality.
"It was hard."
Bialkowski splits his time between his family home in Suffolk and a flat close to Millwall's training ground in Bromley and, while his living arrangements are far from ideal, his new footballing environment is working out rather well.
"We are playing well and getting some good results so the fans are right behind us," said Bialkowski, whose excellent form has helped keep the Lions in the thick of the Championship play-off race.
"It's so noisy and when you hear the song just before the game it gives you goosebumps. It's a good atmosphere, a good club and it's really enjoyable.
"Form is temporary and class is permanent. I knew I was still a good goalie who could do a good job in the Championship. I think this is maybe the most consistently I've played.
"I've made a couple of mistakes this season but I've played about 30 games and have been happy with the way I've played in them.
"I'm enjoying football again and doing well and that's great."
Early concerns after Hurst's appointment soon turn to relief
Rewind back to the summer of 2018 and things have never been better for Bialkowski.
He's recently made his international debut, has been with his country at the World Cup and has returned to Ipswich to sign a bumper new contract, a just reward for four excellent seasons which has rightly seen him regarded by many as the best goalkeeper outside the Premier League.
The mood is good around the club, at least from the outside looking in, with the appointment of Paul Hurst seemingly the fresh start the Blues needed following the difficult and divisive end to Mick McCarthy's tenure.
But it was quickly clear to the Pole that things were going to be tough.
"We obviously ended up going down to League One but from the start we knew it was going to be a long season after the appointment of Paul Hurst," he said.
"We sold all our best players and tried to replace them with 10 or 11 without Championship experience. It just wasn't right and we knew it was going to be a long season. We believed we would be okay but the Championship is a hard league. It just wasn't to be.
"It didn't work out but, to be fair to him (Hurst), he came here with his ideas and wanted to do everything he could to do well in the Championship. He had done a very good job at Shrewsbury but it didn't work out and he moved on and we moved on.
"But we knew it was going to be a hard, long season."
Bialkowski has spoken openly in the past about his benching for the September 2 derby with Norwich and the lack of respect he felt at the manner of Hurst's decision, but alarm bells were already ringing in his head following the fall-out of Ipswich's Carabao Cup exit at Exeter a few weeks earlier.
"I wasn't ever told and that's the thing," Bialkowski said of the Norwich incident. "I didn't have a problem with being dropped if it was the best thing for the team, no problem at all. But the problem I had was that he didn't speak with me at all and didn't speak to Deano (Gerken) either.
"I needed a bit of respect from him to tell me. Pull me before the game because he obviously knew he was going to do that. That was the problem for me.
"I think most of the team felt exactly the same thing. There was no connection at all between us and him, no connection at all.
"After we lost at Exeter in the cup on penalties he spent a long time in the dressing room going into senior players and telling us we only care about money and things like that. That was shocking.
"Listen, I've never had any problem with managers before and I've always had a good connection with them. He's the first one I've had no connection with.
"Money is important in your life, no matter what you do, because you want to do everything you can to support your family. But to make the sign for money (with his fingers) in your face is just too much. It's not the case because we are playing for our futures and for our families and want to stay in the game as long as possible. I didn't get that thing, none of us did.
"From that moment we knew we wouldn't kick on. He said we could speak to him at any time but all you could see at the training ground was his office door slightly open with his feet up on the desk. You didn't want to go there.
"The game where we beat Swansea away from home was just before the international break and I think that win extended his stay. I think he was going to go before that."
So what was the feeling in the squad when Hurst was sacked, the day after a 2-0 loss at Leeds in October 2018?
"Relief. Just relief," he admitted.
"We knew the time was right for him to go and the next day we had a day off so the players went for a meal together in the afternoon and we were just kind of waiting for that news to happen because we knew.
"Even before the Leeds game you could see he (Hurst) was a bit down. After the game he was even more down so we knew this was the time he was going to go. I think he knew it too.
"Listen, he has family as well so you have to feel for him because it's not nice for someone to lose their job. At the same time it was right for him to go.
"From a human point of view it was hard. There were some guys with him too, (Chris) Skitt the physio was a good guy. A funny guy.
Accepting the inevitable
The first impressions of incoming boss Paul Lambert were good, but the damage had already been done.
"He was in the stands for the Millwall game and, Jesus Christ, I've spoken to the boys at Millwall and they've told me our Ipswich team that day were the worst they have seen in the Championship. You could see that," Bialkowski said. "But he brought everyone together and everybody enjoyed working with him from the start. It was good.
"The first thing he did was call four or five of us to his office, the senior players, and tried to get everyone together again. He asked us about the whole situation, what it's like in the dressing room and he told us he would motivate us to do it and stay up.
"He showed us stats from previous seasons which showed it was doable, but I think the damage was already done. The majority of us I think had accepted the relegation way too early, maybe in October or November. You could see it.
"There was no spark, even in training and no belief that we could do it. It was hard for Paul Lambert to do something.
"I think he still believed we could do it. We were trying to believe it and we were trying to be positive, anything to get a first win under him and then a second one. Maybe after that the momentum could take us somewhere but it wasn't to be.
"It was such a weird season because no matter what you did it felt like everything was going against us.
"Everything we tried didn't work and it felt it was all against us. For me personally I had a shocking season and wasn't happy with myself or my form. But it did feel like we had no luck whatsoever."
While relegation seemed inevitable for some time, the day it was finally confirmed is one Bialkowski will always remember.
"It was such a weird day. Crazy," he said, recalling the draw with Birmingham in April 2019. "We went down and all the fans were singing Three Little Birds (by Bob Marley) and we didn't know what to do.
"We didn't expect that because we had been relegated. The whole season was crazy and that day summed it up.
"It was painful. There is no football player who wants a relegation on their CV and it was painful, especially for players who had been there a bit longer. It was devastating really.
"Me, Skusey, Chambo and Deano (Cole Skuse, Luke Chambers and Dean Gerken) had been here for so long and the bond we had with the town, the club and the fans was incredible. To see the club falling down was painful and is still in me."
Early ups and down
Relegation was a painful end to an Ipswich Town love story which began in the summer of 2014. But there was pain early on, too, as the Blues lost their play-off semi-final to rivals Norwich in Bialkowski's first season with the club. "I knew Malcolm Webster (former Ipswich goalkeeping coach) from Southampton and I still spoke to him quite often while I was at Notts County and, when the season finished, he called and said Ipswich wanted to sign me," he said.
"I had no doubts about wanting to go to a Championship club and I wanted to prove myself. I knew I wasn't going to play from the start because Deano (Gerken) had been playing really well and the gaffer (Mick McCarthy) made it clear he was the No.1.
"But I had my ambitions, I came to play and I managed to do it. My first year was a great season for us but it didn't end so well.
"I got into the team and did well and played to the end of the season. They were great memories but just a shame we didn't get to do it.
"I didn't play too well in the game away from home because of my situation with my dad. I was in Poland two days before the game but it was an unbelievable year."
Throughout Bialkowski's time with the Blues, there was one constant by his side.
"The whole dressing room was great at the time I joined with good characters and players, but Deano (Gerken) and I clicked very quickly, got on and had a good relationship.
"We obviously spent so much time together on the pitch, training and pushing each other on.
"He's a very funny guy as well and we still keep in touch now. He's class.
"I spoke to him a few days ago and he told me he wasn't expecting to play so many games (36 at the time of writing) and do some coaching mainly. That's good for him and he deserves that.
"He's in League Two but he could easily do a job in the Championship now. He signed for Colchester for a few reasons and he's doing well."
Mick's men and a messy departure
Bialkowski, Gerken, Chambers, Tommy Smith, Christophe Berra, Skuse, Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick had formed the core of an Ipswich side which was knocking on the door of the Premier League under former boss Mick McCarthy.
And it's no surprise to hear Bialkowski speak so fondly, as so many other former players have, of his time under the current Republic of Ireland manager.
"He was so good. One of the best if not the best I've ever worked with," Bialkowski said.
"He always had time for you. Not just the players but every member of staff at the training ground or the stadium. Everyone speaks so highly of him. That was his strength.
"He could get everyone together and we did whatever it took to play for him. It was a shame he walked away from the situation.
"Maybe the football wasn't entertaining enough for the fans and you can understand that, but when you look back at it he had a tough job to do. He was working on a lower budget and signing players on frees and loans and he was doing an incredible job.
"Obviously you want to enjoy the style of football you're playing but as a football player you are enjoying it when you're winning, no matter how you do it. I don't care what people say, I don't want to lose games but play well. I don't want that because it's points that matter in this league and in footballl.
"When you look at the summer under Paul Hurst we spent God knows how many millions - we obviously sold players as well - and he had money to spend. Mick didn't have that money to spend but we were still a stable Championship club. Maybe mid-table, with an outside chance of the play-offs, but we were doing well."
McCarthy's exit was messy, Bialkowski knows that. He can understand why some would see a change as necessary, as the relationship between touchline and terrace broke down and at times turned toxic, but the Pole and his team-mates knew that would be a high-risk strategy.
"So many people wanted him out for some reasons but it was hard for us as a group of players because we knew we weren't going to get any better than him," he said.
"You need to understand him as well. He did so many good things for the club but he was on his own. How would you feel if your own fans were slagging you every game and chanting bad stuff at you? How would you feel? It's just pure emotions.
"He was on his own and was trying to defend himself. He's an experienced manager and knew what he was doing.
"Most of the Ipswich fans wanted to get a young and hungry manager, even from a lower league, to do the job. It didn't work out. Maybe the fans knew the risk, maybe they didn't, but some just wanted him out.
"It hurt everyone. Most of the squad really enjoyed working with him and it was a sad thing to see.
"There was a game against Hull at home and we lost. He got us together on the pitch and we thought 'oh no, this is it' but no. He just said 'don't worry about the fans, they just want me out. They're not shouting at you they just want me out. Keep doing what you're doing because you've been very good for me'. That's the kind of guy he was.
"We knew he was leaving at the end of the season but when he walked out after the Barnsley game it was a real shock. We didn't know that was coming."
Goodbye but not farewell
Bialkowski's best Ipswich memories, unsurprisingly, come from McCarthy's tenure.
"There are a few. So many really," Bialkowski said.
"Getting into the play-offs and winning the player-of-the-year award three times in a row, which was crazy. These would be my highlights from my Ipswich career.
"The game at Brentford on Boxing Day (2014) was really special. Going there isn't easy, I think that's the only time I've won there, but we won 4-2. Some very good memories.
"I'll remember my time as an Ipswich player for the rest of my life. It was so special.
"The one thing I really regret, not having a proper chance to say goodbye to everyone.
"Hopefully Ipswich can get back up and, if I have a chance to say goodbye next year that would be brilliant.
"I want to say a big thank you because everyone has been so good to me here, to me, my wife and my family.
"I'm still living in Ipswich so I still meet people here and they ask how I'm getting on, which is really nice.
"It seems like I wanted to go because we went down and I didn't want to play in League One. That's kind of true but it was never my intention to go somewhere else if I was still enjoying football.
"For me, if you're not enjoying the football then you need to go somewhere and start again. I'm 32 and have lots of years ahead of me because I feel fit and want to play as long as I can.
"I hope I will have the chance to play at Portman Road and I hope I would get a good reception. Maybe that can be the chance to say goodbye."
So Bialkowski's time with the Blues has come to an end, but his association with Ipswich won't for the foreseeable future as he and his young family continue to live in the town.
There's a young Bialkowski beginning to make his way between the sticks, too...
"My family, my wife and kids, still live in Ipswich and I come back here whenever I can on my days off," he said.
"It's not easy but it's ok. It won't last forever but we just need to get through that and see what happens. I see them two or three times a week so it's not too bad.
"My boy (Oskar, 7) is playing games on Saturday so he comes down whenever he can. He's playing one half of games as a goalkeeper and another as an outfield player. He's only seven though so the main thing is for him to enjoy football, enjoying diving in and enjoy scoring goals."