'The fanbase is exceptional... it's been overwhelming' - Johnson and O'Leary begin their Ipswich Town relationship
- Credit: Zoom
Football’s not like any other business and both Brett Johnson and Mike O’Leary know it.
It comes with added emotion and it’s an emotional attachment from the top which has served Ipswich Town so well during the most successful periods in the club’s history.
The Cobbold family dynasty took Town from park football to a European final, via an English league title and FA Cup win, before David Sheepshanks rebuilt in the late 1990s and took the Blues back to the top table and then continental competition.
Their emotional attachments to the club were laid bare for all to see.
That wasn’t necessarily the case with Marcus Evans. He wasn’t front and centre, cheering the team on, wasn’t decked in items from the club shop and you couldn’t hear him screaming from the stands, but anyone who knows him well will tell you he cared for the club greatly.
O’Leary, Town’s new chairman, saw it in the former owner’s eyes as the closed the deal to transfer control the club in a £40million deal.
“I remember vividly going through the process we’ve gone through with Marcus and there was one day where I looked at him and I could see his face with realisation on it,” O’Leary said.
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“This was him walking away from owning this club and that’s a big, big issue for someone who has had the dream of owning their boyhood club and fulfilled it.”
Describing Ipswich Town as Evans’ ‘boyhood club’ is perhaps a bit of a stretch, though he was brought up in Suffolk, but O’Leary’s early allegiances are not in doubt. He grew up a West Brom fan.
He, along with Johnson and the other three members of the incoming Gamechanger group are at the very beginning of their emotional journey with Ipswich Town. It will be almost impossible to reach the attachment levels of the Cobbolds or Sheepshanks, but they are going in knowing exactly why it’s a club loved by so many.
“I used to go and watch Baggies games regularly and when I was about 25, West Brom got to the semi-final of the cup and were drawn to play their game at Highbury in 1978,” O’Leary said.
“I remember going to that game and being particularly miserable because we were expected to win and we were walloped 3-1 by Ipswich. On the way home, chatting to friends, we said we’d support Ipswich in the final.
“Ipswich played Arsenal and won 1-0 and we were all cheering for them. So I’ve always had a soft spot for them so maybe that’s contributed to the fact this was such an appealing opportunity for us. “
“Ipswich have had so many great teams, even if we’ve struggled for the last few years. But when I was growing up in the 60s, 70s and early 80s they were fabulous teams. Half the blummin’ England squad were Ipswich, half the Scotland squad and the Irish centre-half.
“You’ve had so much strength here, coupled with the management. The heritage, the history and the fanbase built on the back of that success made this a pretty compelling club for us to look at.”
Johnson’s relationship with football and Ipswich Town is slightly more complicated but you can tell there’s a real appreciation of what he’s bought into.
Five years living in London as a young adult, where he watched Arsenal and Chelsea, helped light a fire for the English game which has only burned brighter, leading him to ultimately buy into Ipswich. All with a little help from a former Town favourite.
“I know enough to have complete reverence and respect for the opportunity we have here. It goes without saying the history of the club from Sir Alf Ramsey to Sir Bobby Robson is wonderful," he said. "Then there’s an iconic stadium at Portman Road.
“I have a relationship and I give a lot of credit to Frank Yallop. I hired him at Phoenix and that was a big hire. To Frank’s credit he went from MLS down to the USL and that was a huge vote of confidence to the USL. That meant the world to me.
“It started to give me an appreciation of his relationship to Ipswich and I think, in a small part, when we started thinking about an investment in England that we linked up with Michael (O’Leary) it’s made me delighted it’s ended up being Ipswich.”
He’s already a hit with Town fans on social media and, if he didn’t know it already, the online world has helped educate the LA-based New Yorker as to just how big the Blues are.
“I’m excited with any opportunity to engage fans,” he said. “Any age bracket, men, women, boys, girls, in England and beyond.
“I shouldn’t be surprised really but support for Ipswich is global. I’ve had outreach from all corners of the globe. That’s a special part of this club but I’m sure a lot of those fans came about decades ago.
"The fanbase is exceptional and I’ve been positively overwhelmed since the news broke and now it’s official, all the outreach, hope and optimism from the supporters is exciting.
"It begins and ends with wins, that’s important, but positive things come when you do that. But we will be invested both on and off the pitch and a big part of that comes with on-field performance.
“We’d love to see that. The club has a responsibility to be a positive beacon in the community and beyond so I’m excited for us to play whatever role we can to engage that support.”
Do the latter and Johnson & Co will be onto a winner. The new owners’ visibility and willingness to communicate is a welcome change.
As Town’s new era dawns, those new relationships have gotten off to the perfect start and will only grow stronger in the coming weeks and months.
If the energy with which Gamechanger have burst into the lives of Ipswich Town fans everywhere translates into success on the pitch, it could be a marriage made in heaven.