Cheap cheese sandwiches to developing £40m trio... Gary Probert's journey to Ipswich Town

New Ipswich Director of Football Operations Gary Probert.

Ipswich Town's director of football operations Gary Probert. - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

Gary Probert was appointed as Ipswich Town’s director of football operations last November. STUART WATSON spoke to the former Bristol City man about his journey to this point. 

Gary Probert’s first memories of football aren’t good ones. 

“I was six years old and crying every Sunday,” he recalls, with a smile. “Because the youngest age group I could play in was Under-10s and it was on an 11-a-side pitch with massive goals.” 

Those bad early experiences ended up shaping the path ahead for the youngster in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. 

“I remember quite vividly, when I was 13/14, that I’d go home from training, grab a pen and paper, and write up the session and store it in a little folder.  

“Later, I started helping an adult coach a grassroots team. I’d just copy what I’d had delivered to me. I was fascinated by challenge of getting a group of kids to listen to you and developing them.” 

New Ipswich Director of Football Operations Gary Probert.

Ipswich Town's director of football operations Gary Probert. - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

A centre-half or centre-midfielder who went on to play at non-league level, Probert jokingly describes his playing style as ‘maximum effort, limited quality’. 

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“When I realised I wasn’t going to be good enough to play professionally, I went to UWIC University (UWIC, now Cardiff Metropolitan) to study sports coaching. 

“There were less jobs in football then than there are now, so I was thinking I might go and become a PE teacher at that stage. But I quickly realised that I would struggle to motivate and work with the children who don’t want to do it. You know, ‘I’ve forgot my kit’ or ‘I’ve got a note’, all that.    

“Me and a few friends got involved at Cardiff City, helping at the academy. That was when I realised that I wanted to get into the game.” 

A general view of players warming up before the Sky Bet League Two semi final, second leg match at T

Gary Probert's first job in football came at Forest Green Rovers.

Probert’s first break came at Forest Green Rovers, then a National League side, in 2005. 

“It was the best apprenticeship,” he says. 

“I had a £10 a week budget to make food for the home team, the opposition and the referees, so I’d go into Tesco to buy the cheapest bread, the cheapest cheese, the cheapest Jaffa cakes and on a Friday night I’d be making up sandwiches. 

“I was 22 and driving a mini bus full of 16-year-olds to away games on my own. If someone went down injured I was the physio. When we got home I’d wash the kit. Coaching was only about five per cent of the week, but it gave me an unbelievable grounding and insight.” 

Two years later came a move to the Gloucestershire FA and a chance to broaden his skillset. 

“That was less day-to-day coaching, but more about the governance and bureaucracy of football,” he says. 

“That was when I got my first insight into managing a team of people because we had development officers for disability football, women and girls’ football, social inclusion etc. 

“I was working with stakeholders in the game, understanding the Football Association – which is a complex organisation – the councils, the committees... We did a load of work on what was called ‘the youth development review’, trying to make childrens’ football more appropriate by introducing smaller sided games, smaller goals. There was the ‘Respect’ campaign, which was about keeping parents back behind the line and all that sort of stuff. 

New Ipswich Director of Football Operations Gary Probert makes a call at Rotherham

Ipswich Town director of football operations Gary Probert makes a call at Rotherham.

“I also started doing coach education courses. I really enjoyed coaching the coaches. It was totally different to coaching the players. 

“So, again, that was another brilliant early experience. I was quite young still but learning how to try and influence people more senior and experienced than me and learning how to manage big budgets.” 

That experience of the bureaucracy side of the game ultimately helped Probert climb the career ladder on his return to club football in 2013.  

“A friend of mine who was at Bristol City twisted my arm to go in and do some coaching for them, because I had my qualifications and I lived reasonably locally,” he explains. 

“I started as a part-time coach there with some of the younger teams and then they offered me a full-time role. 

“Half of the day was spent coaching and the other half, with EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) being quite new, was writing documents and trying to plan budgets and prepare for audits. 

“The fact I’d done a bit of the non-coaching stuff at The FA helped me with being a bit more process orientated.” 

Ipswich Town chief executive Mark Ashton

Ipswich Town chief executive Mark Ashton - Credit: Steve Waller

First there was a promotion to assistant academy manager in 2015. Then, in January 2016, the Robins appointed Mark Ashton as chief executive. 

“My first meeting with Mark was when our academy manager, a really good guy called Paul Groves, had left,” he explains.  

“I got called in to Mark’s office at the stadium and he said ‘you’re going to do it’. I was like ‘right, okay, I’ve got loads of questions...’ and he said ‘fine, come and see me in a week’. 

“So I went back a week later and fired all these questions at him: What do you want the academy to achieve? How do you want to do this? And so on and so on.  

“He just went ‘that’s your job, you’re the expert, come back and tell me’. I thought ‘wow - okay!’  

“That became my first insight into working with a CEO who was clearly very driven, but clearly was going to trust people to lead their individual areas.” 

Manchester City's John Stones brings down Bristol City's Bobby Reid inside the box, resulting in a p

Bobby Decordova-Reid (left) was one of three Bristol City academy graduates sold for big money while Gary Probert was at the club. - Credit: PA

Having started out making cheap cheese sandwiches, Probert was now making multi-million pound footballers. Bristol City’s academy was suddenly in the spotlight after homegrown stars Joe Bryan, Bobby Reid and Lloyd Kelly were all sold for big money in the summer transfer windows of 2018 and 2019. 

“The club did a really good job of making sure there was a pathway for homegrown players,” says Probert. 

“There was a real synergy. Everyone knew we had to produce players to come into the team. 

“We were never put under pressure to produce players to sell. But by proxy of them getting in the team and then doing well, they developed a value and obviously three of them sold for big money which then changed the landscape. 

“There were others too. Someone like Joe Morrell, who is at Portsmouth now and will probably play in the World Cup for Wales, is having a good career. But those three going for a combined £40m is what caught peoples’ attention.” 

Wales' Joe Morrell during the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying match at the Cardiff City Stadium, Wale

Wales international Joe Morrell is a player that Gary Probert worked with at Bristol City. - Credit: PA

Which leads us to this point in time and Probert reunited with Ashton at Portman Road. Again, the initial offer came as a shock. 

“When I did get the call it was a surprise,” he says. “Mark had never said ‘I’ll be taking you with me’ or anything like that. 

“There was a decision to be made because I loved my time at Bristol. We all worked really closely together there. It wasn’t me doing things on my own. I was lucky to have that role and that title, but it was a very collaborative thing. It took us a long time to get to that point where everyone enjoyed coming to work and taking on the challenges together. We had some success and we knew there were some more really good players in the system. 

“I knew so little about Ipswich other than the obvious stuff around the history. But I remembered always being treated so well whenever I’d come here for games. People were always so hospitable and lovely. It was the same whenever I spoke to someone like Lee (O’Neill) or other coaches on the phone, they just seemed like nice people. So my feeling of Ipswich was quite a warm feeling. 

“But I didn't understand enough about where the club was and how it had got to that point. 

New Ipswich Director of Football Operations Gary Probert at Rotherham

Gary Probert, pictured after Ipswich Town's 1-0 defeat at Rotherham over the Easter weekend. - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

“I came to Portman Road to talk to Mark and when I heard the story of why the ownership had decided to come here, what the plan was and the scope of what could happen it was really exciting. I didn't expect to be that blown away. It was almost like a moment in time. 

“I remember sitting down with my wife that night and saying ‘if I don’t do this then I’m going to end up being a hypocrite’. Because every day the young players would be in my office and I’d say to them ‘come on, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone, you've got to be brave, you’ve got to do this loan, you've got to play out of your age group, you’ve got to change position, because it’s a short career’. 

“And I thought ‘I’m going to be that person if I don’t do this’. I could have stayed at Bristol forever and a day. There was still work to do there. But I thought ‘I’m going to end up being that person that I tell the lads not to be’. 

“If a member of staff had come into my office and told me about a similar opportunity I would have told them to follow their gut and go with it.  

“I listened to my gut and went with it. And I’m glad I did.”

- Part two of this interview, in which Gary Probert discusses his wide-ranging role as Ipswich Town's 'director of football operations', can be read here.