Marcus Evans’ only interview since becoming Ipswich Town owner 10 years ago
- Credit: Warren Page
Marcus Evans has given just one newspaper interview since becoming the owner of Ipswich Town Football Club.
This interview was originally published in August 2015
Speaking almost eight years on from his takeover, the Blues’ owner decided it was the ideal time to reflect on his journey with the club so far and give his thoughts on the future. Taking time out of his holiday to conduct a half hour phone chat, the only stipulation was that the questioning be kept to football.
The entire conversation was printed in a simple question and answer format, over the course of two days on August 7 and 8, 2015, in the wake of the Blues reaching the Championship play-offs and losing to rivals Norwich.
No doubt there will be many topics that some readers may feel went uncovered, while many of the issues discussed – areas such as Financial Fair Play for example – could have been the subject of a lengthy debate all on their own.
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My attempt was to get an overview of the Marcus Evans/Ipswich Town story so far, from his takeover in December 2007, the disappointments of the early years to the current day picture.
He starts by talking about growing up as a Chelsea supporter in west London and explaining why he purchased Ipswich Town.
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Hi Marcus. Thanks for agreeing to this interview. This seems like a good juncture to reflect on your journey as owner of Ipswich Town Football Club so far...
ME: “It doesn’t really feel like a journey anymore, it feels like a permanent situation – finally. “How long has it been now, nearly eight years? It’s been a long time and lots of experience has been gained over that period of time.”
I think the best way to start would be to ask – why did you decide to buy Ipswich Town Football Club back in 2007?
ME: “I had an interest in buying a football club. It’s something I had been thinking about for a while. “The opportunity presented itself to look at a few different clubs at the time. Ipswich was in an understandable financial state, whereas a lot of the other clubs that one looked at were – to put it mildly – in a mess.
“A mess is one thing, but a mess that you can’t even unravel or really understand what the liabilities of the club are is another thing altogether. “Despite Ipswich’s finances having been a little rocky for a few years, everything was very clear and, from a financial point of view, everything was well recorded.
“For somebody coming in as a potential investor it was very easy to understand what one was getting into. I was pleased that Ipswich was in that state. “Also, I had a closer affinity to Ipswich than any of the other clubs that I was looking at because I had a period of time that I’d lived fairly close to Ipswich, albeit a weekend cottage.
“And really, any football fan who grew up in the 70s, whoever you supported, Ipswich was always the Cinderella club back then. I think everybody had an affection for Ipswich, even if it wasn’t the main club that they supported.
“So to go back to your question, I think it was those three things; a) I wanted to invest in a football club, b) Ipswich was financially viable and c) it was a club I had a close affinity to.”
So you were a football fan growing up?
ME: “Oh yes, I was there standing on the terraces shouting from the age of seven.”
And can I ask you about your football affinities at that time?
ME: “I grew up, basically, almost next door to Stamford Bridge so it was difficult not to support any club but the one that was literally on my doorstep. You could easily hear the roar of the crowd when we scored.
“That was my local team and I still don’t live very far from the ground now. You can still hear the roar, I just don’t have the interest anymore!
“You’d think that once you support one club fanatically, and I was a (Chelsea) season ticket holder for many years, it would be difficult to drop that affinity and move on to something else.
“But actually it’s amazing, when you get so tied up in a club – whether it be Ian (Milne) as chief executive, the manager or as owner – you get completely entwined very quickly with that new club.
“Of course not many football fans experience that type of emotion because they don’t work in a club, they don’t buy it or they don’t manage it. Most people wouldn’t quite understand how that emotion works, but it’s a strange one and I’ve met other people who have also bought football clubs and who have said the same.”
So you bought the club in 2007 and you didn’t get the return you expected on your investments in the first few years. Is it fair to say it was a steep learning curve early on? Was there advice given that perhaps proved unfounded? How do you reflect on those early days as owner of this football club?
ME: “I think when you look at other people who have managed to get a very quick return, there wasn’t anything that those people did much differently to us. “I’ve chatted with Steve Parish at (Crystal) Palace about how they invested and almost got an immediate return. There have certainly been others who have got involved at clubs and very quickly achieved promotion.
“I don’t believe that I did anything massively different from those individuals, which boiled down to investing and supporting your manager.
“Ultimately, if the manager manages to make it click and puts it all together then it will work, whereas if the manager – and they were all good guys that worked for me – but if they, for whatever reason, weren’t able to make it click then there’s not a lot you can do about it.
“So I really do think that the learning curve has been something that I knew right at the very beginning. If you get the right manager at the right time then you’re going to have a really good chance at getting promoted.”
I believe a few people told you that if Joe Royle had just been given a little bit more money to spend then he would have easily achieved promotion. Did you think you’d have achieved promotion already by now?
ME: “Yes, I do think that was the feeling. If you remember, at the time, the money you achieved for promotion – and you’d probably be able to check this – but I think the guaranteed Premiership money was about 12 million pounds.
“I believe that is now currently valued at 130 million and I believe it’s going up to something like 190 million.
“The amounts of money that you were going to get from promotion were so different to how it is now. So yes, with what was – not a small investment – but with the money I earmarked, I did feel that would make the club extremely competitive.
“And it did do that, it certainly made us competitive in the transfer market and for wages.
“You would have hoped that money had resulted in better things, but look at Nottingham Forest – they lost 25 million last year and got nowhere.
“Look at Leicester, they spent 25 to 30 million for a couple of years running, I think, and didn’t manage to get promoted.
“So there are a lot of clubs out there that spent a lot more than Ipswich did and who ended up in exactly the same situation.
“I don’t feel that our situation was in any way unique in that our investment didn’t pay off at that time.
“That’s not to try and say ‘it wasn’t so bad what we did’ because, yes, clearly we’d have liked to have done better.
“I think it is always worth in football sitting back and looking at things with a true perspective though and having a look at, in reality, how many clubs also tried to invest a lot and it just didn’t work for whatever reason.
“I think it’s a pretty common story actually Stuart. People do spend money and sometimes it works and it all clicks and sometimes it doesn’t.”
So was there a specific moment in time when you decided to reel in the spending, when you decided that enough was enough and you couldn’t keep seeing your money wasted?
ME: “I always looked at the club as a long-term investment.
“From an emotional point of view you want to get promoted immediately. From a financial point of view, as the Premier League monies were getting greater and greater, the time over which you could actually get a return on your investment actually lengthened.
“If we get promoted within 15 to 20 years I think there would still be an opportunity to get one’s money back. “It’s never been a case of me feeling that I need to change tack completely from what I was trying to achieve.
“It wasn’t that I thought ‘if this doesn’t work now, I don’t want to do this’.
“I’ve always felt that I will continue to be around for as long as I can invest to get us promoted. There is a long-term plan in my mind for that.
“In terms of spending money, I don’t know if there was a moment when I felt that we wouldn’t spend money. I think there was a moment when I felt that I wanted to work with a manager who was going to try and coach and make our players better, rather than give the managers the opportunity – which I think I probably had done – which was if they bought players and it didn’t work out they could almost wipe their hands of those players and go out and get other ones.
“I think if you give a manager that opportunity then many of them will take it and spend the money.
“When Mick got involved we sat down and had a chat and I told him how I felt the club could move forwards. Those discussions were very much based upon always looking to get the very best out of the players that we had and only then, once we’d pretty much explored all options with them, would we consider going out into the market and trying to find alternatives.
“If that meant that we needed to spend some money to get the players that we wanted then so be it.
“But, what also happened, is that it coincided with these new rules on Financial Fair Play. So, at the very time that I brought Mick in, the Financial Fair Play rules were starting to take effect.
“And remember those hadn’t been in place at all in the previous period.
“When Mick and I sat down we worked out what we had available to stay within those Financial Fair Play rules. It was still a fairly considerable sum that one was spending each year – we’re talking four, five million pounds.
“I certainly didn’t stop, in my mind, investing in the club because I was still spending four to five million pounds a year in wages and whatever limited transfer fees we might have been involved with.
“Just because we weren’t spending on transfer fees, it did not mean that we weren’t spending in other areas.
“As I say, Mick coming on board, a feeling of wanting to take the coaching of the players that we had as far as we could, link that to Financial Fair Play, and that just made for a different way of budgeting for the club. “That’s been in place for two or three years now, Financial Fair Play, we’ve stayed within it and it’s now changing again in terms of the amounts of money available and you are seeing different sums being invested at the moment. “The answer to your question is it was never about ‘I just don’t want to spend money anymore’, it was more a case of we’ve got an amount of money we can spend to stay within the rules and let’s try and coach to get the best out of everybody we’ve got – which Mick and Terry (Connor) have done extremely successfully.”
Absolutely, which brings us around to Mick – tell me a bit about how you got him on board.
ME: “Well look, we had an average performance in my first four or five years of ownership, apart from the first season under Jim (Magilton) when we came eighth and missed out on the play-offs by a point, but other than that we were pretty much mid-table every year. “The managers that we had, as you know, were supported pretty much through thick and thin. It really was only when it was so obvious that they had to move on that we let them go.
“Why would a manager of Mick McCarthy’s skill, experience and desirability want to come to a club that was right at the bottom of the Championship and really in significant trouble at that November time?
“I think the deciding factor for him was the fact that the club supports its managers and that’s something the club has had a history of before I was involved. “I think you’ve got to put that down to the quality of support the club has got. Some supporters are so vociferous about clubs getting rid of managers. Some owners and boards find it very, very hard to resist the pressures that are put upon them by fans. “I’ve been at games where there are two or three thousand people chanting outside for the head of whoever it might be and that’s not a pleasant experience.
“Our supporters are a great bunch of supporters though. I think they are a knowledgeable group of supporters and a very fair group of supporters.
“That’s enabled, not just me, but previous owners to give their managers a great chance. “I think that is ultimately what persuaded Mick that Ipswich was a good place to come.
“I talk to a lot of managers and so many of them have felt really badly let down by clubs who have let them go when they felt it wasn’t the right time to let them go.
“I would think if you were to have a chat with Roy (Keane) or have a chat with Paul (Jewell) about when they moved on, well both of them said to me ‘you’ve been incredibly fair and I can understand why I need to go now’.
“Neither of them felt they were going at a time when they had unfinished business and that we’d jumped the gun. “That’s not necessarily just down to my judgement. I think that’s down to the fact that the Town supporters are that way inclined – to give people a chance. “I think that’s what helped us to secure Mick McCarthy, I think he felt that he was coming to a club where he would be given a chance by the owner and the supporters.
“If we hadn’t been that type of club, and been bottom, we’d have found it difficult to attract somebody of his quality.”
How different is football to any other business? Everything is affected by those 90 minutes on a Saturday, it’s a very emotive business. Is that something you’ve had to adapt to?
ME: “Ian (Milne) works very hard to maximise revenues for the club on a commercial basis, as do the rest of the great team we have at Portman Road, but ultimately our product is about what the team delivers on the pitch.
“And, like any business, if your product is of a good quality you’ll make more money and sell more of your product. “It doesn’t really matter how hard everybody works on season ticket sales and promotions because if the team is doing badly we ain’t going to sell those tickets.
“If the team is doing well then we do much better.
“There is a huge similarity there with any business. Our product is what is delivered on a Saturday afternoon by those guys on the pitch. If they do a good job and do well then everything else falls into place.
“That’s much like if you’re a fashion business and you’ve got the right clothes on the rack then people are going to buy them. If we’ve got the right football and winning games then we’re doing well.
“Everything hinges around how well the team does. When you get your head around the fact that really is the be all and end all of whether the club is going to succeed – in every aspect – then it’s not that dissimilar to other businesses.”
I understand you have become more hands-on as an owner? Negotiating with other owners, agents – is that something you have grown into over the years? And can you give us an idea of how much of your time is spent focused on Ipswich Town Football Club?
ME: “I always knew that the day-to-day running of the club was something I wouldn’t have time to get involved with, that I would have to leave that to others.
“The thing that I did want to do was be very hands-on with all transfer negotiations and all wage negotiations.
“All of those transfers that haven’t worked out have been down to me and all of those transfers that have worked out have been down to me, as much as the manager as well.
“I think the difference really in the last two or three years, since Simon Clegg left, is that where I used to take negotiations to 90 per cent of the way to conclusion and leave Simon to tie up the bits and pieces, now I tend to actually conclude the negotiations to their finality.
“Just so you understand what that means, I don’t think I’ve met an agent face-to-face in the last three or four years. I can do that from pretty much anywhere in the world, they all know who I am, so it’s a negotiation which takes place on the phone.
“Once Mick’s identified somebody and I feel that it’s viable from a transfer fee perspective – if there is one – and a wage negotiation then I’ll get involved with talking to whoever it is that needs to be spoken to.”
Does Mick give you an indication of what he feels players’ values are – both in terms of fees and wages?
ME: “I don’t know how many managers really do that because if you’re looking for a particular player in a particular position, and one of them costs five times the amount of somebody else, you can’t ignore the fact that the financial aspect is going to play a significant part in who you go with.
“Very often in the Championship one is buying players with potential as supposed to absolute proven experience. You’re buying players like Aaron (Cresswell), players that are 19, 20, 21, 22. You are buying potential there and we’ve seen many occasions where that potential isn’t fulfilled.
“So, if you’ve got a couple of players, and one is maybe nine-and-a-half out of 10 in terms of that certainty of whether they are going to do well, and the other is 10 out of 10, but the 10 out of 10 is five times as much, then you’re probably going to be sensible and say we’re going to go with the cheaper option because there’s not that much difference.
“I think the best managers will have a really good understanding of the market, what the wages are and what the transfer fees are. Mick is certainly someone who does have a really good understanding of the financial aspect of the market.
“That said, he leaves the negotiations to me. But he does have a very good understanding of what players, at different periods in their career, are worth.”
Mick always tells us what a healthy working relationship he has with you...
ME: “In my discussions, as in any market place, I am always looking to find out what deals are being done at what prices. It’s my business to try and have a good knowledge of what other clubs are paying people in wages. And agents will always tend to be fairly open in terms of what deals are being done at.
“You get a feel for what wages are being paid and I try to feed that back to Mick whenever we’re chatting. You’re always looking to pick up snippets of information and I’ll feed that back to him.
“That might be a bit of information that doesn’t actually benefit him that week, but it might be something we think back on a month or two later. We’ll say ‘remember that deal which was done? Well that’s what they’re paying...’ “It means we’ve both got a bit of a memory bank of what’s being done elsewhere.”
Give us an indication of how much you enjoyed last season? How many games did you get to? I know that if work commitments don’t allow you to get to the match then you always watch via video link up.
ME: “‘Enjoyment’ is a tough one Stuart! The only really enjoyable games are the ones when the season is over and you can’t go up or down! You can actually sit there and enjoy the match then. The rest of the time it’s incredibly stressful.
“No, last season was great. It really was enjoyable. I think if we hadn’t made the play-offs then we would have all felt that we’d let ourselves down after having such a good season and sitting in second halfway through.
“David McGoldrick got injured in that Southampton FA Cup game, but the silver lining there was that Freddie Sears came in and did an amazing job and he’s looking really, really good for this season.
“When you look back, yes, it would have been nice to have gone a bit further, but hopefully we can this season.”
This seems to be the most stable this football club has been in a long time, both on and off the pitch. How good an opportunity is this to kick on and how keen are you to keep the momentum going which Mick has built? You talked about it being a long-term project. How do you see the short-term?
ME: “It certainly looks on paper that we’ve got a better starting squad than we had this time last year. Mick and I were chatting the other day and he said that he felt he’s got stronger options in several positions now.
“I think a lot of fans probably felt that we were lacking strength as far as wide players were concerned and I think we’ve got a couple of really good ones this year in the guy from Arsenal (Ainsley Maitland-Niles) and the guy from Bournemouth (Ryan Fraser).
“Unfortunately they are not owned by us at the moment, but we’ve got them for a whole year so let’s hope they can do something special for us.
“At the moment I feel very good about this year. It does feel like we’re starting from a better position than this time last year. We’ve added to the strikers. (Brett) Pitman looks great, David (McGoldrick) is back fit, yes we lost Tyrone (Mings), but the little bit that we’ve seen from the guy from Denmark (Jonas Knudsen), as well as having Jonny Parr there, I think we look pretty strong in defence as well.
“So, yes, I’m really encouraged about this year. We’re on very firm financial footing, which means that the financial investment can continue into next season and the season after.
“If you look at the core of our squad, most of them are committed, contractually at least, for the next two or three years and we would hope to sit down with them and extend those contracts again at the right moments.
“This season looks good. Financially we are in the right place to be able to invest going forwards and we have a core squad that should be with us for some time.”
It’s night and day to the situation when you first arrived, in terms of the stability isn’t it? There’s no longer a reliance on loan players, attendances are finally climbing, players aren’t walking away on Bosmans anymore. Everything just seems, on and off the pitch, to be moving in the right direction again. Do you feel like the tide has finally started to turn?
ME: “It definitely feels like that, but football and life has a way of coming back and knocking you when you think everything is going well so I’m careful not to come across as over optimistic here.
“I will still be there supporting the club and doing what I’m doing if we go through another tough period. The tough periods we’ve had will have given me the desire, whatever happens, to make sure that we do the right things going forwards.
“Hopefully this year will be one of further growth and improvement. It absolutely feels like that right now, you’re right, it definitely feels as though we’re going in the right direction. Everything is looking good, everything is looking positive, let’s hope that’s the way which it continues.
“If we do have a bit of a hiccup, and a banana skin comes along, I’m sure the fans will be there to back the manager and back the club. I’ll be exactly the same.
“I’ll be there, like you, being very optimistic about what we’re doing and I’m sure that this is going to be a moment of improvement. And if it’s not, we’ll put it right and go on from there.”
You’ve been very generous with your time. Just one last question. With money having come in from the sale of Tyrone Mings this summer, can you just assure the supporters that every single penny raised by the club goes straight back into it?
ME: “Wouldn’t it be nice if, before promotion, you could turn a profit in the Championship?! I’m afraid that’s not the case.
“Every single penny of the money we get for Tyrone – and don’t forget it doesn’t all hit the bank account the moment you do the deal, there’s always a payment plan – but every single penny that comes in is earmarked for reinvestment in the club.”