The ultimate sounding board, the trusted general and a different breed - relationships are at the heart of Ipswich Town's new era

Mark Ashton is the newly-appointed chief executive at Ipswich Town

Mark Ashton is the newly-appointed chief executive at Ipswich Town - Credit: Pagepix

So much of Mark Ashton’s working life is about relationships.  

And the new CEO is hoping the growing strength of those bonds can help take Ipswich Town to where they want to go. 

The new chief executive has given the club a figurehead it’s lacked for so many years, with Ashton’s relationship with Ipswich fans off to a flying start, and the warm glow of the club’s American takeover at his back. 

“You won’t hear me criticise previous owners of this or any football club, whoever they are,” Ashton said. “Because when they were in the seat, only they knew the challenges and difficulties they have. I can’t alter that. 

“But we’re in the seat now. This is on our watch and all I can try and do is impact everything in front of us and everything we do to try and take the club forward. 

“I have to use everything I learnt while I was at West Brom, Watford and then in Bristol to bring it all to benefit Ipswich. 

“When this opportunity came, I felt like it was another real turning point for me. I’ve had opportunities to join fairly big Premier League clubs in different roles but I’m a natural builder. There aren’t many opportunities I’d have left Bristol City for but this is a club with no limits to where you can take it. 

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“I like that we’re starting from a point where everything we should do takes it forward. That can help you build momentum. 

“I don’t know it all, I don’t have all the answers, but I will do everything I can to bring success to this club. 

“We won’t win every game and we’ll have difficult spells, but we’ll give this everything we’ve got.” 

Ipswich Towns Chief Executive Officer Mark Ashton with manager Paul Cook ahead of the game against C

The relationship between Mark Ashton and Paul Cook is crucial for Ipswich Town - Credit: Steve Waller - www.stephenwaller

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Ashton’s relationship with the game is still as strong as ever. 

Having started out as a young goalkeeper at the age of nine, supporting West Brom with his foundry-owning father, he joined the club after leaving school at 16 and has been in the game ever since. His playing career didn’t get much further than a difficult debut in a 5-1 friendly loss against Real Madrid in San Francisco, but it’s the business side of the sport which really ignites him. 

From the time he finished playing at 19, Ashton worked in almost every role imaginable at the Hawthorns, from coaching the first-team goalkeepers to the community department, youth team, commercial work or in marketing. He did it all with designs on the boardroom and ‘running the whole thing’. 

That didn’t quite happen at his boyhood club but the lessons he learnt there, under the wing of one of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning heroes, have stuck with him forever and set him on the path for Portman Road. 

“I was lucky enough that my first coach was Nobby Stiles,” he said. “Nobby taught you energy, integrity, discipline and how to do your job. He had standards, really high standards, and I’m so grateful for the lessons he taught me at 16 and 17.  

“I got the grounding I needed. I come from a working-class family and was taught a good, hard work ethic which has stayed with me all the way through.” 

Michael O'Leary after the game at Dartford

Mark Ashton and Mike O'Leary go back 20 years - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

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The words ‘high energy, demanding, loyal, commercially savvy, well-connected and a high integrity leader’ were all used to announce Ashton’s appointment back in April. 

And it’s clear the man who spoke those words, new Ipswich chairman Mike O’Leary, helped nurture many of the attributes he described.  

Ashton and O’Leary first crossed paths when the latter joined West Brom as chief executive and they have remained close ever since, working together again at Oxford and now in Suffolk. 

This relationship is a vital one for both Ashton and Town, with O’Leary the ultimate sounding board for Ashton, challenging him regularly. 

“He’s someone I trust implicitly and Mike is a man who knows me well and gives me a hard time – I need that,” Ashton said of the Town chairman. 

“He’s the hand on my shoulder that will say ‘slow down, think about this’. If I’m unsure and want to debate something I’ll go to him because he knows football and he knows how to handle people. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. 

“He loves nothing more than taking me to a game for the simple reason that, when I’m in a car with him for five hours, I’m locked in and I can’t get away. I will be getting a hard time from him whether we’re debating a ticketing system, a stadium build, a player signing or budgets.  

“There is a deep bond of trust there because he will say the things to me that I don’t want to hear. He always asks the difficult questions and is as professional a person as I’ve ever met. 

“He’s a great asset to this football club. He’s a key part of all the big decisions we’re making here.” 

Mark Ashton first day 12

Mark Ashton pictured with Luke Werhun, who has joined the Club as chief operating officer - Credit: Ross Halls

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Ashton has taken over the former manager’s office at the top of the stairs in the business area of Portman Road, redecorating and making changes to bring a more ‘open feel’ to the club’s day-to-day work. 

“I’m leading the ship but there are so many people here playing key roles,” he said. “It’s not me signing football players, I manage the people who run this business and we’re all in it together. We are one team.” 

Ashton may be the frontman but he insists the band are truly making the music. 

He continued: “There are so many people working their socks off right now and it’s all about ‘us’. It’s not about me, it’s about ‘us’.” 

New relationships are being formed but another established one has followed Ashton from Bristol, in the form of chief operating officer Luke Werhun. If O’Leary’s the sounding board, Werhun is the right-hand-man. 

“Luke has worked with me for a long time and I trust him implicitly,” Ashton said. “We understand how each other works and he’s a very bright guy – he's the best I’ve come across in compliance and contractual stuff. 

“He’s a trusted general. He works on the player trading side of things, working on the negotiations and relationships with players, clubs and agents. He’s embedded in that world with me and sees through my eyes which allows us to increase what we can do. 

“He’s dynamite in the world of football paperwork and is incredibly well respected in that football operational world.” 

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What about family? How does that fit into the world of football for a man who has two children in their early 20s and another aged 12? 

“It’s very difficult,” Ashton said. “You travel to where the work is and that can be hard. 

“My family have been so supportive even though it can be a 24/7 job at times. They know what transfer windows can be like and they know holidays can include dad having phone calls where I’m on the phone by the pool, having battles with agents. 

“If we’re out for a meal and the phone goes, they know I’m getting up and have to take the call. You can’t not. Transfer windows are all the same but obviously this one is a big challenge, given we don’t have a recruitment department here yet – myself, Luke (Werhun) and Paul Cook are fielding all of that. There was one day during this window that I had 85 calls in and out. 

“They’ve seen the stresses the game can bring and have been really supportive. We have a home in Worcester and I don’t think I’ve been back since I got here. 

“I need to be here. That’s what we do. You have to be right in the middle of it all.” 

Town manager Paul Cook applauds fans ahead of the game.

Town manager Paul Cook applauds fans ahead of the game. - Credit: Steve Waller - www.stephenwaller

***  ***

If you look at the managers Mark Ashton has appointed during his career, Paul Cook stands out like a sore thumb. 

A young Ashton gave Aidy Boothroyd his big break at Watford before then handing Brendan Rodgers his first managerial role. He also appointed Sean Dyche and Malky Mackay as coaches before they ultimately became Hornets managers following Ashton’s departure. 

Michael Appleton was still in his 30s when Ashton and O’Leary brought him to Oxford in 2014, while Lee Johnson was even younger when he was given the Bristol City job in 2016. 

Working with Cook, 54, is a real change for Ashton but he couldn’t be more excited by the way this most crucial of relationships has begun. 

“We run quite an analytical system when recruiting managers and, if you look at my recruitment of managers in my career, there’s a trend for younger coaches ready to take it on,” Ashton said. 

“Paul is more of an established manager than those and I can only tell you I’ve been delighted with what I’ve seen. We did our analysis on Paul, which really stood up, but you never really know until you’ve worked with a person.  

“He’s been first class. He’s approachable, willing to learn, develop and debate. His coaching staff (Ian Craney, Francis Jeffers, John Keeley and Gary Roberts) have been first class and their work ethic is off the scale. 

“The CEO is in every day and, during the close season, the manager might come in to discuss players but you don’t really see the rest of the staff. But they’ve all been in, every day. Not 10-4 or 9-5 but 8-7.  

“Paul lives and breathes the game. That’s the only conversation he enjoys but it’s logical and he knows what he wants. I love that. 

“He’s high energy. We have had some challenging conversations and we certainly haven’t agreed every time but we debate and find a common way forward. His football intelligence is very, very high. 

“I hope the team is very successful on the pitch and he reaps the rewards that brings.” 

Ipswich Town's new co-owners Brett Johnson, Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer. Photo: Contributed

Ipswich Town's new co-owners Brett Johnson, Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer. - Credit: Contributed

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Ashton is here to implement the will of the club’s new American owners who, while demanding success and paying significant attention to what’s going on on the pitch, want so much more from their football club than that. 

“They are such good people, all of them,” Ashton said of the Three Lions (Brett Johnson, Berke Bakay, Mark Detmer), Mark Steed (chief investment officer at the Phoenix-based pension fund which finances the club) and Ed Schwartz (who manages the pension fund’s investment through a company called ORG). 

“I probably speak to Mark more than anyone else. He messaged me last night asking me how we had got on with a signing (which turned out to be George Edmundson) and they are into it big time. They’re absorbed. 

“They want us to build this club properly and are clear in the fact they want us to build a team on the pitch as well as infrastructure and commercial revenues.” 

And this is where Ashton hopes the change of ownership and his firm hand on the tiller will help improve an often-difficult relationship between the club and its fans in recent years. 

“The big thing they have said is ‘you make sure this club embeds itself in the local community’,” he said. 

“I have talked about ‘running to adversity’ and have had a session with the players to talk about that. They will be signing up to that in writing and it will be the last thing they see before they leave the changing room for the pitch. 

“Those are just words, though. The real value is in what that brings and how our club works in the community. That doesn’t mean just turning up for a photo somewhere, it means helping to build the community side of the club, working with teenagers, the aged, health, social inclusion and anyone in our community. Our players and staff have to embrace that. 

“I’ve looked new signings in the eye and said ‘If you can’t tell me you will sign up for this and you won’t sign up in blood to the values of this club, then I don’t care how good a football player you are, we’ll go somewhere else’. 

“We will run towards adversity.”