Mark Ashton's first press conference - Everything that Town's new CEO said

Mark Ashton, the new CEO of Town, at Portman Road today

Mark Ashton, the new CEO of Town, at Portman Road today - Credit: Ross Halls

New Ipswich Town chief executive Mark Ashton met the media for the first time today. Here's everything that was said...

What appealed to you about this project?


Just look at it (gestures around the stadium). A couple of weeks ago, myself and my family drove down one evening. It was a good three hour drive, and we drove to the back of the Cobbold Stand.

"There was literally a lump in our throats, just looking at the size of the stand, and the tradition, the font of the writing on the stand. My other half said to me 'Whatever you do, don't get rid of that of that font on that stand, that means something.'

"When you walk around the club, you see it, you feel it. I was 16 years at West Brom and I always thought that was a club which carried a huge tradition with it, but walking around this place this morning, my word. The memorabilia, the tradition, the history, the success that this football club's had - it's just too big an opportunity to turn down, to help be part of turning this around and taking it back to where we think it genuinely belongs."


Are you going to be hands on, day to day? And moving down?


"Already moved. We have a house in Ipswich, which is great. I get up this morning and it's five minutes to the stadium, five minutes to the training ground.

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"You've got to do that, you can't run football clubs remotely, I passionately believe that - you've got to be all in, totally committed, and it's long hours.

"This isn't a job, this is a way of life. Those who know me from my other clubs, know I haven't missed a second of a game, every game. You have to do that, you have to have that commitment.

 "We'll get decisions right on the way, and we'll get decisions wrong - but the one thing I can promise the fans is that they'll get my total commitment, all my energy, and everything we've got, to try and move this club forward."


Talk to me about some of your priorities, beyond the obvious, which I guess is helping Paul and the team win matches?


"We've got to get some players in, but we've got to get the right players in. It's really getting to know people and meet people, that's probably the piece I've been looking forward to for the last six weeks.

"I talked today to the staff about togetherness. I can't do this on my own, the players can't do it on their own, Paul can't do it alone, investors can't do it on their own.

"We need to make sure that we are fully engaged with the fanbase and the community, fully engaged with the staff, and bring people together.

"This stadium holds over 30,000 people, we're coming out of a pandemic, it's been a difficult time for everyone in the country. I think we have a moment in time where, if everyone can come together, we can build something very special here."


Mark Ashton first day 7

Mark Ashton pictured during his first official press conference at Portman Road - Credit: Ross Halls

Clearly you know Mike (O'Leary, chairman) and Luke Werhun (chief operating officer) very well, clearly you work very well together and trust each other?


"Yeah, we do. I've known Mike for over 20 years, we've worked at two previous clubs, Luke similar.

"They know the level of professionalism and standards that I set, they know the tempo that I set, which is very early mornings, very late nights, which is what we do.

"To have them alongside me is great for me, but it's also great for the football club."


How much do you think you'll liaise with the American contingent?


"I speak to them regularly. Sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, and they've been fantastic. The Three Lions are football people, Ed Schwarz and Mark Steed (from the pension fund) are really top, top drawer people, who have committed serious finance to this football club to take it forward.

"They're also keen, and keep stressing to me, how important it is that I build this the right way. They want this club at the centre of the local community, they want the club to interact with the fanbase, interact with the stakeholders and be a club that the community and its fans can be proud of.

"They are keen to impress that on me. In every area of the club - Rome wasn't built in a day - but we intend to take every part of the club forward."


And complete faith in Paul Cook? 


"Yes. Look, it's a results-based industry for managers, but I've known Paul on the circuit for a number of years and he's someone I've admired for a number of years.

"I think he was absolutely the right manager for this football club, it's what this football club needs.

"I'm excited to get the opportunity to work with him and help him, but my word he sets a tempo himself. He works hard, he has real passion and wants to take this football club forward  on the pitch."


Mark Ashton first day 5

Mark Ashton speaks to the press during his first official press conference at Portman Road. - Credit: Ross Halls

There will be real pressure on him to do that next season, won't there?

"Yeah, there will. But then if you're at Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, there will be pressure everywhere on all the managers, and they understand that, it's the world they live in.

"We give people time, we work with them, and that's the only way you can build sustainable success. You've got to put the foundations in place and do it properly, and if you do that, and you're resilient in doing that, and you keep doing the right things every single day, you'll get success."


You know what fans are like at this time of year, Mark. Ultimately, they just want to know when new faces are arriving. What is the latest?


"Look, Paul's been really clear on the type of player he wants, he's been clear on some of the targets he wants and the club have started to move on some of those targets.

"I will take that over as of today, and I'd like to think that in the next week or so, we can get some of those across the line.

"We've got to recruit players that can get us out of this division, and we've got to recruit talent around that. We'll look to recruit in all areas, we'll look to develop the Academy - and that will come in time - and we'll look to recruit players into the under 23's, which is the underbelly that we can develop in time for Paul and the first team.

"But we've got to recruit players that can help us win games come August."


How does that process work? Does he come to you with a list, has he already done that? Do you have much input?


"We work together. I'm not talent ID - I don't go and watch games and scout, that's not my piece.

"My piece is the negotiation, the relationship with the other clubs and the agents and the financial piece - that's the piece I do.

"Paul and his staff and the recruitment guys that are here lead on presenting the players that they want. Recruitment is an area that we will invest in over time, and we'll bring the right people in for that, whether it be technical recruitment, scouting, analysis, that's an area we'll heavily invest in.

"But right now it's all hands to the pump - we've got to get players in for August."


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So will he (Cook) be given the tools to do the job? For a few seasons now, under the previous regime, there's been an undercurrent that maybe managers haven't been backed enough to bring in the right players..


"Look, the club will be well-funded. But we also have to work under the salary protocols in League One, which means that you can only spend a percentage of your turnover on player salaries.

"And everyone's turnover is substantially down because of the pandemic. We'll be funded right to the top of that, but we'll be sensible - we'll be brave and bold, but not reckless. I think taht's key.

"But yeah, Paul will be supported. We want to make this club competitive as quickly as we can, and we want to get results as quickly as we can."


It does sound like, through time, you'll look into the entire recruitment process from top to bottom?


"You have to, for sure. It's one of the most important parts of nay football club. We can have the best commercial departments, the best retail, the best conference and banqueting - but if we get decisions wrong in recruitment, it blows it all out of the water.

"We've got to make sure that we get the right talent into the first team and the under 23s, while also investing and developing the academy, and giving our academy staff the opportunity to bring young players through.

"Because, by the way, FA Youth Cup semi-final is an incredible achievement. Lee O'Neill and his staff should be given huge credit for that, and it's something we should be proud of.

"We've got to invest sensibly in all areas to take the club forward."


What about potential outgoings? Has everyone in the current squad, or pretty much everyone, been told they're free to go?


"No, I think look - we'll assess every player on an individual basis. I've already started that process with Paul and we're in a really interesting transfer market. I've never had one like this in 30 years, the pandemic has caused a very depressed market, where clubs will trade players because they haven't got the money they've had historically to spend.

"We'll step through it player by player and if there's a deal on the table that's the right thing for this football club then we'll do it and, if it's not the right thing at the right time, then we won't do it.

"But let's be really clear, what will come first with regards to Paul is to put a team together for him that wins games come August."

ashton

Mark Ashton, the new CEO of Town, at Portman Road today - Credit: Ross Halls

Is it fair to say that there's a number of players in the current squad that Paul wants to keep and build around?


"Yeah, for sure. It's very fluid, and there are a number of players in there that he's said to me 'I want those here.'

"But with every player you can never say never. I've learned that before. The key piece is to assemble a team, and a team that work and perform in a way Paul's shape is and he wants them to perform.

"That's really key, and assembling those pieces of the jigsaw in the right way, that over a 40-game season can deliver success, is going to be absolutely key.

"It's not necessarily how we perform from the first game of the season, it's when we get to February and we're away on a Tuesday night, can we still get results?

"They've got to be able to handle going to Sunderland, going to Portsmouth, and they've got to be handle playing here at home - as fans come back, there's going to be expectation here.

"But we will work together, and we've got a really good staff who will bring energy and focus, they're real professionals.

"We've just got to get started."


More about quality than quantity? This club's had some big squads in recent seasons...


"Yeah, and Paul's clear on that - too many men can cause a problem.

"We've got to get the right amount of players and we've got to make sure that they're resilient enough to see the season through.

"There's a lot of clubs that you speak to, because of the pandemic and the rate of games over the past 12 months, that have really suffered with injuries.

"That's one of the reasons that Andy Rolls and Andy Costin have been brought in to sports science, to make sure that one, we recruit players taht can physically do what Paul Cook wants, and two, when they're here, we can adapt and develop them to do what we want them to do."


Casting the net far and wide too? The majority of the players linked so far, for what that's worth, have been ex-Portsmouth, or ex-Wigan, or Bristol City. But it's not going to be like that, is it?


"No. There's always an element of better the devil you know, so yes there are players at those clubs that we're looking at, but the net goes far wider than taht.

"We will endeavour to bring in the best talent that we can to win games."



And have you got bids on the table? Or any bids in for your players here?


"I will pick all that up today, but there are certainly discussions going on with clubs and players, for sure.

"As soon as I get my feet under the desk, I'll be taking that forward."


Busy summer for you, isn't it?


"For sure! But it's great. I hope the weather is like this every day because it's fantastic!

"I'm excited, genuinely - you know what, that's probably not the right word.

"I'm honoured to be here, I'm honoured that the Three Lions and Mark Steed and Ed Schwarz have chosen me to come and work with them on this project.

"I'm proud to be Ipswich, its CEO, and I can't wat to get going."


You know it's a long way from everywhere? Plymouth, Sunderland, Morecombe?


"I've worked that out already! That's great because I travel a lot to the games anyway, and I do a lot of my thinking and my calls in the car.

"I'm just really looking forward to help building something.

"I know I keep saying it, but I'm just overwhelmed by the size and the tradition of this football club.

"I was in the office this morning and I was looking at the '78 cup-winning team. My very earliest memory of football was being at my friend's house and listening to West Brom play Ipswich in the '78 semi-final, where John Wile and Brian Talbot headbutt in the first five minutes, Brian scores, and John's then got his head bandage on.

"And that's an iconic picture, and it's just bizarre how things come back. I look at the team picture, and Brian Talbot was my manager when I was a player at West Brom, Cyril Lea wsa my youth team coach when I was at West Brom, and the dots all join up.

"It's incredible. I just want to embrace the heritage, bring everyone together and play a part in taking what is a very., very special football club forward."


Mark Ashton first day 9

Ipswich Town's new CEO, Mark Ashton - Credit: Ross Halls

Why did you want this challenge? You've stepped down from the Championship into League One, was it a tough decision? What made you want to be here?


"I'm a builder, and if you look at where I've been in the past and what I've done, that's what I've done, I've built.

"The easier choice would have been to stay where I was, working for an amazing owner at Bristol City and with some amazing people, having just completed the training ground, and having a really good relationship with the new manager.

"But you get to the point where I'm 50 this year - my word that frightens me - and I just felt it was time for a new challenge.

"I think the people who have acquired this football club and invested in it are really special, and they want to do the right thing, and I just think sometimes in life, things line up - and this just felt right from the moment they contacted me.

"I love a challenge and I think we've got one, but I think this is a really special football club. 

"It's amazing how many people have contacted me who are Ipswich Town fans and have said 'oh my god I'm so pleased you're going there, you can do this, you can do that, and want to talk to me about the tradition, areas we can improve it, what we should do and shouldn't do.

"It's a club that seems very dear to the football industry's heart. I mean, just look at the former managers who have been here. It's incredible!

"I'm just honoured to hopefully play a part in hopefully taking this club back to where we believe it should be."


And talking about building something, obviously getting players in the door is going to be key. Have you spoken to Paul yet about targets, have you had a sit down with him?


"Oh yeah. We had dinner last night, and that's what we talked about for three or four hours with Mike.

"I've had three or four conversations with him on the phone as well, where he's wanted to get me up to speed.

"He's clear on the type of individual he wants, and I love the fact that he's really clear that anyone who wants to come to play for this football club has got to be committed.

"This isn't a stop off, for someone to go and play for someone else, this isn't where journeymen come to finish their careers, this is a football club that deserves better, and he is adamant that he wants players and staff totally, totally committed.

"He's already setting a tempo, and we'll be working on those later today."



Just digging a bit deeper into recruitment, I read an interview with you in Bristol where you were talking about your 'data dashboard' and technical recruitment. Is that something you're going to bring here, and how does it work?


*Laughs* "You have been doing your research! Absolutely, 100%. I've already been on to my PA this morning saying 'right, can we send the analysis, my data dashboards!

"What I don't do is talent identification. What I'd like to do is understand the industry - so we will understand what every other football club in League One is doing, and the market.

"One of things that between myself, Paul and his backroom staff, is we are very well connected and we have good relationships with Premier League clubs and Championship clubs and we will use those relationships if we need to either bring players in or to get knowledge on players that are out there.

"For me, recruitment is a balance between objective and subjective, a balance between data and analysis and a balance between scouting.

"Neither is right, or less or more important. They have to come together.

"Where I like Paul is he's really clear on how he wants to play. He's really clear on the makeup of his players. That helps us in recruitment, and we'll be active and we'll be on to it."


Mark Ashton first day 12

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

So he'll identify the targets, and then it's your job to get them in?

"No, he's part of it. Whether it's Paul, his staff, the scouts, relationships that we have, it's a funnel - all the names will go into the funnel and they will be measured against Paul's technical specification.

"What comes out of that are players that we believe will be right for this football club.

"But what we won't do, no player at first team level will come into the football club without Paul Cook saying he wants them. We don't work like that.

"I just don't believe in that. He has to say yes, he wants that player. But there will never be shocks or surprises because he'll be part of the process all the way through.

"And then when we get to the end point, and we agree that's a player we want, then it goes to me to do the negotiation and the financial piece."


Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the owners? They've said right from first meeting you, when they bought a football club, they wanted you to run it...


"I met them a number of years ago in the US, when I went out to present at the USL national conference.

"I was blown away by their can-do attitude. I've been in football for 30-plus years now, and sometimes we get stick in this industry to say 'football only does this' or 'football does it that way' and we don't try new things.

"And the USL, and the Three Lions in particular, were so positive about trying news ways of ticket sales, developing stadiums, building squads, they were fantastic.

"We spent two or three days talking about English football and how football was developing in the US, and the relationship built from there.

"There was almost a meeting of minds, and I think we all probably felt at some point in our careers there may come an opportunity for us to work together. And here we are."


And on that note, we interviewed Mark Detmer and he said you'd already sent them a bunch of ideas for things that you wanted to change at Portman Road, the matchday experience, that kind of thing. Can you give us any insight into that?


"There are two elements to that. First is we are going to hopefully have fans coming back now as we come out of a pandemic, and that's been a really tough time for everyone in the country, it's been difficult for fans try to watch on streaming, it's just not the same.

"Portman Road is our home, and I want to take pride in it. I don't mean this to be disrespectful, but you guys are standing here now and it could be sharper, it could be cleaner and it could be better presented.

"It's our home and we need to take pride in our home. We're not going to be able to do everything over night, but there are things that we can do. We need to make sure the stadium is clean, it's tidy, it's presentable, it's welcoming, that people can get a drink, that the food's right, that the beer's cold.

"And when people come back, in August, I want them to see a difference. And that might be in subtle small things, but I want us to take pride in this place because it's our home - and I think that's really important."


Paul Cook's Ipswich squad will face a tough six week pre-season schedule

Paul Cook's Ipswich squad will face a tough six week pre-season schedule - Credit: Pagepix

Just finally, what is, for you a realistic ambition for Ipswich Town Football Club? Where can you take this football club?

"Don't put a lid on it. Why should we put a lid on it? Why can we not do what Sheffield United have done? Why can we not do what Bournemouth have done?

"There's a club that's up the road they keep telling me, why can't we do more than they've done?

"There's no reason why. If we can get the right people together, working in the right direction, there is no limit on what this club can do.

"The fanbase is big enough to be competitive in any division. It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort, and I am absolutely so proud to be sat at the front of that group of people that we're going to put together."


The development at Bristol City, the stadium and also the training ground, are they things you'll look at here?


"I didn't do the stadium development, I did the training ground development, but I think for sure here over time we need to have almost an estate strategy for the facilities.

"You look at the training ground, it's a rabbit warren and the flow isn't right. It's not conducive to developing players - it's good land and good pitches, but we need to make sure the infrastructure is right.

"I think it's the same at the stadium. I'll make no bones about it, one of the things I'm going to want to invest in is a modern pitch.

"We don't have time to do that for this season, but with a modern pitch comes undersoil heating, probably desso. There's no point in us putting a team together that probably plays the game in a certain way and by February the pitch has gone.

"But to do that we've got to make sure that we haven't got to slightly move the pitch, we've got to make sure that the dugouts that people keep telling me need sorting out are in the right position.

"Because if you put the pitch in and then have to start changing, with undersoil heating, you're taking one step forward and three steps back.

"We'll take a good look at the stadium. We'll want to upgrade it and if we think that the plan is right to develop one of the stands, or more, then we'll put a plan in place for that."


There's been a lot of things at this club that have been noted down to be done when we reach the Premier League. And that's now 19 years ago...


"You put a plan in place and then you work through the plan. I don't think you should pin on the Premier League - the Premier League is a dream, a dream that I think we can make a reality here, but you've still got to make sure that your house is tidy, and it's functional, and it's professional.

"This football club deserves that, the fans deserve that, and we'll be doing that on the way through for sure."


Mark Ashton first day 10

Mark Ashton speaks to the local press - Credit: Ross Halls

I remember talking to one of your predecessors about  the pitch, and I think he said it will take a million, a million and a half...


"Yeah. It needs a modern pitch, it hasn't got a modern pitch.

"The groundsman tells me that there's never been a modern pitch here, and it will need that, but that will be a substantial investment and we'll have to start planning that now for this time next year.

"But I think that's like putting a roof on your house. If you haven't got a roof on your house, you're going to have a problems. If we haven't got the pitch right at Portman Road, we're going to have problems.

"That is certainly something that will be on our agenda going forward."


Luke's Werhun's with you. Why's he here and what's his role?


"Luke's chief operating officer. In essence he's my number two.

"As with Mike O'Leary, they're both people I've worked with at previous clubs, I trust implicitly, but more importantly understand the standards that I set and the tempo that I work at.

"Joking apart, they don't do holidays, they don't do days off. It's Saturday/Sundays and they will totally commit to this football club.

"I think in their areas of expertise, the club will benefit. They've got great knowledge, great understanding and I'm delighted that Mike's here from a board perspective and from an operating point of view, Luke will be a very very important member of the team."


Can I ask about Lee O'Neill? Will he still be part of your team?


"Yeah, for sure. I'm just getting to know Lee. I spoke to him a couple of times and he has this football club's interests at heart.

"I've tried to make it really clear to the staff, we've not come in here with the intention of moving anyone on.

"All we ask is that they commit, their professionalism is high and they work hard, because we will set a tempo."

"We want people to be proud of this football club and be part of it. We can't do this unless the players, the staff, the fans, the business community are all together.

"One of our challenges is drawing everyone together. We will communicate as much as we can and look, there are obviously things in a transfer window that I can't talk about because it might compromise the club's ability to sign players.

"But we intend to hold a fans' forum before the start of the season, I'd like to have all of our board members from the other side of the pond on that, if not all, at least some, and we'll put a plan in place so that fans know when we're communicating to them throughout the year, we'll be accessible on matchdays, because engagement with supporters is key and we'll do our best to communicate as much as we can."

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