'Communication is really important' - Why Ashton wants to talk to Town fans

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

Mark Ashton, left, and Paul Cook will meet Town supporters at the first fan forum tonight - Credit: Steve Waller - www.stephenwaller

Ipswich Town fans have been left feeling disconnected from the club in recent years. New chief executive Mark Ashton told Stuart Watson how that’s going to change....

Mark Ashton glances at his vibrating phone, sees Paul Cook’s name and hits the red decline button. 

“Speaking to the fans is my priority right now, so he’ll be alright with me I’m cutting him off,” says the new Ipswich Town CEO midway through this interview. 

We’ve already heard more from the Blues’ new ownership group during three months than we did from previous owner Marcus Evans over the preceding 13 years. 

Brett Johnson, Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer have conducted dozens of video interviews with club staff, independent media and supporters. Mark Steed has interacted on social media. The US-based quartet are eminently relatable. 

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

Mark Ashton has signed ten players in less than two months at Portman Road - Credit: Ross Halls

Ashton and new chairman Mike O’Leary have been accessible too, going out of their way to meet supporters in person during pre-season games, while excitable boss Paul Cook has referenced fans at every turn and promised to hold open training sessions. 

It’s all a world away from Evans staying in the shadows, chief execs like Simon Clegg and Ian Milne not always speaking the language of fans and manager Mick McCarthy proclaiming ‘you’re either inside the tent p*****g out or outside p*****g in'. 

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Yes, Paul Lambert built some bridges for a while, but acts like the buying of beers did feel a little contrived and he ended up being cynically dubbed ‘PR Paul’ by some. 

“Communication is really important,” says Ashton. 

“I’ve had a long career in this industry. At times I've got communication right, at times I've got it not so right and at times I’ve got it really wrong. So I'm really conscious of it.” 

Mark Ashton first day 11

Mark Ashton pictured speaking to the press - Credit: Ross Halls

Ashton, who turns 50 this year, is probably referencing the fact that he fell out with the media badly at Watford and, more recently, was criticised by some Bristol City fans for only being front and centre when things were going well. 

“We all learn every single day,” he continues.  

“One of the things we talked about as an ownership group, when the club was acquired, was how we could be more transparent and open with the supporters.  

“I want to make sure that we’ve got some fans’ forums plumbed in. There’ll be one before the start of the season. 

“Then I want to put some more dates in throughout the season so that whether we’re winning, losing or drawing at that point in time the fans know that there’s a forum coming up.  

“We’ll meet the fans - myself, Cookie, the owners if they’re here, maybe Mike O’Leary, other backroom staff, whoever – and we’ll engage. 

“I want to try and arrange something for the opening day of the season in the FanZone where myself and the owners, travel restrictions allowing, will take some form of Q&A and interact.  

“The more of this type of communication I'm doing with you today, and the more I can do on our own platforms, the better.” 

That first fans’ forum is scheduled for tonight . Cook, Ashton and O’Leary will also take questions from supporters at Portman Road as part of the PLC’s Covid delayed Annual General Meeting (now an EGM) on Monday.  

“There will always be things we can’t talk about – particularly transfers,” said Ashton.  

“But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a load of stuff we can talk about. 

“I just think the more we communicate to our fan base the better. Whether that’s about stadium redevelopment, whether that’s the training ground, whether that’s the academy, whether that’s the Community Trust... We are going to try our best to be as open and transparent as we can. 

“It’s really important because - and these aren’t just words - the football club sits at the heart of the community. 

“The last 18 months have been real challenging times for everyone with Covid-19. 

“I sat watching the England games with my son Jacob and I said to him that there is no other sport, be it cricket, rugby, Wimbledon, that brings people together like that. Look at the fan parks that were open and the way people were celebrating. 

“Football is our language. It brings people together. Ipswich Town has got to be part of that.  

“We've got an amazing county here and we need to engage with the county. We need to engage with all the key stakeholders, we need to work in the community, because I genuinely believe that a successful Ipswich Town Football Club, both on and off the pitch, enhances our local community, whether that’s economically, from a health perspective or from an excitement and happiness perspective. 

“A winning Ipswich Town, a successful Ipswich Town, makes the county better.” 

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

Ashton has spoken of his new home being equidistant between Portman Road and Playford Road and his desire to fully immerse himself in the town.  

“Whether I'm getting my hair cut, whether I'm in the gym or whether, like earlier, I’m in Waitrose getting served by a lad wearing a mask with an Ipswich Town logo, people are asking me about the club,” he said. 

“They go ‘I know who you are, come on, sign some more players, keep going!’  

“You get little pockets of that everywhere and for me as a person that’s really important because there’s a danger you can get isolated in a bunker when you run a football club. 

“Just to get those little snippets first hand is great. I am so excited to have fans back in the stadium for that first game. We want to engage with them and we want them to be part of this journey.” 

It’s not just external communication that’s going to be key. Making sure everyone’s on the same page internally is crucial too - and the relationship between Ashton and Cook is arguably the most important link in the chain. 

Ipswich Town manager Paul Cook during the Sky Bet League One match at Montgomery Waters Meadow, Shre

Ipswich Town manager Paul Cook tasked new CEO Mark Ashton with completely rebuilding the squad following last season's ninth place finish in League One. Photo: PA - Credit: PA

“In the short time that we’ve worked together we’ve already built a bond of trust,” said Ashton. 

“We have really good communication. We’ll talk several times a day because people will call him and people will call me and we need to make sure the information is lined up. 

“The same goes for Franny Jeffers, Robbo (Gary Roberts) and (Ian) Craney (the first team coaches). 

“We sit down once a day formally, but we’re on the phone, as you can see, every other minute making sure everybody is up to speed. 

“Paul’s been great. He’s very straight forward to work with, a really good clear communicator. 

“He and his backroom staff bring a fantastic energy to the place. They are really positive and really clear on what they want to do.  

“So yeah, so far so good. I’m enjoying their company socially and they’ve been really professional to work with.” 

Average attendances at Portman Road had been slipping year-on-year for a prolonged period.  

And while there was the odd show of anger and frustration from supporters, the general mood, worryingly, appeared to be one of increasing apathy among a fan base who had lived through a drawn-out spell of stagnation and decline.

A general view of the stadium from above before the Sky Bet League One match at Portman Road, Ipswic

An aerial view of Ipswich Town's Portman Road stadium. Photo: PA - Credit: PA

Asked what his perception of Ipswich Town Football Club had been, as an outsider, over recent years, Ashton said: “It would be easy to say ‘sleeping giant’ because that’s a term that gets used in football time and time again. But I genuinely felt it was. 

“I’ve come here over the years with opposition teams and you could always feel the energy from the fans. 

“I guess the perception from the outside was that over the last few seasons that energy has dipped and it felt like the club needed re-igniting.  

“That happens at clubs at times. I’ve been at clubs where that’s happened.  

“My emphasis was to come here and bring people with me who would bring a different energy and a different professionalism and different tempo. 

“My God there’s an energy in this place now.  

“Mike O’Leary came back from the training ground one day and said ‘it’s a different place!’ When we sign a few more players it will be a different place again. 

“We’re going to create energy, we’re going to create tempo, we’re going to create pace.  

“The one thing I will promise the fans is that they will get absolute resilience, energy and effort from me and my team to take this football club forward.” 

- You catch tonight's fan forum via live stream here.