Documentary requests, mini battles and magnet signings - Ashton on transfer window
- Credit: Steve Waller - www.stephenwaller
It's been a hectic summer at Ipswich Town, with 19 players signed and 26 of last season's first-teamers departing. STUART WATSON spoke to chief executive Mark Ashton after the window had shut.
A wry smile creeps across the face of Mark Ashton as it's suggested that Ipswich Town would have been the perfect subject for the latest Netflix or Amazon behind-the-scenes football documentary.
“Do you know what, when we came in we actually had a couple of people request that type of documentary," reveals the Blues chief executive.
"I just didn’t feel it would be the right thing for the football club. We might have lost out on players. We needed to be professional.
"But I do almost wish I'd had a mini camera on my shoulder for a month so the fans could see what a transfer window is like. Honestly, it would be the best movie they’d ever seen! They’d think we were all mad, but it would be great viewing! It really was a surreal period."
He's not wrong. It's been a summer like no other at Portman Road. It's been a transfer window the likes of which we'll never see again.
Paul Cook vowed to be 'demolition man' after the club failed to finish in the top six of League One for the second season running. Homegrown assets like Andre Dozzell, Flynn Downes and Liam Gibbs were sold. Club stalwarts, including Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse, were among those released.
Come the end of the window, 26 players who contributed almost 70% of league minutes in 2020/21 had gone.
They join Conor Chaplin, Rekeem Harper and Kyle Edwards in being persuaded to drop down into League One. Others, such as Scott Fraser, Joe Pigott and Wes Burns, were established League One stars. It's easy to forget that Tom Carroll and Sone Aluko, who have a real fight on their hands for game time, have played close to 150 Premier League games between them.
Backed by the club's new US-based owners, Ashton has delivered. Nineteen signings during his first 92 days in post is impressive.
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“I hadn’t really thought about the pace of it until Andy (Warren, EADT and Ipswich Star reporter) told me it was an average of one signing every 4.8 days," says the 49-year-old.
"That makes me blink a bit when I look back at it.
"(Chairman) Mike O’Leary has a really good saying with everything we do. He says; 'It doesn’t matter how difficult the situation is Mark, just step through it. Just keep your logic'.
“He’s fantastic. He’s a wise old owl. He’d probably tell me off for calling him that, but he is and he’s someone that I trust implicitly.
"Each deal that we’re doing I talk to the whole team about. Do we push a little bit further? Do we not do this? Luke (Werhun), (Andy) Rollsy, Stuart Hayton, Paul Cook, his staff, the analysts, the media guys... it really has been a team effort.
“We just kept going. The guys in the US were fantastic too. They were saying the same. They told me to just be consistent. And that’s what we did."
Ashton says the over-riding emotion at 11pm last Tuesday was one or relief as the window finally shut. He celebrated the signing of Morsy, which was 'touch and go' right up until a couple of hours before the deadline, with a Jack Daniels 'on my own in a dark corner'.
Less than 48 hours on, as we sit in his newly refurbished office at Portman Road, he admits to feeling 'worn' but leans forwards and engages excitedly in a way that suggests there'll be little time for rest.
“Do you know what, my iPhone simply gave up at one point!" he laughs.
"I'd used it so much it just stopped working. And I got really nervous about switching to the new phone because it meant I was going to be offline for half an hour and I was in real panic mode that I’d miss a call. Because there was always a deal on the go.
“I remember sitting down one evening and thinking ‘I wonder how many calls I was actually on today?’ I went through the call log and it was 84. And then there was a raft of voice messages we hadn’t come back to, plus all the WhatsApps and text messages and emails.
"So I must say I’m glad we’re in September now and it’s behind us."
It seems a little unkind to ask about 'the ones that got away', but nevertheless the subject is broached.
It's understood that the Blues were unable to persuade defender Sonny Bradley to drop down to League One early in the window, the centre-back signing a new deal at Luton, while a concerted push to land Rotherham's Matt Crooks didn't come to fruition as the midfielder signed for Middlesbrough on July 23.
With that in mind, did it become easier to attract big players to the project once 'magnet' signings were made?
“For sure," said Ashton. "When you’re asking players to step down that is absolutely key.
“I think the day we signed George Edmundson and Conor Chaplin (July 27) was a tipping point because there were Championship clubs, big Championship clubs, in for those two.
"I got a couple of calls from Championship CEOs saying ‘that’s really smart business, good players, good age, good value, can’t believe you’ve got them to come to League One’.
“So I think once we got to that tipping point that helped me. Because we still had to convince your Bersants and your Morsys. There has to be a plan for them to join. They have to understand what you’re trying to do and what part they are going to play in that.
“If they are an isolated part, and they haven’t seen others drop down to do it, then they won’t.
“So, yeah, it helped getting good quality players in fairly early."
He adds: “Then again, Paul did say to me the other day ‘in fairness to you Mark, you and your team haven’t missed out on many’. I think there was one we missed out on and that was (Matt) Crooks. And look, we made big offers. He had a Championship offer though and he decided to go to the Championship. I can understand that.
“Looking back, I think that’s probably the only one that was a specific target that we wanted, we went for and we didn't get. Outside of that I couldn’t name one that we really went for and didn’t get.
“We have lists of names, you’re always active in the market and you have to be in the game for a tonne of players. That doesn’t mean that you’re pushing forward on all of them though.
"In fairness, there was also Joe Morrell (who moved from Luton to Portsmouth), which was well publicised. But there’s no issue with Joe there at all. I’ve spoken to Joe since. He was at the other football club being medicaled when we made our offer. We were too late to the party. These things happen.
“Ultimately, I think we’ve had a good strike rate."
Asked what he felt was the most important deal of the 19, Ashton paused for thought before replying: "Every deal is so, so difficult. My family will say to you that during a transfer window every conversation is in confrontation. It’s like a mini battle. To go home and switch off is almost impossible.
“The Harper one was quite emotional for us all to get across the line because, and this is well documented, we did the deal, then the technical director at West Brom left, they were in the process of changing manager and there was a period where it took time to conclude.
“That just felt like ‘okay, yeah, we’ve got a player of real quality, real value’.
“He was another player who could have gone to numerous football clubs, but he wanted to come to Ipswich. So I think the Raks one was quite important."
And so, as that whiskey slipped down during the dying embers of August, how did Ashton reflect?
“If you ask my 12-year-old daughter ‘when daddy ranks something out of 10, what’s the best marks he gives?’ she would tell you ‘daddy will never give you more than nine out of 10 because he says there’s always room for improvement’," he says with a smile.
“Listen, we could have done things differently. We could have been more effective, I’m sure.
“I’m never fully happy because I always think you can do better. But I’m happy.
“I think the quantity is right. Too many men can cause a problem but I think we now have a squad which has depth for the season. And it certainly has quality.
“What we will now do over the next week is sit down internally and do a full debrief on the window. What did we learn? What could we have done better? What didn’t we get quite right?
“Only in doing that can we prepare ourselves better for the next window."
And then he quickly adds: "But I have got to set some expectations that this is not a normal transfer window. There won't be another one quite like this. I haven't physically got it in me!"