CEO Ashton's whirlwind first year as Ipswich Town commander-in-chief
- Credit: Archant
Portman Road was basking in the June sunshine as Ipswich Town’s new commander-in-chief laid out his mission statement 12 months ago.
Mark Ashton celebrates a year at the helm of Ipswich Town today and a lot has changed since the CEO introduced himself to supporters during his opening press conference.
Outsiders looking in at Ipswich Town will see a club which, under much-heralded new ownership and with a high-profile executive at the helm, has stood still during its first year. A finish of 11th in League One is a regression on the previous season and, in the end, the Blues were well adrift of the promotion places.
Those facts can’t be debated. To say Town finishing well outside the promotion picture for three straight years is a disappointment would be an understatement in the extreme.
But league position alone doesn’t tell the story of Ashton’s first 12 months. Not even close.
Those of us invested in the Blues can see a club in good health, with a bright future, a well-supported manager and with a new ‘can-do’ attitude. A crowd of 26,000 was inside Portman Road for a dead-rubber on the final day of the season. That’s all the evidence you could ever want in terms of a health check.
A lot of that is down to Ashton.
It had become clear Marcus Evans’ failure to both employ and then empower a hands-on, knowledgeable figurehead was a significant failure which was never addressed. Neither Simon Clegg nor Ian Milne had the knowledge of football to succeed and Lee O’Neill was asked to do far, far too much.
- 1 Fuel protests: Twelve miles of queues reported on A12
- 2 Macauley Bonne: Town is not a closed book... I've got unfinished business
- 3 Man in 40s stabbed at town centre multi-storey car park
- 4 Suffolk's first blue badge prosecution for Haverhill woman
- 5 Road closed and person trapped in car after crash
- 6 7 of the prettiest cafes in Suffolk
- 7 Suspected drink driver arrested after three cars damaged in crash
- 8 'We're going to push back!' - Ashton's message to Norwich City
- 9 Dobra signs for Cook's Chesterfield after Ipswich departure
- 10 Tent, kitchen units and bedding dumped in 'unsightly' fly-tipping
But Evans’ sale to American ownership, a group including Ashton in their rank, changed all that. Town now have real experience and know-how in an important position, crucially empowered by the owners.
We’ve already seen the value of it.
“You've got to be all in, totally committed, and it's long hours,” Ashton said on his first day, after arriving from Bristol City.
"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.
"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.”
He spoke of reviving Portman Road, bringing the club closer to the fans, increasing community presence, driving standards and improving a club structure which had fallen away over the previous decade. It’s hard to argue he isn’t delivering on all of that.
But the bulk of the questioning on the CEO’s first day was focussed on the transfer market. It had to be.
He arrived at a time when Paul Cook had pressed his big red button and blown up his squad. We know how that story went. More than 20 players out and 19 in during a hectic summer which was followed up by a slightly more-calm January.
Ashton’s always been an important player in the transfer market with his previous clubs but he was required to get his hands dirty more than ever before on this occasion. He doesn’t identify the transfer targets but, once players have been pinpointed, Ashton takes it from there through to completion. It was a relentless summer with little time to take a breath.
There have been some big hits in the likes of Christian Walton, Wes Burns, Sam Morsy, Conor Chaplin and George Edmundson. Some haven’t come off – Scott Fraser is a good example of that and more will become apparent this summer – but that was always going to be the case given the size of the task at hand.
The CEO joked he had gone to ‘lie down for a week in a darkened room’ at the end of the summer window. It was a period navigated with skeleton staff but that’s changed since, with further arrivals beefing up a recruitment department now headed up by Sam Williams. He arrives from Manchester United.
Recruitment is an area which will grow further in terms of staff, with Ashton also putting together an all-new ‘performance team’ to work alongside and aid his first-team manager. Andy Rolls followed from Bristol City to head that up, while Gary Probert made the same journey to become director of football operations. There’s likely to be significant change within the academy staff in the coming months, too.
New heads of department have arrived in finance, media and to manage Portman Road as a venue – another area where Ashton has been busy during his first year. The CEO said what many had been thinking about the state of Town’s famous old home when he spoke on his first day, with significant work since put into giving the stadium a spring clean and the love it hadn’t had for some years.
That work goes up a level this summer with the arrival of a big screen, electronic advertising boards and modern dugouts ahead of the new season, while a new PA system is also in the works. More than £1million will be spent to lay a state-of-the-art pitch next summer while similar work will also be undertaken at the training ground in the future. A full modernisation of Playford Road will follow at some point, while the club has also bought land behind the South Stand for potential development. There are exciting possibilities there.
Town have a firm hand on the tiller and an authoritative voice which was missing in the past. Ashton’s presence has made Ipswich more functional, approachable and accountable.
He said on day one he would be as open with supporters about the direction of their club as possible and he’s been true to his word on that, be it through the media, speaking with supporter podcasts or at fan forums.
Ashton has often spoken of being continually surprised by just how much work there has been to do at Ipswich during his opening year. A run through of the changes which have taken place in that time highlights that. Plenty more has been done that hasn’t been mentioned here.
He’s not done it alone, that must be stressed. The club’s ‘Running Towards Adversity’ philosophy, the club’s values and, of course, finance, all come from the top down through the American owners. Chairman Mike O’Leary and chief operating officer Luke Werhun provide Ashton with a trusted sounding board on a daily basis while he also regularly seeks advice from elsewhere. That’s vital, as is the tireless work of staff throughout the club.
There’s been an empowerment of previously down-trodden club staff, with employees in many areas energised by leadership and the ability to make progress in projects which had or would have stalled under the previous ownership. Winning the EFL’s Family Club of the Year award is a good example of what those working within the club are capable of achieving with the right backing. There are others, too.
He’s certainly a leading player but this isn’t The Mark Ashton Show. The man himself will be the first to stress that.
Ask the Town CEO and he will tell you he has perhaps spoken too much during his first season at the helm. But he had to. If he hadn’t, there would have been nobody to do so for him. And after years of having nobody speaking from the top of the football club, having regular communication from the CEO has been a breath of fresh air.
But, now with key figures appointed to important positions, there should be space for him to step out of the spotlight slightly in year two and for others to do the talking. That doesn’t mean he’ll slow down.
We’ve reached this point without discussing the biggest decision Ashton had to make during his first 12 months at Portman Road. It was one which certainly wasn’t in his plan for the season as he stood in the Suffolk sun a year ago.
But it is one which will shape the future. It’s already started to.
On the evening of December 4, after a miserable 0-0 home draw with Barrow in the FA Cup, Ashton sacked manager Cook. Things were heading the wrong way but the timing was perhaps a little surprising to a fanbase used to managers holding on longer than they probably should have done.
As Town began to drift, Ashton’s gut had told him a change needed to be made and, after consulting some of those close to him, he took his feelings to the club’s owners. Each member of Gamechanger supported his decision and the first manager of the Gamechanger era departed. Ashton felt like he couldn’t wait.
And it’s the performance of the first appointment of his own which will shape the mood when the second anniversary of Ashton’s arrival comes around next June.
There’s universal support for Kieran McKenna, a man Ashton was delighted to land after taking a step back following a first round of managerial interviews to assess his options. Hiring McKenna was the result of that, as Ashton once again gave a talented young coach their big break. He did the same with Aidy Boothroyd and Brendan Rodgers at Watford and will be hoping for similar success this time.
McKenna’s presence and the year of work Ashton has behind him is why so many fans turned up for an otherwise meaningless game with Charlton on April 30. The Addicks were dispatched 4-0 and Ipswich will enter next season as one of the promotion favourites and with a huge wave of optimism behind them.
There’s no denying the impact of the Blues’ CEO has been an extremely positive one during the first 12 months. The building blocks are in place now, with a few more to be added in the summer transfer window. That process has already begun.
But it’s time to see the house go up and Ipswich convert the positive feeling off the pitch into success on it.
And if that happens in 2022/23, the second anniversary in 12 months will be a time of celebration.