Sheepshanks' remarkable legacy

The stepping down of David Sheepshanks as an executive director on the Ipswich Town board means a subtle but significant change in the club's make up. DEREK DAVIS looks back over the chairman's reign and assesses the Sheepshanks era.

Derek Davis

The stepping down of David Sheepshanks as an executive director on the Ipswich Town board means a subtle but significant change in the club's make up. DEREK DAVIS looks back over the chairman's reign and assesses the Sheepshanks era.

FLASHBACK to August 1995 when David Sheepshanks was handed the reins as chairman of Ipswich Town.

Portman Road was an antiquated ground with the sort of toilets and facilities only hardened football fans accepted

Kids within its East Anglian catchment area from the Suffolk/Norfolk border down to Chelmsford, across to Haverhill and even over in Holland, wore the shirts of Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and West Ham but rarely Ipswich Town.

While the legacy of Sir Bobby Robson meant neutrals had a soft spot for the 'family' club, they were not considered as any sort of football force any more.

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In came this whirlwind of a man, driven by ambition, a desire to succeed and a vision to revitalise a football club for which he has always had a passion.

First and foremost Sheepshanks was, is, a Town fan. Schooled at Eton maybe but he did his apprenticeship on the terraces, travelled to far flung away games on a soggy Tuesday night and took sufficient interest in the club to make suggestions to the board years before rising to become chairman.

After being invited on to the board in 1987, the year he sold his frozen food company Starfish and set up Suffolk Foods with his brother, his potential was nurtured by his predecessor as chairman, John Kerr and colleagues, and his organisational and management skills made him an ideal candidate for the top job which back then was regarded as something of a poisoned chalice.

Sheepshanks had already been instrumental in luring George Burley from Colchester and his position as leader of the board was confirmed in August 1995 after Town had been relegated from the top flight and were looking at how to get back.

While Town lost their first game of that 1995/96 season, 3-1 at Birmingham, their first home match, a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace, was watched by just 12,681 fans, with the Londoners bringing a fair few.

Worse still was the 8,256 that saw Town dumped out of the League cup by Stockport County in October and by the end of the season there was a 25 per cent drop in the average attendances.

By then Sheepshanks had called together the key personnel, including Burley, to develop what became famously known as 'the five-year plan'.

And so the climb back to the recently formed Premier League began. After missing out on the play-off places by two points behind Leicester, who went up, in his first full season a series of play-off semi-finals followed until eventually Matt Holland held aloft the Championship Play-off trophy at Wembley.

It was May 2000 and Sheepshanks' five-year plan was achieved on schedule.

Just as important was the work behind the scenes.

The club's commitment to its fans was largely being honoured.

A survey of supporters was implemented, more staff were employed, and work at taking the club into the community through education and charity was in full swing.

Sheepshanks was a high-flyer on the Football League board, becoming its chairman before promotion meant he had to step down for a while, and was making in-roads on the FA board, where he remains today.

On the field, Burley's boys, using mainly the players that had got them up, flourished and Sheepshanks hailed the Scot who became Manager of the Year for taking Town to an incredible fifth in the Premiership and a place in the UEFA Cup.

They were heady times, highlighted by the trip to Inter Milan when more Blues fans travelled to the Italian city than had been at Portman Road for the defeat by Stockport all those years earlier.

The success and a seeming belief that the only way remained up gave the board the confidence to approve a £25m bond to build a new South Sand and then North Stand.

But a combination of factors contrived to see the house that Sheepshanks build come tumbling down in spectacular fashion.

The signings of expensive foreign imports Finidi George, Matteo Sereni, Amir Karic and Ulrich Le Pen, shattered the harmony of the dressing room.

In an explosive EADT interview, Karic revealed the depth of problems on the playing side as Ipswich headed for relegation but no one had any idea of the depth of financial problems Town faced.

The volatility of the transfer market and the collapse ITV Digital meant the Blues just could not afford to pay the bills and with Jamie Clapham the only player sold in the January window Sheepshanks took Ipswich Town into administration with a heavy heart.

Sheepshanks had his fair share of detractors and no one was more vilified during the dark days of administration than the chairman who was urged to fall on his sword.

Instead he sacked Burley, the players and staff took a wage deferral and he gambled on the wily Joe Royle to get them back to the Premiership. One director, Lord Richard Ryder, stepped down, to later become a vice president.

In one emotional meeting in the summer of 2004, Sheepshanks told me he was close to quitting as chairman, by now a part-time role, as the continuous criticism in letter pages and radio phone-ins were seriously upsetting him and his family.

At the same time he was determined to put right the wrongs and went on the record to say he would happily step aside when someone else had invested in the club and it was financially secure.

He knew that he was unpopular with a section of Town supporters but also felt he had the backing of many, and more importantly the board.

He showed guts and integrity not to do what others, at Leicester, for example, had done and had the Blues been able to get back into the Premier League many local creditors would not have suffered as much as they did.

After Sheepshanks exclusively revealed to the EADT that he was ready to sell the club, specialists were appointed to find a buyer.

Negotiations went a fair way with a couple of prospective buyers but in the end it was a letter from Marcus Evans, who had written similar missives to other clubs including Leeds United and Southampton, that would lead to a sale.

It was manna from heaven and the club were sufficiently satisfied that Evans was the right man to take the helm and Sheepshanks was key to the negotiations that meant a takeover was completed with around £12m being enough to get 87.5 per cent of the club, along with 'preference shares' and he paid a further £6m to buy the £32m millstone of debt from its major lenders.

Inevitably, though, Sheepshanks' influence and power would be eradicated as Evans stamped his own personality and presence on the club and the owner has now the chairman a non-executive director, although he retains the chairmanship.

Sheepshanks has been busy elsewhere working to building up a consultancy business called Alexander Ross and continuing on both the FA and Football League boards, both of which his figurehead role at Portman Road allow him to continue.

It is likely that is where his future lies and it is possible that Sheepshanks will sever his ties completely with the Blues at some time in the future.

Love him or loathe him, Sheepshanks' influence on Ipswich Town over the 21 years he has been involved on the board, 13 as chairman, has been immense.

You just need to step outside Ipswich station to see the new look Portman Road. Visit the field turf of an evening or during the school holidays, or go to the education centre during term time, visit the Playford Road academy and see the picture near the entrance of the then sports minister Alan Caborn with Sheepshanks and Titus Bramble to see his legacy.

Town may not be much better off when it comes to league position, they finished eighth this season, one place lower than they did when he took over, but almost every aspect of the club is in a better position that it was 13 years ago.

Look around the streets and see the kids wearing the Town shirts, look at the number of women who now go to games, visit the loos at Portman Road where you will find soap and towels and look at the take-up of season tickets and thank the man with the original five-year plan.

For without the good times, we would not have had the bad. Overall the Sheepshanks legacy is positive, and one to be appreciated and applauded.