The fall and fall of Ipswich Town - 40 years on from UEFA Cup glory, how has it come to this?
- Credit: Archant
Former EADT and Ipswich Star editor Terry Hunt, an Ipswich Town fan for more than half a century, takes a look at the club's long decline over the last 40 years - and asks, how has it come to this?
When Mick Mills held the gigantic UEFA Cup aloft on May 20, 1981, it represented a thrilling high point in a glorious era of success led by the incomparable Bobby Robson.
After that memorable evening 40 years ago in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, we thought the success would be never-ending.
What we didn’t realise was that, sadly, that UEFA Cup-winning moment would actually mark the beginning of a decline which has seen our club slide from being part of Europe’s elite to our current desperate position.
There have been occasional highlights - promotions under John Lyall and George Burley, and the memorable fifth place in the Premier League in 2001 - but excitement and success have been very thin on the ground.
The last three years have been especially dreadful, with Ipswich dropping into the third tier, and struggling to make any impact even at that lowly level.
How on earth has it come to this? There are, of course, a number of factors. Let’s look at them, starting - inevitably - with finance!
1) Money, money, money
The days when football was pretty much a level playing field financially are, unfortunately, long gone.
Back then, smaller clubs like Ipswich, Derby and Nottingham Forest could compete fairly with the “big boys” like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” was much smaller.
The big clubs weren’t such an all-powerful magnet for the best players.
Teams like Ipswich were able to achieve success on a limited budget, so long as they had an outstanding manager, like Bobby Robson, or Brian Clough at Derby and Forest.
The word has always been that Ipswich’s finances started to go awry with the rebuilding of the Pioneer Stand in the early 1980s, leaving the club unable to pay competitive wages to international stars like Mariner and Wark, which triggered an exodus of the best players and started the long decline.
Now, money is everything, and Ipswich haven’t been able to compete, even with a very wealthy businessman like Marcus Evans owning the club. The arguments over whether he was prepared to invest enough are well rehearsed and unresolved.
But there is no doubt the club is seriously underperforming. If you assume that finance dictates everything, then our natural placing in recent seasons should have been towards the top end of the Championship, or sometimes struggling in the Premier League.
Rather like our friends in yellow and green have been doing in recent years.
Hopefully, with our new, mega-wealthy American owners, we are at the dawn of a new and very exciting era.
Ipswich have been blessed with two of the greatest managers ever - Sir Alf and Sir Bobby. Both absolute legends of the game. Many supporters would rank George Burley next.
Then - what about the rest? Not a great deal to write home about, especially recently.
Keane, Jewell, McCarthy, Hurst, Lambert - the five Evans appointments, none of whom can really be regarded as successes, with the partial exception of Big Mick.
Poor managerial appointments in the Evans era have played a big part in our sad decline - and the football had been pretty dreadful, too.
Let’s hope Paul “Demolition Man” Cook breaks the mould.
3) Player recruitment
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when the club proudly announced it would use a data-driven approach to player recruitment. Isn’t that the way other clubs had been doing it for ages?
Our recruitment has been pretty dreadful in the last few years. So many arrivals, so many disappointments.
Why don’t we find the Pukkis and Buendias, like our friends up the road?
4) Academy pipeline
The club is famed for developing its own players. The names roll off the tongue - Beattie, Burley, Wark, Brazil, Talbot, Butcher, Dyer...I could go on.
We still produce good kids - we won the FA Youth Cup in 2005, and reached the semi-final this year - but, in the recent past, very promising youngsters haven’t become outstanding senior players.
My view is that recent managers haven’t trusted the young players, and have preferred to bring in battle-hardened campaigners. Think Jonathan Douglas....
The pipeline has been blocked. That needs to change.
5) “Comfy culture.”
David McGoldrick’s very honest comments about his time at Ipswich spoke volumes.
He said he had got too comfortable and - wait for it - “there were no big expectations to go out there and win every game.”
Surely every professional footballer goes on to the pitch and busts a gut to try to win every single game?
The view of a “comfy culture” at Ipswich gained more credibility when the players seemed to visibly shrink when new manager Paul Cook laid into them publicly. Kieron Dyer tellingly described them as “fragile.”
The contrast between the current crop and legends from the past could not be more stark. Can you imagine Terry Butcher producing anything less than 100pc - or accepting that from any team-mates?
6) Community club no more?
Finally, the club has lost its way in its relationship with the supporters. A sizeable gap has developed, and it’s not all related to what’s been happening on the pitch.
In the days of the Cobbolds, John Kerr, and David Sheepshanks, the leadership of the club was local.
When Marcus Evans bought the club, that link was lost. Evans shied away from publicity, didn’t live locally, and was only at the club on occasional visits, apart from games.
He installed people to run the organisation on a day-to-day basis, but men like Simon Clegg and Ian Milne - decent guys - again didn’t have their family homes in Suffolk, and never gained a real understanding of what makes the fans tick.
The result has been a drift, fans haven’t felt valued, have become fed-up with dreadful football, and have made their views increasingly clear.
Rebuilding the relationship is a key task for the new owners. They’ve made a good start, but let’s hope the new chairman and chief executive are able to continue that crucial process. We want our club back - and that’s not just on the pitch!
So, apart from very occasional good times, it’s been a thoroughly disheartening and disappointing 40 years for Ipswich Town.
I’ve highlighted six major causes. The new owners need to address all of them as a matter of urgency to rebuild our club.
The encouraging news is that none are impossible tasks. It can be achieved with determination, vision, and leadership. Oh - and quite a lot of money!