Lee O’Neill on why Ipswich Town didn’t strengthen in January and the reasons behind selling Bialkowski
PUBLISHED: 06:00 07 February 2020 | UPDATED: 13:21 07 February 2020
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It was a quiet January transfer window for Ipswich Town. STUART WATSON spoke to general manager of football operations Lee O’Neill about what went on behind the scenes.
Q: You mentioned in an interview with the club that there were bids received for players. I know you won't want to go into specifics of names, but you've alluded that there were bids in the millions. Were they multi-million pound bids?
A: I think it's fair to say there were significant bids for players. I can understand why people would want to know what players they are and what clubs were involved, but the ramifications of revealing that are big to deal with. It maybe takes a player's focus away from being here.
There were a lot of enquiries about all of our players - not just the young players. Some stopped at enquiries and some went a little bit more formal in terms of approaches.
I said right from the start that we weren't necessarily looking for too much because we tried to focus on that last summer and assemble a squad that we thought would be up in and around the top end of the league and in a position to compete for us to try and get promoted.
We have a number of players who haven't necessarily played as much game time as they would have liked, so we've got those players to consider as well.
Q: How late in the day were those bids for your players?
A: Some late, some early. Normally with bids they come in early then it goes back and forth like any negotiation. Some did come in later in the window, right up until the last day.
Q: These 'significant' bids you've spoken of. Did prospective buyers come back with improved offers after their first bid was rejected? Did the club knock back several bids?
A: It's about how we see the player and our valuation of them. You look at the market and think 'if someone offers X what can we do with that if we were to reinvest it?' Sometimes our valuations don't match up, so we can't actually do much with the money that we're being offered for that particular player.
We've always made a clear, conscious effort to try and make sure that, if we take our younger players as an example, we try and grow them as part of our long-term plan that I've continually talked about, that the manager has talked about and the owner has talked about. We want to see them play in our first team.
In the last five years we've lost arguably our best players to some of the bigger clubs. That never really allows us to grow the youth part of the club. We're trying really hard to retain players and that was one of the big objectives at the start of the season.
It's not always going to be easy because there are people circling around that do want our players, but we're definitely doing everything we can to try and keep these players.
Q: How short were these bids of your valuation?
A: Way off! Look, we'll always have a valuation. I'm not going to put a figure on it. We might be slightly biased, because we're developing these players, but we want them to be part of our plan. We think if they carry on the pathway they are on then they will be not only good players for the football club but valuable players for the football club.
You only need to look at the market to see the valuation of some of these players who move from club to club.
From our point of view it wasn't a plan to sell them, in particular during that window, and it wasn't anywhere near the valuation we're looking at.
Q: Were the players aware of the bids that came in? Surely they must be, via their agents?
A: You work in the media, so you know how it works. I'm sure they are aware of it, but if they are it hasn't come from us. With the games coming thick and fast around the window we wanted to make sure their full focus was on training and playing.
Q: You've said there were attempts to get one or two in. How close were you to doing that? What prevented it from happening?
A: We felt we needed some more strength in depth in the left-sided centre-half area and so went out and got Josh (Earl) as early as we could.
In other areas we were in kind of a holding pattern if you like. We were waiting for the domino effect. Players move from the top end, then it tends to filter down. One or two of those deals at the top end didn't go through that would have had a knock-on effect for other clubs.
It wasn't just about getting any players in, it was about targeting specific players that were playing and ready to go. This time last year the plan was do business as early as possible to try and help for the situation we were in. The players we got in did their utmost, but they needed to get match fit and that took quite a long time. We didn't want to fall into that same trap in this window.
Q: So, in short, the players you had identified as being capable of improving the squad just didn't become available? It wasn't because you couldn't afford them or they didn't want to come?
A: Yes. Exactly that. Let's take, for example, midfield or forward players who moved from the Championship into League One in that window - there isn't many. If we're talking about making the squad better than we currently have, then we'd have to aspire to signing players currently at a higher level. That's not an easy process because the club who might let them go will be weighing up what they are going to do themselves.
We were a bit lower down that pecking order in that situation and we had to wait for certain situations to unfold. Unfortunately for us it didn't happen, but we still believe that we have a strong enough squad that can be up there and competing for the league.
Q: Selling Bart (Bialkowski) - talk me through the reasoning behind doing that?
A: It was really an on-going process with Millwall from the summer. It's probably unfair for me to comment on what happened during that window with Bart. We worked very closely with Millwall, we understood that Bart wanted to continue playing in the Championship, we have a contract with the player and, you know, we had to work through that really.
It's disappointing, but when the player makes it known that they would like to play at a different football club then it's quite hard to stop sometimes. We worked through that process with Millwall and in the end we got to reasonable ground. They had a valuation, we had a valuation. We didn't quite meet it in the first window and we managed to get there in this window.
Q: Playing devil's advocate, shouldn't there be no room for sentiment there? He's your asset, he's off the wage bill... Say Ipswich do go on and get promoted, you'd have a top Championship keeper ready to come back into the fold. Sometimes do you have to put your foot down as a club?
A: A 100% and those conversations had happened. When you're talking to players - and I'm not highlighting Bart, or any other player here - they've got to want to be here and part of what our plan is going forwards. Players' opinions change sometimes. That's part of their process.
It works both ways. We've got to want the player to be here and part of our programme and they've got to want to be here.
Q: People will inevitably look back at the 2014/15 season when Ipswich were top of the table at Christmas, didn't do a lot of January business, finished sixth and failed to go up. Might the club live to regret not strengthening from a position of strength again?
A: It wasn't that we weren't looking to strengthen in the January transfer window. It was about making sure the right players were available to come in and be better than what we've got. As you and everyone else knows we have a lot of players. Keeping them all happy and keeping the dressing room the right way is just as important as bringing in new players.
There was never a conversation where it was said we couldn't do this or we can't do that. It was trying to find the right players who were available and would fit a certain criteria. When you start to look down those lists there wasn't, unfortunately, too many that were available.
January is always a really difficult window and that's why a lot of clubs didn't do much business.
Q: Was it a case of not being tempted to do something for the sake of doing it?
A: It's a gamble. You could end up taking a younger player from a bigger club who has not had an opportunity to play at this level and you never know what the outcome is going to be with a player like that. Or we could take that same risk with one of our own players who we have developed. They may well get an opportunity between now and the end of the season if the opportunity arises.
For us to try and give that to our own players rather than other clubs' players is something we've looked at.
It's not like we haven't looked to try and strengthen certain areas. I would also say that there is a bigger aim of getting the club back in the Championship. Well you strengthen the squad to try and deal with that further down the line. We've got to look at what we've got, assess what they can do and whether they might be able to make the next step.
It wasn't a case they we didn't have a conversation with Marcus about what we could or couldn't do. Those conversations did happen.
Q; It sounds like a lot of thought is going into this summer already. How difficult is that when you don't know what division you'll be in?
A: It's incredibly difficult. That's not just for our club, but clubs in general.
Coming back to this window just gone, had we brought in three or four permanent additions and managed to achieve promotion then it's a question, if they're unproven, of whether they can deal with the next level. That's an unknown factor until someone is put in that situation.
It's important that we don't take too many gambles in those situations.
Q: Paul has said that him and Marcus 'butt heads', have disagreements and come to a compromise. You are a part of those discussions. What are they like?
A: I am very fortunate to sit in on those meetings. The conversations that go on are obviously private conversations, but I can tell you they both want success. Sometimes there are different pathways and they have to align those pathways and the time scales that we have to operate. They definitely do challenge each other in the right way. I'm learning a lot about the dynamics of their relationship.
I think it's important everyone in this football club does challenge each other and we're not just going to accept where we are now, where we've come from and what mistakes we've made.
We're always looking at how we can make improvements. I've said it a number of times - it's not going to happen overnight. It is going to take a while. I'm fully aware of that.
Ultimately though, everyone at the club is working towards a common goal of getting the club back to where it should be.
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