‘The first objective is to win the league... We need to strengthen’ – O’Neill on plans for Ipswich Town to come back stronger
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
League One football is on hold indefinitely. STUART WATSON spoke to Ipswich Town chief Lee O’Neill about plans for returning stronger next season.
Ipswich Town’s general manager of football operations, Lee O’Neill, insists winning the League One title is the goal next season – whenever that starts – and that the club will look to strengthen during the transfer window.
The Blues were among the promotion favourites after dropping into the third-tier, but a run of just four wins in 21 league games saw them finish in 11th place once the curtailed campaign was decided on a points per game basis.
Many of the squad’s players had spoken confidently about automatic promotion last summer, whereas Lambert – publicly at least – downplayed such talk, overplaying how young his squad was and always warning of ‘bumps in the road ahead’.
O’Neill, who has often spoken of meaningful recovery being a long-term project and ‘not something that will happen overnight’, was asked what the realistic objectives were for 2020/21.
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“Our objective is to try and get out the league – 100%,” he replied. “And it’s not just ‘let’s try and finish in the play-offs’. The first objective, once again, is to try and win the league.
“Going into League One was a steep learning curve. The coaches have done a lot of reviewing about why things didn’t quite pan out the way we wanted. We learnt a lot from last year and can’t make the same mistakes again.
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“We’ve seen some clubs stay in this league for four and five years and we don’t want that.”
Blues boss Lambert recently said that ‘recruitment will change’ in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and ‘that may well see more youth players becoming involved’.
“It will be a strange transfer window, quite a quiet window I expect,” said O’Neill. “I don’t think you’ll see many fees being spent by clubs at the lower end of the Championship down.
“I can see clubs calling upon their existing players and giving those coming through their academies more of an opportunity rather than going out and buying players or taking a loan.
“We’ve already shown that getting young players in the first team is a big part of our plan, but we also recognise that achieving promotion would be very difficult if we were solely relying on those young players.
“We do need to make some additions to the squad and hope to be able to do that over the next few weeks and months. It won’t be easy, because of the financial hit we have taken, but there might also be some opportunities for us too. There are going to be a lot of free agents available.
“So yes, we are going to try and sign players. We need to strengthen the squad. We want to be back in the Championship and pushing forwards.
“We’ve done our scouting, we know the areas of the squad we are focusing on and we have some targets.”
When next season begins remains to be seen, of course. Virtual meetings between the EFL board and its members carried on last week as clubs continue to discuss when the new League One season should start.
There has been talk of a mid-September kick-off, in empty or sparsely populated stadiums, though it’s understood that several lower leagues clubs are keen to keep football in hibernation until all restrictions on supporter numbers are lifted and they can bring in some matchday income.
The result could be another frustrating period of deadlock if the EFL once again fail to take decisive action and leave member clubs, all with their own agendas, to come up with solutions.
“The R rate has come down, we’re seeing games on television and, from our point of view, everybody is itching to get back going again,” said O’Neill. “We’ve always said we want to play as soon as it’s safe to do so.
“We have everything in place and are ready. If we got the phone call today and was asked ‘are you ready to go for late August to mid-September – which are the dates being mentioned – then we’d be saying ‘absolutely, let’s go’.
“I can understand that several clubs in our league aren’t going to share that opinion though. Some are very reliant on the government furlough scheme (which runs until the end of October) and will want to get the most out of that.
“I think (Covid-19) testing is going to be a major issue. It’s £125 a test. If you’re talking about having to test 30-40 people twice a week then that’s £30-40k a month. And at the moment that’s something the clubs will have to pay for.”