Sheepshanks' vision for the future

THUNDER and lightning crashed and crackled in the Suffolk skies as David Sheepshanks looked forward to a new dawn at Portman Road, writes Derek Davis.He didn't seem to notice as he talked earnestly and openly about his beloved Ipswich Town and after the stormy ride he has been through recently it was hardly surprising.

THUNDER and lightning crashed and crackled in the Suffolk skies as David Sheepshanks looked forward to a new dawn at Portman Road, writes Derek Davis.

He didn't seem to notice as he talked earnestly and openly about his beloved Ipswich Town and after the stormy ride he has been through recently it was hardly surprising.

From the heady heights of Premiership promotion via a Wembley final, to UEFA Cup qualification after astounding everyone by finishing fifth in one of the world's toughest leagues, Ipswich plummeted spectacularly to relegation into, what he famously described as the Hell and Hades League, and eventually administration.

Many chairmen and even clubs would have crumbled as Town's troubles were compounded by a raft of external footballing factors which will change the face of the professional game as we know it for ever.

But Sheepshanks, along with Derek Bowden and Joe Royle, steered the club through the perilous seas, with the administrators acting as pilots in close attendance, and clear skies are once again evident on the blue horizon.

The Town supremo, who took over as chairman eight years ago, is confident getting back to the promised land which is the Premiership will be a lot easier now than it was when he first set out to climb into the top flight eight years ago with his famous five-year plan.

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There is no such long-term plotting now and it is not so much a dream as a vision that Sheepshanks has.

He said: "My primary vision for the club is for a swift return to the Premier League. The situation now is entirely different to 1995 when we set a five-year plan as to how to achieve promotion.

"If we had said in 1995 we would be promoted within a year everyone would have laughed. To be fair George Burley and the players then made a good fist of it and we finished seventh before progressing season by season to eventually gain promotion to the Premiership.

"Back then when we started we were not a Premiership club in any shape or form but now it is entirely realistic for me to say we can achieve a swift return to the Premiership.

"We have the 30,000 stadium, we have the infrastructure necessary to support a Premiership club in terms of rail and road but also within our own building."

Ipswich's Academy, under the directorship of Bryan Klug, has a tremendous reputation and is now delivering in unprecedented numbers. James Pullen, Dean Bowditch, Antonio Murray, Matt Richards and Ian Westlake all made first-team debuts last season, Darren Ambrose and Darren Bent came through from the year before, while Lewis Price and Matt Bloomfield made the senior squad.

Like a proud father, Sheepshanks beams as he mentions one of his babies. He said: "We always said it had to be a long-term, sustained investment and it is exactly that. We are beginning to realise the gains and last year, ironically, it was the best-ever year for the Academy.

"Bryan Klug and his team are working hard to improve the Academy every year. Yes, we had to tighten the belt during the tough year but the main focus of the Academy is to continually improve.

"We are said to be one of the best five Academies in the country and when aspiring young footballers, and their parents, think about 'which club should I go to get the best education in football and to give me the best chance to make it as a professional footballer?' then it should be Ipswich and in this region it should only be Ipswich. That will only happen if our commitment to youth development is absolute."

In the depressed transfer market Paul Clouting's commercial department has proven even more important than ever.

Sheepshanks said: "The commercial performance of this club has been revolutionised from eight years ago. One third of our turnover is developed by our own efforts. More than £7m a year is raised through three retail stores, banqueting, conferencing and corporate marketing.

"We have invested a lot in training people in customer service to a very high standard.

"It is the same in the cleanliness of the stadium, the pitch, the training of our stewards. Complaints about our stewards are a rarity; compliments of our stewards are commonplace.

"We also have the community department and we have public support.

"I can remember in 95/96 we had average gates of 11,000 and for some games we had as low as 8,000, which is a long way from the 22,000 to 29,000 which was the range last season, and we expect will be again this year."

Even the football aspect is more advanced than before.

He said: "We now have an experienced manager, whereas in 1995 we appointed George, who was then an inexperienced manager, although he did some excellent things for the club.

"In Joe we have an experienced manager who has a track record of being able to get clubs promoted.

"We have a staff behind the scenes who are very professional and notwithstanding the damage done to us through relegation and subsequent administration we have retained a very professional staff – teams from the stadium management, marketing and public relations, groundstaff and customer service for example.

"The organisation is now ready to go back to the Premier League. We have been built as a Premiership club and we need to go back.

"We have a squad which is still very strong by Football League standards. The core of the team is made up of established Premiership players, added to which you have youngsters like Matt Richards, Darren Bent, Dean Bowditch and newcomers like Drissa Diallo.

"Bizarrely, although we have been weakened by the effects of administration and relegation, it speaks volumes for the organisation that we are as ready and well equipped as we are to return to the Premiership.

"The slogan etched into my forehead is 'get a winning team'. Joe Royle is here to get us a winning team but it has to have community support and that has built up over the past eight years.

"That is why we have 18,000 season ticket holders and with these and all the other attributes in place we will return to the Premiership.

"Our commitment to go on raising standards in every single aspect of the business will inevitably result in us re-achieving promotion.

"I was convinced of it during the five years that got us there before and I'm even more convinced of it now because all the component parts are in place, except financially, although we never had financial resource in the five years before promotion before.

"We have been severely weakened by our experience, none more so than our core suppliers who paid the price along with us. And we still look to give them the maximum we can by going back into the Premiership."

By the time we finished, the late afternoon sunshine bathed the green practice pitch, not that the dozens of youngsters, playing matches as part of the Football in the Community programme, noticed.

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