Spending, style of play, expectations and the weight of history - the big Ipswich Town debate

Ipswich Town players link arms ahead of the Ipswich Town v Reading (Championship) football match at

Ipswich Town players link arms ahead of the Ipswich Town v Reading (Championship) football match at Portman Road, Ipswich, on 02 February 2016. Picture: Steve Waller www.stephenwaller.com - Credit: Picture: Steve Waller

Following three-and-a-bit years of steady progress under Mick McCarthy’s leadership, Ipswich Town appear to be reaching a crucial juncture. Stuart Watson analyses the key issues.

Mick McCarthy

Mick McCarthy

Spending

When he bought the club in December 2007, Marcus Evans was advised that it wouldn’t take much investment in the playing budget to reach the Premier League.

Jim Magilton was discarded, then Roy Keane and Paul Jewell wasted several millions on players that didn’t make the grade and Town’s owner decided to change tack.

Mick McCarthy was selected for his reputation at getting the best out of players. Evans, a cheerleader for Financial Fair Play and the ethos that football clubs need to start living within their means, has stuck almost exclusively to free transfers, loans and swap deals.

It’s a commendable philosophy in this frankly ridiculous era of boom and bust football clubs. Ipswich have experienced administration in the not so distant past and there are plenty of current day examples – Portsmouth and Bolton just two – that act as a reminder that off-field stability is not a quality to be underestimated.

Evans hasn’t exactly pulled the plug on his investing either. Every year he pumps millions into the general running of the club. The accounts show the wage bill creeps up year-after-year too. Don’t forget, a two-year contract on £8,000-a-week is an £800k commitment. It is, sadly, virtually impossible to run a profitable Championship club.

Paul Taylor was an expensive mistake

Paul Taylor was an expensive mistake

Most Read

And yet the concern is that this frugal approach will eventually have its limitations and that a glass ceiling will be reached.

FFP has shown to have no bite, rivals continue to push the envelope as top-flight riches rise exponentially and Ipswich could get left behind if they continue to stick to their morals.

The flip side of the argument is that big transfer fees do not guarantee success. In fact, sometimes they can raise both expectations, pressure and discord among a squad that doesn’t have a great deal of pay parity. Just look at Derby County right now. You can’t put a value on team spirit.

The last few seven-figure signings at Ipswich – Lee Martin, Jay Emmmanuel-Thomas and Paul Taylor – are also proof of how cash can be wasted. Evans’ fingers have been burnt, but McCarthy has surely done enough by now to have earned a bit of trust to spend?

Managing director Ian Milne says that, following the big-money sales of Aaron Cresswell and Tyrone Mings, there is some latitude to pay out on transfer fees (just how much we do not know). Maybe it is McCarthy who is reluctant to pay out then, rather than Evans? That is certainly an issue that needs clearing up.

Only the long-term will tell if cautious or cavalier is better. Middlesbrough, Derby and Sheffield Wednesday spent big in January. If they go up it will prove to be a risk well worth taking, if they don’t they could quickly be in trouble. It was a gamble that certainly paid off for Bournemouth last year. But is it a gamble that Town should be taking?

Town fans at Birmingham

Town fans at Birmingham

Style of play

It’s not exactly been easy on the eye under for the last few years. Mick McCarthy’s brand of football matches his persona – pragmatic rather than purist. As far as he’s concerned, winning is all that matters.

It’s percentage football – long punts from the back with the aim of making the most of second balls. At times it’s undoubtedly effective. The opposition can be overwhelmed, especially when they are tiring at the death. Hence so many late winners.

On other occasions it’s painfully dull, one-dimensional and predictable. Dozens of games are forgotten the minute you leave the stadium. The entertainment value has rarely matched the ticket price at Portman Road.

Grit over guile was needs-must for a time and those hard-working qualities played a major part in shaking supporters out of a state of apathy. They finally had a group of players to be proud of again.

Mick Mills and Frans Thijssen celebrate winning the UEFA Cup with Ipswich Town in 1981

Mick Mills and Frans Thijssen celebrate winning the UEFA Cup with Ipswich Town in 1981 - Credit: Archant

There was always going to be a point where a little evolution in playing style was required though. No-one expected Town to suddenly play like Barcelona, but there was a feeling that certain limitations had to addressed.

The first month of this season suggested that was going to be the case. Town played some scintillating stuff early on, finally had some flying wingers and were trusting themselves to play out from the back. That 5-1 defeat at Reading appeared to be the moment McCarthy slammed the brakes on.

Since then it’s been a familiar tale. The Blues have had either the worst or second worst pass completion statistics in the division for the past three seasons. Goals and assists from the centre of midfield continue to be severely lacking. With Ryan Fraser, Teddy Bishop and David McGoldrick all injured there are not many players left that can get fans off their seats with a moment of brilliance.

Of course it’s not as simple as saying ‘play better football and win more games’. It doesn’t always work like that. There are plenty of teams in the Championship right now who are more appealing to watch but who are below Town in the table.

Sensible supporters don’t want Ipswich to abandon their organised and hard-working principles. They love seeing their side being competitive at the top end of the table again. But there is a sense that a little sprinkling of stardust would make the more difficult days (which everyone has) all the more palatable.

Expectations

Is Mick McCarthy a victim of his own success? When Ipswich finished sixth last season it was generally accepted that a low-budget, limited squad had punched above their weight. It was a triumph of team spirit over talented individuals. A group whose whole was worth a lot more than the sum of its parts.

So was it really realistic to suddenly say that another play-off finish was the absolute minimum that should be expected this time around?

McCarthy made no attempt to play down such targets and didn’t shy away from saying that he had assembled his best squad since arriving at Portman Road. A flying start to the season (Town were top after four games) probably didn’t help when it came to keeping feet on the floor.

Academy

Very few football clubs in the land have fans with such a strong emotive feeling towards their academy. Town fans had become accustomed to seeing homegrown talent thrive in the first team. It’s a tradition which goes back decades.

A big part of the feelgood factor surrounding the 2014/15 season was that Teddy Bishop emerged from the youth system, while the likes of Kundai Benyu, Andre Dozzell and Matt Clarke were on the fringes. Bryan Klug was back in charge of the kids at Playford Road and the production line, finally, appeared to be moving again.

Bishop has been sidelined for the entirety of this campaign though, while there have been no big breakthroughs for any other academy players. McCarthy, meanwhile, maintains that ‘if they’re good enough, they’re old enough’.

Back in 2013, in an attempt to raise academy funds, Town set out an ambitious target – by 2017 at least half of the first team would be made up of homegrown players. That is looking increasingly unlikely as the date fast approaches.

That said, there is a lot of excitement around some of the younger age groups at the club and Town had three players in the England Under-17 squad recently – Dozzell, Ben Morris (both midfielders) and goalkeeper Nick Hayes.

History

It is said that history can weigh heavy and Ipswich Town have two stands named after England’s best ever managers.

I remember walking out of Portman Road after a decent win last season and overhearing two older supporters moaning about how it wasn’t ‘like the good old days’. It’s not, and it never will be.

Football has changed massively over the last three decades. Money and media exposure has grown exponentially. Town are what they are – the Championship’s longest-serving team in an era where everyone is desperate to reach the promised land.

The likes of Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Derby, to name just three, also proudly look back on the past. No-one has a divine right to success though.

The cups

Does a cup run give you momentum or provide unwanted extra fixtures that can derail you? Don’t ask a Town fan. They’ve forgotten what it feels like.

Mick McCarthy has barely hidden his disdain for knock-out football during his time in Suffolk.

Having progressed through two rounds of the League Cup to set up a glamour tie at Manchester United earlier in the season, McCarthy changed his entire starting XI at Old Trafford. Players like Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse may never get another chance to play at the ground.

In the FA Cup – a competition the Blues won in 1978 (there’s that inescapable history talk) – McCarthy also changed his entire team and they subsequently lost a third round replay at League Two side Portsmouth.

The Blues have now exited the world famous competition at the first hurdle for the last six years in a row.

To rub salt in the wounds, Ipswich failed to win both their follow-up league games after the aforementioned defeats.

In McCarthy’s defence, he is not alone in seeing the cups as an unwanted distraction. Sadly, the financial rewards associated with league positions far outweigh the prestige of knock-out victories these days.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter