What next for the club?

IT WAS a grey day for Ipswich Town chief executive Derek Bowden yesterday, writes Steve Mellen. The weather was murky, with light drizzle washing away any remaining tickertape from the night before, but so was the mood at the club.

IT WAS a grey day for Ipswich Town chief executive Derek Bowden yesterday, writes Steve Mellen. The weather was murky, with light drizzle washing away any remaining tickertape from the night before, but so was the mood at the club.

Plan A, which dealt with promotion to the Premiership, and how to spend the riches that come with it, is now redundant. Plan B, which involves another season in the second tier of English football, striving to make ends meet, is now in place.

Bowden can see some light on the horizon – more of that later, but here's the stark reality now. No players will be bought unless the club sells first. All senior pros out of contract will be offered the same money, or less, to stay, and any decent offers for certain key players will be listened to. Also, when the chairman, manager and chief executive get together, they talk about being in contention next season, but they are taking a longer-term view, pinning serious hopes on the following season.

"It's fair to say that if we don't sell a player, we won't buy a player," said Bowden yesterday. "If nobody leaves for a fee it's highly unlikely we'll bring someone in. If we do sell someone, it's likely we will buy but it depends on the size of the bid. Darren Currie was it for the time being," he said, confirming the fears of the fans.

But for those who assume that Darren Bent and Kelvin Davis – two of the stars of this season – are as good as on their way, the summer may spring some surprises.

"The question is not whether we have to sell but whether we want to. It's an unpalatable topic for the fans but we've always said that there may come a time when an offer comes that we really want to take. We don't want to sell the really young players but there may come a time when a player has value, but that value may not continue over time and we get an offer worth considering," he added.

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"I wouldn't say we won't sell a player, but I wouldn't say we need to, which gives us the chance to view offers realistically."

When the final whistle went on Wednesday night, and the door closed on Town's promotion hopes this season, Bowden's initial thoughts were of disappointment for the players and supporters, and not immediately of the cash the club had missed out on.

"My first thought was 'I'm not going to go to the Premiership'. I was disappointed because having been here for three years while we've been in the Championship, I've not had the chance to be chief executive of the club in the top division. We had financial plans for the club in the Premiership but we had a lot of other plans as well. I didn't think about the money first, I thought 'what a shame we'd come so close'.

"Plan A, for the Premiership, is a lot easier because you have a lot more money, which you get to spend judiciously, but plan B means you're in the same division, you've got about the same amount of money and you have to live within your means."

The gulf between the two plans is about £15m. The oft-quoted figure of £20m just for getting promoted assumes a club not only has a good season but also stays up.

"The bare minimum is around £15m, the bulk of which is from television, which is a lot of money, in fact double our turnover," explains Bowden.

Come August, Ipswich Town expect to have 18,000 season ticket holders in place for the start of the Championship season. Had they been in the division above, that figure would have been 24,500, with the rest of the ground being sold on a game-by-game ballot basis, and there would have been other benefits. The club would have immediately sold all the executive boxes and corporate entertainment for example.

In the Championship it's a lot different. Some £7-£8million comes in through gate receipts, maybe £1m from television and the rest from commercial sales and elsewhere.

Last season the club exceeded budgets for both the average crowd and season ticket sales, and yet will announce a loss when the next set of figures comes out, which puzzles some, but it's part of a long-term problem.

"It's basically a correction from coming down from the Premiership and the players' wages working their way through," explained Bowden. "In the CVA plan we'd always forecast a significant loss in 2004-05, but the big player wages are now out of contract so we'd hope to break even next season."

Ah yes, the dreaded CVA, which runs out in May 2007, hanging over the club like yesterday's rain clouds. They're counting down to the day the restraints are loosed but in reality, it makes little difference to the day-to-day business of the club.

"Clearly there is a legal arrangement there to repay debts as they have been rescheduled, but in the context of the plans you have a fair degree of latitude, providing we remain solvent and repay those debts on the due dates, we are left to run our business as we wish to."

Saddled with £30m of debt, preparing for a fourth consecutive season in the wrong division and maybe having to sell the cream of the current crop. It's a bleak picture, but Bowden can see reasons to be cheerful.

"I think the future is good , particularly looking at 06-07. You look at every season on its own, as a nine-month period, and because you're measured on that time span you want to do well in that particular season.

"After relegation we were seventh, then we were fifth, now third and we've always been in contention and I think the ambition for the club is to remain in contention.

"We do want to be in the play-offs or thereabouts every year, but actually, there is a school of thought that says have a go in 05-06 but perhaps 06-07 is the year when we can really have another push.

"That's based on the fact that the FA Youth Cup-winning team may provide maybe two or six – maybe more – players for the first team. Who knows, at that age it's impossible to judge, but there is certainly a good crop coming through, in the same way that Dean Bowditch, Ian Westlake, Darren Bent and Matt Richards did.

"So we are looking at a two-year period. Not to resign ourselves to being mediocre in 05-06 but simply to take a longer-term view of the playing squad in this division. The future looks bright."

And Bowden has little time for those who say that with 17 home wins under their belt this season and big crowds watching a winning team, the club is better off where it is rather than struggling in the Premiership.

"In financial terms you would wish to be in the Premiership, or even just yo-yo back and forth, but also in professional terms why would you want to be in the second tier, why would your ambition be to be nearly good enough?

"Our aim has to be in the Premier League with the Premier clubs, at the top table, that's why people work for this club, otherwise we'd all be doing second-rate things, and that's why I was unhappy on Wednesday, not because £20m had slipped out of our reach but because we could have played in the Premiership, both on and off the field, and that would have been great.

"To say we are better off where we are because we might struggle against Premiership sides is a terribly defeatist attitude. And the danger of just staying where you are is slipping backwards."

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