As Ipswich revel in their role as the nation's sweethearts and Norwich flounder, Gavin Barber reflects on their sudden change of fortunes
What were you doing on August 22? If you are an Ipswich fan, you were probably watching a thrilling draw with Manchester United. If you support Norwich, you were most likely searching for a reason to miss your team’s 0-0 draw with Bournemouth in the Worthington Cup. This stark illustration of the current disparity between the two teams didn’t go unnoticed by either set of supporters. Since then, of course, Ipswich’s astounding Premiership form and City’s further struggles have only made it more marked.
For all the banter that echoes up and down the A140, the truth is that the two clubs have much in common. They have a similar ground capacity and historically similar attendance figures. Both have a well founded reputation for producing talented young players. Town have been more successful, but City finished third in the Premiership as recently as 1993. Their fortunes have diverged since both were relegated from the Premiership in 1995, but even then it took a while to become apparent just how far apart they had drifted.
East Anglia is an isolated place, and there is a history of doing things differently there. Ipswich Association Football Club was formed in 1878 by a group of Ipswich School alumni who didn’t much care for the town’s rugby club and wanted to continue playing their old school sport – a dribbling game in which only the two backs were allowed to pick the ball up or kick it. Even after dismissing this as being almost as silly as rugby, the club which became Ipswich Town stuck to its amateur principles until 1936, casting the odd disdainful look northwards at their professional neighbours. They were not elected to the League until 1938, replacing Gillingham. City, by contrast, embraced professionalism as early as 1905 (having being kicked out of the Amateur Cup for paying their players), were in the Southern League later that year and joined the Third Division South in 1920.
The isolated nature of the region has always made any contrast in fortunes between the two clubs all the more vivid. For several seasons in the early 1950s City were among the strongest teams in the division, but never quite managed to win promotion to the Second. Local wisdom had it that the club didn’t want to go up – those in charge had taken the view that winning games at the top of the Third was a better PR exercise than getting walloped every week in the Second.
Whether this was true or not, City’s eventual promotion in 1960 came only three years after Ipswich had gone up. Being overtaken by the upstarts from Suffolk was simply too much to take. Ipswich didn’t hang around waiting for them to catch up, though – by 1961 Alf Ramsey had taken them into the top division where they famously became the only club to win the title at the first attempt.
Ipswich and Norwich have long been the biggest and most important settlements in sparsely populated areas. Ipswich’s steady fortunes have been based around its docks and supplies to the agricultural trades. More recently, it has used its proximity to London to attract commuters and commerce from the technological industries. Norwich, the larger but more remote of the two, was a big wool-producing centre until the industrial revolution, after which it concentrated on boots, mustard and, following the arrival of some Flemish settlers, the breeding and export of canaries.
When journalists aren’t scrabbling around the bottom of the cliche barrel for farming references, they are often given to describing Ipswich as a “friendly” club. This is largely the legacy of John Cobbold, the most noted member of the brewing family who have been on the board since the club was formed. His chairmanship (1957-76) was characterised by a happy combination of success and bonhomie. Perhaps his most telling contribution was to keep faith with the young Bobby Robson in the early 1970s.
This admirably patient trait can also be seen in the current chairman David Sheepshanks, but the ruddy-cheeked mayonnaise magnate is no Corinthian relic. During a bad run, Cobbold famously told a journalist that “the only crisis here is when we run out of white wine in the boardroom”. A charming little epigram but, as Sheepshanks has pointed out, one which rang rather hollow when the team were going down 9-0 at Old Trafford. Thanks to Sheepshanks and, of course, George Burley, such days have been conspicuous by their absence this season as Ipswich have married the best of the club’s traditions with ambition and business sense.
While investing in a burgeoning youth academy, a series of well-chosen bargain buys and sensible improvements to the stadium, Sheepshanks has also pioneered a customer charter full of impressive principles and, while the club may not get it right all the time, communications with fans have improved rapidly. Ipswich Town don’t seem all that far away from the contemporary ideal for clubs of their size – massive local interest, a national profile, a solid infrastructure and a team that can survive in the Premiership.
All of which turns Norwich supporters a shade of green so shocking that it will probably form the basis of a future away kit. Like any marriage, staying loyal to one’s manager is only half the battle: you’ve also got to stay exciting, sexy and solvent enough to keep them interested. That Norwich’s recent relationships have been soured by bitterness and broken promises is the legacy of one man: former chairman Robert Chase.
Though Mike Walker’s City briefly reached alarming heights in Europe in 1993-94 (having also missed out on the UEFA Cup thanks to the Heysel ban in the late Eighties) Chase somehow pulled off the double whammy of selling star players while simultaneously plunging the club into debt. He invested transfer fees not only in the ground and a new training complex, but also in more bizarre ways: a matchday radio station, a huge fleet of cars, some luxurious pile carpets for the boardroom. Of Walker’s successors, Martin O’Neill, Gary Megson and Bruce Rioch all got tired of wandering on to the training ground of a morning to find another two players sold and no money for replacements.
By 1996, with City in the First Division, the club had to be rescued by Geoffrey Watling and Delia Smith. But the financial mystery remains unsolved. In the past year, £10 million worth of talent has left Carrow Road, apparently without making any impact on the club’s reported £8 million deficit. Attendances have held up remarkably well, considering the club’s steady decline and the refusal of those in charge to explain just what the bloody hell is going on. The City fanzine Scrimmage! reports that “supporters’ expectations are currently at their lowest ebb for years”.
It would be too cruel to suggest that those 19th century Flemish canary breeders were the last people to bring any new ideas into Norwich, but the management of Chase and a lack of vision since have left the club struggling to stay afloat in choppy waters, while the good ship ITFC steers a steady course. A few years ago, a WSC article showed that Ipswich and Norwich would be among the first clubs to be submerged if global warming caused a mighty swelling of the oceans. The way things are going, it’s clear which of the two is likely to have a few lifeboats ready.
Thanks to Jon Garland
From WSC 168 February 2001. What was happening this month