Gavin Barber looks at how, despite experiencing major changes in recent years, Ipswich are no closer to getting out of the Championship
When Preston were relegated from the Championship at the end of last season, pub quiz aficionados made note of the fact that Coventry took over as the longest-serving team in the second tier of English football. It is a mantle that seems to sit uneasily on Sky Blue shoulders, given the apparent hurry with which they are setting about the task of following their predecessors out through the trap door. Should they do so, the title will pass to Ipswich Town – assuming that they too can stay out of League One.
That this should even be a consideration for Ipswich at the halfway point of the season is a fairly damning indictment of a campaign that began with many pundits tipping Paul Jewell's extensively rebuilt side as promotion contenders. Instead, Town have lurched from moments of outstanding promise to rather more frequent spells of prolonged ineptitude, and little in between. In their first 21 matches they drew only twice. An astonishing run of seven consecutive defeats in October and November adjusted supporters' expectations about the direction of the club's Championship exit strategy and led to some more fundamental questions being asked.
Unlike the aforementioned Coventry, Ipswich is not a club racked with financial and political strife. Since Marcus Evans bought Ipswich four years ago, there has been stability in the running of the club, and significant investment in the playing squad. "Underachievement" is a term overused by fans of every club that isn't Barcelona, but it is an undeniable fact that while Ipswich have stagnated, less well-resourced clubs – Norwich, for example – have prospered.
That air of stagnation is perhaps the source of fans' frustration. While clubs of comparable size such as Norwich and Southampton have made the dive into League One and come back stronger, Town's league finishes since Evans took over have been eighth, ninth, 15th and 13th – hardly an indicator of progress and arguably a mediocre return on Evans's considerable investment. Undeniably, and perhaps more importantly, "mediocre" would be a generous description of much of the football on show at Portman Road during that time, and in the last two seasons in particular.
Jewell is the third manager to serve under Evans's ownership. His predecessors Jim Magilton and Roy Keane were each given 18 months to prove themselves to the reclusive billionaire (Magilton having been in post when Evans arrived) before being dispensed with. Whether Jewell survives to reach his 18-month milestone at the end of this season depends on results picking up quickly. Some fans are beginning to wonder if successive managerial failure indicates that the problem lies elsewhere.
With increased resources comes increased expectation, and there has been a discernible shift in the dynamic between fans and supporters since Evans – who has never been to a game – began bankrolling the club. Whereas top-flight football might once have been seen as an achievement in itself for a provincial club like Ipswich, some now regard it as Town's natural stage, despite the 11 years that have passed since our last appearance under those bright lights. There is almost an echo of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: "We are big. It is the league that got small."
Nonetheless, most supporters could probably stomach life outside the Premier League if the values that underpinned the club's oft-reminisced glory days under Bobby Robson were somewhere evident in the class of 2012. The club's tradition of giving home-grown young players a chance to shine has seemed somewhat lost of late, amid a bewildering in-and-out flurry of transfers and loan signings. To some, it doesn't feel quite so much like "our" club any more.
The commitment to youth development is a tangible example of what makes Ipswich the club its fans like to think it is. Like Trigger's broom in Only Fools and Horses, which famously had its head replaced 17 times and its handle 14 times, the question is whether the club – or at least some fans' perception of what it is about the club they are emotionally attached to – still feels like the same entity.
A few weeks ago, chief executive Simon Clegg pondered aloud on whether Town would invest in a "category one" academy when the new four-tier system comes into effect in 2012-13. "What are the benefits?" wondered Clegg. The fact that Ipswich are even considering settling for second best in terms of youth development feels like another marked separation with the past – another new handle on Trigger's broom.
The irony of Trigger's situation – indeed, the basis of the entire gag – was that he had been rewarded by his employers for using the "same" broom for 20 years. Town may soon become the most consistent presence in English football's second tier, but a period of no changes to the club's status has seen immense changes to the club itself. The Marcus Evans revolution needs to inspire some evolution soon to retain the loyalty and interest of those disillusioned fans, and, one suspects, of Evans himself.
From WSC 300 February 2012