11 July ~ Back in 2008, a caller to Radio 5 Live's 606 was unimpressed by new manager Brendan Rodgers' efforts to reinvent his Watford team. "If he wants to play pretty football," he scoffed down the phone, "he should go and manage Ipswich." There's a pleasing perception of Ipswich as a club with a stylish tradition, which was why many fans felt uneasy to learn of the signing of Lee Bowyer. The issue has divided Town's support, not just over its merits but in concept. "He's not an Ipswich type of player" has been a commonly-expressed sentiment, which contrasts with: "If he can do a job, who cares about his past?"
What's an "Ipswich type of player"? Hopefully one who isn't a racist – a charge that continues to follow Bowyer around. But do we know that he is? CCTV footage of the offences that brought him a criminal conviction in 1996 show racist behaviour. But he was 19 then. In other circumstances I'm likely to find myself arguing that young men who offend in their teenage years shouldn't carry those labels around forever – so perhaps the same should apply to Bowyer. Several very serious accusations were made of Bowyer during his 2003 GBH trial, but the judge – controversially, it must be said – instructed the jury not to consider any racist motive and, of course, Bowyer was acquitted anyway.
Notwithstanding the above, a club which wants to present a positive, inclusive image should have looked to someone other than Bowyer. But while more should be done to stigmatise and punish acts of racist or homophobic behaviour within the game, there has to be a limit on the extent to which fans can realistically expect to share ideological space with all the players they watch. Former Ipswich defender Wayne Brown was a popular figure during his time at Portman Road. It was several years later, when Brown was with Leicester, that he upset many of his team-mates by announcing that he'd voted for the BNP in the 2010 election.
A more pertinent objection might be that even at the age of 34, Bowyer can lose control of himself on the pitch, as evidenced by the tackle on Bacary Sagna which brought him a three-match ban for violent conduct earlier this year. That, as much as anything else, may support the assertion that he doesn't fit with the Portman Road culture. The stark fact remains, however, that "Ipswich type of players" (if indeed that's who the club has been employing in its midfield over recent years) have hardly brought memories of the Bobby Robson-era flooding back, either in terms of success or style.
None of this will have me racing to get BOWYER printed onto the back of a Town replica shirt. But for a club who lays claim to an image which sits uneasily with the prospect of a snarling Bowyer patrolling the midfield, there is a balance to be struck between pragmatism and pride. The question, perhaps, is how far down the pragmatic route Ipswich can go before we lose all sight of what we were once proud of. We may be about to find out now. Gavin Barber