“Football’s an emotional game”

Ipswich, everyone's favourites to go down at the start of the season, look like ending it with the fair play title, manager of the year, golden boot and a place in Europe. Csaba Abrahall and Gavin Barber asked chairman David Sheepshanks where it had all gone right

Despite the success of this season, clubs like Ipswich cannot guarantee a perennial Premiership place. How difficult is it to plan for the future bearing in mind the financial gap between the Premiership and the Football League?
It’s not difficult to plan for the future but it’s more difficult to implement it. Five or six years ago, we sat down and I said: “Can we get back into the Premiership next seas­on?” Everyone’s heads went down. “Can we get back into the Premiership the year after?” You know, “Who’s he?” “What about five years?” And they be­gan to say yes, they thought we could. I said “Why?” and the first thing was youth, because by then the development of players from the youth team could have come to fruition and all the other component parts to it. Out of that was born a long-term plan. It wasn’t just the youth, it was the com­mercial management, the community, the press relations, the way in which we looked after our customers, our sense of ambition – being able to be more up front about what our aims and objectives were, not to live with this old-fashioned idea that there’s no crisis at Ip­s­wich unless the wine runs out in the boardroom, which I felt wore really thin with the supporters – and I’m a supporter. The reason I came on the board in 1987 is because I wrote to [then chairman] Patrick Cobbold. I was a sea­son ticket holder and said that I thought the PR of the board and the way in which the club was being run was terrible. I felt the whole situation was just drifting. This was after 17 great years of First Div­ision football and European glory. I’ve always felt we’ve got to wear our ambition a bit more on our sleeves. It doesn’t mean we have to let go of the traditional values and high standards and friendliness as a football club, but we’ve got to really mean business. So that resulted in a plan being born, the five-year plan that everyone knows about. It wasn’t difficult to make the plan, it was much more difficult to implement it, because every year we were having to shoot ourselves in the foot by selling players. We had to make un­popular decisions. Although I’m a fan, I’m also responsible to the sup­porters, the shareholders and everybody else, as are my fellow directors, to look after the health of the club and to try and make the decisions that are in the best interests, short and long-term. So much of football is about short-term glory which leads so often to boom and bust. We’re not about that. That’s not down to me, this is a phenomenal team effort by everybody who’s worked for this football club. I certainly haven’t worked for the last six years to see this disappear in a puff of smoke. We’ve worked to get into this position so we can go on to make it even bigger and even better.

Most Ipswich fans appear to believe the club is run by a chairman and a manager with very strong feelings for the club. How important is it that those in the charge should have such an affinity with the club?
I think it’s tremendously important. Football’s an em­otional game and that’s where it sets itself aside from your average major business. But it’s not enough in itself. Pro­fessional, high-quality man­age­ment is a necessity for any successful business. The rel­ationship George and I have is very important, and also the relationship with the whole board. We have a stable board of directors here, a forward-thinking board who give me a great deal of support and help. We have a professional management, and I don’t just mean George, be it in terms of commercial management, be it in terms of communications, advertising, press, public rel­ations. Our community sect­ion is very well run now. It all re­­quires investment in talent – on the field in players and off the field. 

Is there a danger that those relationships will change as the club becomes more successful?
I don’t think so. You have this symbiotic relationship between the success of the team and the club. Glenn Hoddle made an interesting point about the difference between a successful team and a successful club. The team leads everything. But you can’t get a successful team overnight, therefore we made this long-term plan that would build the club and thereby enable us to build the team. I think we are living proof that high-quality management comes ahead of money. It’s very nice to have money and build financial muscle and hopefully now, as we get more success, we’ll be able to improve our financial strength, which in turn will make us more competitive and more able to sustain our success in the face of competition from a lot of other very big clubs.

What has been the key the club’s success on the pitch this season?
We knew it would be hard. What has been impressive is the way in which so many of our players, aided by one or two very astute purchases of George, have been able to step up. It’s credit to George Burley. He is a phenomenal coach, not just of young players, but of players of all ages. Players like Jermaine Wright, John McGreal and Jamie Scow­croft have been able to step up and play Premiership football having never done so before. I don’t mean to single those out – all of them have. It’s extraordinary, because one of things one’s always warned about when you come up is you can’t be too sentimental about your favourite players, you’ve got to get a team that can win in the Premiership, but all of our players have res­ponded. They’re a very strong unit, we believe in togetherness at the club. But the won­derful thing is, some may have done slightly better than others, but generally speaking, they’ve all stepped up and that must be a reflection on George’s coaching ability and management ability. Plus, of course, he’s a tremendous buy­er of players. Hermann Hreidarsson, Chris Makin, Alun Armstrong, they’re good examples, not to mention Marcus Stewart and Matt Holland. So, coaching, judge of a player, style of play – because we’ve played football, and very attractive football – and, last but not least, we still sit top of the fair play league, which shows a commitment to stand­ards, to try to play the game the way it should be played. You don’t set out to win the disciplinary league, you set out to get points, but again there’s a relationship. If you do well disciplinary-wise, you lose less players through suspensions, you have more continuity in the squad, you give away less free-kicks.

Next season expectations will be much higher. What are Ipswich’s realistic goals?
Apart from lots of nice plaud­its, I should think we’ve hacked a few people off this season. There are a whole lot of bigger clubs with bigger stadia, big­ger resources, big­ger reputations who are say­ing: “If Ipswich can do it, why can’t we?” We’re living in a com­petitive world. We can’t rest on our laurels. We haven’t come here just to enjoy the ride, we’ve got to be ahead of the game. We’ve got to be thinking now “How do we get Ipswich Town FC to be a club that can realistically have a chance of qualifying for Europe and doing well in Europe year on year?” At the moment we’ve exceeded all our expectations: budgeted to finish 17th, aimed to finish 11th and actually we’re sitting in third. Inevitably, people will now feel, well, next season we expect the same. I don’t think that’s fair. Certainly, next season we would hope to have another good season and we would hope not to be flirting with relegation at all but it would be unrealistic to think that because we got into Europe once, we expect to be in again. We will aim for it and we will try, but the important thing is we don’t lose sight of the absolute priority, which is to go on strengthening in our back garden, which is in the Premiership.

Ipswich have an effective customer charter. Is there any scope for such charters to be made mandatory and, if so, would they have any real relevance to a club of Manchester United’s size?
They actually are mandatory. That was the only way in which the Task Force, which I was a member of, was split in terms of what they wanted to see happen. Some of the more militant individuals among the sup­porters’ representations wanted to see a reg­ulator for football. The game didn’t want that. We wanted the FA, the Premier League and the Football League to be made more accountable for regulating the game themselves and that therefore there should be an independent regulatory authority which had the power to ensure that the FA, the Premier League and the Football League did this. I think self-regulation is much more effective providing that behind you there is somebody with a stick who can hit you if you don’t comply. That has happened. An in­dependent body is being set up and all clubs have been told to operate with a minimum standard in terms of a customer charter. If they don’t do so, they will face the risk of being reported. It was easy for us. We’ve got lots of things we can improve on and we will go on improving. We consult our fans a lot now, we consulted over the new North Stand, we consulted over the shirts. We now have customer feedback on the website. We’re getting over a hundred ideas back every week and now we’ve got to put back some answers and say which ideas are being implemented and which can’t be, and to try and get it as a dialogue. Many of the areas of the customer charter we already had in place, so it was fairly easy for us to go and do it. It’s our style to make ourselves accountable. When I arrived here six years ago, people used to hide customer complaints in the drawers. We had a big culture change to manage. Nobody likes receiving complaints but you’ve got to take your complaint as an opportunity to put something right, not something to be ashamed of. There will always be things that we could do better here, but at least we’ll always believe that we can make it better and we’ll always go on trying, at least as long as I’m chairman.

Do you think the current boom in popularity and financial success of football is sustainable in the long-term?

Yes, I do. I think things will go through peaks and troughs, as all markets do. There might be a slowing down in terms of television revenue for a while after next year. Next year there’s going to be a big lift when the new contract kicks in properly. It remains to be seen whether there will be another lift in three years’ time. I think the days of un­acceptable price rises have gone, happily. I think that’s a really good thing. We had a big increase last season, but that’s be­cause we went into the Premiership – you’ve got to compete. But I hope we’ve set a tone by only keeping price increases gen­erally to inflation. We’re increasing the size of our stadium, but gate receipts gen­erally are going to level out because most Premiership grounds are running at about 95 per cent capacity. So the one area where clubs will be able to generate more revenue is in commercial terms and that’s where most innovation comes. It’s terribly important to have a dynamic commercial sec­tion. We’ve got innovative new sponsorships of the community sec­tion, of the academy and stand sponsorships and so forth. These type of sponsorships don’t just happen, they happen be­cause it works for both parties. What we’re doing here is attracting an awful lot of people who want to be part of Ipswich Town.

Thinking of clubs such as Chesterfield and Hull, the FA have said they’re going to look more closely at club finances. Do you think they could be doing more?
It’s very difficult because each club is its own individually constituted company, either pri­vate or public. The FA, as the governing body of the game – and indeed either the Premier League or the Football League – can lay down rules and, as they have done, certain financial directions relating to the competitions they govern. What they can’t do is interfere in the corporate governance of an individual club. That’s the difficulty. What’s gone on at those two clubs needs close inspection be­cause their fans are powerless to interfere, other than with their feet, and that’s not what they want to do, of course. I am all for the football governing bodies taking a tough line.

How do you see the relationship between the Premiership and the Football League developing? Is there resentment among smaller clubs or are they reluctantly accepting new realities?
The difficulty is what people used to call the gap is now a chasm between the Premier League and Division One. The new TV deal in the Football League has improved their lot for the time being. It’s a very good TV, deal primarily with Ondigital, which has given them over £100 million a year for three years. The top First Division club is getting something like £3 million now from TV and central sponsorship, but the real worry is the bottom Premiership club is going to get £17 million and the top Premiership club is going to get £32 million, plus whatever else they earn through the Champions League and so on. It’s those gaps that worry me. I think the gap between the top and the bottom of the Premiership is too big and I think the gap between the top of the First Division and the Premiership is too big. That is going to be the source of quite a lot of discontent in years to come unless the people who run the game find some way of addressing it. It’s one of these things that’s easy to say and much harder to do anything about. The Prem­iership aren’t going to be keen to give any money away because many of the clubs in the Premiership are plcs – you can’t give money away that’s rightfully yours. Somehow there’s got to be an imaginative approach to how the top of the game in England is structured. Ideally, you want an equitable stepladder that gives everybody a chance and keeps the dream alive. At the moment, I fear that stepladder will be effectively hauled up for all the clubs but those that have relegation parachutes.

From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month