Suffolk punch

Success for Ipswich came under a traditional style of ownership. Csaba Abrahall looks back on a local dynasty and would love to know something, anything, about the club’s current chairman

As the first issue of WSC was running off the photocopier in March 1986, all was not well at Ipswich Town. After 18 largely successful seasons in the top flight, an inadequate team, shorn of the bulk of the squad that had tasted domestic and European glory a handful of years previously, was fighting a losing battle against relegation in front of dwindling crowds. The sense of decline was inescapable.

Someone who certainly felt it was David Sheepshanks. He joined the board the following year, having written to those in charge to inform them that “the way in which the club was being run was terrible”, as he revealed to this magazine in 2001. Though the board’s decision to build a stand it could not afford had contributed significantly to the club’s recent malaise, this still seemed a harsh judgement on the leadership abilities of the Cobbold family, who had presided over a half century of on-the-pitch achievement. But Sheepshanks’ view was that: “We’ve got to wear our ambition a bit more on our sleeves. We’ve got to really mean business.” And so began a shift in the way Ipswich Town was managed.

The change was not immediate. Patrick Cobbold, the fifth member of his family to be chairman of the club, remained in charge until 1991. Sheepshanks didn’t get his hands on the controls until 1995, when he set in motion his infamous “five-year plan”, designed to give the club a more adventurous approach to enable it to compete in the new Premier League age.

It succeeded to such an extent that Ipswich were challenging for a Champions League place on the final day of the 2000-01 season. The fans bought into the idea. The club was once again successful under the direction of a Suffolk businessman and supporter, just as it had been throughout most of the Cobbold era, but had added a touch of naked ambition that seemed appropriate for the modern game.

But it was not to last. The five-year plan apparently failed to include “getting carried away” on its risk log and a combination of mismanagement and misfortune sent the club into administration in 2003, overshadowing somewhat the brief playing success. Town limped on until its £32 million debt and an 87.5 per cent stake in the club was purchased by the mysterious Marcus Evans in 2007.

Evans’s arrival has seen the conspicuous and undignified chase for a Premier League place intensify. Managers Jim Magilton and Roy Keane were handed money to invest in the team but appeared to find it more of a hindrance than a help. A glut of new signings tended to lead only to the confused and ineffective rotation of a huge squad. Using the straightforward gauge of league position, the team has deteriorated since Evans arrived, his money appearing to bring only instability.

Ipswich have a transient squad bereft of players with whom the supporters can identify and this, together with the dismissal of both Magilton and Keane within two years, contrasts sharply with the club’s traditional philosophy of building a team gradually, with a commitment to youth development, and of allowing managers time and space to manage – a very deliberate policy introduced by the professional club’s first chairman, Captain Ivan Cobbold. The club appears to have abandoned their ideals for no discernible benefit.

It was perhaps easy for Captain Cobbold and his successors to adopt a laissez-faire attitude, given the success achieved by the managers they employed. Nevertheless, though investment in players tended to be an infrequent practice, financial support was made available, with significant but not exorbitant amounts spent on strengthening the side when required. Like Evans, the Cobbolds were businessmen, owners of the local Tolly Cobbold brewery, and keen to succeed in all their endeavours. Despite Sheepshanks’ criticism of their methods, it is naive to think that they didn’t “mean business”.

However, their style certainly gave the club a distinct feel. Nostalgia almost certainly taints one’s recollections, but there was some basis in Ipswich’s reputation under the Cobbolds for doing things differently, for being “nice”. They stuck by struggling managers. They created an environment that encouraged steady progress. They welcomed visitors and got them magnificently pissed. They advocated patience, stability and fun. There’s little evidence of any of these things under Evans.

With the Cobbolds in charge, there existed a relationship between the club’s owners and its supporters. They were hardly proletarians – “Old Etonian toffs”, according to some – but the family had a long history of involvement with the people of the town. They were recognisable figures, their strengths, eccentricities and flaws apparent to all.

By contrast, we know next to nothing about Evans. There are no official photographs of him. He communicates only through his CEO. We have no idea whether Ipswich Town has any sentimental pull for him. Regarding his long-term plans for the club and its debt, we can only speculate. His anonymity engenders only discomfort and uncertainty. Ipswich Town, once the archetypal family club, has become the family in which the father brings home the money and gives the orders, but then shuts himself in the shed and refuses to speak to anyone.

The all-consuming quest for a share of Premier League money, or for mere survival, has led to change at all clubs in recent times. But at Ipswich, the contrast between the old and the new, between the Cobbold and Evans administrations, feels particularly stark.

Three and a bit years in, Marcus Evans’s Ipswich Town still feels unsettlingly unfamiliar. It is little more than a corporation’s asset, swallowed up into the Evans portfolio alongside corporate hospitality and business training. On, it sits neglected and alone in a section entitled “Sports” that appears to be perpetually awaiting the addition of more prestigious and profitable outfits. Elsewhere, beneath a story marking the 30th anniversary of Ipswich’s UEFA Cup victory, the website declares, as if in defiance of this reminder of previous regimes, that “ITFC is a Marcus Evans company”. Indeed it is.

From WSC 293 July 2011