After a two year stint in the top flight, Ipswich fans have felt the highs and the ultimate lows of what the Premiership has to offer. Is a managerial change is needed to secure an instant return next season?
This season promised so much for Ipswich Town, starting with European football earned through the previous year’s top five finish. The shocking relegation that followed has been blamed on, variously, bad luck, injuries, too many foreign players and rumours of player unrest.
However, there is another cause: George Burley. Last year’s manager of the season has had a torturous ten months. Apart from a run of seven wins in eight games over Christmas and New Year, Ipswich only managed two wins and 15 points from the remaining 30 league games.
Tactics and personnel used over the season have, at times, been baffling. Some players have been played out of position all season, notably Hermann Hreidarsson, our best central defender, at left-back, and Jamie Clapham on the left of midfield. Clapham’s best performances came during the run-in, when he played in his familiar left-back position or, more unusually, as a sweeper.
The central defensive partnership of John McGreal and Mark Venus had not been considered quick enough to play together in the First Division in 1999. However, with the injury to Titus Bramble and his subsequent drop in confidence, they have been expected to cope against players with the pace of Thierry Henry, Michael Owen and Marian Pahars. Jim Magilton has also had a difficult season, with most opponents realising that he was the heart of the Ipswich team, and targeting him accordingly. Burley stood by Magilton until the end of March. By then it was almost too late, despite the promising showings of Tommy Miller since his call-up to the first team.
Suggestions that players haven’t tried hard enough have also abounded. Burley has spoken on a number of occasions about “must win” games. Ipswich lost all three of the six-pointers they faced from the start of March, and their performances in those games (Southampton at home and Blackburn and Bolton away) suggested that Burley was unable to motivate the team. Only the attitude in the second half at Blackburn suggested that the manager had finally succeeded in getting across to the players how important the game was.
Rumours that Burley sometimes struggles with man-management have also been fuelled by his treatment of Fabian Wilnis, following the player’s reaction to being substituted in the first half of the UEFA Cup game at Helsingborg. Subsequently, Wilnis was transfer-listed and has only played for the first team due to injuries to Chris Makin, regardless of Makin’s form.
Burley has said that he will learn from the mistakes made this season. History suggests this will not be the case. During our previous seasons in the Nationwide we were notorious for our failure to beat visiting teams whose sole intention was to get a draw. Last season, the only side that visited Portman Road and seemed set on getting only a point was Derby County. The result? A 1-0 victory for the Rams. The fact that this happened once in a season could be construed as bad luck, but it was a story that had been repeated many times before in the First Division.
George Burley has done a great job of putting Ipswich back on the footballing map after the disasters of the John Duncan and John Lyall years. He has brought back the team’s passing game, as well as setting up one of the finest academies in the country, which – in the shape of Kieron Dyer, Darren Bent and Darren Ambrose, among others – is now starting to bear fruit. His record in the transfer market has also been excellent. But on the pitch is where it matters and Burley has shown this season that when things are not going well, he starts to run out of ideas.
The indications are that David Sheepshanks will give Burley at least one attempt to get Ipswich back into the Premiership. If that is the case, I sincerely hope that Burley can prove me wrong. Rob Freeman
The plight of Bradford City is the latest graphic illustration of the financial shock that awaits clubs relegated from the Premiership. The cost of relegation is currently estimated at £15 million, and failure to bounce back cou-pled with continued outlay on Premiership wages can have dire consequences.
It’s a situation that poses a formidable challenge for the manager. Inevitably, the club’s most valuable players will be sold, making it all the more difficult to sustain a promotion bid. Fortunately for Ipswich Town, they can now turn to a manager who has proved his ability to meet just such a challenge time and time again – George Burley.
Burley’s achievement in transforming the shambolic side relegated so comprehensively in 1995 into perennial play-off participants, despite having to sell his greatest asset every year, is not underestimated at Portman Road. Ian Marshall, Mauricio Taricco and Kieron Dyer – all fine servants of the club – departed, yet Burley’s team improved year on year until promotion was finally secured.
The skills Burley demonstrated then are exactly those he must use now – the ability to recruit young talent at a reasonable price and carefully introduce the club’s own youngsters into the first team. Happily, he appears to have retained the knack. Tommy Miller, an £800,000 buy from Hartlepool, was Town’s most consistent player towards the end of the season, while 18-year-olds Darren Bent and Darren Ambrose have already made their first-team debuts. A youthful reserve team has just won its league and Burley can be trusted to hand more of its members their chance when the time is right.
Burley admits he has made mistakes in the past year. He feels he brought in too many new faces, disrupting the continuity that had been the cornerstone of the team’s success. This may be true, but Richard Wright and James Scowcroft needed to be replaced, and the enhancements to the squad were made, not unreasonably, with both the imminent European challenge and the long-term future of the club in mind. The negative impact of the new recruits has perhaps been overstated and the perceived failure of some of Burley’s foreign signings can be attributed at least in part to bad luck. Finidi George certainly disappointed overall, but he was showing consistently good form before the African Nations Cup and subsequent uncertainty over his World Cup place interrupted his momentum. Ulrich le Pen was injured on his debut and again just as he was starting to impress in the reserves.
The others have no case to answer. Goalkeeper Matteo Sereni was the side’s outstanding performer in the first half of the season, while youngsters Pablo Couñago, Thomas Gaardsoe and Sixto Peralta all made worthwhile contributions at times and look to have a part to play in the years ahead.
Burley set himself the task of managing a much larger squad than ever before and he clearly found it difficult. Certain team selections suggested it gave him too many options and he struggled to keep everyone happy, but some disgruntled players did little to encourage a harmonious dressing room themselves, finding the local press and Radio 5 Live’s Premiership Uncovered only too willing to air their grievances.
Burley could not realistically have foreseen this disappointing attitude, nor the dramatic loss of form that many of the previous seasons’ reliable campaigners experienced. The playing staff must therefore shoulder much of the blame. Burley’s passion for the club will make him determined to learn from this season’s setback and be better prepared when Ipswich return to the Premiership. In the meantime, he has proved himself to be an excellent First Division manager and, as such, is precisely what Ipswich need right now.
His error was to forget that stability had been the key to his and Ipswich’s success. To dismiss the manager who took us into the Premiership and Europe would be to make that same mistake again. Csaba Abrahall
From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month