Amir Karic and Ulrich Le Pen

Did you hear the one about the Slovenian and the Frenchman? This sounds like a joke, but Jonathan Barnes and fellow Ipswich fans struggle to see the funny side

Anyone in any doubt how Ipswich Town got into such financial strife after troubling the Premiership’s top five at the turn of the millennium should look no further than Amir Karic and Ulrich Le Pen.

There’s no reason why anyone who doesn’t follow the Blues should recognise the names and even ardent fans would barely know the faces. But the facts and figures are frightening – Slovenian left-back Karic and French winger Le Pen were on the club’s books for a combined total of 44 months, during which they saw just 12 minutes of League football between them.

For an outlay of £2.2 million to secure both – £1.5m for Le Pen and £700,000 for Karic – that’s more than £180,000 per minute on the pitch. They were not the only expensive flops. The bloated 2001-02 squad that tried to recreate Town’s heroics of the previous season featured the two biggest financial mistakes in the club’s history – Nigerian winger Finidi George and Italian keeper Matteo Sereni. But at least they both managed to start a game, something neither Le Pen nor Karic could muster.

Karic – nicknamed Tyson for his muscular build – was dubbed “our million-dollar man” by chairman David Sheepshanks when he joined the club on a four-year deal from Slovenian outfit Maribor in August 2000. The Blues chief and his manager, George Burley, had spotted the left-sided defender playing for his country in Euro 2000 and, bearing in mind the £4.5m fee they paid out for Hermann Hreidarsson, it appeared they had got a bargain.

But Sheepshanks’s soundbite seemed barking when Karic put in a deranged performance on his debut, comically over-hitting crosses and offering a manic prayer to the skies every time a pass went astray.

Yet, in a game that the club won 5-0 – a Worthington Cup clash with Millwall – the player’s failings did not cause too many furrowed brows at Portman Road. He played only twice more that season – both as a substitute in Worthington Cup ties – and was largely forgotten when Ipswich achieved the extraordinary feat of qualifying for Europe.

Karic had not featured again by the time Le Pen signed in November 2001. The left-winger, whose nickname, Lulu, is surely the least intimidating moniker in football, joined from Lorient, in Brittany. Unlike Karic, Le Pen tasted Premiership action – but only for 12 minutes as a substitute against Bolton. His only notable contribution was to be taken off the pitch on a stretcher with a foot injury.

The Frenchman wasn’t to be seen again by fans until a brief appearance in an FA Cup tie against Dagenham & Redbridge in January, by which time Karic had truly made himself persona non grata at Portman Road.

Reduced to training with the goalkeepers – “I didn’t mind too much, it was fun shooting on goal,” he reasoned – a desperate Karic sounded off in the local press. “I think the manager is a little bit lost and he doesn’t know what to do. The players are not talking as much, there is not much laughter. Players are afraid to make mistakes or they will be dropped.”

But even in the wreckage that Town’s season had turned into, no one had made enough mistakes to let in Karic. “These seem to be the remarks of a bitter player,” said Sheepshanks, while Burley conceded: “I made the decision to bring Amir to Portman Road – I hold my hands up and admit it was a mistake.”

Karic even had the ignominy of being sent back early from a loan spell at Crystal Palace, before his miserable spell in Suffolk ended in October 2002 when his contract was cancelled and he returned to Slovenia. Remarkably, his inactivity at Ipswich never seemed to affect his international career: Karic played in all three of his country’s games in the 2002 World Cup and went on to gain 51 caps.

Le Pen lasted a little longer on the books, but he finally left the club in the summer of 2003, joining Strasbourg, where he had previously escaped for a season on loan. The winger also cut his losses and tore up his contact to get out of town – and, even after a 50 per cent pay cut, was a mightily relieved man. “I didn’t like anything during my year at Ipswich,” he said, safely back on the other side of the Channel. “We didn’t appreciate the English way of life and the coach never really trusted me. The financial aspect was dominating. But we understand now that we prefer to have less money and a better life.”

If only Ipswich Town could say the same thing. They certainly had less money after the departure of Le Pen and Karic – so much so that, weighed down by a hefty wage bill and rueing the loss of top-flight income, they slid into administration in 2003, by which time Burley had already paid the price for the club’s decline.

Le Pen and Karic could hardly be blamed for that by themselves but, in times when the club has paid only one transfer fee in three years – £250,000 for Brighton’s Darren Currie – Ipswich fans still shudder at the cost of Lulu and their million-dollar man.

From WSC 221 July 2005. What was happening this month