Ipswich Town: Relegation By A Thousand Cuts
In the end, relegation came with a whimper rather than a bang for Ipswich Town. A one-all home draw against Birmingham City last weekend was enough to relegate the club from the Championship after seventeen consecutive years in that division, also ending a run of sixty-two years in the top two divisions, with four games of the season left to spare. There were no fireworks at Portman Road on Saturday afternoon, merely the rasping sound of the last air escaping from the end of a season that has, curiously, been more notable for the lack of hysteria surrounding it than anything else.
It was a strangely appropriate way to end a season which, despite having yielded just four league wins and exits from both domestic cups at the hands of lower division opposition, hasn’t always felt cataclysmically terrible. The team has drawn sixteen of its league matches this season, and defeats, where they have come, have tended to be narrow rather than absolute thrashings. Indeed, Ipswich haven’t even lost the most games in the division. Perennial crisis club Bolton Wanderers may be one place above them in the league table, but they’ve lost four league games more than Ipswich have this season. If a single cause can be applied to the club’s relegation, a failure to convert drawn matches into wins might well be it.
It was also, of course, a year of managerial change in Suffolk. The team had stagnated under Mick McCarthy and his replacement after four years, with the former Shrewsbury Town manager Paul Hurst looked on the surface like a reasonable bit of decision-making, with Hurst having just taken his Shrewsbury team to the brink of what would have been a most unexpected promotion at the end of the previous season before falling at the last in the play-offs. Perhaps, though, the warning signs were already there. Shrewsbury had spent much of the season around the automatic promotion places, only to fall away when the finishing line came into view, all of which hinted that his lack of experience could be a hindrance rather than a help, should the pressure start to rise. He managed just fourteen games in charge of a team that had been rebuilt with what looked like the wrong shaped building blocks, players from the lower divisions with little experience of the perpetual motion machine that the Championship has become in recent years.
Former breath of fresh air Paul Lambert – a seasoned Championship manager, albeit one with a patchy record since early success at, as lovers of banter were already aware, Norwich City – was unable to improve things, when he took over as Hurst’s successor in November. The new manager has been openly critical of the club’s decisions prior to his arrival at Portman Road, most notably in losing four key players – Adam Webster, Martyn Waghorn, Joe Garner and David McGoldrick – to other Championship clubs last summer with replacements coming from the lower divisions, but the general hope around the club seems to be that if Lambert is allowed to build, then there is nothing in the club’s infrastructure to prevent next season from being considerably happier than the current one has been. Supporters groups have been critical of the condition of Portman Road itself, which could do with a lick of paint to say the very least, over the last couple of years, but the club has an academy and a decent catchment area for young players and there’s little to suggest that Ipswich are in a Boltonesque tailspin from which there may be no return.
None of this is to say, however, that there aren’t financial pressures at play for Ipswich Town which will be further exacerbated by this relegation. Whilst relegation from the Championship to League One isn’t quite the trauma that dropping from the Premier League into the Championship is, these things are all relative and the likelihood is that Ipswich will have to considerably tighten their belts over the summer. The club can expect to lose between £5.5m and £6m in television money, because of the double whammy of a reduction in the base figure paid to League One clubs and a lower fee being payable for what will likely be fewer televised matches at the new lower level. It has also been reported that a clause in the club’s shirt sponsorship contract will be activated upon relegation which will reduce the value of that.
As such, the club will become more dependent upon match day and season ticket revenues in order to maintain their financial buoyancy, but previous accounts had shown those figures dropping while the club was in the Championship. Season ticket prices for next season haven’t yet been made public, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be more expensive and at least as likely as not that they’ll be cheaper. As such, the club mya be left with little option but to put all of its eggs in the basket of hoping that the prospect of greater success at a lower level after years and years of stagnation – the seventeen consecutive years at this level was the highest of any club in the division – will tempt people back. This may have an effect on season ticket sales, or it may have an effect on individual ticket sales over the course of next season.
It is likely that Lambert will be under a high degree of pressure to start next season strongly. He has been given a relatively clear path by supporters this season, but patience on their part will be finite and we do, in general terms, live in extremely impatient times. But it seems unlikely to implausible that, with Evans needing to take the financial hit of relegation in order to keep the club standing still, he will be given the means to merely spend his way out of League One next season. The last set of company accounts showed the club as being £95.5m in debt, with just about all of that money being owed to Evans, and with a wages to turnover ratio of 108%, none of which is in any way healthy. However, onsidering the amount of time that Evans has been at Portman Road – it’s been twelve years now and it seems unlikely that he’ll be going anywhere soon – this doesn’t seem like too bad a situation, especially when compared with so much of the basket-casery that seems to be so prevalent in the Football League at the moment.
For all of this, though, there is something a little sad about Ipswich Town’s demotion to the third tier. With the benefit of hindsight, this club managing to achieve everything that it did – winning the League championship, winning FA Cup, winning the Uefa Cup, finishing in the top three in the First Division for three consecutive seasons, beating Real Madrid, Saint-Etienne, Feyenoord, Lazio and Cologne in European competition, all in the space of twenty years – was over-achievement beyond over-achievement, something that simply couldn’t be possible in the modern age. Those who feel a tiny feeling of sadness at this of all clubs slipping into the third tier of the game may well be mourning the passing of our youth, an inevitable lament at the disappearance over the horizon of a world that cannot return. For all of that, though, Ipswich Town have treading water for most of the last two decades. If ever there was a football club that needed a spring clean to get those rid of those cobwebs, then this surely it. There’s risk involved – there always is with relegation – and the club needs to not get sucked into the cycle of panic and bad decisions that so easily afflict clubs at serous risk of permanently losing a status that they’ve held for a long time, but particular relegation, if seen for what it is by a club that has stagnated for too long, could yet turn out to be a new beginning if handled correctly.