New Bosses, Old Problems: Ipswich Town & League One
For the Ipswich Town manager Paul Cook, the first international break of the new season probably couldn’t have come quickly enough. The League One season started just three weeks ago, and despite new owners and investment which saw them head to the top of the pre-season betting charts, this has been a disastrous start to a second League One season for the club, which has seen them drop into the relegation places after failing to win any of their first five league matches of the season while getting knocked out of the League Cup at home by lower division opposition.
When Ipswich Town slumped out of the Championship in 2019, it was more with a whimper than a bang, and their first seasons back in the lower divisions of the Football League in more than sixty years didn’t tear up that division either. Last season ended with the team in 9th place in the table, both scoring and conceding 46 goals from their 46 league matches and finishing five points shy of the play-offs, with the team’s promotion hopes ultimately being torpedoed by a run of just two wins in thirteen matches over the course of March and April.
This, however, wasn’t the big news to be coming from the club at this particular time. Marcus Evans had been the famously publicity-shy owner of the club for the previous 13 years and it was suggested that there had been as many as 40 offers for him to sell the club over this period. In the end, though, in April it was confirmed that someone had finally persuaded him to cash out. The new owners were to be Gamechanger 20, an American group ultimately controlled by an Ohio-based investment fund named ORG. Stewart had ploughed £100m into the club over the previous years, to no apparent avail.
To say that the new owners brought in a change of attitude at Portman Road would be something of an understatement. Ipswich’s slow decline over the years was suddenly usurped by an altogether more dynamic attitude. Player after player arrived at the club, to the point where the first team squad looked fairly unrecognisable from last season’s, with 19 having arrived at the time of writing, of which five are loan signings, with 27 having left the club, four of them on loan. This is lot of change for a football club to go through over the course of one summer, but it didn’t stop people from installing Ipswich as favourites for promotion from League One, this time around.
In addition to this, there was some degree of excitement with the annoucement that the team’s shirts would be sponsored by notable supporter Ed Sheeran. It’s probably not the most lucrative sponsorship deal of all-time (and it should go without saying that Sheeran is not to the taste of everybody), but this accouncement did at least add to the buzz around the club as the new season came into view. For supporters that had been labouring under the rudderless ownership of Stewart for more than a decade, it was certainly a change of direction.
Since the start of the season, though, the more optimistic prognoses for Ipswich’s season have had to be tempered, somewhat. On the opening day, they were held to a draw at home by Morecambe, whose very promotion into this division was one of the biggest surprises of last season and against whom they needed a stoppage-time goal to scrape themselves a draw. Things haven’t improved much since, either. They followed this up with defeats at Burton Albion and Cheltenham Town, and since then have taken two points from a possible six, from home games against Milton Keynes and Wimbledon.
The Wimbledon game was a case in point over the team’s current frailties. Ipswich led 2-0 with ten minutes played in the second half, before the yips set in. Ben Heneghan pulled a goal back for Wimbledon, and Ipswich retreated back into their shells, only for a second Wimbledon goal from Jack Rudoni, scored five minutes into stoppage-time, to leave them waiting still longer for their first league win of the season. They’ve now conceded two goals in each of their first five league matches of the season, and that does look very much like relegation form from a defence that needs further work. It’s the worst defensive record in the division.
When a club is having a difficult start to a season the cups take on an added degree of significance, but Ipswich couldn’t get any light relief in the League Cup, either. Drawn at home to Newport County in the first round of the competition, a fourth minute goal from Timmy Abraham was enough to give Newport a 1-0 win, and although few Ipswich supporters would have placed the League Cup as high on their list of priorities for this season, this result now looks like a wasted opportunity to kick-start their season. At least the upcoming international break gives them a chance to catch their breath. Their match at Wycombe Wanderers has already been postponed due to international call-ups.
All of this, of course, is only piling pressure on manager Paul Cook. Cook, we should be clear, is no idiot. Ipswich Town is his 7th managerial position, and in his last three he took Chesterfield to the League Two title, Portsmouth to the League Two title, and Wigan Athletic to the League One title (they also beat West Ham United, Bournemouth and Manchester City in an FA Cup run while he was there). He’s also dealt with the pressure of expectation before – most notably at Portsmouth, where the atmosphere at that club at the time of arrival might best be described as ‘febrile’ – as well as the challenges of clubs in financial trouble, with his departure from Wigan coming after the club was relegated by a points deduction.
Cook was appointed by Ipswich on the 2nd March, but since then he’s only won four out of 21 league matches. He’s been reasonable enough to take the blame for the team’s poor start to this season himself, confirming that his radically overhauled squad needs time to gel, but the problem with this is that the time for having time to gel is now over. Ipswich are well into the twice-weekly grind of League football now, and while 41 games should be plenty to set things straight again and there is no doubt about Cook’s talent at this level of the game, this problems hanging over the team didn’t start with the beginning of this season. Cook’s team has been in relegation form since he took the job. When is this going to change, and how? And, regardless of his achievement elsewhere, how long are the new owners of the club going to stick with him if things don’t change soon?
This, of course, is the biggest question that Ipswich Town face right now. When new owners come into a club, it’s easy to say the right things. It’s similarly easy to dine out on success, should that follow. The real test of the characters of the owners of a football club comes, however, when things aren’t going so well. Ipswich haven’t just failed to win their first five league matches of the season. None of these five matches came against teams who would be considered amongst the division’s strongest, and when we factor in the loss to Newport and last season’s underwhelming closing stages, it starts to feel as though the club might even have tried to change too much, too quickly. Being impatient to get out of League One is understandable, but will that impatience extend to the manager as well?
The truth is that the success of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the club won the FA Cup an UEFA Cup and were runners-up in the League in the space of four seasons, probably aren’t coming back. Football has moved on, and Ipswich have played just five of the last thirty years in the Premier League. This, however, doesn’t mean that the supporters aren’t allowed to dream or aspire to better, and new owners coming in and throwing money around should at least be able to guarantee a few wins and, certainly in the case of Ipswich Town, a little get up and go following more than a decade of stagnation. It may be a nervy couple of weeks for Paul Cook, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be as nervy as things may get, once Ipswich resume their league fixtures.