Suffolk Punch: The Slow, Slow Decline of Ipswich Town
It looks like being another tight season in the Football League Championship. After last night’s results, there are just ten points between top of the table Leeds United and Bolton Wanderers, who are down in eighteenth place in the table, and there’s a feeling in the air that there isn’t a great deal between many of the teams in this most perplexing of divisions. All of this, however, is likely to be cold comfort to the supporters of Ipswich Town at the moment. It may have been a little optimistic to expect them to take anything from their trip to Elland Road last night, but with just one win from their first fourteen games of the season, the feeling is growing that the division’s longest serving inmates might finally on their way out of the second tier, just not in the direction that their supporters might have hoped.
In some respects, it might be considered extraordinary that the club has had such a lengthy run in the top two divisions. Ipswich is a town of 180,000 people in Suffolk, not exactly known as one of the nation’s great football hotbeds, but Town have a lengthy history of upending expectations. After winning the Second Division championship in 1961, they became the champions of England the following year, a shock of similar proportions to Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League title win. Furthermore, they remained a top flight club until 1986, winning the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA Cup in 1981 under the management of Bobby Robson. Indeed, such was the quality of the Ipswich team that he built that it might be considered a surprise that they didn’t accumulate more silverware during their golden period from the middle of the 1970s through to the early years of the following decade.
Since that 1986 relegation, however, times have been somewhat more lean. There have been occasional bursts of Premier League football at Portman Road – three seasons shortly after its formation and a further two at the turn of the century – but the club has now been in the second tier for seventeen consecutive seasons, making them the longest-serving of the Championship’ twenty-four current inmates, and after unsuccessfully taking part in the play-offs at the end of a couple of their early seasons back, the club has spent the last decade and a half treading water, seldom seriously bothering either end of the division.
The appointment of Mick McCarthy, who’d previously taken both Sunderland and Wolverhampton Wanderers into the Premier League, in November 2012 felt like a sensible appointment at the time, but McCarthy was unable to arrest the feeling of torpor that had already settled over the club by this time. His record over six seasons consisted of three in mid-table, three during which the club almost but didn’t quite push for a play-off place and one play-off loss, and when it was announced at the end of March that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season, there was a feeling that he’d had long enough to try and get the club nearer to the top of the table and had come up wanting. As things turned out, McCarthy lasted less than two weeks following the announcement before leaving the club.
His replacement, announced at the end of last season, was Paul Hurst. Hurst cut his teeth in non-league football, taking Ilkeston Town and Boston United into the Conference North and returning Grimsby Town into the Football League through the play-offs, before moving to Shrewsbury Town in October 2016, whereupon he pulled the club clear of the League One relegation places in his first season before taking them to the top of the table last season before finishing in third place with eight-seven points and losing in extra-time in the play-off final against Rotherham United. It looked, on paper, as though this was a sensible appointment, even if it was harsh on Shrewsbury Town, for whom the hangover from his departure has been lengthy, with the team falling to the nether regions of League One so far this season.
To say that things didn’t exactly go according to plan for the new manager, however, would be something of an understatement, and when former captain Matt Holland appeared on TalkSport earlier this week to tell the audience that “It’s a horrible situation that’s panning out at Portman Road at the moment”, there seems to have been little disagreement from supporters. The team finally recorded its first league win of the season at Swansea City on the sixth of October, but Ipswich were knocked out of the League Cup at the first hurdle, on penalty kicks by League Two’s Exeter City in August and sit at the bottom of the current Championship table.
More than this, though, the first third of Ipswich’s season has been notable for how… dull it has been. The aforementioned Swansea match was the first Ipswich match this season in which either Ipswich or their opponents have scored more than two goals (Ipswich scored three times from three shots, and with just 26% of the possession over the entire match), and despite being bottom of the table they remain in touch with those just above them on account of having drawn six of their fourteen league games so far. At the moment, it feels somewhat as though, if Ipswich’s lengthy run in the Championship is to end this season, it’ll be with a whimper rather than a bang.
All of this, however, feels a little empty without mentioning the club’s owner. It may be surprising to find that someone who has been described as “reclusive” owns companies called Marcus Evans Ltd and Marcus Evans Entertainment Ltd, but Ipswich Town’s owner Marcus Evans has hardly been forthcoming on the subject of the club since taking ownership of it in 2007. In December 2016 he issued a “five point plan” intended to turn the club’s fortunes around and acknowledged that, “This has been a tough season so far, and, no excuses, we haven’t lived up to our potential with results and on occasions performances being below the standards of the last two seasons.”
Two years on from this, however, there isn’t great deal of evidence that very much at Portman Road has changed for the better. Indeed, last year, when he gave only his second interview in his eleven years of running the club, he had to acknowledge that “The disenchantment that has built up over the last two seasons, which is built on years of frustration, is something I am really determined to turn around.” Six months to the day since then, Ipswich Town sit at the bottom of the Championship, and without a manager.
The paradox of Ipswich’s current position is that Paul Hurst’s appointment was considered a breath of fresh air by supporters tired of the years of stagnation under his predecessor, and that there is plenty of scope for picking up talented players from the lower divisions. However, with none of Hurst’s acquisitions having a great deal of experience at this level, the purchases being funded by the sales of the talented Adam Webster and Martyn Waghorn to Bristol City and Derby County respectively, and the club now in the position in which it finds itself today, that loss at Elland Road last night proved to be a step too far for the club, and Hurst was relieved of his responsibilities with just fourteen league matches played this afternoon.
There is, however, a follow-up question to this. If the risks and costs of relegation are so great that going through with the upheaval of replacing a manager just a few months into his contract, who’s going to be the improvement and inspiration that the team needs, if it is to scramble to a position of relative safety before the end of this season? None of this is to say that the club should have just blithely stuck with Hurst no matter what, of course, it’s merely a reminder that such decisions come with costs and ramifications, not all of which are even visible from outside of the club itself. Paying up a three year contract that still has thirty-one months to run on it won’t be cheap, for example.
Ipswich Town have a tradition of being relatively patient with their managers (Hurst was the club’s tenth since Bobby Robson accepted the England job in 1982), but patience isn’t very fashionable these days, and with an Eastern Daily Press poll showing more than three-quarters wanting Hurst out of the club, it seems that it was felt that there was no choice but to roll the dice again. It’s a gamble, and it’s all a long way from the glory days of the 1970s and early 1980s, but the Paul Hurst experiment evidently wasn’t working at Portman Road. His successor now has one job: keep Ipswich Town in the top divisions, as they have been now for a little over sixty years.