The Ex-Files: David Sheepshanks
Wednesday, 19th Dec 2012 11:55
In the third in our series The Ex-Files – in which Blair Ferguson talks to figures from Town’s past – we catch up not with an ex-player but with former chairman David Sheepshanks.
As soon as he begins to speak about Ipswich you get a sense that he is a man who still loves the club and despite any difficult times has always tried to do the best for it.
It was in 1995 that the Sheepshanks era began when he took over as chairman from John Kerr, a moment he cites as a great honour. He recalls his famous Five-Year Plan and the meeting which saw its creation.
“I remember from the outset in 1995 George Burley, Bryan Klug, Paul Goddard and various people all met in my office and sat round the table and I said ‘OK, can we get promoted next year?’, because we had just been relegated that year and we had the humiliation of the 9-0 thrashing at Man United.
“Everybody looked at me and said ‘No, of course we can’t get promoted this year’. And then I said ‘Can we be promoted in two years?’ and everyone’s head was down. I asked if we could get promoted in five years and Bryan Klug said ‘Yes, I think we can be promoted in five years’.
“‘Why can we be promoted in five years?’ I asked. He said that would give us time to begin to bring some of the bright young talent through the youth team and I said ‘Good, what else?’. And we began to create the plan and I did the same with other colleagues. It was all about a long-term approach to stick to our guns on those plans.”
With the plan in place, over the coming the seasons Town would become the “perennial bridesmaids” of the play-offs and with every season of failure came new pressures.
“After that we finished in the play-offs every year and each year we failed people asked if we were going to sack George Burley,” he recalls. “That kind of thing was absolute nonsense because we had no money, we never had any money, when I started there we had no money. We had to sell every year to survive and each time we failed in the play-offs we had to sell a player.
“In the succeeding years we had to sell again to balance the books before we could buy anybody and in 1999, of course, that was when we came so close and we had to sell Kieron Dyer.
“People thought that that was the end of the world and we would never challenge again but we stayed true to our beliefs and as a result of selling Kieron Dyer to Newcastle - for what at the time was a record £6.5 million fee, £6 million fee and another £500,000 on appearances, which we did get - we bought Marcus Stewart, Jermaine Wright and John McGreal.”
With a promotion-winning team in place it was Town’s turn to be the bride and they won promotion at Wembley via that 4-2 victory over Barnsley. This was a match that Sheepshanks remembers well with an extra pressure put upon him earlier that day.
“I always used to go and stay with the team on away matches and the other directors came as well, which was really important as that was a tradition of the club really. Before the final the team went down to Windsor and stayed for three nights in a hotel and George invited me to go down.
“I went on the last night and one of the things I’d done was occasionally speak to the players, but never on a matchday because I’ve always been a very strong believer that that’s the manager’s territory.
“I never went down to the dressing room before a match but I’ve seen so many chairman do so, I don’t know what they think they’re doing, chairman or chief executives that want to talk to the players, what the hell for? It’s the manager’s domain. “But I did occasionally, two or three times a season, talk to the players on a training day about what was going on at the club and things we were doing and things we were working on, again because I thought that was really important.
“On this particular day George asked me on the matchday just before the pre-match lunch ‘Would you go and say something to the players?’ I thought ‘Oh my God, what am I going to say!’. I can’t remember for the life of me what I said but all I do know is that Jim Magilton said it was good. I’m sure it had no effect whatsoever.”
Sheepshanks, who is now working as chairman at St George’s Park, the new England training centre near Burton-on-Trent, admits to being “wracked with nerves” and “so nervous I couldn’t eat” much like all other Ipswich fans that day.
Whilst talking through the match he finishes with Martijn Reuser’s goal, reciting the lines from the TV commentary he watched later that day and with his voice growing ever louder, ending with “Reuser, Premiership!”.
What followed was an amazing season but after that came relegation and subsequently administration, a subject which, when it inevitably arose, saw the enthusiasm and vigour drain from Sheepshanks’s voice as he began to explain in detail what went wrong.
“The first season we had was extraordinary. It just got better and better. It was the belief and the momentum we created, the belief we had around the club.
“But then you look at how on earth it all went wrong. I think it was culturally too much for the club at the time. I don’t mean for the club as it had a great history of success through the Robson years, but it was too much for the people concerned.
“We had a few new players, in particular Finidi George and Matteo Sereni, who arrived right at the beginning of the season.
“We tried to get Mart Poom from Derby because Richard Wright had gone and we tried like anything to stop Richard Wright going but he had this opportunity to go to Arsenal and I don’t blame him at all because it was a great opportunity for him, but his agent [Jonathan Barnett] was a nightmare with me at the time.
“We couldn’t stop him going and we identified Mart Poom but he broke his wrist the week before the season started just as we were hopefully going to conclude the deal, and then we were up a gum tree.
“George was recommended Matteo Sereni by Sven-Göran Eriksson, who was the England manager at the time, and George went and saw him once and took him for an enormous amount of money, and it didn’t work.”
It might be thought that one reason for the downfall was over-ambition, but Sheepshanks dismisses this, believing they set reasonable goals, and says there was a time during 2001/02 when Town looked to be safe.
“As a board we didn’t have any unrealistic expectations, nor did George. We sat down and we were very clear and we thought probably 12th having finished fifth. We said maybe we should try and finish 17th but we aimed 12th.
“But of course it was an extraordinary season and, whilst we won in Europe and it was marvellous to be in Europe, we kept losing in the league and when it came to December we were rock bottom. But then we had an extraordinary win away at Tottenham, a lucky win and we did the double on them a few weeks later at home.
“Suddenly this belief flooded back into the team. I was taken out as a guest to the Super Bowl in New Orleans and we won on the first weekend in February, away at Everton. I think it was 3-0 [actually 2-1, 3-0 was the previous year] and I remember David Gill was there from Manchester United and he saw me and said ‘Congratulations, what a win!’.
“That took us, on February 3rd 2002, to 12th in the table and he said ‘Congratulations, that must have secured your future, well done what a helluva turn around’.
“I thought we were going to be safe, I think we had 32 points and something like 10 games to go, but we only took six points from the rest of those games.
“You couldn’t really believe it. Maybe you could understand the terrible start because of Europe and the distractions, but then to recover to the extent we recovered and then lose it like that at the end and get relegated it was a bloody tough pill to swallow.”
With Town relegated, the hard work really began in the boardroom to make sure the club was in a healthy financial state. It can be argued, as Sheepshanks does, that being relegated that season was the worst time in Premier League history.
“The economic climate by then was really bad and there were great concerns about ITV Digital and they went bust. There were real concerns in Europe about the legitimacy of the Premier League TV deal, people were worried, and on top of that it was going to be the first summer ever of having a transfer deadline. We were snookered.
“I think it was the worst time ever [to be relegated]. I even spoke to the Premier League about the legitimacy of the transfer deadline and everyone knew we were stuffed because it was the first time ever any club had to deal with relegation, trying to sell their players with this new arbitrary deadline on 31st August.
“Coventry had been relegated the year before and were arguably in a much worse state than us, but they managed to trade their way throughout the season and stay afloat. We couldn’t.
“What happened to us, because of the arbitrary window, was that everybody knew that we were snookered and they could play hardball with us. So, although we managed to sell Titus Bramble to Newcastle and Marcus Stewart to Sunderland, we were between a rock and a hard place, they drove a very hard deal on us.
“We had a bid for Matt Holland [from Aston Villa for £4 million] and for Hermann Hreidarsson [£3.3 million from West Brom] which we were going to take and they turned the moves down. In a way it was to their eternal credit because we were trying to rally in August and say we were going to get promoted again.
“On the one hand we’ve lived this fantastic dream together of getting promoted and getting high in the Premier League and so forth. People like Matt Holland and Hermann are really salt of the earth people and they loved the club and they didn’t want to go and yet I desperately wanted them to go because that money was going to save us.”
Sheepshanks remains adamant that Town wasn’t badly run but that he had been dealt some very difficult cards: “The only thing I can say is that I think we were a well-run club, I think it’s worth saying and, nobody knows this, but it was cash that was the issue. It was this transfer deadline, ITV Digital and the economic climate of the Premiership clubs.
“Those three factors combined in a way that has never happened since and it was like managing in quicksand, it made it impossible.
“All three clubs Derby, Leicester and ourselves ended up in the proverbial mire and administration. I honestly don’t see how any club could have dealt with it, so we were blamed for spending too much, but we hadn’t really.
“Yes, we’d been ambitious and we had spent what we thought we could afford. Nobody predicted that set of circumstances we had to deal with and it’s worth saying that the year we were relegated we still made a £2.5 million profit.
“You can say ‘How did that happen?’, it was because we were running it reasonably prudently. We invested in Sereni and Finidi George and why wouldn’t you? Because of George Burley’s reputation and his ability as a manager who could choose the right players had been sensational, you wouldn’t go against him as a board of directors.
“If he had made quite a few bad signings we would have said ’Well, what’s this about?’, but when his judgement was so supreme we backed him and we were right to back him. It’s only with hindsight that you stand back, we were where we were and we had to front up.
“It was an appalling time for all of us involved and for all of us who suffered, I shall always be incredibly sorry for that. But I took responsibility and my directors took collective responsibility and the only thing we could do was to take responsibility for effecting a recovery.”
This responsibility ultimately took the shape of finding a new owner in the form of Marcus Evans, who completed his takeover five years ago on Monday of this week. Sheepshanks spent the best part of two years searching around the world for someone who could “fund this club to promotion”.
Whilst Evans has given the club financial backing, the outcome has not so far been as hoped and Sheepshanks feels that the faceless owner approach wasn’t the right way to go.
“It does have an effect and when we did the deal with Marcus and he made it clear that he wanted to be anonymous I made it clear to him then and there, I told him that football was a very different world and I really felt that he should be visible. But you have to respect his wishes.”
The appointment of Mick McCarthy is one viewed by Sheepshanks as a step in the right direction and he thinks he will be able to guide Town back to the Premier League sooner rather than later.
“If Mick stays and Marcus Evans is able to go on backing him then I believe this club can in a year or two look forward realistically to promotion to the Premier League.”
Sheepshanks, who takes pride in having had three managers such as George Burley, Joe Royle and Jim Magilton working for him at the club, still shows the same passion when he talks about the club, with his formal involvement having ended last summer when he stood down as chairman and director of the PLC.
Like every other fan he now waits for Town to turn a corner and start to make some progress back towards the Premier League.
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