|The Long and Winding Decline|
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Sunday, 13th Jan 2019 17:09
The long, slow decline in Town’s fortunes since we became part of the mysterious and opaque ‘Marcus Evans Business Empire’ has been both hugely depressing and acutely embarrassing. But if we’re honest, Town’s decline pre-dates the much-maligned Marcus Evans’s arrival by decades. Both on and off the pitch.
What defines a football club? To a certain extent it’s the manager. Paul Lambert has proved a surprisingly reinvigorating force off the pitch, if not so far on it. But there’s much more to it than that. There’s more to Liverpool that Jurgen. There’s more to Manchester City than Pep. It goes deeper. Much deeper. But it has to start somewhere. West Ham are a case in point.
Essentially they are vile second-rate club in an unpleasant part of East London. But despite all evidence to the contrary there is a mythical West Ham Way – an anachronism that I think dates back to Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters.
Leeds United another case in point. A football powerhouse and Manchester United’s big rivals in their supporters’ deluded minds. But they were only good, fleetingly under Don Revie. In the early 60s they were a poor Second Division team, as were Liverpool, who I think owe their identity to Bill Shankly and the Mersey sound, more or less the same time Revie reinvented Leeds as a football city.
The fervour those managers and times inspired identified and still identifies those clubs – as I think Moore and his mates defined the long-departed West Ham Way at the very same time.
Maybe football didn’t begin with the Premier League, as Sky would have you believe. It began with the groovy sixties – which is all most living supporters can remember. More often than not though it is simply an all-too brief fleeting moment of success that supporters cling to forever as their club’s divine right.
And Ipswich? Our identity isn’t defined by the Robson Years or even the shorter, more amazing Ramsey Years. It unerringly dates back to one extraordinary man. John Cobbold. As a chairman he was utterly unique. An Old Etonian charmer who had the knack of getting on with anyone and everyone, lived life through a glorious alcoholic haze and established Ipswich as a club that was universally admired for wit, charm, hospitality, humour and doing things right long before amazing success arrived.
Knowing that win, draw or lose, it was the way you did it and responded to afterwards that mattered most. He was the life, soul and spirit for Ipswich Town for nigh on 20 years as chairman – and a tragically brief period afterwards when he took a back seat to brother Patrick.
And it worked. Before him Ipswich was a smalltown club in the bottom tier of the league – the third division south. He was on the board that appointed perhaps the two of the greatest managers this country has ever known.
He saw his club rise to the very summit of English football, fall and rise again to be a power across Europe. And he never, ever changed. No office at the ground, no hidden agenda, no desire to push himself in the dressing room or into the public eye, but somehow always there when needed.
Robson wasn’t his first choice, nor his second, nor his third or fourth – because he made three attempts to lure Billy Bingham. But when Robson arrived, he had Cobbold’s unstinting support from day one. Almost certainly he helped and moulded Bobby Robson to become the man he was, simply by being himself.
His life and lifestyle perhaps explains why he died so tragically young. He died aged just 56 in 1983. For a time his legacy lived on in the boardroom – but at some point, long before Evans arrived, it was lost and forgotten. The Ipswich Way effectively died with the great man. It’s no coincidence the club has been in decline from the moment John Cobbold passed away.
David Sheepshanks might have been a charming Old Etonian, but he wasn’t John Cobbold reincarnate by any means. He clearly and unapologetically ran Town for what he could get out of it. In his case climbing the greasy pole in the FA corridors of power was his real remit. Under his tenure we got into extreme financial difficulties not once, but twice. Both times on other people’s money.
Under Sheepshanks’s stewardship, with not one but two stands constructed under ‘a separate income stream’, Town went from fifth in the Premier League to relegation and insolvency in under two years. That’s worse than the current situation by some distance, yet somehow retains the rose-tinted aura of the good old days. And all the time, as he piloted Town full steam ahead on to the rocks, David Sheepshanks saw himself as the man to run football at the FA.
In terms of keeping Town afloat, Marcus Evans is almost saintly by comparison. Certainly less publicity-seeking and less delusional. To my mind, he’s never pretended to be anything other than what he is. And we should always remember it was Town’s shamed directors and gullible shareholders who effectively gifted him the club – sight unseen.
Both Marcus Evans and David Sheepshanks were grasping opportunists on the rocky road of decline. You could justifiably point to the construction of the Pioneer Stand as the death knell in Town’s position as East Anglia’s premier team. A huge financial millstone and added capacity just as your iconic manager was leaving and key players ageing did not seem a bright idea at the time. And still doesn’t
It’s been a history of decline ever since. Our last two tenures in the Premier League have lasted three and two years. There’s a geometric progression there that might forecast how long we’ll stay next time. Fanciful as that notion seems at present. But hey ho, all things in football are cyclical.
BUT – there is more to Town’s decline than blaming managers, chairmen and owners. It’s an unfortunate fact that Town committed financial suicide and attracted chancers at the very moment both football and the playing field of the real world tilted against them. Back in the Robson era, Ipswich was perhaps the pre-eminent town in East Anglia – or at least it seemed so with all those gleaming new insurance buildings.
There was a port, an airport of sorts. London was but a trip on the train or a frustrating grind by road away. The M11 and M25 didn’t exist, Europe was something to be embraced. The A12 led you straight to the ground with a plethora of street parking. The Blue Arrow took you wherever you might want to go for memorable away days.
Norwich was about as isolated as you could get as a football club, Cambridge a university town, Peterborough and Colchester ‘small clubs’. Luton and Watford slightly bigger than those two perhaps - and not really in East Anglia. Back then ‘Pride of Anglia’ was true. Now it is risible – on and off the pitch.
Norwich might as well be on a different planet football-wise. Sadly at present (and who knows how long it can last) they represent everything Town used to be from the boardroom down to an untried manager being given time to get things right (or wrong). Watford? Premier League giants, no less. Luton, rising fast, Colchester in a purpose-built stadium that was smarter than ours last time I visited. Cambridge and Peterborough perhaps forever under glass ceilings – for now.
And Ipswich? There’s an aura of decay about Portman Road. And it doesn’t welcome visitors. All my old street parking haunts have disappeared. Bus lanes for seemingly non-existent buses make car trips purgatory to and from the ground, despite crowds being half what they once were. The airport is a housing estate, the railway positively third world.
Meanwhile East Anglia has moved on. Norwich is thriving on and off the pitch. It has improved road connections, an airport. The shops and ambience, the whole city seems so much better than Ipswich. And most galling of all they have retained their football club.
And Cambridge? The changes here are astonishing. Fast rail and road connections to London and the rest of the country, an airport, world leading science parks and a world-renowned university have to my mind made Cambridge by some distance the flag bearer for 21st century East Anglia. Norwich clearly are second and Ipswich but a distant third.
Against this background, Ipswich Town, teetering on the edge of the third division and mouldering on the edge of growing East Anglian prosperity ,does not look an attractive buying proposition. Or a credible footballing force any time soon.
Analysis of East Anglia’s recent development backs this up. Ipswich is in relative decline. In the last decade it has been moribund, the slowest growing part of East Anglia, with the Bury area also in the bottom five. Suffolk is the slowest growing county in East Anglia, up just 0.6% in the last decade. Suffolk is an aging population too – average age 40. In Cambridge it’s 31. In Norwich it’s 33. Granted those figures are skewed by a student population – but students watch football too. The population demographic difference between Norwich, Cambridge and Ipswich is now huge.
So when you wonder why crowds are not what they once were, one good reason is that a huge percentage of the crowds from the Robson era have joined Robson and John Cobbold in footballing heaven. Generations have only known decline. Town today are not exactly an attractive proposition. Whilst the club itself descends into purgatory, the potential fanbase has declined. Meanwhile the world – and East Anglia has moved on.
Yes we can blame Evans. But in truth (if the financial figures are to be believed) he has ploughed in tens of millions of his own money to keep Town treading water long after his short-term money-making opportunity slipped away. The mirage of Premier League millions is still there, just a bit further in the distance as Town slip further backwards. You can question his motives. You can ponder on the lack of football structure and the decision-making vacuum from day one. But it is his club and his money.
Those same short-sighted supporters who welcomed Evans and gifted him the club now want him to go. Fat chance, I suspect. Even now, in five or even ten years’ time, if costs can be bolted down, it could still provide an enormous return on his ‘investment’, so little was the discounted purchase price and so huge are the financial returns for being promoted to and relegated from the Premier League.
Sheephanks by contrast funded the club’s excesses through easy debt at a time when easy debt led to a global recession, let alone a hiccough at Ipswich. When Robson and Cobbold embraced European football (against Real Madrid for goodness sake) they did it with the players and stands that got them there. No headlong rush to buy ‘European experience’. Just trust (and genius of course).
Fast-forward to the Sheepshanks era in the same situation and catastrophic decisions on and off the pitch were made that effectively destroyed the club when economic reality bit back after relegation.
When Sheepshanks walked away the club owed him little more than a new-found reputation for being careless with other people’s money. He doubtless had good intentions but even back then was fighting a rising tide of economic growth and geographic reality that cannot be denied.
At present many Town fans blithely see the third division as below them and the club’s means. But the inescapable truth is Ipswich as a town is already third rate. Ipswich is being left behind on and off the pitch.
If not Marcus Evans, then who? Nobody any better and possibly someone quite a lot worse is the simple answer. The lure of Premier League millions and the poor regulation of lower league football clubs and their owners are still attractive to dubious investors. If there is a pretend Russian oligarch, an unknown Indian steel magnate, a rumoured Far East billionaire of no known provenance or a bored Arab Prince out there making a preferred list of East Anglian targets, where would they go?
If it were me, I’d land my helicopter at Cambridge – and be confident about being above Ipswich in three years. If and when relegation happens it’s not a disaster. It merely, temporarily, confirms our third-rate status. The uncomfortable truth is, it may actually be where we belong.
So don’t blame Evans. Blame Sheepshanks. Blame geography. Blame economy. Blame life. But don’t blame John Cobbold. Remember him and celebrate him. He defined Ipswich Town. Only by seeing and admitting how far we have strayed from the great man’s Corinthian and hedonistic ideals do you begin to see how far Ipswich Town have declined as a club.
Paul Lambert, to his eternal credit is trying to resurrect the club spirit. He’s trying to reconnect the club on and off the pitch. He’s involving old Town players, talking to supporters, reconnecting severed ties. But he’s starting in the wrong place. The disconnect goes way further back than the great players of the near or distant past. It goes right back to the boardroom and the club’s DNA.
One of John Cobbold’s memorable quotes was that there would be no crisis at Portman Road unless they ran out of white wine in the boardroom. Now there is only one person left to drink it – when he’s there.
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