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Beware the Man With a Plan
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Sunday, 27th Jan 2019 14:14

“I love it when a plan comes together”, a gurning George Peppard was fond of saying every week on that cult 80s TV show, The A-Team.

And back at the start of this century, so were a justifiably smug David Sheepshanks and delighted Ipswich Town fans. Because the much-publicised, far-sighted and wonderful Five-Year Plan of our much-admired chairman had just come to fruition with defeat of mighty Barnsley in the Championship play-offs. We were Premier League! Yes indeed, how we all loved it when a Five-Year Plan came together.

But did it really? The other day, out of curiosity, I started googling Sheepshanks’ Five-Year Plan. Rather like the man himself, I could find little substance. It seemed back then, and seems even more now, all rather vague. And highly questionable.

Yes, we apparently needed a reboot, having been relegated in fine style. Ours was you’ll recall, one of the most humbling and spectacularly deserved relegations ever. The 9-0 debacle at Old Trafford being a case in point.

But people tend to forget the 3-2 win for Town in the return fixture that effectively denied United the league. It showed there was real talent and commitment lurking somewhere deep within a demoralised team, IF only it could be encouraged to develop and grow.

But after such a spectacular fall from grace, expectations were not particularly high back then – inside or outside Portman Road. The omens were far from good at the start of the 1995/96 season, a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace, was watched by just 12,681 fans, with the Londoners bringing a fair few.

Worse quickly followed. 8,256 saw Town dumped out of the League Cup by Stockport County in one of those ‘were you there?’ moments that seemingly define the purgatory of football support. By the end of the season there was to be a 25 per cent drop in the average attendances. Clearly Town not only needed a plan – they needed a very good plan indeed.

Against this backdrop, Sheepshanks, Burley et al gathered for tea and biscuits – with I suspect a flip chart, to do some blue sky thinking, run ideas up flagpoles etc. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that seminal meeting when the great men sat together and mulled over Town’s future. “Can we get promoted this year?” Cue embarrassed looks and sideways glances. “What about next year? Or the year after that?” Cue much thumb twiddling and perhaps an “Och, maybe,” or two. Eventually they decided on five years. But what was the plan that would deliver on this long-sighted aim?

Clearly there was one. It seems to have centred on deep thinking like “let’s not sack any of us” and “let’s give ourselves lots of time”. But it all seems somewhat ethereal and short of substance. Yes, there was a commitment to live within our linited means and grow organically. But heck, that was hardly startling thinking, with the gifts of Richard Wright and James Scowcroft emerging – and a skinny little kid called Kieron Dyer also on the immediate horizon. It was actually the way the club had been run since the year dot.

Plus of course the forgotten makeweight in the bizarre Adrian Paz deal was somehow transforming into one of the most popular Town players ever. But did that Five-Year Plan include bringing in Bryan Hamilton and Stewart Houston to help George Burley manage? Or miss gilt-edged chances to go up? I doubt it.

Add all those ingredients into a team that could beat the league champions on merit and you’d think five years was perhaps a little distant, a little unambitious perhaps.

And so it proved with the play-offs missed by the narrowest of margins. Having said that, if we forget the Milwall game, it was suddenly a good time to be a Town supporter again. And the almost-good times kept rolling on as the play-offs came and went in an annual form of ritual self-torture. Even Sheepy helping to change the rules so we couldn’t be beaten on away goals didn’t seem to work.

And then, miraculously, right on cue after five years, it actually happened. Then what? Clearly not another five-year plan, though that might have been sensible. Nor even a “I say, let’s not lose our heads chaps” caveat added to the first. Instead a sort of hapless muddle took over, almost from day one. But there was a vision of sorts.

Maybe you have forgotten The THREE-Year Plan? First floated I think at a somewhat comical shareholders’ meeting in the Centre Spot restaurant towards the end of 2000. There a less than ambitious target of European football was set out to a somewhat underwhelmed audience. Gob-smackingly audacious now, I’ll agree, but given that Town’s Premier League season had taken off to a startling degree, Sheepshanks could have targeted winning the Champions League as a viable option with little obvious dissent.

But the Sheepy of that far-off night was one you would scarcely recognise. His mantra was all about keeping ‘feet firmly on the floor’ and ‘consolidation’. Then on to more important matters like remuneration for the board, to be agreed by a remuneration committee (Sheepy was remember awarded a £250,000 bonus on top of his £125,000 salary for all his hard work that year).

I can’t remember the salient points in The Three-Year Plan. Clearly it was not a great success. A share issue was blithely discussed. And the transfer of Gert Verheyen, which you may also have quietly forgotten. The Three-Year Plan didn’t include relegation or insolvency, that’s for sure. But I do recall Sheepy brushing aside concern about income from transfers. The buzzword for the Three-Year Plan was consolidation. If only he had listened to his own words.

Clearly things could have been very different. If only the Five-Year plan had been a three-year plan – and the Three-Year plan had been a five-year plan that was actually acted on. Imagine that? Perhaps our recent football-supporting lives would have panned out very differently. But one thing was for sure, when Town plummeted from fifth place to relegation and were staring insolvency in the face - a new plan would be required, with some urgency.

And when it came, it was a belter. Not a Three-Year Plan – but a Three-Point Plan. With an almighty sting in its tail as it happens. But more of that later. Now I do remember the Three-Point Plan very well. It went as follows:
*Reducing the annual players’ wage bill to about £5 million from its high last season of £24 million
* Raising money from the sale of players
* Refinancing the club through a share issue.

Quite startlingly inept you might think, given the cataclysm Town were now facing – more pie-in-the-sky thinking, than blue sky thinking. But it came with a minor caveat. First chaps, we’ll have to go into administration. In other words, one year on from receiving a £250,000 bonus for doing little more than ride the crest of a wave, Sheepshanks had piloted Town firmly and irretrievably on to the rocks.

Of course, the hopelessly inadequate Three-Point Plan went belly up in double quick time too. Which left only one plan on the table. “Don’t panic!”. It was about that time that certain people, myself included, somewhat bizarrely received what amounted to a begging letter from Ipswich Town because we were allegedly ‘high net worth’ individuals. I had that letter framed and kept it in my toilet for many years.

Alas there must have been many other dodgy names on that highly-suspect mailing list, including presumably, Michael Anderson who humiliatingly showed Sheepy’s increasingly desperate search for new money was perhaps not as thorough as it might have been.

Still needs must and just as the point of no return beckoned again, Sheepy found providence in the form of Marcus Evans. It promised to be a perfect match. On the one hand a destitute club, rich in history, veneered with a glossy and tempting illusion of potential riches to come, but desperate to sell.

On the other an utterly unknown chancer of almost invisible status looking for another easy buck. It mattered not one jot that the Marcus Evans Group, from what little was apparent, was the exact antithesis of Ipswich Town. Nobody even stopped to ask Marcus Evans if he might perhaps put in an appearance, let alone provide a solid business plan or declare his intentions. He had money – and that was more than enough. And so an inglorious new chapter in the club’s history had begun.

Plan A, of the new era, such as it was, appeared to be quietly get rid of all the in-house people with football expertise (if you could call it that, given the evidence of the past couple of years) and replace them with people with little idea of what they were doing – then throw some money at them. Harsh perhaps – but not far from the truth.

It all seemed a little vague. And there seemed very little sign of our new leader, who appeared something of an illusion compared to the high-profile, self-publicising visionary we were used to seeing (and endlessly hearing from) in the hot seat. Hell, for the first few years I reckon if I hired a helicopter and flew into Portman Road, declaring myself to be master businessman Marcus Evans, nobody would have been any the wiser. I half suspect somebody did exactly that.

Then after a few years of apparently rudderless thinking – we heard from the great man himself. He did exist after all. And he had a plan. Not just any plan – but a FIVE-POINT PLAN no less. Here it is in all its glory:

* To provide a significant ongoing financial commitment to the Club’s Academy, enabling a steady flow of players into the first-team

* To provide a sustainable and competitive squad salary budget

*To make annual investment funds available to purchase players in the early stages of their career and to assist in their development

*Maintaining a stable management and coaching team

*To develop a team to play attractive and exciting football

Now you could argue that is more of a wish list than a plan – and a little short of detail perhaps considering this was now the end of 2016.

It’s also quite amusing to look back at this master plan with the benefit of hindsight. Let’s see… stable management and coaching team? Well, with just three wholesale changes in two years we’re clearly right on schedule.

Invest in the academy? Well at the last count (today) there weren’t any academy players in the team at all. Assist in the development of lower league players? You can count them on one hand, unlike the constant stream of loans and duds through the revolving door. Attractive football? Well yes, Mr McCarthy won’t be getting off the bus any more soon, if offered a 0-0 draw, no siree!

But shortly before this magnificent piece of strategic thinking from the dark lord of a mysterious and shadowy international business empire, we had been given yet another plan – this time a Five-Year Academy Plan. And once again the plan was a pearler, heralding great things in the tantalisingly close, but still quite distant future.

At the start of the 2014/15 season it was decreed from on high that within the next five years, Ipswich Town Football Club intends to have 50 per cent of their squad made up of players from its own academy.

Now you couldn’t really quibble with this laudable aim. It would be nice to substitute the mealy-mouthed ‘squad’ with a more ambitious ‘first team’ perhaps, rather than assemble eager young players to be loaned out somewhere ghastly, but fair dues. Four years (and three managers plus their hangers-on) later of course we are as far away as ever, with a team top heavy with short-term loans and temps.

In fact, despite the great Paul Lambert Love-In, all those right-on soundbites, the recent team at Blackburn had no homegrown players whatsoever. He even recently declared the fabled academy was not producing players to play the Lambert Way. Once again it shows there is no point whatsoever in a plan unless you try and keep to it – and try at least a token attempt to achieve it.

BUT, irony of ironies. Imagine IF it all goes pear-shaped and Town get relegated and the finances implode again. All those short-term, pointless signings Lambert assembled in January will be gone. By serendipity Town may actually have to start playing their own homegrown players. Relegation might make this now seemingly utterly unattainable Five-Year Academy Plan attainable in the blink of an eye. Again.

It is not unthinkable that next season Town might actually have a team containing a plethora of homegrown players. But arrived at yet again thanks to incompetence and accident - not thanks to that Five-Year Academy Plan. IF that happens another five-year plan will have ingloriously fulfilled itself just as Sheepshanks’s plan so gloriously fulfilled itself. By accident.

Just recently we have heard an awful lot from Paul Lambert – and even, glory be, a little bit more from Marcus Evans. Even as the team flounders they clearly want you to know that safe hands are firmly on the tiller. When deeds are failing, it’s time for honeyed words. Who knows, even now they may be running some ideas up flagpoles. No flip chart this time of course, because any discussions will probably be from different offices on different continents via Skype or Whatsapp.

Nothing much is guaranteed at a struggling football club, but two things clearly are. Plausible excuses for today and hollow promises for a better tomorrow. We’ve been swallowing both for decades. At the end of this season we will almost certainly be spoon-fed yet another Five-Year Plan or Five-Point Plan. Perhaps even both. Alas, we’ve been there five times before.

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Blu added 14:44 - Jan 27
Spot on in every respect. Sheepshanks was an amateur out of his depth, but largely forgiven because he was 'a fan'. Evans has been an unmitigated disaster, and Lambert is on the fast track to becoming our worst manager in history (results wise), but apparently he loves the club. Where will it all end?

patrickswell added 16:49 - Jan 27
I think the attempt to re-write history regarding Sheepshanks’s Five Year Plan is shameful. It gave the club a sense of direction which had been missing under John Kerr/John Lyall/Mick McGiven. We had an aging squad in 94-95, with a large number of the players who had got us up in 91-92, still at the club when 95-96 started who had little sell-on value to them. They played it cagily with some of the signings and frees brought in at that time of which Mowbray had the longest term impact allied to the gradual bringing through of Scowcroft, R. Wright and Vaughan. The crucial difference between then and now is that results ticked on. We were inconsistent but never crisis-stricken. Eventually that planning began to bear fruit as we saw through the period 1997-2000 and because it was in place, we were able to bounce back from disappointments and come again.

Sadly, since 2002, we have been mentally soft and, Mick McCarthy’s first few years aside, perpetually firefighting either because of financial problems, bad luck/timing or simple incompetence. Under Evans, no planning has taken place because Keane, Jewell and Hurst flopped so badly once they had had summer transfer windows and pre-season, while Mick was not backed from a position of strength and we drifted as a result.

Lambert talks the talk, but regardless of whether we stay up or go down and irrespective of what plans or ideas he has - we need to see results to give us hope and allow them the time to work on their ideas instead of trying to plug holes.

RegencyBlue added 19:05 - Jan 27
Sheepshanks did OK for the club until he began to believe his own publicity, that he could do no wrong, at which point it all went belly up.

Evans has been an unmitigated disaster for the club and relegation has been the inevitable result of his mismanagement of matters on and off the pitch.

I don’t agree that relegation will result in our playing home grown players though. It’s more likely that Evans will indulge in a fire sale of any worthwhile talent to fund the multi million pound black hole that will appear in our finances. More bargain basement purchases I suspect.

Soroche added 13:25 - Jan 29
Another excellent post; l don't have enough information to say that l agree with everything but very thought-provoking as ever.
Maybe next article could focus on the contributions of ex -Etonians to ITFC and to recent politics 🤔. Keep the articles coming.

Ewan_Oozami added 19:45 - Jan 29
Nice history lesson containing lots of subjective words describing past actions and events, you've obviously taken a very keen interest in happenings at ITFC over the last 25 years - but what's your point? What should have been done differently? What do you advocate now? Violent revolution, boycotts, protests against Evans, carry on supporting the team, vote "Hard Brexit" in a 2nd Referendum?

carsey added 11:53 - Jan 30
Aside from the fact that having done the impossible and got to the promised land Sheepshanks & Co lost their collective heads instead of consolidating, that period was arguably the best the club and supporters have experienced outside of Ramsey wining the league and God Robson making us one of the best teams in Europe for a decade.
As a supporter I loved it, that feeling of expecting to win and being disappointed when we lost.
I'm not sure I agree with your cynical view point that it was all more by luck than judgement and I was saddened to see how the smaller local firms were treated when administration arrived.
Recent times since ME has been involved have been largely a waste and many fans have drifted away disenchanted with the football but unless you have the money to fund the club I believe you have to take a leap of faith that he is doing it for the right reasons. He certainly isn't making any money out of it.
As a fan I will be hoping it all comes right whether we survive or get relegated.

Saxonblue74 added 19:19 - Jan 30
A very well written and thought provoking piece. I don't necessarily agree with all the content. In some respects it highlights all the good thay Evans had done at ITFC with regard to keeping us afloat. I suspect that with the change of a few names and dates this article could be posted on any number of club websites with a relatively recent fall from grace and their respective fans could relate to it.
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