|League One, Leicester and the Long, Long Wait|
Written by DazC on Wednesday, 24th Apr 2019 21:39
They say you learn more from failure than success. Whatever the case, surely you learn more from either than by doing nothing at all.
For 17 years, it's hard to argue that Ipswich have done anything at all, good or bad. While triumph and turmoil have played out among pretty much every other club around us, our tale has been one without true highs or lows, only minor fluctuations in a cycle now repeated so many times over that a young generation has grown right into adulthood knowing nothing else.
Perhaps that's why when the final whistle blew on 90 minutes against Birmingham City earlier this month - and on Town's long second-tier tenure in the process - even this most predictable of relegations still felt jarring for many Ipswich fans.
The reality of that big red R was something for which we had probably been prepared for many months, but hadn't truly needed to contemplate over many more years beforehand.
One might suggest that was one thing we could be grateful for. In keeping with the dearth of any real emotional extremes at Portman Road in modern times, at least we were spared the agony of some sort of last day heartbreak. Despite the spectacular depths to which we've plummeted in this very worst of campaigns, the fatal mathematical blow was almost a complete non-event.
While that is of almost zero consolation to Town fans right now, things have been rather different for other famous clubs to have suffered the ignominy of the third tier tumble - as certain members of my own family know all too well.
Two weeks before the Birmingham game, while Ipswich were trudging to defeat against Hull City at the end of March, I was watching a different match more than 100 miles away from Portman Road.
As a Midlander for whom the trip to East Anglia is not quick or cheap, I rather have to pick and choose my 'home' games, and with the trip to Bolton already in my calendar for the following week, I had felt little inclination to travel for the Tigers clash.
Distance is no such problem for my brother and his wife, both Leicester City fans, who have often invited me to join them for a Foxes fixture whenever I am not otherwise committed.
Sometimes a stress-free day watching a different team provides a fresh sense of perspective on one's own club. And with Brendan Rodgers's men taking on Bournemouth that particular afternoon, I took up the invitation to see some Premier League football at the King Power instead.
It was far from my first visit to the stadium. It was already my third in this season alone. Indeed, alongside my many adventures (or perhaps misadventures) in 17 years supporting Ipswich, I've also been joining my brother at Leicester matches on-and-off for around 13 years.
In that time - as any English football fan would surely appreciate these days - I've seen some absurd ups and downs at City, including a very similar scenario to that in which Town currently find themselves.
I was there at the former Walkers Stadium back in 2007 for several matches during the very short-lived reign of Martin Allen, a then-promising young lower league boss who had been given a big job for the first time, but whose summer transfer dealings left a lot to be desired before his contract was brought to a swift end.
After serving as a similarly brief stop-off in the career of Gary Megson, the Foxes sought salvation from a more experienced Championship boss in Ian Holloway, who brought plenty of good humour but little more success.
I recall numerous outings watching that ultimately doomed Leicester team, a side featuring a strangely large cast of players later destined for Portman Road - Gareth McAuley, Richard Stearman, Patrick Kisnorbo, DJ Campbell, not to mention the late Marton Fulop.
Their battle for survival came far closer to success than Town's efforts under Paul Lambert, but in their final match of the 2007/08 season - surrounded by a Stoke City crowd celebrating clinching promotion - the Leicester faithful were left to watch their team be consigned to the third tier for the first time in their then 124-year history.
Plenty then to which Ipswich fans can relate after what has surely been the worst season in living memory for almost all of us.
Of course, there is little need to go into detail about what happened to the Foxes in the decade that followed the nadir of their own history.
There was the immediate return to the second tier as League One Champions, two near misses in the playoffs before a resounding Championship title, followed by the logic-defying Premier League triumph of 2016 and run to the Champions League quarter-finals.
As I watched Leicester trot to a straightforward 2-0 Premier League victory over Bournemouth a few weeks ago, I found some peculiar reassurance in remembering how recently things had been so different.
I remember watching League One matches at that stadium a decade ago. I remember the days before the multiple England internationals, before the worldwide following and Premier League tourism, before the enormous big screens and electronic advertising hoardings. The days before anyone sitting there could even be sure of bouncing back from the third tier, never mind the astonishing feats to come thereafter.
For the benefit of those who haven't been to the King Power Stadium in recent years (and for most Town fans, why would you), that remarkable journey from League One to the Premier League and Europe is documented on a weekly basis by the video montage played on the big screens before kick-off.
One sees the likes of David Nugent and Anthony Knockaert netting on the way to the Championship title, Esteban Cambiasso scoring in the remarkable 5-3 win over Manchester United in 2014, Jamie Vardy breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy's record for scoring in consecutive top-flight matches, clips from Champions League nights, before concluding with Claudio Ranieri's team lifting the Premier League trophy. It gets a huge roar every time.
But each time I've sat watching that video this season - all the while contemplating the dire reality facing my club far away in Suffolk - one moment in the montage hits me every time, a clip that appears before all those illustrious scenes described above. It's the sight of Leicester lifting the League One title in April 2009.
I was there on the night Leicester were presented with that trophy ten years ago this very week. Absurdly, in my 17 years of going to matches with Ipswich, Leicester, England and other sides to boot, that is the only time I've ever been present at the moment a team has lifted a piece of silverware or celebrated promotion (although, I hate to acknowledge, I might yet witness an opposing side do just that before Town's season is out).
One might be misled into thinking such triumphant moments are the reserve of a select, fortunate few. But no. Far, far from it.
Believe it or not, almost every single club in the Football League has experienced that kind of moment within those 17 years. From Manchester City to Mansfield, Chelsea to Cheltenham, fans of nearly every professional team up and down the country have had at least one day where they have celebrated their first team winning a competition in all the time that Ipswich have accomplished precisely nothing since 2002.
Proof, if any were needed, of just how especially success-starved us Town fans have been since the days of George Burley.
Achievement - of any kind - is long overdue at Portman Road, so much so that we have forgotten what it feels like. And within the level at which we have stagnated for the best part of two decades, such achievement has evidently proven beyond us.
It is perhaps a timely reminder, therefore, of the very purpose of promotion and relegation: To bring a team into a level more befitting of its competitive power.
While many Ipswich fans will rightly lament that it has ever come to this - and while many will rightly express concern that even this lower level may prove too much for a team now almost totally unfamiliar with success - the likelihood of us ending the interminable wait for accomplishment once in League One is boosted on paper if by no other measure.
And perhaps, in the most cynical of interpretations, Town's now unmentionable 'New Era' was going to end up relying on this all along.
Before this ill-fated season even began, I wrote a blog emphasising that to witness the kind of substantive, progressive improvement Town fans have craved in the post-Mick McCarthy era, we would have to be ready for 'The Long Haul'. Our league position, even our divisional status, come May 2019 would be irrelevant, because this entire season would merely be "one battle in a longer war for us".
That is a battle we've most certainly lost, and in a nightmarish fashion that I can't pretend I had ever foreseen. But in spite of that, the sentiment remains the same: We are but nine months into a project that may last years before it yields substantive improvement from its starting position.
And if anything, far from any fanciful thoughts we may have had last summer about some Paul Hurst-inspired miracle campaign, our relegation now forces us to begrudgingly accept the necessity of the long-term timescale.
Not that any of us wants to hear that, of course. Our experience of our club is limited to a finite number of our mortal years, and the last thing any of us want is to feel like we're losing a huge chunk of our football-watching lifetime just waiting for the good times.
Of course, Marcus Evans can't think about it like that. As ever, the owner has to maintain the business-like approach, concentrating on the feasible, the affordable. Perhaps he has known for some time, working within his chosen means, that he cannot manufacture any change that doesn't entail a long wait.
The problem for Evans is that from the fans' perspective, that wait didn't start with the 'New Era' - it started many fruitless years ago, most of which have been under his stewardship.
Serious questions persist about Evans and his viability as an owner in modern football. True, his reign hasn't witnessed the abject chaos seen at the likes of Blackpool, Coventry City or others to have fallen from grace in recent times, although that is scant cause for credit.
But the overwhelming sense is that Evans's era has been a tale of steady decline, hampered first by naivety and then by cautious inertia in a fast-moving football world, and culminating in a relegation so emphatic that no apology could ever possibly suffice.
As convincing a conclusion as this may be, any fan grounded in reality has to acknowledge that next season surely begins from a baseline of little systemic change at Portman Road.
The probability of a far-flung billionaire flooding the club with cash - or indeed of Evans giving in to spontaneous budgetary abandon - is likely far smaller than the present set-up engineering a more natural evolutionary comeback.
That evolution will have to include a significant chunk of the current squad, despite the ongoing doubts about the ability therein. The past year becomes a complete dead loss if we can't give at least some of Hurst's young acquisitions the chance to build on their gruelling Championship induction with a fresh opportunity to shine in the arguably more familiar surroundings of the third tier. The signs, although somewhat fleeting, have been visible in recent months to suggest all is not lost among this crop.
Any evolution will likely rely on continuity in the manager's chair too, in spite of similar question marks over how well Paul Lambert fits into it.
One would need spectacles with a near opaque blue tint not to recognise there has been no substantive improvement in results under the current boss, and the 'I didn't start the fire' Get Out Of Jail Free card which has shielded him since inheriting Hurst's struggling squad will undoubtedly expire after this summer.
There has been criticism that Lambert's tenure so far has been style over substance, little more than a PR exercise. But one could easily argue that post-McCarthy Ipswich have been in need of a unifying, fan-centric PR operation just as much as a tactical overhaul, and with limited means at Lambert's disposal mid-season, the former had to come first.
It may yet prove a crucial ingredient for rebirth next season too. Even with just two home wins all season, Ipswich's average attendance in 2018/19 has exceeded both of the last two more 'successful' campaigns, while the recent wealth of external praise for the club's travelling fans is in telling contrast to the ill-informed criticism outsiders have been throwing in our direction ever since McCarthy's supposed 'ousting'.
The club has dearly needed that fresh unity for some time, and never will it need it more than next season if the desired rebirth is to become a reality at Portman Road.
Anyone feeling massively sceptical about the odds of such a rebirth is far from alone right now. Surely even the most positively-minded Ipswich fan is having difficulty believing their optimism about next season after the catastrophe of the present one.
But when even the worst team in Championship history - the 2016/17 Rotherham United side that racked up five fewer points than our current shambolic tally - managed an immediate return from the third tier, surely there is hope for us all.
Indeed, I remember Leicester fans weren't exactly brimming with confidence upon commencing their League One challenge in 2008. But after getting their campaign off to a strong start, and with the support of promising academy talents like Andy King and Joe Mattock, the Foxes went on to secure the promotion that ultimately launched their remarkable rise to worldwide fame.
Not for one moment would I suggest that Ipswich will be replicating that rise. Not for one moment would I suggest that a similarly swift League One promotion is in any way a foregone conclusion, or that we are immune from following the likes of Oldham Athletic, Bradford City, Swindon Town and other ex-Premier League sides into seemingly unending lower league obscurity.
But as I sat at that Leicester v Bournemouth game, watching that montage clip again of the Foxes' League One title winners, I couldn't help picturing a parallel at Portman Road. That maybe, just maybe, this darkest of moments for Ipswich Town could be followed by a similar turnaround. Even if not a Leicester-like miracle, at the very least it may end our wait to accomplish something - anything - for the first time in nearly two decades.
And while none of us want to contemplate that accomplishment taking more than one season, let's bear something else in mind. It wasn't immediate for Leeds United. It wasn't immediate for Sheffield United either. But looking at the Championship table today, perhaps those two are finally winning the same long game that we have just started playing.
It's been a horrible, horrible year. For now, let's just hope we're one year closer to finally having something to celebrate.
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