|Where Might This Lead?|
Written by Moggasknockdown on Tuesday, 28th May 2019 15:39
As we draw stumps on the darkest season in the club’s recent history, it is hard not to reflect on Paul Lambert's efforts to revive our listing club with at least a degree of optimism for the future.
Many will rightly point out that the results have remained awful and that latterly (barring the Leeds game) the performances have been as insipid as they were under Paul Hurst.
But regardless of the unrelenting misery and remarkable levels of schadenfreude that has befallen the club over the last season, Lambert's charm offensive has been gallant and unerring, and his ability to galvanise the support has been generally rewarded with higher attendances and far superior atmospheres to that of his predecessors. Given his obvious connections elsewhere, and the levels of apathy he experienced upon his arrival, this has been no mean feat.
The detached and spiteful break-up of the Mick McCarthy years was as inevitable as it was tragic. Despite the undoubted alchemy that McCarthy was able to perform with such meagre resources, he was seemingly given too much power to run the club as he saw fit, with a fleeting care for long-term strategy (beyond his remarkable ability to return huge profits on several players purchased for a pittance) and a disdain and distrust of those outside the tent ‘pissing in’ which he always felt was inevitable as soon as results and performances tailed off.
Indeed, it is fair to say that McCarthy tried to improve style following the 2016/17 campaign, shrewdly acquiring Martyn Waghorn, Bersant Celina and Je Garner to support the undoubted talents of David McGoldrick and the initial results were positive. We were however a few bad results and performances away from the same baiting and jibing and bickering that would inevitably end in spiteful divorce.
His behaviour in the local and national media could often be crass, cheap and self-destructive which of course reached its nadir at Carrow Road in 2017, and from that point was irreversible. In truth, with slightly fewer partisan positions on both sides, we might still be sat here today listening to his pithy one-liners following another solid season in the Championship.
Skip forward 18 months, and the club is intent on an aggressive PR charm offensive which is, for all intents and purposes better late than never. Under McCarthy we were listing following the disastrous Paul Jewell years - but he had the grit, gumption and sheer bloody mindedness to create a team in his own image, which by and large was at the very least an effective combatant in a very competitive league. Following the public fallout and a very public change of direction from Marcus Evans, the appointment Paul Hurst was the accelerator to McCarthy’s handbrake.
The point, perhaps, is that Ipswich Town have been too reliant on the manager to hold the club together rather than a considered, more modern structure through which to run the club. The tail has wagged the dog for too long. Our approach is surely unsustainable (as our current plight demonstrates), and smacks of an owner who has been disengaged, and rather played at running a football club than wholly committing the time that it required.
McCarthy and Jewell especially reserved special praise for Evans as the non-meddling type. It was Hurst who first alluded to the potential issues of Evans hands-off approach, following his acrimonious exit in October. "Trying to have a relationship with the owner was difficult," Hurst admitted. "We spoke on the phone but with him not being around to speak to in person, it meant that there was a little bit of a void”.
Sour grapes? Maybe. But Lambert's subsequent statements about contracts and the recent appointment of Lee O’Neill as general manager of football operations suggest that there has been a dereliction of duty somewhere, and that structurally the club needed a reboot.
In truth, it feels like a club in a managed decline of expectations that aligns with an owner for whom it feels the required commitment is too hot to bear. The state of Portman Road is at times is a depressing epitaph of the Evans years, despite the early promise (and a lick of paint to the turnstiles) the team and general direction of the club have been moribund and rudderless.
That Evans has only latterly addressed the supporters directly, all rather feels like a desperate roll of the dice following the removal of the curtain by Hurst and Lambert to show the emperor without any clothes, and without a plan to boot.
The club has undoubtedly suffered against the backdrop of parachute payments and the artificial ‘doping’ of wage structures by ambitious owners scrapping and scrabbling to get in the top six to have a stab at promotion to the big time. To be clear, if we had any sellable assets left and a similar vanity owner allured and driven by the riches of Premier League buck, we would be doing the same.
Evans's approach has been to seek quick fixes by employing those with promotion on their CV, which has ultimately fallen short as a strategy. The question remains as to whether there is now a coherent short, medium- and long-term plan in place to ensure that this really is rock bottom, or whether we will continue this slide whilst expectations are managed further downwards by a hierarchy retreating back into their shells and scuttling off into silent anonymity again.
We should, in my opinion, be looking at clubs like Brentford and Preston for inspiration - both have teams with saleable assets based on strong recruitment and shrewd judgement with their managers who fit into a rounded structure and can be replaced on a like-for-like basis.
Whilst Brentford do not have an academy, they do have a process that they believe in and has generated success on competitive but not eye-watering budgets. It seems then that we must decide on what model we would like to follow and try to back it completely even in adversity. This was perhaps the curiousness of the Hurst appointment as the antithesis of McCarthy - why bring him in and let him tear up the squad if only to abandon it 14 games into the season? That is perhaps for another day.
In fairness to Evans, he has committed to the category two academy which has started to show signs of promise in the 18s and 23s last season and may yet form a credible direction of travel for the club.
A strategy of homegrown youth which, whilst admirable, must be complemented with shrewd recruitment, and is something that will certainly energise fans, even we have to stomach the occasional dispiriting sight of an exceptional academy prospect sold before we are even exposed to them at first team level.
An academy-first approach is not likely to be an immediately fruitful strategy and will no doubt have its detractors from within our fanbase should results suffer. It will require experienced hands and an assimilation of both a management structure that is prepared to stake its success on it, and a lot of patience, but the rewards are potentially much more satisfying and will be enjoyed by all.
Let us not forget, it was a strategy derived by David Sheepshanks following the mess of the 1994/95 campaign that saw persistence after four years of heartache rewarded under the twin towers in May 2000.
The club had balanced astute transfer business over the years with academy products led by a management team with blue in their blood and it culminated in one of the greatest days in my life, watching Matt Holland lead the team up the famous steps to collect the trophy - a sense of pride and connection with a team that has yet to be bettered. since.
Of course, there are many variables to success and luck/injuries are certainly a couple but it seems to me that identity and a long-term strategy is at the heart of what we need as a club right now. Who knows, Lambert could really be on to something. ITID
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