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Part One: The Descent Into The Marcus Evans Eras
Written by SanityBlue on Tuesday, 16th Apr 2024 19:21

On the 16th of November 2009 I posted a blog: Who Pays If It All Goes Wrong: Town Fans or Marcus Evans?

This blog might seem irrelevant now that we’re a rejuvenated club under new ownership with very real prospects of winning promotion to the Premier League in the coming weeks.

But 14 years later I’m writing this blog for two reasons. The first is I wanted to reflect as objectively as possible on what I got right and what I got wrong.

The second reason is that as painful as the Marcus Evans (ME) era has been, it’s an important part of the history of ITFC and deserves a summation from the perspective of at least one fan.

ME officially took over ITFC on 19 December 2007. I voted against the takeover and argued against it on this site and other fan forums because I believe football clubs should be controlled by their supporters and should not be a speculative vehicle or vanity project for any individual or corporate group.

In the 1970s and 80s ITFC had wide support from neutrals around the United Kingdom and overseas because it was a well-run club which punched above its weight. For a brief period between 2004 and the ME takeover, ITFC was by far the biggest football club in England with a broad fan ownership.

The first signs of disillusionment with the modern game were becoming apparent in the early 2000s – the greed of the Premier League, speculative ownership changes and poor governance A more strategically-minded ITFC board with a focus on the long-term could have leveraged off this development by retaining the broad ownership structure.

We’ve heard it ad nauseam that there was no choice but to sell to ME given the club’s dire financial situation. But the facts don’t back this up. By that time, the club had taken its medicine. It had come out of administration in 2003 and had offloaded most of the players on Premier League contracts who were draining its finances.

In the financial year ended 30 June 2007, the accounts show the club made a statutory profit of £0.2m. It’s true there was a large financial debt overhang and that the operating profit was helped by Norwich Union agreeing to a debt moratorium which saved the club approximately £1.8m.

Norwich Union had provided financing of £25m in 2001 for capital improvements and by 2007 with accrued interest the debt was £27.1m. But it was common knowledge they were looking for an exit strategy. The board could have negotiated a significant debt write-off just as ME managed to do not long after he took control.

For a club the size of ITFC the debt would have been sustainable. Let’s not forget that in 2004/05 with Joe Royle as manager the club finished third in the Championship drawing average league crowds of 25,655. In 2006/07, the last full season before the takeover, average crowds were still a healthy 22,445 despite a disappointing 14th place.

Only a handful of Championship clubs were drawing larger crowds. On any objective measure, ITFC was not a waning Championship club nor did the board argue it was in terminal decline when it urged shareholders to accept the ME takeover offer.

The rationale given was that without outside investment there was no reasonable prospect of a return to the Premier League in the foreseeable future.

But the club did go into decline despite the change in ownership and new investment and it was on every metric:

- Crowds began to fall inexorably and a few seasons later reached the level of 16,000 – 17,000

- Commercial income which had been £6.6m in 2006/07 (the last full season before the takeover) had fallen to £5.0m in 2018/19 (the last season before Covid and the sale to Gamechanger)

- Portman Road started to look run down

- On the football pitch mediocrity became the norm culminating in relegation to League One in 2018/19, the club’s lowest league standing in 62 years

So what went wrong?

In any football club the two most important positions off the field are that of chairman and chief executive. Both need to have wide business skills and at least one of them must have a deep knowledge of the game and an understanding of the culture of the club. Neither the chairman nor CEO at ITFC had those attributes.

One of the first things ME did upon gaining control was to remove Derek Bowden who had been a very good CEO and appoint Simon Clegg, the former head of the British Olympic Association. A background in the staid world of the BOA was unsuitable for the fast-moving, highly emotional environment of professional football. From the outset there was a failure to engage with the club’s large and expectant fan base.

Clegg’s successor was the colourless Ian Milne who was a longstanding functionary in the not so transparent ME group of companies. We had a hands-off owner who delegated to an underling who had no hands-on capacity. A good example of this was at an AGM when he was asked why conditions for concessional ticket holders had changed. His response: I’m the managing director and I don’t involve myself with those sorts of decisions!

There was also the unceremonious removal of figures who had been the heart and soul of the club for decades. They say the best institutions are those that have continuity, or to put it in a different way, corporate memory. ITFC lost a great deal when it broke with the past and provided nothing better to replace it.

So I was proved right when I argued the methods and approach were culturally incompatible with ITFC’s history and traditions and that the club was in danger of going backwards.

But I was wrong in thinking ME was simply an opportunist who would splash a lot of money around in the hope of getting a big pay-off in the Premier League and that if the gamble failed, he would hollow out the club in trying to recoup what he had spent.

ME subscribed for £3.9m in ordinary shares which gave him an 87.5% interest in ITFC. A further £8.1m was invested in preference shares. There was much excitement amongst fans that there was a £12m “war chest” to build a promotion winning team.

But in those first few seasons the funds weren’t spent wisely. Gareth McAuley came from Leicester City for £1.1m and turned out to be the only good acquisition, though initially fans were on his back for being error-prone.

Luciano Civelli who came from Banfield in Argentina for £0.9m could have been a good acquisition but he suffered a serious knee injury after only eight games and was out of action for almost two years.

Generous transfer fees were paid for Lee Martin (£1.5m, Manchester United), Tamas Priskin (£1.7m, Watford), Grant Leadbitter (£2.6m, Sunderland) and Carlos Edwards (£1.35m, Sunderland).

Martin turned out to be terrible despite his reputation and never impressed. Priskin and Leadbitter were not nearly as good for us as they had been with their former clubs. Edwards performed well but it’s debatable whether he was worth the money we paid given his age and prior accomplishments.

Those early disappointments would have made ME shy about further player spending because after 2009/10 the only major acquisitions were Michael Chopra (Cardiff City), Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Arsenal) and Paul Taylor (Peterborough United), each for a reported £1.5m.

My analysis reveals that during the ME era ITFC received £18m more in player transfers than it spent. The major sales were those of Aaron Cresswell, Tyrone Mings and Connor Wickham which in aggregate brought in £23m.

The ME era coincided with an explosion in player salaries. It also coincided with a lack of management focus and a growing disconnect between the ownership regime and the traditions of the club. During this period there was a marked decline in club turnover which, despite the net gain on player transfers, resulted in higher operating losses.

I’m critical of how a weak and unimaginative board of directors of ITFC handed control of the club to ME. I’m also critical of how ME ran the club. But he ran it as best as he could. He was under no obligation to keep funding the club’s operating losses but he continued to do so even when the prospects of a return to the Premier League appeared more and more remote. Therefore, it would be unfair to dismiss him as an opportunist.

I’m strongly against private ownership of football clubs. I know many will say there’s a weakness or contradiction in my position given that the Cobbolds were owners during ITFC’s most successful era. However, there’s a crucial difference here: they acted as custodians rather than investors.

I accept that private ownership of football clubs is a modern day reality. However, along with it comes the recognition that once you hand over a football club to an investor, you have no say in how the club is to be run. You’re reduced to the role of a mere observer.

Finally, in explaining what went wrong we shouldn’t overlook the element of luck. In the years since ITFC has been out of the Premier League more than a dozen clubs have gone from League One to the Premiership. Not all those clubs can be said to have been better managed and most of them do not have a bigger fan base or commercial potential than ITFC.

Good planning and strong leadership are always important when it comes to success or failure. But it can also turn on fine margins or randomness – the emergence together through the youth system of few gifted players, a couple of bargain buys, an inspired managerial appointment. These are the vagaries of the game.

If those early transfers had succeeded it might have been a different story. It could also have turned out very differently if the first few managerial appointments had been successful.

In Part Two I’ll go into more detail on the managerial appointments, wrap up on the ME era and give my thoughts on the Gamechanger takeover.

Please report offensive, libellous or inappropriate posts by using the links provided.

d77sgw added 19:53 - Apr 17
Good, balanced article, slightly more sane than the hysterical abuse directed at ME and accusations of 'happy clappers' from some stuck-records on this site. As you say, the fact he continued to fund our losses (and will have made a large loss overall despite a transfer fee profit), should not be ignored. There have been a lot of worse owners in the last decade. That notwithstanding, they were dark days - the club was allowed to rot from the top, and you've hit the nail on the head - the problem was an overall executive management team which was inexperienced and uninvolved. I do think we were massively unlucky too - to be relegated at a time without parachute payments, and then to watch all these 'smaller clubs' get fat on Premiership money. Hopefully we'll be able to put that right in the next month.... COYB

bobble added 07:51 - Apr 20
2 extremely useless managers( the dark lord and worst hurst) and 4 mediocre ones (cook/lambert/jewel/thick mick) are the main cause.....the dark lord destroyed the team in a very short time and we never recovered, the best things to come out of Cork were murphys stout and rory and one of them probably isnt true Cork...Burley would have kept us in the upper 2nd and not taken us to the 3rd and may have gotten us up to the 1st again.....but for some reason he wasnt chosen..these other fools were..


shakytown added 04:03 - Apr 22
I think he had the best intentions but took very poor advice. Never should have sacked Magilton just given him the support and funding he deserved. Still who could have predicted how bad things would get and how many mistakes would be made.

Churchman added 17:35 - Apr 22
It was a speculative punt on Evans’ part. Bung a lump in, appoint a high profile manager, into the Premier League and bobs ya diddly. Sell on, quick flip, buck made. It was about as long term as a double cheeseburger with medium fries.

After the failure of abject Keane it was effectively life support time. Mediocrity the aim, losses to a minimum, cost cuts to a maximum. The nearest to investment was a tin of cheap paint for the portacabin and handing over a roll of notes the boys chasing Chopra for £.

Evans was a disaster. Following the ineptitude of the board allowing the club to go bankrupt in 2002, it then handed it over to Evans. I know he’s a fan and cares, but if that was Sheepshanks’ idea of being a ‘custodian’, oh dear. Evans drained the life out of the club. Yes, he made losses and didn’t fold the club. Whoopee.

ITFC was just allowed, to rot, to eat itself. Collapsed into L1, heading down. It was flushing away its very identity and left with a few individuals who cared trying to do their best. A few more years and we’d have been out of the football league. There’s plenty of testimony about what happened at the club from the likes of Dyer, McGoldrick, Lee, carefully worded stuff from Chambers and others. It wasn’t good.

For a successful business man, I’m amazed he couldn’t see what the club might be and at least appoint better than the stooges he put in place. His judgement on managers was laughably poor too. One good manager in how many? That might have helped.

They will never be a ‘thank you Marcus’ from me.


Broganonthewing added 12:56 - Apr 23
An excellent blog SantyBlue, it really sums up the Evans era. I doubt we will ever discover the truth as to why the board opted to sell to Evans? Like everybody, I have heard the rhetoric that a better option was in the frame? I have no doubt that Evan acquired the club with the intention of getting into the premiership and making a fast buck. However not only did he have no knowledge of football or how to manage a club, he had no friends in the game. He was looked on with suspicion and was viewed as a ticket tout and thus received no favours. His choice of CEO and managers were ultimately disastrous, I wonder just who was advising him? In fairness to him he stuck with it probably because his family became fans? He bailed the club out and stopped them from going out of business. Can you really blame him for failing to invest in players after the extravagance of his first two managers, why chuck more good money after bad! It was no doubt the worst time in the clubs history, but nothing is for ever so let’s enjoy the current high and hope it continues!

RegencyBlue added 19:14 - Apr 23
“Therefore, it would be unfair to dismiss him as an opportunist”

You have got to be kidding me! Evans was a wide boy chancer who thought he could make money out of a football club by chucking in a few million, get promotion to the promised land of the PL and then milk the club for all it was worth and/or sell it on for a big profit. His lack of real interest in the club as a long term investment could not have been made clearer than by his appointment of Clegg, a man with no background in football whatsoever but who, through his connections with the British Olympic Committee, would enable Evans to get his hands on London 2012 tickets for his ‘other activities’. Anyone who doesn’t think that was the case, just check how long Clegg lasted after London 2012!

Once his original plan blew up spectacularly in his face, Evans didn’t have a clue. There was no plan for years other than managed decline and I think he would have sold up long before he did if we hadn’t somehow managed to limp into the playoffs under MM, convincing Evans he might be able to get success on the cheap. As it was he just let the club slowly rot, aided by a predominantly supine fan base who seemed happy with the ‘he saved us argument’. Saved us for what I’d like to know as we were only ever going one way under him. I’d put money on us being a League 2 club now if he hadn’t finally realised his time here was done.

Quite how a supposedly successful business man could make such a mess of the opportunity here I don’t know but I can only assume his ego got in the way. The new owners have shown in three short years what can be done with judicious financial investment and appointing the right people experienced in the professional football industry.

Bluearmy_81 added 13:49 - May 2
Probably the worst thing that ever happened to ITFC yet still there are people on here willing to defend him and who are grateful that he paid the bills and kept the club afloat! Unfathomable. You’re supposed to be fans of the club. When he bought the club, he took on a care of duty to it. He failed the club and the fans in this respect miserably. And for anyone saying that this all that manager were to blame who appointed them?! Where does the buck stop? Just admit you called it very, very wrong
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