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The Ex-Files: David Sheepshanks
Wednesday, 19th Dec 2012 11:55

In the third in our series The Ex-Files – in which Blair Ferguson talks to figures from Town’s past – we catch up not with an ex-player but with former chairman David Sheepshanks.

As soon as he begins to speak about Ipswich you get a sense that he is a man who still loves the club and despite any difficult times has always tried to do the best for it.

It was in 1995 that the Sheepshanks era began when he took over as chairman from John Kerr, a moment he cites as a great honour. He recalls his famous Five-Year Plan and the meeting which saw its creation.

“I remember from the outset in 1995 George Burley, Bryan Klug, Paul Goddard and various people all met in my office and sat round the table and I said ‘OK, can we get promoted next year?’, because we had just been relegated that year and we had the humiliation of the 9-0 thrashing at Man United.

“Everybody looked at me and said ‘No, of course we can’t get promoted this year’. And then I said ‘Can we be promoted in two years?’ and everyone’s head was down. I asked if we could get promoted in five years and Bryan Klug said ‘Yes, I think we can be promoted in five years’.

“‘Why can we be promoted in five years?’ I asked. He said that would give us time to begin to bring some of the bright young talent through the youth team and I said ‘Good, what else?’. And we began to create the plan and I did the same with other colleagues. It was all about a long-term approach to stick to our guns on those plans.”

With the plan in place, over the coming the seasons Town would become the “perennial bridesmaids” of the play-offs and with every season of failure came new pressures.

“After that we finished in the play-offs every year and each year we failed people asked if we were going to sack George Burley,” he recalls. “That kind of thing was absolute nonsense because we had no money, we never had any money, when I started there we had no money. We had to sell every year to survive and each time we failed in the play-offs we had to sell a player.

“In the succeeding years we had to sell again to balance the books before we could buy anybody and in 1999, of course, that was when we came so close and we had to sell Kieron Dyer.

“People thought that that was the end of the world and we would never challenge again but we stayed true to our beliefs and as a result of selling Kieron Dyer to Newcastle - for what at the time was a record £6.5 million fee, £6 million fee and another £500,000 on appearances, which we did get - we bought Marcus Stewart, Jermaine Wright and John McGreal.”

Sheepshanks pays tribute to Burley after the Bolton semi-final saw the Blues to Wembley

With a promotion-winning team in place it was Town’s turn to be the bride and they won promotion at Wembley via that 4-2 victory over Barnsley. This was a match that Sheepshanks remembers well with an extra pressure put upon him earlier that day.

“I always used to go and stay with the team on away matches and the other directors came as well, which was really important as that was a tradition of the club really. Before the final the team went down to Windsor and stayed for three nights in a hotel and George invited me to go down.

”We are Premier Leeeague!”

“I went on the last night and one of the things I’d done was occasionally speak to the players, but never on a matchday because I’ve always been a very strong believer that that’s the manager’s territory.

“I never went down to the dressing room before a match but I’ve seen so many chairman do so, I don’t know what they think they’re doing, chairman or chief executives that want to talk to the players, what the hell for? It’s the manager’s domain. “But I did occasionally, two or three times a season, talk to the players on a training day about what was going on at the club and things we were doing and things we were working on, again because I thought that was really important.

“On this particular day George asked me on the matchday just before the pre-match lunch ‘Would you go and say something to the players?’ I thought ‘Oh my God, what am I going to say!’. I can’t remember for the life of me what I said but all I do know is that Jim Magilton said it was good. I’m sure it had no effect whatsoever.”

Sheepshanks, who is now working as chairman at St George’s Park, the new England training centre near Burton-on-Trent, admits to being “wracked with nerves” and “so nervous I couldn’t eat” much like all other Ipswich fans that day.

Showing the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge around St George’s Park at its opening in October

Whilst talking through the match he finishes with Martijn Reuser’s goal, reciting the lines from the TV commentary he watched later that day and with his voice growing ever louder, ending with “Reuser, Premiership!”.

What followed was an amazing season but after that came relegation and subsequently administration, a subject which, when it inevitably arose, saw the enthusiasm and vigour drain from Sheepshanks’s voice as he began to explain in detail what went wrong.

“The first season we had was extraordinary. It just got better and better. It was the belief and the momentum we created, the belief we had around the club.

“But then you look at how on earth it all went wrong. I think it was culturally too much for the club at the time. I don’t mean for the club as it had a great history of success through the Robson years, but it was too much for the people concerned.

“We had a few new players, in particular Finidi George and Matteo Sereni, who arrived right at the beginning of the season.

“We tried to get Mart Poom from Derby because Richard Wright had gone and we tried like anything to stop Richard Wright going but he had this opportunity to go to Arsenal and I don’t blame him at all because it was a great opportunity for him, but his agent [Jonathan Barnett] was a nightmare with me at the time.

Mart Poom

“We couldn’t stop him going and we identified Mart Poom but he broke his wrist the week before the season started just as we were hopefully going to conclude the deal, and then we were up a gum tree.

“George was recommended Matteo Sereni by Sven-Göran Eriksson, who was the England manager at the time, and George went and saw him once and took him for an enormous amount of money, and it didn’t work.”

It might be thought that one reason for the downfall was over-ambition, but Sheepshanks dismisses this, believing they set reasonable goals, and says there was a time during 2001/02 when Town looked to be safe.

“As a board we didn’t have any unrealistic expectations, nor did George. We sat down and we were very clear and we thought probably 12th having finished fifth. We said maybe we should try and finish 17th but we aimed 12th.

“But of course it was an extraordinary season and, whilst we won in Europe and it was marvellous to be in Europe, we kept losing in the league and when it came to December we were rock bottom. But then we had an extraordinary win away at Tottenham, a lucky win and we did the double on them a few weeks later at home.

“Suddenly this belief flooded back into the team. I was taken out as a guest to the Super Bowl in New Orleans and we won on the first weekend in February, away at Everton. I think it was 3-0 [actually 2-1, 3-0 was the previous year] and I remember David Gill was there from Manchester United and he saw me and said ‘Congratulations, what a win!’.

“That took us, on February 3rd 2002, to 12th in the table and he said ‘Congratulations, that must have secured your future, well done what a helluva turn around’.

“I thought we were going to be safe, I think we had 32 points and something like 10 games to go, but we only took six points from the rest of those games.

“You couldn’t really believe it. Maybe you could understand the terrible start because of Europe and the distractions, but then to recover to the extent we recovered and then lose it like that at the end and get relegated it was a bloody tough pill to swallow.”

With Town relegated, the hard work really began in the boardroom to make sure the club was in a healthy financial state. It can be argued, as Sheepshanks does, that being relegated that season was the worst time in Premier League history.

“The economic climate by then was really bad and there were great concerns about ITV Digital and they went bust. There were real concerns in Europe about the legitimacy of the Premier League TV deal, people were worried, and on top of that it was going to be the first summer ever of having a transfer deadline. We were snookered.

“I think it was the worst time ever [to be relegated]. I even spoke to the Premier League about the legitimacy of the transfer deadline and everyone knew we were stuffed because it was the first time ever any club had to deal with relegation, trying to sell their players with this new arbitrary deadline on 31st August.

“Coventry had been relegated the year before and were arguably in a much worse state than us, but they managed to trade their way throughout the season and stay afloat. We couldn’t.

“What happened to us, because of the arbitrary window, was that everybody knew that we were snookered and they could play hardball with us. So, although we managed to sell Titus Bramble to Newcastle and Marcus Stewart to Sunderland, we were between a rock and a hard place, they drove a very hard deal on us.

With former skipper Holland

“We had a bid for Matt Holland [from Aston Villa for £4 million] and for Hermann Hreidarsson [£3.3 million from West Brom] which we were going to take and they turned the moves down. In a way it was to their eternal credit because we were trying to rally in August and say we were going to get promoted again.

“On the one hand we’ve lived this fantastic dream together of getting promoted and getting high in the Premier League and so forth. People like Matt Holland and Hermann are really salt of the earth people and they loved the club and they didn’t want to go and yet I desperately wanted them to go because that money was going to save us.”

Sheepshanks remains adamant that Town wasn’t badly run but that he had been dealt some very difficult cards: “The only thing I can say is that I think we were a well-run club, I think it’s worth saying and, nobody knows this, but it was cash that was the issue. It was this transfer deadline, ITV Digital and the economic climate of the Premiership clubs.

“Those three factors combined in a way that has never happened since and it was like managing in quicksand, it made it impossible.

“All three clubs Derby, Leicester and ourselves ended up in the proverbial mire and administration. I honestly don’t see how any club could have dealt with it, so we were blamed for spending too much, but we hadn’t really.

“Yes, we’d been ambitious and we had spent what we thought we could afford. Nobody predicted that set of circumstances we had to deal with and it’s worth saying that the year we were relegated we still made a £2.5 million profit.

“You can say ‘How did that happen?’, it was because we were running it reasonably prudently. We invested in Sereni and Finidi George and why wouldn’t you? Because of George Burley’s reputation and his ability as a manager who could choose the right players had been sensational, you wouldn’t go against him as a board of directors.

“If he had made quite a few bad signings we would have said ’Well, what’s this about?’, but when his judgement was so supreme we backed him and we were right to back him. It’s only with hindsight that you stand back, we were where we were and we had to front up.

“It was an appalling time for all of us involved and for all of us who suffered, I shall always be incredibly sorry for that. But I took responsibility and my directors took collective responsibility and the only thing we could do was to take responsibility for effecting a recovery.”

Alongside Burley’s successor Joe Royle

This responsibility ultimately took the shape of finding a new owner in the form of Marcus Evans, who completed his takeover five years ago on Monday of this week. Sheepshanks spent the best part of two years searching around the world for someone who could “fund this club to promotion”.

Whilst Evans has given the club financial backing, the outcome has not so far been as hoped and Sheepshanks feels that the faceless owner approach wasn’t the right way to go.

“It does have an effect and when we did the deal with Marcus and he made it clear that he wanted to be anonymous I made it clear to him then and there, I told him that football was a very different world and I really felt that he should be visible. But you have to respect his wishes.”

The appointment of Mick McCarthy is one viewed by Sheepshanks as a step in the right direction and he thinks he will be able to guide Town back to the Premier League sooner rather than later.

With Jim Magilton

“If Mick stays and Marcus Evans is able to go on backing him then I believe this club can in a year or two look forward realistically to promotion to the Premier League.”

Sheepshanks, who takes pride in having had three managers such as George Burley, Joe Royle and Jim Magilton working for him at the club, still shows the same passion when he talks about the club, with his formal involvement having ended last summer when he stood down as chairman and director of the PLC.

Like every other fan he now waits for Town to turn a corner and start to make some progress back towards the Premier League.

Danny Baker Live! Good Time Charlie's Back. Ipswich Regent Theatre, Ipswich, Thursday 10th May 2018 at 19:30. Get your tickets before they sell out.

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BLUEBEAT added 09:10 - Dec 19
I like David Sheepshanks.

cookra added 09:14 - Dec 19
I admire his honesty, shame he couldnt be as honest when he was at the club!
He done alot for our club bad and good, hopefully he's left some good foundations to build on with Marecus Evans on board.
In Mick we trust

MattinLondon added 09:19 - Dec 19
If the expensive players we brought after our second season had paid off then who knows were we would be now. But it didn't and the next time we get promoted then I hope the experiences of administration will still haunt the club and we don't do anything silly.

trulyblue added 09:23 - Dec 19
A true gent with blue blood running through his veins who I have always maintained was treated appaullingly by the supporters that he always tried to do right by.

Ipswich_Loyal added 09:42 - Dec 19

itfc1981 added 09:51 - Dec 19
Only the ignorant blame Sheepers for our woes.

SouperJim added 09:54 - Dec 19
If only Mart Poom hadn't broken his wrist, who knows what might have been. 10 years on and we still haven't fully recovered from that relegation, although the green shoots finally seem to be there.

allezlesbleus added 09:59 - Dec 19
Whilst I don't dispute that Sheepshanks loved the club and wanted the best for ITFC, the decision to build 2 new stands ultimately wrecked us. Failing to predict this (after the problems we had after building the Pioneer stand) has cost our club dearly - not only in lack of success on the pitch, but also by ruining a lot of previously strong, loyal ties with the local community and local businesses.

Sheepshanks is the football equivalent of a politician......speaks very well, but doesn't always get it right. Being Chairman of ITFC put him in the spotlight and helped him get to be Chairman of the National Training Centre.

Greybritain added 10:27 - Dec 19
I hold him in high regard.

brendanh added 10:34 - Dec 19
Given a choice between Evans and Sheepshanks, I'd take Sheepy every time. He backed Burley after we finished 5th, why wouldn't he? How was he to know that Burley would have a total brain haemorrhage, dropping top players like Wilnis and Scowcroft, players who lived and breathed the club and were instrumental in our success, and replacing them with the likes of Marcus Bent and Chris Makin. He won Manager of the Year in 2001 and got too big for his boots, lost the plot. He blew £15 million in 01/02 on absolute garbage. No chairman could have foreseen that.

Evans has just thrown money at instant promotion. No plan, no respect for the club's traditions of patience and investing in youth. Given the choice of a five year plan, gradual improvement watching some of the best young players in the country develop, or watching overpaid disinterested journeymen tread water, which is all Evans' reign has brought, I'll take the former every time. Evans = short-termism. Sheepy = a vision.

AbujaBlue added 10:46 - Dec 19
I seem to have forced from my memory that terrible last season in the Premiership where we had a great run and thought we could save things until those awful last 10 games.

We have had a torrid few years since he left but as he points out, hiring McCarthy is a good move and like him I am glad there is reason to be optimistic. He was a great servant to the club but please not lets linger on the past and try to compare ME with him. What's done is done and I am just glad that there is some hope for the club yet.

Great work with the ex-files, keep it up! It would be great to hear from someone like Hermann Hreidarsson next.

Ipswich24 added 10:47 - Dec 19
I feel when Evans came in there should again of been a five year plan, putting lots of resource into the academy and signing hungry up and coming players who have point to prove. Like we did back then Matt Holland, David Johnson, Jermaine Wright, John Mcgreal these were not household names, but they had that hunger to better themselves and felt privelliged to play for ITFC. Just throwing money on names is no good, past it players who have had their day and made their money. If we had a proper scouting network in place and actually trusted our academy again we could be that club again.

FriskinPriskin1 added 11:13 - Dec 19
Have to say, Sheepy comes across well here. My issue is who was to blame? I don't think it was Sheepy or the likes of Finidi or Sereni. Both of whom if they had been bedded in properly would have helped. They both had good games. Finidi was too good for the rest of the team, his runs were world class, just no-one could feed him. Burley perhaps - in hindsight the loss of Dale Roberts hit us hard. After then Burley seemed to lose the tactical sense we had before. But then that could just be second season syndrome?

For me we were just stretched, the Euro games took their toll - just as they do total with teams who have squads twice the size now compare to what we did then.

It has taken 10 years to recover. The five year plan is a good model, not least in setting expectations with current players and future signings.

MattinLondon added 11:21 - Dec 19
As a businessman I'm sure ME looks ahead towards the next five or ten years for business trends. And I'm sure he has an army of analysts employed to help him to do this. But for some reason this approach hasn't (or wasn't) considered when he took control of Town. Maybe a classic case of being out of their comfort zone for both Evans and Clegg.

Considering the financial rewards which the Premier Leagues offers to its teams the League punishes teams who get it wrong. Not just us but also Leeds, Notts Forest, Portsmouth etc etc. And considering how much money that league generates it surprises me the levels of debt that most teams operate under.

As boring as it'll sound the old mantra of living within your means and not taking a gamble always seems to be the winner. Arsenal seem to take this approach but it isn't a glamorous attitude to take and their fans don't like it.

I don't think that Sheepy got everything right but under his regime we did invest a top-heavy amount into our youth system and this saved us from more doom. At the moment I don't think that the youth system will be able to stand up and be counted as the investment does not seem to be there....or maybe the younger players just need a manager brave enough to play them.

Luggworm added 11:30 - Dec 19
allez, the problem wasn't both the stands. The Churchmans was a sensible decision, it cost the club around 2 million with a grant from the organisation that was set up to improve stadia at the time. It increased the capacity to 27,000 without impacting on the income stream. The north stand and associated works however was a disaster, it chopped the capacity to 22,000 for most of a season when we could have filled 27,000 every week, we spent around 23mill on it which is where the major debt came from and you can count on 2 hands the number of times the extra capacity has been used in 10 years. Relegation would have been affordable had we not had that millstone around our necks.

vestanpance added 11:43 - Dec 19
Good piece and some interesting points. However, I think he's guilty of some revisionism. Yes, the financial climate wasn't great but it's nothing like the last 4 or 5 years. Also, contrary to his opinion, he and the board were guilty of poor planning and overstretching the club. Yes, the transfer window came in but they did know that and could have better planned for it. Having said that, David Cameron's lies were guilty for clubs believing ITV Digital would not go to the wall.

MVBlue added 11:54 - Dec 19
Interesting did not fully realise Liecester and Derby went to the wall same time as us. Similar fates.

DurhamTownFan added 12:10 - Dec 19
Very interesting take on what with hindsight look like appallingly badly managed times at the end. I really liked him as a public figure though. Always was up for a dialogue with the fans.

While I'm liking this series a lot, isbthere a chance we could get hold of some guys from other Ipswich teams (ie, not solely focused on the Hurley era?) there must be plenty of lads from the 60s 70s and 80s around!

gazzmac4 added 12:16 - Dec 19
Whatever you think of the decisions he made, either rightly or wrongly and whatever happened under his tenure you can't deny that the guy loves ITFC through and through. Its nice to see his passion is still there and its really interesting to hear him talk so openly about the way the club came back down to earth after that fateful season, that season that weve all watched on DVD 100 times since.

For me the current ownership already shows me that we have learnt our lessons. Granted the decisions the club have made recently may not be everyones cup of tea, and treating the club as a business has its effects on all us supporters and our pockets, but we have to face up to the realisation that the club is first and foremost a business. Without solid business plans and income there wouldnt be any football. So although theres issues, and ive had my fair share of issues with some of the stuff recently, at least we can say that were in a solid state of affairs when it comes to the off the pitch stuff.

Not that it matters, back in the prem where all the money is soon!! Its hard to portray sarcasm through a keyboard isnt it?! COYB.

PeekFreans added 12:17 - Dec 19
Sheepy looking a little older (and a little less pudgy) now. A true gentleman and all-round great bloke!

arc added 12:18 - Dec 19
Nice piece, but it skips over a critical moment. Why was Burley fired? For all the talk of long-term planning and Burley being such a great manager, why wasn't that approach taken in 2002? The description of the signing of Sereni confirms everything we have suspected all along—that Barnett screwed us over, Wright had his head turned, and Burley and Sheepshanks panicked. But no comments about what a poor signing Finidi George was. I had forgotten that we got as high as 12th in the Spring of 2002—is that true?

arc added 12:22 - Dec 19
Ooops, there we go, answered my own question: table on 3rd February 2002:

Bergholtblue added 12:48 - Dec 19
Budgeted to stay up but had plan B if relegated. Unfortunately plan B was to sell players. No-one foresaw the TV deal going belly up or the transfer marker going flat and with the transfer window, we couldn't sell enough players to make ends meet.

Fingers could be pointed au Sheepshanks but I remember him walking amongst the fans at away grounds and not just passing the time of day, but actually asking for opinions!

The present bloke I wouldn't recognise if I bumped into him in the street. I know who I would have any day.

allezlesbleus added 13:23 - Dec 19
Luggworm, my wording was probably not too great; I agree, to do one stand (Churchmans being the obvious one as it meant not having one end totally closed for most of / all of a season) was the sensible option. Then, if we had been able to hold our own in the PL, then maybe after 3 or 4 years or full houses, then build the SBR.

itfchorry added 13:40 - Dec 19
What a great article -
Would love to have Sheepy back - He
made our club great again - A True Blue.

Clegg Out

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