Ipswich Town: Tractor boys trying to find their way home

IN THE days when British football teams had players called Mick, Terry, Paul, Eric and Kevin, Ipswich Town were among the finest footballing teams in the land. When the club won the Football League in 1962, they were called “rustic” and “journeymen”, but despite the popular view that they were a team of has-beens, only two players were over 30, John Elsworthy and Jimmy Leadbetter.

The 1981 team was far from rustic and played some of the most progressive football in the Football League. In truth, that team was a better, more sophisticated unit, managed by the popular [Sir] Bobby Robson. Ipswich, when on song, were a marvellous set of players and were very popular with the neutrals. They were skilful, entertaining and, mostly, played the game in the right spirit.

After Robson left to manage England and take his country to the last eight of the World Cup in 1986 and semi-finals in 1990, the club declined. Many might have predicted there would be a downturn as it often happens when an outstanding coach leaves the group he created. Ipswich were always punching above their weight, largely because of Robson’s reign at the club and when he departed, they were left to battle it out with clubs with greater financial resources.

Between 1972-73 and 1981-82, Ipswich finished in the top six in all but one season. And in that period, they ended in the top three on seven occasions. In the first campaign after Robson’s departure, they finished ninth and in 1986, they were relegated. From thereon, the story changed, and since 1992-93, they have enjoyed only five Premier seasons and 22 in the Championship. The past three seasons (including 2021-22), they have been in League One, the third tier.

It says a lot about the decline of a fine club that Ipswich Town are now hosting Accrington Stanley, Fleetwood, Burton Albion and Morecambe, instead of Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Roma. Ipswich were a typical UEFA Cup team in the days when the competition oozed quality. At the same time, while considering Ipswich’s current status, it is important to credit clubs like Accrington rubbing shoulders with some big name clubs. Success, as we know, is relative.

On a cold, sunny January afternoon, Ipswich welcomed Accrington to Portman Road knowing almost every league game between now and the end of the season would be vital. Both teams were chasing a play-off place, but competition is fierce. Ipswich, who started the season poorly, had sacked coach Paul Cook in December and brought in former Manchester United assistant manager Kieran McKenna. Cook has since spoken out about his sacking, claiming there had been too much churn of the playing staff to judge his progress by mere statistics and data. To some extent, he is surely right, for almost the entire starting line-up against Accrington was acquired in the summer of 2021. In the days leading up to the game, Ipswich were back in the market, signing goalkeeper Christian Walton who made his loan spell from Brighton permanent and midfielder Tyreeq Bakinson was signed on a loan deal from Bristol City.

Cook lasted just nine months and 44 games (win rate 29%).  Just after he was appointed, Ipswich Town changed hands, with long-time owner Marcus Evans selling his 87.5% stake for £ 40 million to Gamechanger Limited, a vehicle controlled by US Investment Fund ORG AZ. As a result, the club is virtually debt free and should see the benefits in the future from a company that has US$ 13 billion of funds under management and US$ 700 million in cash. 

The new owners need to invest in Portman Road, a ground that has seen better days and needs some modernising, especially the Cobbold Stand with its outdated facilities (catering and toilet) and somewhat peculiar access points (steps down to go up). Nevertheless, the stadium is still neat, homely and has a good vibe. From the surrounding area, Portman Road stands out as a beacon for the town and the floodlights provide an excellent orientation marker. Ipswich’s crowds have been remarkable considering 2021-22 is their third successive year in League One, and for the Accrington game, the gate was 20,000 of which 131 hardy souls from Lancashire made the trip. The division has a number of clubs who have strong support, including Sunderland, Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday.

McKenna started his Ipswich career with a win against Wycombe Wanderers at the end of December and before the Accrington game, his team had won two of their three games, including a 4-0 victory at Gillingham. He must surely be aware that in the club’s current position, the pressure will be quite intense. The owners obviously want to restore Ipswich to some sort of normality and probably push on to regain Premier status. Instead of hiring one of the merry-go-round coaches, Ipswich’s management seem to have gone for a young, potential-rich coach with good connections.

The first half against Accrington saw the visitors, a tall and physical unit, take the lead after 15 minutes with a low shot by Ethan Hamilton. They almost went two-up when Matt Butcher’s effort was deflected onto the crossbar, but in the 23rd minute, Ipswich equalised when Bersant Celina found Wes Burns and he chipped the ball over goalkeeper Toby Savin’s head. Accrington hit the woodwork again through Jay Rich-Bagheulou but in the 65th minute, Conor Chaplin, who impressed for much of the game, was set-up by Janoi Donacien and he made some space before shooting home. A 2-1 win for Ipswich that keeps their play-off hopes alive for now and damages Accrington’s own chances. 

Given they have eight points to make up, Ipswich may have too much to do if they are to creep into the play-off zone, but an extended run of wins could soon change the picture significantly. Although league tables don’t lie, there’s something strange about seeing Ipswich Town this low in the football pyramid, but with new ownership with fresh ideas and new ambitions, it won’t be too long before they start their climb back.

Calling in on….Exeter City – mixing with the Grecian 3,000

Fly me to the moon....ok, Accrington will do nicely...
Fly me to the moon….OK, Accrington will do nicely….

League two has played host to Game of the People on a number of occasions this season and with the exception of Fleetwood, we’re still waiting to be entertained. Admittedly, we shouldn’t have high expectations of a rip-roaring contest of world-class football because if you watch the game at the low end of the 92, you get what you pay for. Exeter City v Accrington Stanley were in 16th and 18th place respectively and with one or two teams picking up points in recent weeks below them, this was poised to be a scrappy, possibly nervous contest between teams starting to stare anxiously at the non-league pyramid.

Conference calls

Not that either are strangers to the Conference. Accrington are one of the unlikeliest Football League clubs, but this is their eighth season in League Two after winning promotion in 2006. Three years earlier, they had been Northern Premier League champions. Anyone visiting Accrington’s Crown Ground will be aware that the club has a distinctly homely, non-league feel to it. You get the impression that they are only temporary residents at this level, but they keep defying the odds. Incidentally, does anyone ever say “Accrington Stanley” without apeing a northern accent? It really is a name that brings out the black pudding in everyone!

Exeter City, the Grecians, fell into the Conference in 2003 and spent four years threatening to return before succeeding in 2008. They’ve spent three years in League One since but were relegated in 2012. Their performance this season suggests that a club now owned by the fans is struggling once more to maintain a position in the Football League.

Back in the day

The biggest event in Exeter...
The biggest event in Exeter…

It’s a long trek to Devon, some three and half hours out of London, so it’s a mission to endure. Our trip was lightened by encountering a life-long Exeter fan from Sussex who spoke with affection about players like Tony Kellow, Alan Banks, Dermot Curtis (Exeter’s only capped player) and Alan Pinkney. We recalled the famous meeting between Exeter City and Manchester United in the FA Cup in 1968-69, a game which the aforementioned Banks scored Exeter’s solitary goal [Final score, City 1 United 3]. We also spoke about wages at this level of the game, but resisted the urge to roll-out the old Morecambe and Wise crack about “what’s a Grecian earn?”. This pleasant interlude highlighted – once more – the highly liquid currency that is football and how it acts as an ice-breaker between people. We would bump into our friend from Sussex three times throughout the day.

With Exeter rugby club at home, the Grecians had competition, but the game would still attract 3,300-plus people, their best gate in half a dozen. But there was also another attraction that made more noise than the game at St. James’ Park (note the difference in spelling to Newcastle’s home) – an anti-Badger cull march. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my shaving brush is made from the finest badger hair, courtesy of Mr Trumper of Jermyn Street, but I have no issue with Mr Brock and his pals.

P1040236 (250x154)Form-wise, Exeter had picked-up in recent weeks, winning their last two games, the previous one a morale-boosting and satisfying victory at Plymouth, affectionately known as “the scum” by Exeter fans. Their previous home fixture saw them win 3-0 against Fleetwood, a highly credible victory.
Exeter’s manager, Paul Tisdale, was familiar to me. I recalled his time at Team Bath and he struck me as an articulate football person. He’s sponsored by comedian, actor and singer Adrian Edmondson of Young Ones fame, an Exeter season ticket holder.

Accrington, who went into the game with just one defeat in six games, are managed by James Beattie the former England striker. Beattie has been in the job less than a year and he’s adopted the “Mafia Boss” approach of smart dark suit on the touchline. Whispers heard before the game suggested he is doing a relatively good job.

Grim down south

P1040250 (141x250)Certainly, the way the game started, Accrington had a little more to offer than the home team. The Exeter fans groaned their way through a first half that was really quite awful, a litany of dreadful passing, long balls into oblivion and mis-timed tackles. It was quite simply, the worst 45 minutes I had seen all season.

Accrington went close in the 20th minute when Exeter’s Polish keeper, Artur Krysiak, made a mess of a Lee Molyneux free kick and Danny Butterfield came to the rescue. Exeter’s best chance fell to Danny Coles, who should have done better with a header that was aimed at Marcus Bettinelli.

But just before the interval, Accrington scored through Kayode Odejayi, who tapped the ball home from literally six inches after Lee Molyneux’s corner was headed down by Peter Murphy onto the sticky six-yard box. It was a scruffy goal for an untidy game.

Strangely, given the recent weather, Exeter decided to have sprinklers on the pitch before the game and at the interval, when they decided to spray the kids taking part in a penalty shoot-out competition. “Water…the pitch needs more water,” shouted one Grecian wag as the jets competed with the balls being fired at the half-pint goalkeepers.

Could the second half get any worse? It was comparable, but Exeter did, at least, start to threaten Accrington with Jordan Moore-Taylor heading wide from a Butterfield cross. The arrival of Sam Parkin made some difference up front, but it wasn’t until the final seconds that a free-kick from Liam Sercombe worried Accrington.

The solitary goal was enough to send Exeter to their 10th home defeat of the season and may be enough to save Accrington. Exeter will have a few nervous weeks to endure, but they may not need many more points to survive – I hope they do. Our friend from Sussex was downcast on the journey home – the trouble with long trips to see your favourite team is that considerable journeys give you too long to contemplate.

As for our own trip, that was enhanced by bumping into a trio of travelling Romanian butchers from Yeovil (yes, really!). Tales of Steaua Bucharest, Gheorghe Hagi and Florea Dumitrache proved to be more entertaining than Exeter v Accrington….but that’s a story for another day.

The line-ups were:

Exeter City: Krysiak; Butterfield, Coles, Moore-Taylor, Woodman; Bennett, Gill (Grimes 60); Sercombe, Oakley (Parkin 69), Richards; Nichols (O’Flynn 69)

Accrington Stanley: Bettinelli; Hunt, Winnard, Aldred, Buxton (Liddle ht); Hatfield (Mingoia 54), Joyce, Murphy, Molyneux; Odejayi (Windass 84), Gray.