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.

Cambridge United v Ipswich Town: East Anglian derby a reminder of the sad fall of Tractor Boys

CAMBRIDGE AND IPSWICH are around 50 miles apart, but given the lack of top-class football entities in East Anglian, the clash between the two clubs is always keenly anticipated. At League One level, Ipswich Town are a big club, along with the likes of Sunderland. But the “Tractor Boys” golden era is now long behind them and it is over 40 years since the club won the UEFA Cup. Since those halcyon days, Ipswich have fallen some way, spending only five seasons in the Premier League since its formation and suffering the indignity of relegation to League One in 2019. Sadly, Ipswich, like a number of clubs who once looked the big guns in the eye and competed with them, have become one of the Premier era’s forgotten clubs.

But perhaps better times are ahead as Ipswich Town were taken over in April 2021 by Gamechanger 20, an American consortium who paid £ 40 million for the privilege. The new owners include three board members of the US club Phoenix Rising and former owner Marcus Evans has retained a 5% stake.  

Cambridge, who are part of the Fair Game group of clubs urging for sustainable football, are owned by Paul Barry (70% stake), a lifetime fan of the club, as well as two American investors, Adam Webb (10%) and Mark Green (20%). Webb was present at the Abbey Stadium for the Ipswich game and there was a continuous welcome for him via the electronic scoreboard.

For Cambridge, the arrival of Ipswich represented a big day in their 2021-22 calendar and the game was a sell-out, with 2,500 away fans adding to the raucous atmosphere at the Abbey Stadium, which was full to almost 8,000 capacity. Cambridge’s form at home had deteriorated  and they had lost two of their three previous games, including a 5-1 humbling inflicted upon them by Lincoln. Their fixtures looked a little lop-sided, with the Ipswich game their seventh at home out of the first 11 of 2021-22.

There was a slightly old-fashioned feel to the ground thanks to the terracing and two sets of very vocal fans, Cambridge delighting in taunting their more illustrious visitors. There also seemed to be a group of Ipswich fans who had infiltrated the Cambridge end judging by the increasingly nervous police presence and the sight of dozens of noses pointing in the same direction towards the back of the main standing area, chanting “f*** off Ipswich”. Fortunately, there wasn’t an outbreak of trouble, although a couple of characters, who later turned up in the station pub after the game, seemed keen to agitate anyone who fancied it. People watching at football can be an interesting side project when you’re at a match.

Not that the action wasn’t engaging because it was a lively 90 minutes, beginning with Ipswich’s early efforts, which peaked in the 10th minute when Sone Aluko – now better known as former England women striker Eni Aluko’s brother – lobbed them ahead with a well taken goal. Although now 32 and the epitome of a journeyman, Aluko was troublesome for Cambridge and he added a second goal in the 40th minute when he scrambled the ball home after home keeper Dimitar Mitov made a mess of a corner. Cambridge responded almost immediately, with James Brophy shooting in off the crossbar with a fierce left-foot drive.

Ipswich were clearly the better side in the first half, but Cambridge came out in the second half with renewed spirit. Despite plenty of endeavour, it took them until the 88th minute to equalise, though, a header from  Joe Ironside after a corner had been nodded on. A fair result on the balance of play and an entertaining afternoon on a bright autumn day. It was the sort of contest that restored your faith in lower league football.

But it’s hard not to think about how the fortunes of these two clubs seem so very different. Ipswich will, surely, win promotion back to the Championship at some point, while Cambridge are probably happy to be in the third tier after their stint in exile in the non-league game. For now, at least – modern football demands ambition, or you risk stagnation, a condition that is rarely tolerated these days.

Tottenham are still waiting, but which clubs have been in the queue longest for a trophy?

EVERTON and Tottenham fought-out an exciting FA Cup fith round tie this week, with the Toffees winning by the odd goal in nine. It has been 26 years since Everton lifted a trophy, 33 since the league title last ended up at Goodison Park. Having made it to the last eight, the blue half of Liverpool must have fancied the chances of Carlo Ancelotti finally ending the most barren spell in Everton’s history. They now face Manchester City in the quarter-finals – a big ask.

Everton have had periods when success eluded them, such as between 1939 and 1963 and 1970 and 1984, but in 2020, the club created an unwanted record in making it a quarter of a century without a tin pot in the boardroom. Everton  reached the FA Cup final in 2009, but they were beaten by Chelsea.

Of the last eight in the FA Cup, six have been past winners with just Bournemouth and Leicester City still to win the competition. Of course, there are Premier League clubs who have never secured a major prize: Brighton, Crystal Palace and Fulham, who have all been to a Wembley final but have never won important silverware. Equally, there are others whose finest moments are becoming rather sepia-tinted, such as Aston Villa (1996), Burnley (1960), Leeds United (1992), West Ham (1980), West Bromwich Albion (1968), Wolves (1980), Newcastle United (1969), Southampton (1976) and Sheffield United (1926). For all of these clubs, the definition of “success” has come in the form of a promotion winning campaign.

Garlands comes in all shapes and sizes, but for the elite band of clubs that have dominated football for the past two decades, success translates into titles and cup wins. Since 2000-01, the so-called “big six” clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham have won 53 out of 60 domestic honours in English football. Of these, Tottenham have won just one, the Football League Cup in 2008, although they have a chance of winning the Football League Cup in 2020-21. The only club to win the Premier title from outside the top six was Leicester City in 2016.

In addition, the only English clubs to win European honours in that timeframe have come from the six, Chelsea (2012, 2013, 2019) and Liverpool (2001, 2005, 2019) lifting three apiece and Manchester United two (2008, 2017). Arsenal (2006) and Tottenham (2019) have both been beaten finalists in the Champions League, but Manchester City have yet to extend their era of success to Europe.

It is easy to presume that today’s successful clubs have always been regular visitors to the winners’ podium, but that’s not the case. Tottenham went 30 years after their 1921 FA Cup victory before they were triumphant once more, while Arsenal didn’t start winning until 1930. Chelsea didn’t win a thing until their 50th year and then went 26 years without silverware between 1971 and 1997. Before Manchester City were bought by Abu Dhabi investors, they hadn’t won a single trophy between 1976 and 2011. Manchester United’s leanest era was between 1911 and 1948 and as they were fond of reminding everyone, they didn’t win the league title for 26 years until they were champions in 1993. As for Liverpool, although they didn’t win the league for 30 years, they still managed to pick up trophies in the period between 1990 and 2020.

For the majority of the 92 clubs that make-up the Premier and English Football League, promotion and a cup run are the best they can realistically hope for. Interestingly, of the current Premier, the most recent success for 12 of the 20 clubs has been promotion, all of which has been achieved between 2012 and 2020. 

In the Championship, only two clubs can count a trophy as their most recent triumph, Birmingham in 2011 and Swansea in 2013. Nineteen clubs have won promotion since 2012, with three former Premier clubs, Derby County, Stoke City and Nottingham Forest, last winning promotion of any sort in 2007 (Derby) and 2008 (Stoke and Forest).

League One, surprisingly, has two clubs who have won major prizes in the 21st century, Portsmouth (2008) and Wigan Athletic (2013). There are other clubs who have held silverware, but not recently: Swindon (1969), Charlton (1947), Blackpool (1953), Wimbledon (1988), Oxford United (1986), Sunderland (1973) and Ipswich Town (1981). All bar two members of the division have enjoyed promotion success since 2011, namely Ipswich (2000) and Sunderland (2007).

In League Two, the club that has waited the longest period of time without any form of success is Oldham Athletic, who last won promotion in 1990-91 from the old division two to the top flight. Oldham’s current situation has been well publicised, but the club’s decline over the past 27 years has seen them fall from the Premier League to the second tier (1994), second to third tier (1997) and finally, a slump to the bottom rung (2018).

Supporters of all clubs live in hope of an unforgettable season, which for most is moving up a division. Very few clubs have not experienced this over the past 15 years but some, such as the big six and Everton are unlikely to be in that bracket given the way the modern game has been shaped. It shows that hope is certainly not forlorn. 

There are also clubs that have not had a glimpse of a trophy for decades, so when you hear fans complaining about 10 years without a bauble, you sympathise with the loyal followers of Newcastle and Sunderland and those that have never even tasted true glory. We all accept that football is a game of winners and losers and that nobody has the divine right to expect regular success. It is widely acknowledged that in the modern era, the rich are generally the winners and romantic fairy tales are rare. We also know that the margin between victory and defeat is precariously narrow. Yet even though we are aware of all these terms and conditions, there are still some clubs that have been losers for far too long.