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.