A Family Affair?

29/10/2012

Gavin Barber and son went to the most recent “Family Day” at Portman Road and he was less than impressed.

On pages 9-11 of the Turnstile Blues fanzine, Alistair Rattray gave an excellent and thoroughly comprehensive description of Town’s recent failure to connect with supporters through media, public relations and matchday entertainment. So when the club announced that the Sheffield Wednesday game would be a “family day”, with discounted prices and special events for kids, I was hopeful that it might have been a move in the right direction.

Sadly, like an Aaron Cresswell set-piece or an item of New Labour legislation, it appears to have been a decent idea which was let down by being badly executed.

The discounted prices meant that kids tickets were priced at £5 – a decent reduction on the normal price, but at a time when the ground was set to be barely more than half-full anyway, why not accept it as a loss-leader and admit accompanied kids for £1, or even for free? There are other clubs in the League structure who admit under 7s for nothing as a matter of course. Surely better to have some better-populated stands for once.

More significantly, and much like the recent discounted ticket promotion for the game against Cardiff, the event suffered from very few people apparently knowing about it in advance. There were a couple of press releases which were picked up by the usual outlets (such as TWTD) and something on the Club website, but very little detail. I’m aware that resources are limited, but there seems to be a very one-dimensional approach to public relations from the Club at the moment – as though the mere release of information into the public domain will suffice for bringing things to the attention of people who might be interested to hear about them. Were efforts made through local schools, play centres and Children’s Centres?

Details in advance of the day were vague – my son was particularly interested in the “mascot race” which had been mentioned in the press release, but it was only through tweeting Planet Blue on my way to the game that I found out when and where it was happening (credit, incidentally, to whoever manages the Planet Blue Twitter feed for getting straight back to me). As can be seen from what I believe to be my EXCLUSIVE video footage of the race, there was a sparse crowd in attendance to see Crazee romp home in first place.

There were face-painters in Planet Blue – which, again, I found out about through Twitter – unsurprisingly there was no queue for their services when we arrived. The Suffolk Playbus – an excellent facility for pre-schoolers – was parked way on the far side of the practice pitch (a long walk for little legs). There were golf and bowling events which were fine in themselves but – again – suffered because very few people knew they were happening.

From my dealings with the Club I’ve always got the impression that there are some very hard-working and dedicated members of staff there. It’s a shame that they – and by extension, supporters – are being let down by a lack of infrastructure which means that well-meaning initiatives such as Family Day are nowhere near as good – or as effective – as they could be.


Decision Time

28/10/2012

Some choice words by Gavin Barber.

According to Albert Camus – just about the only notable goalkeeper not to have been linked with a move to ITFC over the last six months – “Life is a sum of all your choices”. Decision-making was one of the many woeful aspects of Town’s play during Saturday’s miserable defeat by Sheffield Wednesday, though in truth there haven’t been many good decisions made at Portman Road, on or off the pitch, for about the last five years.

Which is one of the reasons why so many fans are, to say the least, sceptical about Marcus Evans’ and Simon Clegg’s capacity to get right what may prove to be their most important decision yet – the appointment of a new manager.

After Saturday’s game, I heard (courtesy of a fellow train passenger who hasn’t yet had the invention of headphones or volume controls brought to his attention, and evidently felt that everyone else in the carriage really, really needed to hear Radio Suffolk’s post-match phone-in) several Town fans, and Mick Mills, talking about Mick McCarthy as the sort of manager who was needed, to give our current selection of under-achievers “a kick up the backside”. It’s a tempting view – performances have, to general astonishment, got more and more spineless over recent months, to the point where we are now pretty much putting out a team of invertebrates every week (in a figurative sense, of course – real invertebrates are much better at keeping their shape). McCarthy isn’t a man who tends to inspire a great deal of affection, but if his methods could produce a team that actually displayed some kind of resilience or determination, it would certainly represent an improvement.

But having reflected on it further, it strikes me that we need to appoint a manager who we’re confident will be the right choice, not for the next five matches or even the next five months, but for the next five years.

As several supporters have pointed out, short-term thinking has played a large part in getting ITFC into the mess we’re currently in. Thinking back to the previous managerial appointment, there was an urgent need to bring in someone who could harmonise what appeared to be a divided and disaffected dressing room – a blokey sort of a bloke who’d provide some form of relief after the players had failed to respond to the somewhat more singular motivational strategies of Roy Keane. And it worked, up to a point – we didn’t get relegated that season and some players seemed to respond quite well. For a bit.

But that was as far as it went. It was an appointment for that moment, but not for the times that followed – Jewell didn’t have the tactical nous, or the willingness to update his thinking, to compete with more astute contemporaries such as Brian McDermott or Nigel Adkins: and you can only tread water in this league for so long.

So whilst it’s certainly appealing to think that Jewell’s successor might be the sort of person who would bring managerial boot into rapid connection with pampered player’s arse, Evans and Clegg need to be thinking beyond the immediate need. There’s a risk that a manager whose main attribute is being “no-nonsense” (surely the adjective most commonly applied to McCarthy – incidentally, what does it even mean? Does it imply that other managers preside over dressing rooms rife with quirky surrealism and non-sequiturs?)  could deliver enough strategically-placed rockets to get Town scrambling away from the bottom of the league, but if that’s all he can deliver, then we’ll end up stagnating again within a matter of months, and the whole sorry spiral of decline will start again.

We may, therefore, have to be prepared for things to get worse (I know, I know) before they get better. Which is not to say that I subscribe to the “maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing for us to get relegated” school of thought. Ask Coventry fans for their views on that. It would be a disaster – Championship survival has to be an imperative for the next occupant of the manager’s office. But we need someone whose remit, and capability, extends beyond those immediate imperatives.

Albus Dumbledore – a more accessible literary figure than Camus, though by all accounts not quite so handy between the sticks – said that “It is our choices that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities”. If Marcus Evans won’t show us his face, it’s time for him to use this moment of choice to show us what he really is.


‘This is the face that you’ve got’: my view of the Supporters’ Club AGM

25/10/2012

Despite the removal of Ipswich Town’s manager “by mutual consent” earlier in the day (for a superb account of the Paul Jewell era at ITFC, please read Gavin Barber’s article here ), local media were at the Supporters’ Club AGM in force last night, as if they suspected that the club’s representatives would be besieged by furious smock-wearing peasants brandishing obscure, pain-inducing agricultural implements and flaming torches. Reports that a Simon Clegg shaped Wicker Man had to be dismantled by stewards yesterday are thought to be exaggerated.

In the end the meeting was low-key and friendly and although Town fans have a great deal to be concerned about, the Chief Executive must have left Portman Road last night with the comfortable feeling that he had gently nurdled the supporters’ long hops down to fine leg and safety. He mentioned cricket himself at one point and perhaps that’s more Simon Clegg’s game. A shame, then, that there was no equivalent of Michael Holding present at the AGM.

The peasants were not revolting (for the most part anyway). Liz Edwards, who did a competent job of going through the formal business of the AGM quickly, repeatedly thanked the club’s representatives, Simon Clegg, Simon Milton and Bryan Klug. The latter two were hastily-arranged replacements for Chris Hutchings – now “caretaker manager” and club Captain, Carlos Edwards. When pressed on why no player was at the AGM, SC said that he had made the decision that Carlos should not attend as “football is a confidence game” and CH was in Blackburn watching our next opponents, Sheffield Wednesday.

Liz Edwards said that there were very few clubs that would send representatives to a Supporters’ Club AGM amid such “turmoil” and expressed her gratitude that the trio had agreed to attend. She thanked ITFC for their continuing support for the Supporters’ Club and said that she was honoured to have accepted a position on the board of the PLC. She intended to use that position to “extend the ties between the club, supporters and the community.” She again thanked Simon Clegg.

“I don’t speak for the fans,” she went on, ” but I do my best to try to put their views across.” Speaking emotionally about Town’s current situation at the bottom of the second tier of English football, she was highly critical of supporters who had sent back their season tickets or criticised the club while “hiding behind usernames” on social networking sites. She was also critical of the local media. She was not critical of the club’s owner or Chief Executive.

I’m not going to dwell upon the administrative business of the AGM or the “election” of the committee members which was a formality, presumably because so few people are willing to put themselves forward to serve on the committee. What the media and most of the supporters who attended last night’s meeting were there for was the Q&A session with Simon Clegg and his colleagues.

What follows is a very personal view of proceedings. It’s not intended to be a verbatim report but an impressionistic account of the meeting as one supporter and season ticket holder saw it. I’m sure I’ve omitted things and I may even have embroidered a bit but there is no intention on my part to mislead anyone.

All questions were addressed to Simon Clegg unless indicated otherwise.

Q. If you were writing your CV tomorrow, what would you say was your greatest achievement at ITFC?

SC: We’ll be judged by what happens on the pitch. … I haven’t achieved what I set out to achieve… I’m ambitious as is Marcus… I believe I’m the person to do the strategic planning for the tough challenges ahead with Financial Fair Play (FFP) & the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).

Q. Would a technical football director be helpful to you given the lack of football experience in your background?

SC did not agree with this. He said it was quite usual for Chief Executives of football clubs not to come from a football background and he considered himself to be in the “top half ” of CEs when it came to football knowledge. A Director of Football “wouldn’t work.” … It’s been a “big learning curve.” … Some advice is now coming from “different experts.”

Asked about academy policy, SC said that he and ME are “totally hands off” and would prefer to leave it to the manager and Bryan Klug but emphasised the importance of the academy to the club.

A supporter asked: “What about Luke Hyam?”

SC: “We empower our manager” … it’s not the CE’s role to tell the manager who to pick.

Q. Is Marcus Evans running ITFC as a football club or as a business?

SC [this is the only occasion when he appeared to be quite combative]: “Football is a business. ” He went on to say that there were hard times ahead and that he would not take the club into administration. He was not prepared to allow the club to end up in a similar situation to Portsmouth.

Asked about fans voting with their feet and that there was a feeling that the fans felt alienated from the club – “no togetherness” – SC replied: “I hear that.”  He didn’t address the question or the follow-up about explaining to the fans what ME’s plans for the club were. He used the phrase “whether you like it or not” several times, began to say “I don’t have to be here…” then changed it to “I could have copped out of it.”

“If anyone sends me a letter or e-mail, I will always respond.”

Questioned about ME’s anonymity – which clearly rankles with many fans – “I wasn’t here when ME bought the club…. Marcus watched the game last night on TV [in Barbados]. … He’s put a lot of money into the club. … ” He wanted to take the opportunity to remind us that “this club has a history of getting behind managers.”

Q. ITFC’s bids for some players have been accepted by other clubs but those players haven’t signed – is that because their wage demands were too high?

SC: “We’re not going to be held to ransom. …” Many of those stories were the result of “spinning” by the media. Some players might have used Town as a “stalking horse” to influence negotiations with other clubs with whom they then went on to sign.

Q. Where did George Boyd go to then?

SC: We’re not going to offer above our assessment of a player’s worth.

Q. Does ITFC have a salary cap and, if so, where is it in relation to those of other clubs?

SC: We have no cap but we’re somewhere in the middle. … Flexibility. …

Q: The club has a proud tradition of bringing through young talent, what assurances can you make that it will continue to bring youth through rather than buy players in?

SC praised Bryan Klug. A 4-day inspection of the academy is coming up. “No hiding place.”

BK: said he was “pleasantly surprised” that the youth policy hadn’t gone. He wouldn’t have returned unless ME was committed to the academy and the production of young players. There are players coming through. There is competition with clubs like Norwich who “have put a lot of money into their academy” and Colchester, but he feels confident that ITFC will remain attractive to young players.

Q [to BK]: Are you frustrated that the youth players are not in the first team?

BK: Yes but it’s up to the player to “batter down the door.”

Q [to SC]: Football is a business. Could you describe the product you’re trying to sell to the supporters?

[Note: your reporter may have lost the will to live at this point.] SC: “Entertainment on the pitch.” Every aspect of the business is in crisis because of failure on the pitch: retail, ticket sales, conference/corporate … all of it is made or broken by what happens on the pitch. Marcus spends a lot of time trying to sell to “corporate customers.”

SM:  We’re trying to do what we did for 30 minutes last night, for 90 minutes… it’s frustrating. What you deliver [should be] top class – rooms, food, environment, the tour… but everyone comes for the football.

[At this point, sitting in Legends without WiFi, in a bar that on match days has little seating, no comfort, poor media facilities, high prices and is often not even clean, I wondered what was meant. Then I realised that he was talking about "corporate customers" and not season ticket holders like me.]

SC: “We take the rough with the smooth. … We deserve a bit of smooth at the moment. … We’re losing fans – it’s down to the entertainment business… results are absolutely everything. … Fans would feel closer if we were winning.”

Supporter: Some people didn’t renew their season tickets, and it has been painful for them, but the club – unlike other businesses – has made no attempt to contact them, find out why, encourage them to return.

SM said that the club did contact the corporate customers in such circumstances.

SC: I’ll discuss it with John Ford [Ticket Office & Call Centre Manager]. I recognise it’s a big decision to cancel a season ticket.

Q: Roy Keane had 20 months, Paul Jewell had 21 – how long do you have to get it right?

SC: It’s up to the owner.

Q: Why are there so many coaches?

SC: At times like this we need more coaches.

BK: The game has changed and it’s “compulsory” to have a certain number of support staff such as sports scientists. I would always try to find the best staff.

SC: It comes down to the manager. You’ve got to trust the manager… “empowerment of the manager.”

Q: Do we get a new long-term strategy when a new manager is in place?

SC: We don’t have a God-given right to stay in the Championship. We need to fight and back the manager.

Questioned about players leaving for free and contracts running down (Lee Martin was mentioned), SC replied that he didn’t want to talk about individual players… “financial management must be sustainable… fine negotiations… within a budget.”

A supporter stood up and said that he and a group of friends had spent over £1,000 on the trip to the match v. Hull. At the end of the game, the players disappeared down the tunnel, only 2 remained to applaud the fans – one was Higginbotham.

SC: “I’ll take that on board.” He said he’ll talk to the team captain but “in the players’ defence” they were “absolutely devastated.”

[This produces the first angry reaction from supporters.]

SC: “I’d like players to thank the fans because without you we wouldn’t have … [your] money.”

Q: A player should have been here tonight – they have some responsibility. They should be here to face us.

[Aside from a supporter: "Preferably not a loanee."]

SC: I take responsibility. I made the decision that it wouldn’t be in the team’s best interests for Saturday.

The next question concerned the frequent signing of older players: “Town is becoming a final stop on the journeyman’s tour of England.”

SC: “You have to back your manager.” He does not want to interfere. Keane and Jewell both had records of taking clubs to the Premier League.

Supporter: We need a young, hungry manager – maybe not a big name.

SC: Neither Keane nor Jewell were there just to pick up the pay cheque and “one of them didn’t need to.” [Laughter.]

Supporter: Both managers had been out of the game for a long time…

SC: We now have 39 candidates on the short list.

Q [for SM]: How do you find a new generation of “us” [i.e. fans]?

SM talked about the charitable trust, going into schools – some schools had been disappointing, whereas others such as special schools particularly, had been very welcoming and positive. “We’re doing our utmost to build within the community.”

Q: Who is making decisions on which youth players are kept on [example of Cody Cropper]?

BK: There has to be a very good relationship between the academy coach and the manager. … We don’t have enough U21 players to make up a U21 side and so have to include older players like Ellington. … “Hopefully, looking forward, we’ll have a development group.” … Some young players have to play too frequently because we don’t have enough youth players at the club.

Q: Why wasn’t Jewell sacked during the international break?

SC: Hindsight’s a great thing, isn’t it?

In answer to a question about overseas recruitment and scouting, SC said that it was a very expensive business “being out there on the European circuit” … can “rack up huge costs.” We have “feeder” systems in place and some ex-players are helpful and “give us the wink.”

SM: We’ve had a succession of triallists.

Supporter [referring to social networking]: Shouldn’t you tell some of the players to “button it.”

SC: This is an area of concern across all “high performance sport.” It’s ridiculous to attempt to stop players using such media – he said that he would encourage it, in fact, but try to educate young players about how to use it better.

SC was asked about bringing in a loan keeper (Henderson) and whether it undermined other players.

SC: I can’t be accountable  – I back the manager.

Q. Given the failure of the appointment of the last two managers, are you going to review the recruitment procedure and look again at the criteria used to select the manager?

SC: It’s down to Marcus who’s putting money in and requires a return for his money. … He will be taking advice from different people this time.

SM: There’s lots of success on the list of 39 candidates.

SC: Fans only have half the picture and I like to think I have the whole picture…. We need to find someone who is passionate… who inspires confidence among players and coaching staff… who can work with Marcus… no point getting a manager who is asking for money every five minutes. … I’m not ruling anything out and not ruling anything in. … Most important to get the right person.

Q. [on ME's anonymity]: Do you think the evident divide between the club and the fans is because of that?

SC [pointing to self]: This is the face that you’ve got. … We video-conference and I speak to him most days. … It is the way that it is. … There’s no point spending time on this because it’s not going to change.

SC doesn’t think the owner’s anonymity has an effect on the unity of the club. “I do what I can. … We do more interfacing with fans than most clubs.” … “The temperature would be different if we were winning.” … “Marcus has put a lot of money into the club. He has invested heavily in this club.” … “Be careful what you wish for. … Your support is not taken for granted.”

My general impression of the meeting was that there was a genuine attempt on the part of all three panel members to answer the supporters’ questions honestly. It was disappointing that, although Liz Edwards spoke about there being a list of questions sent in advance by people who couldn’t attend, none of those questions were read out. Any attempts to ask more searching questions about Marcus Evans’ motives in managing the club, his plans for ITFC’s future and – what to me is the most worrying aspect – the club’s dire financial situation were met with pat (and very repetitive) replies about ME’s investment in the club. A Supporters’ Club AGM may not be the best or most appropriate forum in which to ask such questions, but they need to be asked.

About half-way through the Q & A session, a confessional element emerged – rather surprisingly – Simon Milton revealed that he was “frustrated.” Paul Jewell, too, has been very frustrated. Everyone at ITFC, it seems, is frustrated. …

“In an inspiring peroration, Simon Clegg said that things were certainly going to get harder for everyone, but he recognised an urgent and swelling desire for action and promised nights of ecstasy for years to come.” [OK, I made this bit up.]

In fact, I left Portman Road feeling a lot like the people I’d been listening to: frustrated.

Susan Gardiner


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