Not from the Owner

22/02/2013

by Gavin Barber

invisibleSay what you like about Marcus Evans (actually, don’t: he can afford better lawyers than you can), but you could never accuse him of being schmaltzy, ingratiating, or trying to suck up to ITFC fans. His much-heralded “FROM THE OWNER” column, trailed in the EADT on Friday, announced in banner headlines on the cover of last Saturday’s programme, and subsequently reproduced in full on TWTD, began with less of a rallying cry than a reality check:

“Ipswich is one of the clubs in the Championship that based upon historic figures, have been spending in excess of the soon to be introduced FFP rules.”

Well, there you have it people. Why bother trying to get the fans’ little faces puffed up with pride when you’re only going to slap them with the cold fish of fear? None of us want platitudes, but given the rarity with which Evans addresses the masses, it might have been nice to start on a slightly more unifying note. Instead, an opening so stark that it can only have been deliberately constructed as such, brought to mind Gareth Southgate’s famous appraisal of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s 2002 World Cup quarter-final team talk: “We needed Churchill but we got Iain Duncan Smith”.

In paragraphs which may yet form the basis of a chapter in a future management textbook on Managing Stakeholder Expectations, Marcus goes to significant effort to contextualise the club’s financial position, yet strangely fails to mention the ever-growing debt that is presented in each year’s accounts. A prudent approach is all very well: most supporters wouldn’t want the club to indulge in the sort of profligate spending that has seen the dramatic downfall of others (though it does beg the intriguing question of what would have happened if Marcus had been successful in his reported attempts to install Harry Redknapp in the manager’s office). But any true appraisal of the sustainability of the club’s situation would surely have to acknowledge the increasing amount of red on the balance sheet.

In seeking to mitigate the gloom, Marcus asserts that “We have an Academy stronger than many. … Our Academy advantage over others will remain”. It’s nice to see the Academy recognised as a plus point. Unfortunately, the act of saying that ours is better than most other clubs’ doesn’t make it true, even if it’s “the big M” (© Nigel Pickover) who’s saying it. There’s nothing to indicate that our Academy is any better resourced than those of our Championship rivals – and it’s interesting to note how many young coaches and players are opting for what’s on offer down the A12 at Colchester. The once-famed “conveyor belt” of talent into the Town first team has stuttered and halted, to the point where Mick McCarthy recently observed that there were no young players “knocking down the door” of the first team.

Having given us all a further stern talking-to on the subject of money, Marcus moves on, 20 paragraphs into a 23-paragraph article, to acknowledge the existence of supporters in a tone that sounds more like bemusement than appreciation. Having made reference – with a notable lack of any tribute – to the recent departure of Simon Clegg, Marcus reassures us, with regard to “receiving and taking account of [fans’] views”, he’ll be “assessing any void that has appeared through Simon’s departure”. Now this, if analysed too closely, could constitute some kind of philosophical paradox. Can the absence of a vacuum leave a void? Clegg’s approach to supporter engagement has been discussed extensively on these pages, in the first issue of Turnstile Blues, and elsewhere. Cursory at best, patronising at worst, Clegg was never in danger of receiving one of those worthy “supporter liaison” gongs that get handed out by Mark “Clem” Clemmit at the Football League Awards. (Perhaps avoiding that was always his aim). So if Marcus is as motivated by cost-cutting as he says he is, then any “void” in communication with fans left by Clegg’s absence could easily be filled by, say, a gargoyle, or one of those cross-looking proboscis monkeys.

Of more merit would be a commitment to refresh the club’s approach to supporter engagement, rather than viewing it – as Evans’ article appears to suggest that he does – as a box to be ticked. It’s been well over a week since Grant Bage wrote on these pages an eloquent, passionate, measured piece, describing the real “void” that exists at Ipswich Town – the owner’s lack of visibility – and politely invited a response from Evans. At the time of writing, despite the piece having been sent to both ITFC and MEG, we’ve yet to receive one. Once again, when it comes to meaningful engagement with fans, Evans’s silence speaks volumes.

The fun didn’t end on Saturday though, and on Tuesday night it was the turn of Town’s new Managing Director double-act Ian Milne and Jonathan Symonds – already being described by absolutely no-one as “the Ant and Dec of football administration” – to crank the bon mots machine up to 11 and make their own appearance in the programme. After first describing their Tolkeinesque five-year quest to discover the aim and purpose of a professional football club (SPOILER ALERT: it’s about winning football matches and having fun – who knew?), M&S continue in the owner’s relentlessly pragmatic tone, proudly trumpeting their work “developing and launching various projects and ideas to promote a new culture centred on efficiency”. Woot! Yeah baby. Efficiency! Let’s hear the North Stand sing. “Give me an E, give me an F…”

That noise you can hear – it’s not the business-like hum of an efficiency-centred culture. It’s Bobby Robson, turning in his grave.

SBR parade


In Name Only?

10/02/2013

meg

Grant Bage wonders whether Marcus Evans will ever be more than just a name to Town fans.

An enigma underpins Ipswich Town Football Club: its mysterious owner, Marcus Evans. Questions about Evans’ identity have always intrigued fans, but given the recent departure of Chief Executive Simon Clegg these have become immediately and practically significant. Clegg cited “the owner’s intention to play a more hands-on role” as a factor in his decision to move. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/21336792  As Turnstile Blues we are therefore asking once more: what does the Club’s owner stand for?

The players’ shirts shout his name. During five years he has backed four managers, sacked three of them and seen off two Chief Executives. Quite literally the Club owes all of what it has become, with the 2011 accounts citing that debt at £66 million, to one Marcus Paul Bruce Evans. Yet the people of Ipswich and the Club’s 20,000 or so regular followers know nothing of the person behind the name. The face of Marcus Evans has never beamed out from a match day programme. His voice is not heard on radio. Marcus does not appear on television and makes no personal statements to the press. A fan paying thirty pounds for a Saturday seat could, in theory, sit next to the man who has poured sixty or seventy MILLION pounds into the Club…and not even know. ‘Marcus the man’ remains an utter mystery, despite personally owning a Club which spawned two of English Football’s most famous and recognisable characters: Sir Alf and Sir Bobby, the Ramsey and Robson.

This article examines that phenomenon. What does it mean for Marcus Evans ‘the brand’ to dominate a football club when none of its fans know the man, what he thinks, or where he comes from?

The Marcus Evans Group (hereafter MEG) was founded in 1983; read more at www.marcusevans.com. It makes big money employing 3000 professionals in 34 offices worldwide providing corporate hospitality, conferences, summits, business training and entertainment. It currently loses big money, though not quite as much, employing approximately 120 full time staff at Ipswich Town Football Club. When the MEG bought Ipswich Town five years ago, assuming liability for substantial debts, one of my best mates teased that Ipswich had been “taken over by a ticket tout”. Lancastrian jealousy I thought to myself, brought on by too many years of supporting Burnley. Two years later that charge was made publicly, in exaggerated terms, by the Daily Mail. In June 2010 and in cowardly words, it claimed that Marcus Evans “had been described as the world’s biggest ticket tout”:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/article-1288161/CHARLES-SALE-Ipswich-owner-Marcus-Evans-FIFA-ticket-probe.html

‘Described by whom?’ we should ask; but more significantly for the purposes of this article ‘refuted by whom?’ I am uncertain this is a fair description of the MEG’s business and yet popular confusion persists. Fans continue to question the MEG’s motives for ownership. Some criticized the recently departed Simon Clegg’s performance as Chief Executive, claiming he was hired by the MEG more for ‘Olympic links’ than football skills. People are suspicious about why the MEG group’s assets are globally distributed and feel uneasy that they do not know where ‘their local club’s’ ownership, geographically rests. A 2010 Christian Aid report into the finances of English football put Ipswich 14th in a ‘secrecy league’. The authors reported of the Club’s controlling company that “despite our best efforts, we could not prove by documentation where that company is located…Evans … is reported to have been a tax exile for years.” (Blowing The Whistle, Christian Aid 2010, p.38)

When blended with the transfer blundering of various managers, a persistent reliance on loan players and widely voiced discontent about Ipswich’s once famous Academy, such uncertainties form a toxic mix. Unfortunately Marcus Evans’ anonymity not only offers an easy target for such speculation: when combined with his ex-Chief Executive’s (Simon Clegg) clumsy public relations, it positively encourages it. Conspiracy theories flourish when nobody with authority, not just ‘in’ authority, can refute them with convincing evidence, sincere feelings and a face which they trust.

Some things ARE clearer. As an individual company, Ipswich Town continues to pile up massive debts to the MEG. These debts dwarf the club’s few assets. They could in theory and in part, if not in total and in practice, be ‘called in at any moment’. Indisputably, Ipswich Town’s future is in the hands of a global corporation. That corporation is owned and led not just by a person whom fans do not know: but by somebody they have been actively discouraged from knowing.

As if that was not enough Marcus Evans’ anonymity as a brand, and as a person, is even in tension with notion that Clegg talked of so often: namely that ‘football is a product’. Yes, the majority of fans start to support a club by buying a ticket and paying to watch: a financial transaction. Yet over time these exchanges evolve into something more valuable than money. Hardcore fans adopt a common cause. We personally identity with a club’s history, celebrate its achievements; and during the down times it is through disappointments that we bond. That process is nurtured in family, friendship or work groups and cemented on the terraces. On a personal basis becoming a ‘fan’ is about warmth and companionship with people we know. It is the antithesis of anonymity.

Despite intense competition for leisure-time spend, football also persists as premium entertainment perhaps because ‘what you see is, more or less, what you get’. Real time, on-pitch action is mostly visible however cheap your seat. Televised football is even more transparent, prompting relentless and idiotic intolerance of error. Yet one of the commonest criticisms fans have always voiced, long before wall-to-wall Sky coverage, is of players who ‘go missing’ during a game. Managers love individuals who will ‘stand up and be counted’. They appoint captains who ‘take a clear lead’. Football relies on visibility. So what does it signify about Ipswich Town when the club’s entire brand, and its individual owner, are consistently anonymous: present ‘in name only’?

Most fans calm such disquiet with a single, undeniable truth. Marcus Evans has ‘put his money where his mouth is’; or at least where his mouth would be, if he ever spoke in public. Ipswich fans may be unhappy with the Club’s playing performances and league positions, averaged over the last five seasons; but it is pretty much a killer defence of the MEG’s investment, to contemplate where the Club might have been without that cash. Ipswich Town survived a ‘company voluntary arrangement’ following relegation from the Premier League in 2002, but had scant transfer funds until Marcus Evans ‘bought the debt’ in late 2007. Although rumours of potential investors had persisted before the MEG takeover, no cash-rich alternative had stepped publicly forward.

Since that date much money has been spent and sadly, much squandered. Some of that cash has been mine and yours, hard and honestly earned; yet it is pointless to ignore that most of it has been Marcus’s.  We may or may not differ with Marcus Evans about where the Club should go from here and until he reveals more, we cannot really know. Equally it seems to this writer churlish and unfair to suggest that the MEG has not genuinely attempted success.

One reason why people are confused is because, for an organisation that prides itself on marketing, the MEG’s communications to Ipswich Town’s fans have appeared relentlessly ill-judged. The first (of only two) football-focused media interviews Marcus Evans has ever given can be found here:  http://www.edp24.co.uk/sport/how_i_met_town_s_mystery_magnate_marcus_1_163661

It details a conversation with Nigel Pickover, now editor of the Norwich-based Eastern Daily Press and a long time key journalist for the Norfolk-based Archant group of newspapers. It was published on 21 May 2008. Echoing to strains of Norfolk’s greatest living journalist, Alan Partridge, Pickover painted a peculiar, front page picture of Marcus Evans. The interview happened at MEG’s head office in London. In that location, we were informed:

“Marcus time waits for no one…His world of business wizardy and international daring-do, and my Evening Star world of power-packed daily newspaper journalism had come together – and the new man appeared to like how The Star had handled itself with a potent mixture of newsbreaks on one hand and fun, a la ‘mystery magnate Marcus’ on the other…For the next fifty minutes or so I sat back and heard the incredible ‘pennies-to-riches’ story that has made Marcus one of the great business successes of the last decade.”

Such excerpts are good, clean newspaper fun; but five years later serious questions arise.The first is Nigel’s claim, towards the end of his 2008 report that:

“Marcus Evans, it is clear to me, has been bitten by the Ipswich Town bug. Fans will hear more of that in the future, I’m sure.”

Sadly, we have not. The public knows little more of Marcus Evans the man, or the practical detail of his vision for Ipswich Town, than we did five years ago. Apart from a single  Ipswich Evening Star interview with Dave Gooderham on 30 January 2012, Evans’ silence has been unbroken. One of the main reasons that Turnstile Blues was written by our collective, and sold out its first edition in November 2012, was the widely held feeling that Marcus Evans has kept Ipswich fans in the dark.

The second is continuing confusion over Marcus Evans’ background, and whether he bought Ipswich Town just because it was for sale or through some sympathies with Suffolk. Pickover (2008) perhaps inaccurately reported some scraps of biographical detail:

“In everything he does genial, secretive, tycoon Marcus Evans means business. He has devoted a lifetime of toil to entrepreneurial success – and seconds count to a man who left school before the pressures of A-levels.”

Meanwhile, a former class mate I have spoken to recalls attending a well-known Suffolk state school with Marcus Evans during the early 1980s:

“I remember Marcus Evans turning up in the first year of Sixth Form …An incredibly anonymous, retiring bloke even then, who joined in the common room but never came to the parties. He was quiet, pleasant, no indication of a ruthless streak in him – quite the opposite. He was a really nice guy.”

The biographical details may not matter that much, however satisfying it would be to connect the millionaire owner that Marcus Evans has become with the ‘really nice guy’ who apparently went to school in Suffolk. What does matter is how the supporters of Ipswich Town see and perceive the Club’s mysterious owner. That is because in law Marcus owns the Club lock, stock and barrel; whilst its supporters own the Club, in their hearts.

Increased and statutory fans’ involvement in the governance of football is one long-term answer to this problem, though a shorter-term measure could also assist. Nigel Pickover boasted in 2008 that:

“On the front page of the Star, I had written an open letter to (Marcus Evans) … and he had replied by return. But the London meeting came because of a simple question. Please could I meet Marcus Evans? Simple as that. Funny, no one else had asked…”

In 2013 this open letter is asking again. It has been sent to the Club and to the MEG, simultaneous with being published online. Marcus, will you please be interviewed by a Turnstile Blue? Most fans are ready to believe that you have genuine affection for Ipswich Town. I have seen and heard much to suggest you have strong links with Suffolk. If you wish to maintain privacy, for your sake and your family’s, we will respect that: but talking through at least some of the issues in this article could only enhance your image, and clarify your leadership. This is particularly crucial given Simon Clegg’s recent departure. There has probably never been a better moment, metaphorically if not physically, to show your face and tell people more about why you own our club, the MEG’s immediate plans and your long term strategy.

So will Marcus Evans, step forward?  We will not expose your identity, twist your words or doubt your honesty. If an interview is difficult, just write back. You can fill as many of these pages as you like describing your vision for success: because from our perspective it makes football sense, business sense and community sense for fans and the owner to explore this together.

We look forward to hearing from you… wherever you are.


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