Marcus, Marcus give us a wave, Marcus, give us a wave

27/03/2013

Grant Bage is still, it seems, waiting for his man.

unrequited  People who regularly visit this website or follow  Turnstile Blues on Twitter [@Turnstile_Blue in case you don't - Ed.] may know that, six weeks ago and on behalf of our collective, I wrote an open letter to Marcus Evans [ In Name Only ] For new readers, Marcus is Ipswich Town’s ‘mystery millionaire owner’. My mates mocked but deep down and secretly, I hoped for a reply: did the owners of the Club care as much about the fans, as the fans care about the Club?

Much has happened since then of course: the chief executive’s post filled by a pair of Chelsea-supporting Tractor Boys, court appearances pencilled in for two of Town’s top players, season tickets held at current prices for anybody who donates all their organs via a ten year debenture to the Club; and by the way, some great results and gritty performances from a squad brimming with loan players. All of which undeservedly still finds Ipswich Town only four points away from ‘local’ derbies next season with Stevenage, Leyton Orient and Colchester United (if they stay up).

Are such events one-off coincidences, or symptoms of a deeper and more dangerous decline? I honestly still feel uncertain but sketched below is an update since that open letter was sent, followed by musings not only about ‘Marcus’, but about modern football.

Being a reasonably polite sort of guy, I e-mailed a link to the original open letter via the public contact for the Marcus Evans Group, as supplied on its website. Their reply is reproduced exactly below, in its full and robotic glory:

On 10 Feb 2013, at 19:46, gleave parsons <gleavep@marcusevansuk.com> wrote

   Dear Mr Bage

   Thank you for contact marcus evans

  ——————————————————–

  Our representative will get in touch with you shortly

Marcus’s representative did not ‘get in touch shortly’ so five days later and on Valentine’s Day I sent a reminder.  OK, my e-mail wasn’t exactly romantic, but it was heartfelt:

Date: 14 February 2013 21:30:39 GMT

To: gleave parsons <gleavep@marcusevansuk.com>

Subject: Re: marcus evans group enquiry

Hello there, whoever you are.

It is disappointing to have waited five days and not heard anything back yet, so I thought I should get in touch again. The reason I e-mailed in the first place was because Marcus Evans will be interested in an invitation from myself and a group of friends, to talk about Ipswich Town Football Club. Actually we have written that invitation at some length, around 2,000 words, and posted it on a public website. You can read it here http://www.turnstile-blues.co.uk/

If you want to leave a comment there is a section at the end and there are two comments already. But to be honest the invitation is more a personal one to Marcus Evans – to the man who owns the group which owns the football club that we all love. Marcus has put a lot of money and effort into his ownership over the last five years: it would be great to hear more from him directly, about his plans and dreams for the next five years.

We have sent the same invitation to the press office at Portman Road and unfortunately they have not replied yet either. It would be pleasant, and polite, if somebody could get back to us. We will be publishing the invitation in a magazine quite soon, bought by lots of Ipswich fans and therefore customers of The Marcus Evans Group.  We were also hoping that in this magazine, Marcus might reply in person. People would be very interested in what he has to say.

We look forward to hearing from you.

I will leave you to guess, over forty days later, whether there has been a reply. Yet oddly and promisingly, the programme notes for Ipswich’s next home game offered the unusual prospect of some thoughts ‘from the owner’.

Although these notes have been hilariously analysed on this website [Not From the Owner] to me at the least they read like they have been genuinely written by ‘Marcus’. In a style I imagine to be authentic amongst international multi-millionaires, paragraph after paragraph on the first page mused mostly about: money, business and financial fair play. Given that ITFC owes the Marcus Evans Group nearly £70 million, it may of course be a good thing that Marcus likes talking mostly about money. But deep amongst the financial foliage at last on page two there peeped out a reference to us: the Club’s customers, its lifeblood, loyal fans, the diehards … or are we just cash cows, and mugs? Marcus wrote:

   ‘I am … fully committed to … ensuring that we keep an open line of communication with our fans.’

I could not help but think, perhaps churlishly ‘well then it would be nice if you answered the letter we sent’. That is not just because 2,000 words take a long time to write. It is also that in good faith, the next issue of our fanzine (By Mutual Consent on sale at Portman Road before the match on 30th March – see here for details ) reserved two blank pages.  These were to set out the reply that we honestly expected from Marcus, or the Marcus Evans Group, or the new managing directors, or the press office or just from anybody at Ipswich Town football club who might have been listening, to the polite and sensible questions we thought we had asked.

I say ‘polite’ because many of us stand in the North Stand, and have done so for years. We could have just chanted, Marcus, in the brusque fashion of us football fans:

‘Who are ya, who are ya, who are ya..?’

We didn’t and instead we thought, we argued, we researched, we wrote, we published and now because we care passionately about the lifelong security and prosperity of Ipswich Town I (at least) am begging. Answer our queries and listen to our fears. Please understand why there is a larger movement coming together to question the way in which Modern Football works. People are joining the Football Supporters Federation [ http://www.fsf.org.uk/ ] Supporters Direct  [ http://www.supporters-direct.org/  ] and the Ipswich Town Independent Supporters Trust [  http://ipswichtownfirst.wordpress.com/ ]. They are campaigning for owners to charge lower and fairer prices for tickets [ http://wp.me/p2KvgD-4j ], for clubs to consider letting supporters stand, for fans to have a voice on the Board and shares in their club. Perhaps Marcus, you could actively and personally continue strong Ipswich traditions of encouraging fair play, good citizenship and a social conscience from the players you employ? With rewarding players fairly but sustainably, both to win games with style but also to lose them, with grace? You are the owner Marcus and for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, fans are married to the future of a Club that happens to be in your current care and under your leadership.  So please, prioritise the Academy. Encourage stewards to come down hard on violent, racist, homophobic or any other nasty and threatening behaviour. Equally tell them to stop nicking our beach balls, they are only a bit of fun.  Above all smile sweetly at Saint Delia, whilst making us better than Norwich.

OR if that sounds too radical Marcus, make just a small change right now. Ask somebody senior from the Club to recognise honest concerns and genuine questions, and to answer them. It really won’t hurt. Just take a deep breath of that bracing Orwell air, look left at the North Stand, stare deep into our eyes and imagine us singing:

‘Marcus, Marcus give us a wave, Marcus, give us a wave;

Marcus, Marcus, give us a wave: Marcus, give us a wave…’


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.


Joyce Wade, 1933-2012

15/12/2012

ITFC programme 1957

 Grant Bage pays tribute to a Town supporter and purveyor of “friendship, chocolate bars and chat.”

‘Football’ is a restless beast and football’s blogs, tweets and print media are twitching with unease; not just amongst Town fans, but amongst all fans. That unease centres on some simple questions.  Exactly why do we love football, follow a club and spend vast amounts of money and time in the process? Does coming to Portman Road every other Saturday really mean anything, anymore, in a 21st century consumed by consumerism?

In my heart the fan’s romance beats strong. Yet there is a decent argument to be made that wage levels are obscene, ticket prices are crazy, players are cynical, the sport is over-exposed and a lust for money has degraded what used to be spontaneous and comparatively egalitarian entertainment into a televised and repetitive ‘product’.

OK yeah … but despite such blatant shortcomings, football retains a mysterious hold over my middle-aged mind. And I have finally worked out, after the recent dull seasons of Town toiling at home, that my fidelity is inexplicable when linked simply to events on the pitch.  If we relied only on what ‘professionals’ serve up as ‘entertainment’ would most of us bother to watch – let alone PAY?

I doubt it. The worse the actual football has grown, particularly at Portman Road during the last few years, the clearer it becomes that football as a fan is so much more than 90 minutes of sport: football is really about ritual, community and friendship. That is why this blog bears tribute to a woman who never played football and very rarely went;  but whom for me, over the years, grew to signify so much about what football really ‘means’, at the bottom of my blue and white heart.

Joyce Wade died on 14 November, 2012. For the last 53 years she had been a (more or less) unbroken presence to her many and varied neighbours in Elliott Street, Ipswich. That was because, like scores of others fifty years ago, Joyce lived above and ran a local corner shop.  She and her prospective husband Roy opened their few square yards of floorboards, shelves, tins and jars in July 1959.  Sandwiched between London Road and Portman Road, the lattice of Victorian terraces from which Joyce drew customers was in the early 1960s a hive of active pubs, clubs, shops, garages, small factories and businesses.  This was an age when the supermarket, out of town shopping and credit cards were still distant or unimagined. This was ‘The Town’ not of football fame but the town of the community behind the club, the town of Ipswich which pre-dated ‘the club’ and the kind of neighbourhood typical of the thousands of urban and rural communities across the UK, from which football had grown in the first place.

Whilst Joyce and her husband Roy were founding their shop in Elliott Street, a few hundred yards away at Portman Road Alf Ramsey was building a legend. Joyce and Roy were married on 15 July 1961. Six months earlier football’s ‘maximum wage’ had been abolished, leading to the amazing phenomenon of the ‘£100 per week footballer’.  Market logic would suggest this favoured rich clubs with large crowds and big money. Yet in April 1961 Ipswich were promoted as Champions, from the Second to the First Division. Sheffield United were runners up, a little club called Liverpool were third and a tiny club named Norwich were fourth. Twelve months later, in April 1962, Ipswich Town achieved the unimaginable. We, the lads from Suffolk, the minnows, the newcomers, the country cousins, won the First Division (today’s Premiership) at our first attempt: tipping the glamorous Spurs and another outstanding provincial club (Burnley) to a hard-fought title.

And this is where we go back to that corner shop in Elliott Street. Joyce spent most of those 53 years, from 1959 to 2012, watching the people walking past her shop and talking to those who came in. One of those people was me, cutting down Elliott Street on match-day Saturdays with my own father in the 1970s and 1980s; and visiting Joyce’s shop each match-day with my own son in the 1990s and 2000s. We would buy a lucky chocolate bar or a bottle of drink of course, but most of all we would chat. Joyce loved to chat and the stories flowed: about her son Julian, about her home town of Dundee, about the war, about opera singing, about being born with her twin sister on Christmas Eve, about the sadness of her older sister’s deaths, about being the daughter of a Methodist lay preacher, about her school days and friends, about her memories of loves and hates and pretty much everything else in between.

And of course there were football-related stories in which she delighted: like the one about a cheeky kid from round the corner running errands for his mum. Knock-kneed and bandy legged, as Joyce remembered him aged nine “Kieron couldn’t even walk straight let alone run straight – I don’t know how he EVER managed to play football.” For younger readers the ‘Kieron’ of Joyce’s story was of course Kieron Dyer, who by the age of 17 was one of the most talented youngsters our famous Academy had ever produced, and who brought the club £6 million when he was sold to Newcastle in July 1999. Then there was the story of Jason, another young lad who frequented Wades’ Stores. Jason Dozzell grew up in Elliott Street, played over 300 times for Ipswich and was sold for £1.9 million to Tottenham Hotspur in August 1993. His mother stayed in the street and remained a valued customer and friend until Joyce’s recent death.

Over the years Joyce and I became firm, match day friends: and over the last few years it has been genuine friendships like that, costing no more than time and care, which have been a stronger reason to spend match-days in Ipswich than much of the expensive nonsense on and off the Portman Road pitch.  For despite the fact that Joyce claimed not to know much about football it felt to me that she knew masses about Ipswich, about living in the changing Town we love, and about serving her community.

Rest in Peace, Joyce Wade.  Thank you for the friendship, the chocolate bars and the chat; and most all for helping me to remember that football is about so much more than a slightly daft game, with way too much money.

JOYCE WADE Born 24 December 1933, died 12 November 2012


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