I can’t believe it’s not a Big Buttery Audit Vat

25/07/2014

ITFC Academy

 

by Gavin Barber

Lots of people ask for money. Most of us – me included – conduct a kind of instantaneous, subconscious cost/benefit analysis of each request before giving a response. Context is important. Earlier today I was asked for a charitable donation and gave the full amount, without hesitation. The charity was a random teenager who was 10p short of his bus fare. I paid in full because a) I could afford it, and b) it would mean that he could end his long-running argument with the driver, meaning that I could finally get off the sweltering pavement, onto the bus, and on with the rest of my life. Philanthropy and self-interest, perfectly married in a moment.

Rightly or wrongly, if you’re prepared to ask people for money then you need to be ready to make them feel that they’re Doing Something Good or Getting Something Back, or, preferably, both. Which is why the decision to ask supporters for cash to fund ITFC’s bid for Category One Academy status was such a bold one. And, on the basis of today’s announcement that the bid has failed, a potentially ill-advised one too.

We are told that the bid for Category One status has failed to reach the required 75% standard by just 0.3%. Who knows what complex algorithms lie behind this outcome? “IF facilities.PITCH >64% AND coaching.YOUTHDEV >72% THEN value academy.LEVEL must = 01”. That sort of thing. Maybe. Myriad factors, we are told, are considered. Investment. Coaching. Facilities. It all gets churned into a big buttery Audit Vat, and for ITFC it apparently comes out at 74.7% proof.

One could speculate on the maturity of a process which allows for such fine margins of error in an area of such inexact science; one could speculate further on how the application of the audit process might vary between clubs of different levels and status – particularly given that this whole thing was begat by the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), itself yet another downwards kick from the jackboot of the super-rich clubs into the faces of the rest.

And yet. You can only play the hand you’re dealt, and ITFC’s response to these challenges was, firstly, to opt rather defiantly for Category Two – like a spurned suitor petulantly de-friending the object of their affections on Facebook – only to decide that, actually, we did want to play with the big boys after all. But we needed someone else to pay for it.

That initial decision was important. ITFC weighed up the options available under EPPP and decided that Category Two was the least-worst of them. Or perhaps that Category One was not worth the risk. Not only was there a 5,000-strong petition raised in protest, but statistics provided by the Ipswich Town Supporters’ Trust proved that investment in Academies was more than likely to repay itself several times over in revenue from player sales, and transfer fee costs saved. Category Two, however, remained the preferred option at that time. It was a decision that now appears to have been costly, both in footballing and financial terms. Perhaps one that Marcus Evans now regrets.

And yet. When Town did decide to pursue Category One status – and let’s go right out on a limb here and suggest that the potentially beneficial effects of Category One on the overall balance sheet may have helped to prompt Marcus’s change of heart – it was the supporters who were asked to foot the bill. Not just a few quid for some fluorescent cones and training tops, but a sizeable chunk of the overall funding required for Category One.

Ipswich Town FC is part of the Marcus Evans Group, a multinational conglomeration of Stuff which employs squillions of people to make gazillions of dollars. It is not, perhaps, the most obvious cause when it comes to charitable giving, yet several supporters decided that it was worthy of donations. In issuing that appeal, ITFC sent out two distinct messages: firstly, that a Category One academy was a nice-to-have rather than a must-have, and supporters should therefore be expected to contribute to it. And secondly, if it was an enterprise inextricably attached to a cause, rather than a business decision about allocation of resources – as would presumably be the case in every other division of MEG – then supporters could arguably be seen to carry an implicit level of blame in any subsequent failure to achieve the desired outcome.

Like I said earlier, you can ask people for money any old time you want, but there’s an implied contract in any request for funding, particularly for a private organisation with an already-significant cashflow. And here we come back, rather cynically perhaps, to our two tests for charitable giving: am I Doing Something Good and will I Get Something Back?

The answer to those questions would both have been ‘yes’ if ITFC had found an extra 0.3% from somewhere. But we didn’t. We failed on the margins. And yet – as frustrating as it is to apparently miss out by such a tiny amount – it is always the case that, like a first serve in tennis, if you aim for the margins, you risk hitting the wrong side of them.

It’s easy, of course, to point the focus of attention towards those who carried out the audit. EPPP is a disastrously ill-thought-out initiative, so there’s no reason not to assume that the processes which underpin its implementation might also benefit from some improvement. But however flawed the process might be, the story to take from today’s announcement is surely not the fact that ITFC missed out on Category One by 0.3%, but that we put ourselves in a position whereby that might ever have become an issue. Why aim for the margins? Why look at the criteria and the processes, and decide that scraping around for 75% is the best approach to take – rather than determining to invest whatever is necessary to reach Category One, from the start? Why opt for Category Two, then spend time and effort recruiting a team capable of delivering Cat One, two years later?

These are business decisions and it’s not for me to say which is the right one and which is the wrong one. But as a supporter, it is for me to say something about asking fans to subsidise the shortfall left by some of those business decisions. And that is this: if you are going to ask fans for money to provide a Category One Academy, over and above the investment that fans already make via season tickets etc., and in the full understanding that Category One brings financial benefits to the club and its owner as well as sporting benefits to the team and its supporters, then you had better make damn sure you get it right. We are told that financial investment is only one of the criteria used to determine Academy status. In that case, if fans have contributed to the financial side of things, then it is down to the club to make sure that everything else is in order, to the extent where a margin of 0.3% in an audit score shouldn’t ever have become an issue.

Having put supporters in an arguably invidious position by asking for contributions in the first place, only to let them down by failing to deliver the aim that they were being asked to contribute to achieving, the Club and its owner once again have questions to answer. What will happen to those contributions? Why, with supporters’ contributions behind them, does it appear to be the case that ITFC aimed for being ‘just good enough’ to achieve Category One – and turned out to be not quite up to it – rather than reducing the risk by aiming higher than that? What happens next? Will there be a new approach or will supporters be asked for yet more money? As ever, we eagerly anticipate answers.


A light that never goes out

29/04/2014

 

FA Youth Cup Final 2005

As issue 5 of Turnstile Blues is coming out very soon – and is on sale at Portman Road on Saturday, 3rd May 2014 – I’m posting some of my favourite pieces from the previous four issues in an effort to show you what we’re about. First, a particular favourite from our first issue, by Gavin Barber.

A few years ago, Heinz announced that they might have to stop making salad cream because everyone was buying mayonnaise instead. “Imagine that!” exclaimed a woman I worked with at the time, “no salad cream in the shops!”. “But hardly anyone’s buying it”, I replied, “do you actually buy it yourself?”. “Well, no”, she admitted, “but it’s nice to know it’s there”.

There was, of course, a subsequent mad rush on the purchase of salad cream and the product was saved. The whole thing was probably just a clever marketing ruse by Heinz, tapping into a basic truth: there are some things that comfort us simply by their continued existence in the background of our lives, whether it’s the presence of a condiment on the supermarket shelves, the smell of the coffee stall we pass on the way to work or the continued international career of Dennis Rommedahl. They don’t make much real difference to us, but we’d miss them if they weren’t there.

Does Ipswich Town fall into this category? I started thinking this when I was challenging myself to work out exactly why the bloody hell I had been so determined to pass the Portman Road habit on to my son. Was I handing down a precious gift, a timeless expression of parental love with value beyond measure? Or was it more like one of those irritating hereditary quirks such as premature baldness or eczema?

My Dad was a much better and more responsible parent than I am. He followed Ipswich himself and would respond cheerfully to all my questions about them, but never made any particular effort to foster my interest, perhaps sensibly deciding that if I wanted to open myself up to the same lifetime of frustration as he’d had, then it was my own lookout. Of course, it wasn’t long before I was pleading with him to take me along: the idea of actually going to Portman Road held the sort of allure for me that Disneyland had for other kids. Even then, I think Dad was a bit surprised, and not really convinced that I’d like it as much as I thought I would, but of course, when I eventually did make it through the turnstiles I was irretrievably hooked.

I wasn’t allowed to go every week but I’d mark on the fixture list the games that Dad had said I could go along to (this being the early 80s, these were mostly determined on the basis of having the lowest hooligan risk) and these, like Prufrock’s coffee spoons, would become the punctuation marks of my young life, each one as eagerly and as long anticipated as the last, regardless of how Town were playing at the time. Often we’d go with my extended family – my Grandpa, who always seemed to think it was cold and who judged each new signing according to whether or not they were as good as Tommy Parker (they never were), and my Uncle, who loved the Dutch players and whose own moustache I imagined to be his personal tribute to Frans Thijssen. I could disappear at this point into a quicksand of clichéd reverie, but I’m sure you get the picture: the boy in a man’s world; the always-lingering cigarette smoke; above all, the excitement of Christmas fixtures and the massed ranks of pocketed hands afterwards as the crowd shuffled, heads bowed against the biting winter wind, towards their trains and buses and cars and the New Year.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’m faced with the chubby cheeks and enquiring mind of my own progeny. By now I am located far from Portman Road, living in Oxford. Do I take my Dad’s wise, calm, dignified approach, allowing my son to plough his own footballing furrow and hope it leads him to the same field? Of
course not. The poor child has ITFC-branded tat shoved in his face from day one. Babygros, teddies, woolly hats, the lot. His baby bouncer pointed towards the screen for televised Ipswich games, in the hope that some formative connection will be made. Ostentatious attempts at bonding, even while the child is still in nappies: “Daddy’s off to football now! At Ipswich! I expect you’ll be wanting to come with me soon? Won’t you? Won’t you? Won’t you?” It was the sort of evangelistic approach that the Jesuits might regard as being a bit extreme.

In any case, it worked: he did start wanting to come along and now, at the age of 8, he’s a season ticket holder with me in the West Stand. We make the long journey by train, we have fun on the way, meet up with friends for lunch, watch the game, and then relax again on the train home. By that stage, the effects of a long day’s travelling and socialising can be taking their toll, but he usually wakes me up when we get to Liverpool Street.

But – that question again – why? Why was I so determined to bring another sacrificial lamb to the altar of underachievement? Is Ipswich the background music to my life, a comfort blanket that I wanted my offspring to grasp so that he can carry it for me when I’m too old and bewildered to remember the full name of Eric
Lazenby-Gates? Is it something that provides reassurances just because it’s there? If so, all well and good, but couldn’t I have kept it to myself?

I think the answer is that it’s more. It’s about maintaining a family tradition, but not just for it’s own sake – it’s because there is something about Ipswich Town as a club, as an entity, that can – in amongst all the frustration – bring moments of great joy and community. One of the things that always impressed me as a child about matchdays was that, no matter how mundane the fixture, the game was always, unquestionably, the most exciting and important thing happening in Ipswich that day. And in that way it brought people together and was a force for good.

There are many other football clubs whose fans would say exactly the same, and they’d be right too. Change, like death, taxes and the UK’s annual poor showing at Eurovision, is inevitable. Over time, players, managers, kits and even the physical structure of the ground itself are altered until they’re almost unrecognisable from those you grew up with. But something remains at the heart of the club that transcends all this. It’s the fans, basically – the togetherness, the humour, even the traditional Portman Road moaning – that make our club a special one: and that’s why we want to hand it on to our kids. We’re not only giving them a gift, we’re preparing the way for them to take their own turns at its stewardship, just by being there.

I’m not at all sure that Marcus Evans and Simon Clegg [This was first published a couple of years ago. – Ed.] get this. Their approach seems distant, a sort of “you let us get on with running the football club and we’ll paint the turnstiles occasionally so that you know we haven’t forgotten about you”, missing the point that we – like our parents and grandparents before us, and hopefully our children after us – are the football club. Clegg and Evans are people who happen to have functional roles for the moment, but one day they’ll be gone and we, the fans, will still be here.

But I think I can still justify my zealous approach to my son’s upbringing. That stuff that made me want to share it with him in the first place – the spirit of community – is still there. These days it’s not just in the pre-match pubs and in the ground itself, but it’s on Twitter and the message boards too, and is all the more fun for that.

This isn’t, then, about tradition for its own sake. It’s not like the outraged howls of protest at proposed changes to the Radio 4 schedule, made by people who never listen to Radio 4. It’s not just sitting in your favourite seat on the bus to work. It’s worth preserving because Ipswich Town stands for something. It’s up to us to do that preservation and right now it feels like we’re doing it in spite of the owner and the Chief Exec, rather than with them.

My uncle remained a season ticket holder in the West Stand until he died last November. On the day after his funeral, Town threw away their game against Reading in spectacularly slack and incompetent style, turning a 2-1 injury-time lead into a 2-3 defeat. Leaving the ground, my mind still laden with the grief of the previous day’s events, I was furious, feeling an irrational but unavoidable sense of affront at what I’d just seen from Town, in addition to the obvious annoyance that we all shared. Muttering to myself in fury, I heard my son’s voice cutting
through the discontented hubbub. “Never mind, Dad”, he said. “It was good to see Josh Carson score for us, wasn’t it?”

Without meaning to, he’d pulled me round in an instant, from a rapidly darkening mental state to a realisation that actually, yes, if we can only see the world through a child’s eyes then there is always something to take comfort in, whether it’s seeing your favourite player scoring or simply that there’s another game next week. When it comes to ITFC I’ve got big concerns about the present, but I’m learning to put my faith in the future.


Disappointed (once more)…

15/08/2013

coveralfThere’s a famous bit in Dickens’ Little Dorrit when the novel’s hero, Arthur Clennam, receives a letter from Flora Finching, the girl he was engaged to twenty years earlier, when she was seventeen and he was not much older. Despite the passage of time, he can’t help imagining her to be exactly the same as she was then and Dickens has a lot of fun describing his disappointment that she has turned into a much larger, more garrulous, silly, sentimental woman. But, being Dickens, the reader is left feeling a great deal of sympathy for both characters: Arthur, for his foolishness at expecting his love not to have changed at all in twenty years and Flora, because the changes in her have so obviously been caused, not merely by the passing of time, but by the disappointment of lost love.

I’m beginning to feel a little bit like that about Town. The new season has started me thinking about past glories, the fixture list is like a letter inviting me back to those good times, to forget the awfulness of recent years under Keane and Jewell. I know rationally that Matt Holland is no longer our captain but there’s a little bit of me that thinks he might run around the pitch applauding the fans. One more time.

It took Mick McCarthy about ten minutes – and this video – to remove any misgivings that I might have had when he was appointed. MM, our seventh manager since we were last relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2001/2 season, appears to have done an excellent job of assembling a competitive squad, spending very little money in the process. We may have lost at Reading but we weren’t outplayed in what must be one of our most testing fixtures this season and, although I’d have loved a run in the Carling Cup, the defeat by Stevenage has been easily forgotten after last Saturday when I enjoyed a match more than I’ve done for…. oh, ages.

But as it was for Dickens’ characters, my long-standing passion is beginning to be strained, the object of my affections has changed, is a bit blowsy, overblown, and full of contradictions. Expensive but also a little cheap. Nice but occasionally a bit nasty. I can still see the thing I adored but there are too many irritants. I may have to make my excuses and…. [ditches strained analogy].

We have written about aspects of ITFC that are a little disappointing here for example – and the independent supporters’ trust, Ipswich Town 1st, has issued a statement about the new ticketing policy here, so I won’t go over old ground. There are many views on the new ITFC and it’s hard to form a definite opinion when you’re not sure of the motives behind the decisions. The new Managing Directors, Symonds and Milne, along with Simon Milton, seem to have improved public relations exponentially. But still, there are things that annoy, nagging doubts… redundancies, bad experiences of customer service, rip-off prices, the tension between a football club as a business and as a club, with supporters who are part of the “family” or “community” according to the PR, but are also there to be exploited by the business, a multi-millionaire owner who is asking hard-pressed working people to stump up for the Academy and the fans, bless ‘em, don’t let him down.

Recently, the club has advertised for three part-time, unpaid “interns.” I’m disappointed once more (and possibly also, disillusioned encore) because I expect more from the club of Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson. Yes, I know other clubs – bigger clubs, more successful clubs, richer clubs – do it too, but I only care about my club, ITFC. I understand the economics too. Unfortunately, for several decades now, we’ve been encouraged to look at the dismal science of economics as if it is a proper science and has inexorable, immutable laws, like the laws of physics (which as we know, ye cannae change). But economics can’t, in my view, be taken out of the context of morality and society which even the Prime Minister has admitted exists after all. And what is the morality of employing people but not paying them?

Apart from morality, there’s actually a rather compelling reason why people should be paid for their work which every devotee of capitalism should be arguing for. It’s obvious really – if people have no wages, or low wages, they can’t spend on the goods and services businesses are offering. It’s counter-productive and short-termism at its worst. Think, Mr. Evans, how many more shirts and ITFC-branded meerkats we’d all buy if we were all living in a high-wage economy instead of scraping around in the back of the sock drawer for the cash to buy that season ticket every year.

The arguments in favour are, of course, that a young person, seeking experience in a difficult labour market will be pleased to have the opportunity to work for nothing in order to gain a foothold into a career in football … and it’s football! Football, which as everyone knows is more important than life or death or affording to eat, itself.

After all, what’s the difference between being an unpaid intern on the American model and volunteering? Well, there’s a considerable difference. I volunteer for two organisations, but I’d never do any work that would or could be done by a paid employee. I’m a qualified librarian but I would never work unpaid in one of Suffolk’s libraries. It’s an insult to the paid workers and makes it more likely that redundancies will be made. Working for free (or for very low wages or zero hours contracts) undermines other working people’s jobs, their conditions of employment and their wages. It may be that many people no longer care about their fellow citizens and only see what will benefit themselves, but in the end, we’ll all suffer. Decent wages, working conditions, paid holidays and sick leave are taken for granted now – or at least they were until recent years – but they were won by the hard-fought campaigns and the real suffering of people in the past. Even the fact that football matches traditionally start at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon goes back to the nineteenth-century Factory Acts which were the result of long campaigning by reformers to allow people a few hours off a week. Because before that, most ordinary workers laboured from dawn until night, seven days a week – and that isn’t living, it’s existing.

Of course, in a world obsessed by “choice” or the illusion of choice, it’s up to the individual to choose whether or not to work without pay – except that it isn’t. Only those with some other means of financial support – the Bank of Mum and Dad, perhaps – can do it. In that sense, it’s discriminatory. Lots of people, I’m sure would love to work for ITFC. Few are going to be able to afford to do so for nothing.

Oh, and according to this website, unpaid internships are illegal.

You can find more information here.

There are lots of difficult things going on in football at the moment, all the result of big business and faceless corporate owners who have little love for or knowledge of the game. Cardiff City, Hull City AFC [please consider signing their petition against the enforced change of their name to Hull City Tigers] and Coventry City all have their own problems. It’s making fans feel alienated from their own clubs, sometimes even causing such tensions that supporters are arguing and fighting one another. It’s not that bad at Portman Road. I sincerely hope that it never is, but there are signs that business and the interests of the owner and shareholders are paramount, more so than football. You may accept that this is right, or it’s part of the modern game and we have to be cynical about it if we want to “succeed.” But success can be measured in many ways.

Once we were highly regarded as a football club which, like our managers, Ramsey and Robson, showed the best side of football, decent, competitive, inclusive. When ITFC were last promoted to the Premier League on 29 May 2000, BBC radio commentator, Pat Murphy, welcomed us back to the top tier with genuine warmth, speaking of a club of “good football, good beer and good people.” I like that description and I’d like to be good again.


Fair Play at the ITFC Academy?

01/08/2013

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The Turnstile Blues’ view of recent developments at the ITFC Academy and how supporters helped change the club’s mind by Gavin Barber

Funny how things change. It wasn’t much more than a year ago – March 2012 to be precise – when Town announced that, despite pressure from supporters, the Club’s Academy would be aiming for Category Two status in the brave new world of the Elite Player Performance Programme. A 5,000-signature petition from the Supporters’ Trust was dismissed as the idealism of people who didn’t understand the intricacies of the system: to pursue Category One status, we were told at the time, would risk returning the club to administration.

Turns out that we, the fans, were right after all. This week Town have launched the Academy Association, a new initiative designed to raise the standards of the Academy to reach Category One. In the publicity surrounding the launch, Simon Milton even made specific mention of the Trust’s petition as he urged supporters to back the fundraising drive associated with the initiative.

For Ipswich Town to be pursuing Category One status for its Academy is in all ways A Good Thing. All of the things that supporters said at the time of the original deliberation – that it’s the best investment to make in the long-term future of the club, and that it’s at the heart of what ITFC is about – are now part of the club’s own pronouncements.

It’s also A Good Thing because, just maybe, it signifies that the club is starting to respect the views and wisdom of its supporters, and that’s testament to the determination of those supporters in continuing to ask questions, and to knock at what previously seemed to be a firmly-locked door.

So it’s an opportune moment to recognise this new-found spirit of what appears to be a more honest dialogue with supporters, and ask some more questions.

Firstly, whilst we all applaud increased investment in the Academy, it’s not immediately obvious why supporters are being asked to stump up one-third of the cost of upgrading, and the ongoing running costs. It seems that Marcus Evans has – very wisely though not before time – decided that money spent on the Academy is a better focus for his investment than chucking £18,000-per-week wage packets at underachieving “professionals”. Financial Fair Play places no limit on the amount of money that can be invested in Academies, so at a time when ticket prices are being increased and cutbacks made which affect the quality of customer service that the club provides to supporters, and at a time when many supporters are struggling to meet the cost of the investments that they already make in the club through season tickets, it’s not clear why fans are being asked to provide an additional subsidy.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the business case which the Supporters Trust put forward for pursuing a Category One Academy in the first place, noted that over 10 years the club had made over £35m in transfer fees from the sales of Academy graduates. Should ITFC’s Category One Academy produce the next Gareth Bale, who gets sold for £90m, it’ll be ITFC’s primary creditor – that’d be Marcus Evans then – who’ll benefit financially: another reason why the “you wanted it, now you need to pay for it” approach sits uncomfortably with some. An alternative idea, for which my fellow Turnstile Blues contributor Alistair Rattray takes the credit, would be to run Academy investment as a co-operative, whereby supporters who contribute get a return on their investment when Academy products are sold on for big fees. Supporters could then choose whether to invest that back into the Academy or not.

Secondly, there’s a wider context which I find it impossible to ignore. As has been written about extensively on these pages and elsewhere, Ipswich Town is a club carrying massive debt, whose ownership structure, and in particular its relationship with other parts of the Marcus Evans Group, is distinctly unclear. I have enough internal struggles, frankly, in deciding whether or not to part with £400+ for a season ticket – but at least I know that I get something out of that, i.e. admission to home games. As mentioned above, it was only last year that ITFC were telling us that Category One status could risk putting the Club back into administration. That, plainly, was complete nonsense. I struggle with the idea of donating money to an organisation which so recently tried to scaremonger and deceive supporters about exactly the same entity as it’s now asking for financial help with. An acknowledgement of this, as the start of a genuinely open dialogue with supporters and genuine transparency about the running of the club, would be a more meaningful step towards regaining the trust of this potential investor – and really would be a sign that things have changed.


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…’


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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