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.