Ipswich Town: Where did it go wrong?

When Mick McCarthy’s resignation as Ipswich Town boss was announced last season, the news was met with a sigh of relief. Despite an unlikely play-off place in 2015, many Ipswich fans felt that the football being played under McCarthy offered little in the way of imagination. In fact, between January and March of the 2017/18 season, fans witnessed a barren spell of form, having failed to score in over 8 hours of football.

“That’s my last game. I’m out of here.”

Tensions were already high that season, especially since the decision was made to increase the price of season tickets. Despite shrugging off the vocal supporters, Mick’s frustrations were mounting. Describing the fans as ‘a disgrace’, McCarthy felt he was being taken for granted, he believed he deserved more respect.

 ‘I get sick to death,’ McCarthy said. ‘We play one bad half and we’re all s**t and we can’t play. The manager doesn’t care. Get somebody who cares.’ ‘I’m a boring c***, somebody called me last week. I wish they would call it to my face on my own because his pint of lager he would have been wearing it’

Ipswich’s away game visit to Griffin Park marked the final straw. McCarthy, who had already announced that he was to leave the club at the end of the season, faced rancorous abuse from fans. According to an interview with the Daily Mail, he was asked to leave “via the back door” as there were fans waiting to throw beer at him.

“Of course, me being me, I said to the police ‘f*** em, I’m going out the front door’. They said ‘well, if you do we might get covered in beer; we might get hit with bottles’.

Despite previous confirmation that he was to leave at the end of the season, McCarthy announced his departure as Ipswich manager following a 1-0 victory over Barnsley. After being quizzed about the negative reaction surrounding the substitution of youngster Barry Cotter’s, he retaliated – “I won’t have to listen to that again, that’s my last game. I’m out of here.”

Onlookers were left bewildered by the departure. After five years at the club, with little in the way of finances, the manager who stabilized the mess left by Paul Jewell and Roy Keane had left the club. Many were quick to jump onto to Ipswich, with football villain Chris Sutton asking the fans to ‘be careful what they wished for.’ But if you ask the Ipswich faithful, then many would argue that the club would be on a downward trajectory regardless of whether he stayed.                                         

A New Era

Town fans wanted a breath of fresh air. Preferably, they wanted a young manager to take over, somebody with ambition for the club who wasn’t afraid to play expansive football. Reports had linked both Frank Lampard and Jack Ross to the job. But after months of speculation, and a ‘very extensive search’, it was announced that Shrewsbury boss Paul Hurst would be McCarthy’s predecessor.

Hurst’s appointment was initially met with a lot of optimism. Owner Marcus Evans also spoke publicly for the first time, revealing a five-step plan, which included ambitions for attractive football and stable management. It was also made clear by Evans that Hurst would not be spending huge amounts of money on players. It would be his responsibility to spend shrewdly in the transfer market, something which McCarthy had previously built a foundation from.

Hurst initially underestimated the jump between the Championship and League One. He believed that the jump was insignificant, stating that the level of professionalism at any football club was the same regardless. This was also reflected by the signings he bought in, all from lower league opposition. From the 11 players Hurst had bought in during the Summer, only two of them went on to establish themselves starting positions later in the season. A lack of Championship experience and balance in the squad was evident. Jonathan Walters was the only player to be bought in [on loan] with any real pedigree; he was one Ipswich’s many gambles. However, due to an achillies injury sustained during a goalless draw with Bolton, Walters was sent back to Burnley, facing six months on the sidelines.

Important players were allowed to leave. Martyn Waghorn, Joe Garner and Adam Webster all departed for reasonable money, whereas seasoned veteran David McGoldrick was let go on a free transfer, going on to score 12 goals in Sheffield’s promotion challenge this season.

“I was waiting because I was kind of open to staying there but the new manager came in and said ‘no, not for him’. That was in June, so I started to look around” told McGoldrick. “It was a kick up the a***. This was where I was at. I wasn’t a golden player at a team like Ipswich any more. I had to go and prove myself.”

To make matters worse, Ipswich were not wise in the transfer market. Janoi Donacien was bought in to the club for £750,000 from Accrington Stanley, in a move which would see him loaned into the club due to work permit issues, before completing the signing in January. The 25-year-old struggled to feature for the Tractor Boys, and was eventually loaned back to his former club, much to the delight of Stanley chairman Peter Marsden.

Sliding Doors

Town’s early defeat to Rotherham, as described by Blue Monday Podcast host Richard Woodward, may have marked a crossroads for Ipswich under Paul Hurst. Despite dominating the game, having the main share of possession, Town failed to take their chances, conceding late on to a Michael Smith goal. A loss in the league cup against Exeter also saw Hurst call out multiple players during a post-match interview, causing a split between the dressing room. Despite a stalemate against Norwich in the East Anglian Derby, Town went 13 games without registering a victory. A miraculous 3-2 away win against Swansea proved to be a false dawn. Paul Hurst was eventually given the sack after a run of uninspiring performances.

Hurst was vocal about his departure, stating that success would not come to the club unless changes were to be made. He also accused the players of not getting behind him, stating that many of them were looking for excuses. Hurst also revealed that his relationship with Evans was difficult due to a lack in communication:

“We spoke on the phone but with him not being around to speak to in person, it meant that there was a little bit of a void.”


Paul Lambert is a Blue

Paul Lambert was appointed Ipswich manager four days after Hurst had been given the sack. A vocal minority were sceptical about the appointment, with fans worried given his previous history with Norwich. The Scot had previously managed the Canaries into the Premier League after back-to-back promotions.

“I can’t wait to get going and I’ll be using all my experience – and give everything I’ve got for Ipswich Town,” said Lambert. “I know about the history of the club, what a fantastic football club it is and I’m proud to be the manager here.”

Lambert’s first game in charge was against Preston, and finished in a draw. Preston striker Paul Gallagher was forced to play the final 15 minutes of the game goal due to goalkeeper Chris Maxwell’s sending off. Despite losing his next four run of games under Town, the fans had bought in to his passion and style.

Lambert went through the effort of inviting club legends George Burley, Terry Butcher and John Wark down to Playford Road in a move which went down well with fans. The legends were given the opportunity to watch training for a few hours, with George Burley stating that it had been the first he had been asked to come down to the training ground.

Butcher praised Lambert for ‘doing all the right things’. Lambert had gone through the effort of talking to former players and managers, learning more about the club’s detailed history. Skipper Luke Chambers also expressed his delight at the newfound positivity to the press, stating that the atmosphere had changed for the better. This correlated off the pitch, as well. Town supporters on the coach to Blackburn received a surprise letter from Lambert, who as a personal thank you for their support, decided to pay for travel. Attendances began soaring, with Town’s 1-0 win against Rotherham in January being watched by a crowd of 20,000.

Despite negative results on the pitch, the blame was put towards Lambert – many had already accepted the club’s fate, and believed that much of damage was out of Lambert’s control. Lambert’s first January transfer window saw the arrival of multiple signings. Notable transfers included Will Keane (Hull) and James Collins, who both arrived at the club looking for game time. Keane rejuvenated Ipswich’s strike force. He scored three important goals, all of which secured important results. Collins also led Ipswich to only their second home win of the season, before being forced to the sidelines after injuring his hamstring. Despite also sustaining an injury early on, general manager Lee O’Neil had expressed his interest in signing Will Keane on a permanent. Another player who revitalised Town’s attacking quartet was former Brentford playmaker Alan Judge, a player who provided the club with much-needed creativity.                                               

“We’re basically down, what next?”

Paul Lambert expressed his desire for a pre-season with Ipswich, stating that many of his new signings were lacking in match sharpness. Most of these players had not been given game time by their previous clubs, with many of them needing time to get up to speed with the rigours of the Championship. Lambert realised that many of his signings had to be made with an eye on next season. Captain Luke Chambers had also signed a new deal at the club, keeping him at the club until 2021.

A positive to take away from this season Is the fact that the youngsters have been given a chance. Jack Lankaster, Josh Emmanuel, Myles Kenlock and Idris El Mizouni have all been given game time for the first team. According to O’Neil, it is about giving the youngsters an opportunity to perform without pressure – “they’re going to need support around them.”

Despite Town’s current position,however, Lambert is insistent that the club will not give up hope until relegation is mathematically confirmed. Regardless of relegation, the Scot has pledged his commitment to the club, stating that he plans on staying at the club regardless of relegation.

“Marcus made it clear he wants me and my staff here next season whatever happens over the next four months, and I made it clear we want to be here so it was a pretty easy conversation to have,” he said.

The damage has already been done. The final leg of the season gives Ipswich the opportunity to revitalise their performances on the pitch. With positive results against both Bristol and West Bromwich Albion, Town fans are already anticipating next season. Surely Town will bounce straight back up, right?

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