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Not all fans convinced by chairman

PUBLISHED: 23:10 04 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:42 03 March 2010

SUCH was the enthusiastic response to last night's meeting that the venue had to be changed.

Originally scheduled to take place in the Robert Cross Hall, where barely 200 could have squeezed in, it was instead switched to the Corn Exchange's Grand Hall to enable more than twice as many to be accommodated.

SUCH was the enthusiastic response to last night's meeting that the venue had to be changed.

Originally scheduled to take place in the Robert Cross Hall, where barely 200 could have squeezed in, it was instead switched to the Corn Exchange's Grand Hall to enable more than twice as many to be accommodated.

David Sheepshanks' brazen hijacking of the meeting clearly swelled the audience, with large numbers heading for the exit door after the chairman had been accorded a generous standing ovation that must have taken even him by surprise.

His supporters leapt to their feet and applauded, but they failed to drown out several jeers, while half the crowd stayed seated and were loathe to join in – as near, it seems, as you will get to a protest in these parts.

Sheepshanks' glitzy presentation, varying little from that offered to shareholders in the plush surroundings of the club's Galleria restaurant just two hours earlier, lacked substance.

It told us nothing we didn't already know, too few serious questions were asked of him and too many supporters failed to grasp the facts first time round.

This led to too much repetition, taking up valuable time, and a number of fans whose arms were raised throughout the 70-minute session are still waiting for their opportunity to quiz the chairman.

In my mind he was given an easy ride. He is clearly determined to tough it out, which is his prerogative, and I do not blame him for attempting to retain his privileged position.

If his up-front approach was designed to impress supporters and critics alike, it could be hailed a success.

However, if the purpose of confronting fans was to enlighten them and put them firmly in the picture, it was an abject failure.

He talked of misinformation via the media and vowed to "dispel a few myths", yet neatly dodged questions relating to the scale of the club's financial crisis, other than to claim that most reports were greatly exaggerated.

And he adhered stubbornly, and not a little naively in my view, to his belief that no one could have possibly anticipated that a club finishing fifth one season could be relegated the next.

Not surprisingly, he had done his homework, quoting a Premier League source to confirm there had been no more spectacular fall from grace in the history of the competition.

Sheepshanks pointed the way forward and suggested the club would be out of administration early in the close season. "We will, we will, we will," he insisted, his fist clenched as he emphasised the point.

He was entitled to think it was a case of mission accomplished as he uttered one last rallying call – "let's stick together" – before exiting stage right to a round of applause, followed by that standing ovation.

But while some were clearly won over, almost as many sceptics remained seated, their frustration at not being any the wiser overwhelming any desire to join in Sheepshanks' send-off.

Peter Morris spoke for those who remain unconvinced that the chairman should be given a second chance when he said he was totally disillusioned with the situation.

Sheepshanks and his entourage had departed long before Mr Morris voiced his concern during the second half of the meeting, given over to debating the merits or otherwise of forming a supporters' trust.

Mr Morris is a 47-year-old former investment banker who now operates his own consultancy in London.

An ex-Manchester United supporter, he moved to the area eight years ago and immediately adopted Ipswich as his club.

In that time he has only missed one home game and one away fixture, and his annual investment in Ipswich Town extends far beyond the purchase of four season tickets for himself and his family.

Mr Morris launched a hard-hitting attack on Sheepshanks, explaining: "I have listened to him too many times. He does what he does very well.

"He has a power base to protect and I think he has a dictatorial approach to the way he runs the club.

"Mr Sheepshanks enjoyed Ipswich's promotion more than anyone. It elevated him to the status that he wanted and he's done very well out of it.

"Nobody can understand how we have gone from riches to rags, yet people blindly support him. I will not – I want to see him fall on his sword.

"The way I see it, the supporters have given him the privilege of allowing him to be custodian of the club, yet we are made to feel privileged at being able to come into the ground."

Mr Morris is backing the bid to launch a supporters' trust and went on: "We have got to be heard. We must get to the administrator and open the club up, even if the board would prefer to keep it closed.

"Mr Sheepshanks doesn't want any supporters' representatives anywhere near the board. He made that absolutely clear as part of his stage-managed appearance.

"Where was the humility? All he has done is blame everyone else, in particular George Burley, and I don't think that is fair.

"I would have far more time for him if he said 'Okay, I messed up and got carried away'."

Mr Morris urged Town fans to unite behind the supporters' trust, adding: "It has a real value if the people back it. The time has come for us to stand up and take control of our own club, and I can see it happening."

Phil Ham, who set the ball rolling, was delighted with last night's turnout, admitting Mr Sheepshanks' presentation had swelled the numbers.

He said: "The decision has been made to form a trust and we now have to take it one step at a time. But this is a huge step in the right direction.

"A Trust will give supporters a more tangible, collective voice and a feeling that the club really is their own.

"It is not about buckets at the turnstiles and collecting, say, a couple of hundred pounds to hand over to the club and knowing it goes straight into the pocket of already overpaid players."

The power supporters' trusts can wield is amply demonstrated by the fact that they have won power struggles to run lower division clubs York City and Port Vale.

It was reported last night that a similar body at Cambridge United has become the club's third largest shareholder and even kept it alive last year.

Directors unable to find the cash to pay wages to the end of June approached the trust and in return for their life-saving £50,000 they were able to substantially increase their shareholding in the club.

It was also revealed that Leicester City fans were able to organise a meeting last year with the club's administrator, Nick Dargan, who is now overseeing the salvage operation under way at Portman Road.

Simon Binns of Supporters Direct, a government initiative funded by public money and responsible for establishing supporters' trusts at 80 clubs around the country, said: "The Leicester fans found Mr Dargan was quite an approachable chap.

"They just rang him up. Experience says he will be pleased to sit round the table and discuss the situation."

Mr Binns added: "Of the 80 trusts, 38 have substantial shareholdings at their clubs. The days of fans as nothing more than turnstile fodder are coming to an end."

The meeting also broadcast one or two horror stories, in particular the situation in which a number of Huddersfield Town fans now find themselves.

Mr Binns said: "They paid up front last year for four-year season tickets. Now the club is in administration they will have to pay again this year, next year and the year after – always assuming Huddersfield Town are still in existence, of course."

Something, perhaps, for Ipswich fans to ponder before snapping up the 20-year season ticket package Mr Sheepshanks suggested as one way of providing an instant cash injection at Portman Road.


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