Royle: 'I've loved being here'

Departing Ipswich Town manager Joe Royle took time out from an emotional last day at the helm to open his heart to Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover.WHEN the latest - and one of the most colourful - chapters in the amazing story of Ipswich Town Football Club came to an end, the setting could hardly have been more appropriate.

DEPARTING Ipswich Town manager Joe Royle took time out from an emotional last day at the helm to open his heart to Evening Star editor NIGEL PICKOVER.

WHEN the latest - and one of the most colourful - chapters in the amazing story of Ipswich Town Football Club came to an end, the setting could hardly have been more appropriate.

The stage for a dramatic, final, encounter between soccer manager and soccer chairman was the ever-busy Crewe railway station, Cheshire.

Here, where millions of journeys have begun or finished, where travellers' dreams have gone on to flourish or die, came the “end game” for football legend Joe Royle and Blues supremo, David Sheepshanks.

In warm spring sunshine, the Victorian station - one of Britain most historic rail locations - gave an impressive backdrop for the meeting. Over the decades thousands of key moments have been enacted here. Spooks from London have grabbed a sandwich while meeting their regional contacts, executives have met job seekers for interviews, lovers have dashed between the 12 platforms and families have been re-united. But has there ever been a teary-eyed parting of the ways between two football powerhouses?

Travelling 180 miles north by train from London's Euston station came an anxious Sheepshanks, the man who has continued to survive as chairman in the pressure-cooker world that is cash-strapped Ipswich Town in 2006. Travelling 30 miles south from his mansion in Ormskirk, Merseyside, came Royle.

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The pair, who had met in Ipswich on Wednesday, had agreed to finalise their dealings at Crewe, over lunch. The atmosphere was businesslike, yet warm, and once the details had been agreed, the final farewell was poignant.

For two of football's best-known figures had tears in their eyes as their working relationship ended, a far cry from the back-slapping and smiles that greeted the triumphant unveiling of a new manager for Ipswich Town in October 2002.

Then, Sheepshanks and key directors had met up with Royle in a top London Hotel - to rubber-stamp the signing as manager of one of the big names in British soccer. The ex-England star, who had successfully managed his home-town club of Everton, as well as Oldham and Manchester City, was now the experienced hands that Sheepshanks and his colleagues needed.

One-time hero George Burley had been axed … and Big Joe was seen as the man to take Town straight back into the top flight. No matter that he had once played for Town's arch-rivals Norwich, Big Joe was the man for the moment.

Whilst the highs and lows of the Championship play-offs in recent years have given Royle more despair than joy, he loved his Suffolk life from day one and stresses he has “no regrets.”

“It-s been a fabulous time, a roller-coaster ride, but I have had some marvellous times in Suffolk and met some of the greatest people you could hope to meet in football,” he told me.

“When the chairman and I met, in Ipswich and in Crewe over lunch, we decided that it was I the best interests of both parties that we go our separate ways. I can tell you there has been no animosity and this is all very amicable.”

Royle - quick to send his admiration and affection to his colleagues and the players at Portman Road - has had his frustrations in his 42-month tenure. “Going so close in last year's play-offs was so hard to take, especially after we had led the division at Christmas time,” he said.

Off the field, Royle has had to operate within a framework of stringent financial constraint after the club's lapse into administration and its escape from it. “I've been able to cut the players' wage bill down to a quarter of what it was and that has helped the club's finances hugely,” he said.

For a man who contributed so much to Town's financial stability, one remaining sore point, was that he didn't have a war-chest, perhaps just £1 million, to splash out on a player. He's always believed that such a sum would have propelled Town into the top flight, particularly last season. The money, had it been there, would have landed Town a top striker … who would have provided the firepower that wasn't there at the end of a long 2004-5 season.

That's the time when Royle, in hindsight, believes he should have made the decision to leave Ipswich. “Looking back, that would have been the right time to go. With class players leaving us (Bent, Miller, Kuqi and Davies to name four) it was always going to be a fight and so it proved to be.”

Royle has always felt that sections of the North Stand have never taken to him. “Some of the hard-core fans have never liked me, the Norwich connection being the issue,” he said. “But I've got on with most of the fans, most of the time,”he said.

“Suffolk people are a fantastic bunch and I have loved being here,” said the man who has lived in lovely rural locations at Nacton and Hintlesham.

Royle has been a big supporter of charity in the last three years, helping raise sums for flood victims in Bangladesh and for children under the wing of Disability Care Enterprise in Suffolk. Along the way he has been a big fan of local Indian cuisine and has been spotted a meal or two in the Bombay Nite in Walton, Felixstowe, or a snack at The Alex on the seafront.

“I've had wonderful times here and fantastic memories but now is the right time to move on for both club and for myself, I'll still be connected to football in some way but I've made no decisions and I always remember I told Janet that Ipswich was going to be my last full-time job,” he said.

The timing of the departure - whilst a shock for some fans - was right for both parties. Another right was how the harmonious parting was achieved, with both parties happy and both ready begin a new chapter, free from rancour and bitterness.

In many ways, this was a departure in the style of a different footballing age -and football is all the better for it.

Joe Royle, who grabbed the moment when he made his decision this week, will always be welcome at Portman Road and always be ready to give words of advice to his successor in the Town hotseat.

One thing is certain. Royle - who has one of the biggest contacts books in football - will know the successful candidate and very quickly be on the phone to wish him well.