US investors 'on verge' of buying Ipswich Town and appointing Paul Cook as manager

Ipswich Town owner Marcus Evans has had his say on the League One salary cap. Picture:STEVEWALLER

Ipswich Town owner Marcus Evans. Photo: Steve Waller - Credit: Archant

A group of American investors are said to be 'on the verge' of buying Ipswich Town for £17.5m and will quickly replace manager Paul Lambert with Paul Cook, according to The Athletic.

The website, which has roots in the US, reports that the takeover is led by Los Angeles-based businessman Brett Johnson and includes Berke Bakay, the founder of Bakay Capital, a Phoenix-based hedge fund.

It's said that Blues owner Marcus Evans has been 'in talks with various parties for at least six months' and is 'understood to be writing off his debt' (which was at £96.3m according to the last set of accounts for 2018/19).

The Athletic reports that Johnson’s group would like Bristol City chief executive Mark Ashton to take over the day-to-day running of Ipswich but he is understood to be happy in Bristol for the time being.

Johnson said in an television interview earlier this year that he was 'fairly close to investing in an English' club. Eagle-eyed fans, having seen rumours of his interest, have already spotted that he had 'liked' Ipswich Town's goal tweet from Tuesday night's 1-0 win at Hull and that Ipswich Town and Bristol City are among only a handful of teams he follows on Twitter.

It's also said that Lambert is set to be replaced by former Wigan Athletic boss Cook.

The EADT and Ipswich Star understands that strong words were exchanged during a face-to-face meeting that took place between Evans and Lambert last night.

That conversation came little more than a week on from Lambert having publicly stated that 'everything' with the club was wrong and that he wouldn't protect Evans in same way he did Randy Lerner at Aston Villa.

Lambert, speaking at this morning's press conference ahead of tomorrow's League One clash with Doncaster Rovers, insisted that the meeting 'wasn't interesting' and cryptically added that it was up to Evans 'if he wanted to say something'.

It's understood that Evans has close connections with Cook, with the 53-year-old having made it clear he would be keen on taking the job if it became available.

Cook's last job was in charge of Wigan. The Liverpudlian guided them to the League One title and had them on course for a mid-table Championship finish before they went into administration and were relegated.

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That led to his resignation, with it understood that the Latics could be due some compensation if Cook takes another job within a set timeframe.

It's been reported that he recently turned down both the Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff jobs.

Lambert was handed a new five-year deal last January, but it's understood that there are clauses within in that contract that would limit how much his pay-off would be. 


Who is Brett Johnson?


He is the founder and chairman of Fortuitous Partners, a sports investment fund, and Benevolent Capital Partners, a private equity firm with investments in manufacturing, property and sport.

In 2015, Johnson bought a minority stake in Arizona United, a new team in American soccer’s second tier, and became the club’s co-chairman and president. His soon made former Ipswich stalwart Frank Yallop the manager.

Within a year, the team had been rebranded as Phoenix Rising. The ownership group grew to include American record producer Diplo and Pete Wentz.

Phoenix Rising went on to move into their own 10,000-seat stadium. Didier Drogba, who finished his playing career there at the age of 40, has a minority stake in the club. The club has ambitions to join the MLS.

As well as his investment in Phoenix Rising, Johnson is also launching a USL team in Rhode Island and has a small stake in Danish side Helsingor.

In July last year, a company called Gamechanger 20 Ltd was registered at Companies House with Johnson among the directors, along with Mike O’Leary, who was part of the takeover at Oxford United in 2014 (which was led by Mark Ashton).

Also among the directors is Berke Bakay, principal owner, governor and co-chairman of Phoenix Rising, who made his money from Kona Grill, a restaurant chain.


Who is Mark Ashton?

In January 2016, he was appointed chief operating officer at Bristol City, assuming control of all day-to-day football operations, having previously worked with the Championship club in a consultancy capacity.

Ashton was credited as being the driving force behind the club securing Category Two academy status and establishing a successful talent identification and recruitment system.

Previously, he had roles at Oxford United and Irish club Watford, having been a director at West Brom for 14 years before that.

Speaking at the time of Ashton's appointment in 2016, Robins owner Steve Lansdown said: "We made sure we didn't lose contact with Mark after he had done such an excellent job for us in establishing the systems which were used to such good effect in the 2014 summer transfer window.

"We are delighted we have managed to persuade him to join us again, this time on a permanent basis. This appointment is a further step in our long-term strategy to build the best on and off the pitch specialist expertise across our whole group."

Bristol City went on a 2019 pre-season tour of the US, with Lansdown and Ashton meeting with USL club owners during the trip.


What's led us to this point?

In December 2007, Marcus Evans paid approximately £6m for the club’s £32m debt to Barclays Bank and Norwich Union. He invested a further £12m via a share issue that left him with an 87.5 per cent stake.

We all know the general story of his 13 years at the club - he pumped a lot of money in over the first few years in an attempt to quickly reach the Premier League, saw it wasted by the likes of Roy Keane and Paul Jewell, then slowly started to reduce his annual investments at a time where other owners in the game were getting richer around him.

A 'death by a thousands cuts' decline was accelerated when Mick McCarthy left and inexperienced replacement Paul Hurst tried to do too much too soon in a damaging transfer window.

Now the club finds itself in League One for a second season - it's lowest point since the 1950s.


What's Evans said about selling?

In January 2019, Evans gave a rare interview to the EADT and Ipswich Star.

Having previously said, via the club website, that the club wasn't for sale, he was asked whether he might look to attract investors instead.

He said: "It’s quite difficult with a football club. It’s not like a normal business because a football club tends to incur losses every year.

"If you have partners each person has got to be prepared to put a certain amount of money in every year and therefore there are complexities if, after a period of time, one of those partners decides they don’t want to put the money in and the other one does want to put the money in. What agreements have you got if one puts in more than the other? How does that affect the ownership structure? It’s not that easy to have shared investment in a continual loss-making business.

"If you own a club like Arsenal where you’ve got regular profits coming in then it’s just like running a normal business where you have different shareholders.

"But even at those levels football clubs are quite proprietorial.

"Managers have told me about clubs who couldn’t get a decision made because there was a committee or a board. They say ‘we couldn’t get anything done’.

"They say ‘the great thing about working with yourself Marcus is that it’s – yes or no? - we have a conversation, we’re finished 10 minutes later and we move on’.

"So I think it would be hard (to bring in investors).

"No – definitely not for sale, I definitely want to still be here and get us to where I planned right from the beginning.

"But as I said on the club website the other day, if somebody had a sustainable plan of high-risk, long-term investment I couldn’t not listen to that.

"But the point is there are so many owners who come in, chuck 20 million at it one year, 20 million at it the next year and they’re gone within three years or they cut the tap off completely.

"There’s only probably one or two clubs - I won’t mention who they are, but you can probably work it out – where the owners have consistently thrown money at it for the last seven or eight years.

"The one I’m thinking about is still sitting just around the play-offs and still hasn’t been promoted.

"If you had somebody who came along and was going to put in a sustainable long-term commitment, rather than ‘look I’m going to chuck a load of money at it for the two or three years and see what’s going to happen’, you’d have to consider that. It would be unreasonable of me not to do so."

Asked if there had been interest in buying the club along the way, he added: "There’s always interest, all the time. You get people calling up and most of those people are not credible.

"The one or two that are credible, that I decided not to proceed with, bought other clubs and have now since gone out of those clubs having done exactly what I said.

"I won’t mention which two particular owners they are, but they no longer own the football clubs they said they were going to do amazing things with.

"They chucked some money at it for two years, it all went wrong, and one got relegated to League One. So it’s probably a good thing we didn’t get involved with those people.

"Not that they are bad people, by the way, but as I suggested before – that strategy doesn’t work.

"If I just wanted to walk away from it I could have done that.

"But you can’t help becoming very emotionally tied to a club that you’ve put so much effort into. You’ve put so much emotional energy into trying to make the thing work.

"The managers find it incredibly hard emotionally when it doesn’t work out. But they can leave. Not the owner. The owner is still here and has to pick up the pieces.

"You’re the guy who has been knocked out by Muhammad Ali and you’ve got to find a way of picking yourself up for the next fight.

"When you put that kind of emotional energy into it, yeah, of course you’re incredibly attached to it. You’re attached to everything Ipswich and trying to make the thing work."


The Covid-19 factor

Marcus Evans' empire is based heavily around corporate hospitality and business summits - two industries that will have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Just from a football perspective, it was estimated that the last year could have cost him £10m alone.

The recent scrapping of the salary cap may well been having a bearing on his thoughts over a sale too. It's understood that if the Championship had adopted a cap of their own, then Evans' plan would have been to get the club promoted and then go toe-to-toe financially in what would have been a far more level playing field.

With the PFA having won their case over wage limits though, that is no longer a possibility.


The price

The Athletic says that a £17.5m price tag 'will raise some eyebrows in the industry' given it is 'not much less' than what Kril Louis-Dreyfus has just paid for his shares at Sunderland.

Sunderland, unlike Ipswich, own their stadium. Evans owns the bricks and mortar of Portman Road (not in the best state at present), but the land is on a long-term lease from Ipswich Borough Council.

Evans does own the club's Playford Road training complex though and recently spent more than £100k on improvements there - including the installation of a new perimeter fence and state of the art gym.

In terms of the player assets, the likes of homegrown players Flynn Downes, Luke Woolfenden and Andre Dozzell would lead the way. The vast majority of the squad are due to be out of contract this summer though.

It's understood that Evans has expressed in the past that, as part of any sale, he would expect to receive a cut of any future success the club might have under new ownership. 

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