‘The last thing I want is for him to throw all his money away’ – Milne on Marcus Evans’ ownership of Ipswich Town
PUBLISHED: 13:54 31 March 2020 | UPDATED: 13:54 31 March 2020
Ian Milne was managing director of Ipswich Town for nearly six years. In part two of this interview with STUART WATSON, he reflects on his own legacy and discusses the future under owner Marcus Evans.
Watching Ian Milne in the directors’ box was sometimes more entertaining than the game itself. You’re not meant to jump for joy in such company, but he did – literally.
“Working for Ipswich Town for six years was like a dream come true for someone who grew up such a big football fan,” says the 67-year-old legal specialist, who is now semi-retired following his departure from Portman Road last January.
“I got to meet people like Alex Ferguson, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Prince William, Arsene Wenger, Trevor Brooking... I have to include all the Ipswich guys too, people like Terry Butcher, Kevin Beattie, George Burley and Johnny Wark. My God, if John Wark was a player now how big would he be? At times I really had to pinch myself.”
That level of boyish enthusiasm can’t be faked. A Chelsea fan growing up, Milne quickly caught the Town bug after joining the board following Marcus Evans’ takeover. He was subsequently promoted to managing director in the summer of 2013, initially alongside fellow Marcus Evans Group employee Jonathan Symonds, to fill the void left by Simon Clegg.
His spell at the helm coincided with Mick McCarthy’s lengthy stint as manager, the ill-fated spell of Paul Hurst and ended midway through a bruising relegation campaign.
“Since you asked me to do this interview I’ve been thinking what I did for the club other than just thoroughly enjoying the experience,” he says, with a sheepish laugh.
“I find it hard talking about my personal legacy because not one person is bigger than a football club. Ipswich Town has a proud heritage and I’m just proud to have played a small part in the club’s history.”
Press for what behind-the-scenes achievements he took most pride in, Milne continues: “Well, first of all, I have to say that I worked with a great gang behind the scenes – people like Mark Andrews (finance director), Sally Webb (former club secretary), Clare Morley (former executive assistant), Lee Hyde (director of retail operations), Mick Warden (head of security), Rosie (Richardson, director of sales). We’d all work together.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is the FanZone. That’s proved to be a great success through thick and thin. I’m also proud of the improvements we made to our online services, keeping up with technology, and what we did with adidas and the retail side of things.
“I was involved with the Suffolk Community Foundation and the Samaritans, a cause close to my heart. It was great to get involved with EACH (East Anglia’s Childrens’ Hospices). Towards the end of my tenure we started doing some work around mental health issues that young people face, which I’m pleased to see has continued.
“On the football side of things, I think we made big progress on improving the academy set-up and bringing it closer to the first team.”
Milne, like Clegg before and Lee O’Neill since, was often accused of simply being a human shield for owner Marcus Evans. It’s true that he often couldn’t answer questions with any great substance given he was not the chief decision maker, but that never stopped him from being accessible. Not once did he duck an interview request or supporters’ meeting.
“That’s nice of you to say,” he says. “I tried hard to embed myself in Suffolk. Football is a great social leveller – it doesn’t matter who you are, a billionaire, a celebrity or, I don’t know, a health worker to pick just one example. Football connects people and I loved that.
“For someone nervous speaking publicly or giving presentations, as I definitely was, doing the interviews and meeting people was daunting. Quickly I got used to it though because I realised I was just talking about football, something I love. And it helped that everyone was so friendly and accommodating. The kindness of people in Suffolk really helped.”
Milne left the club last January, Evans having decided he wanted to take a more hands-on role. O’Neill was later promoted into the newly created position of general manager of football operations.
“Me leaving was all very amicable,” says Milne. “I’m being completely honest. There are no nasty dark secrets, there were no rows. I’ve got great respect for Marcus and appreciated he was making decisions in the best interest of the club.
“Marcus has been great with me. He’s said ‘come along and don’t be a stranger’. As you know, I’m still a regular at games.
“I do worry Lee has got a lot of expectations on him and I’ve told him I’m there to offer support and mentorship should he want it. He has rung me up a few times.”
He adds: “I’m a full-fledged Ipswich fan now. I love the club. It will always have a place in my heart.
“I can understand the fans’ frustrations. It’s a great club, a big club, a club that shouldn’t be in League One. We need to get out of this league as quickly as possible because the town and the county needs that.
“And I really believe it will be successful again. The club will build itself up again. It will be a great team again.”
Next time you’re at Portman Road and Ipswich score, take a glance at the directors’ box and look out for Milne’s reaction.
“I don’t think I disgraced myself,” he says, reflecting on his tenure one last time. “Maybe we didn’t live up to expectations during my time there, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying or caring, believe me.”
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Football’s financial landscape changed beyond recognition, the Premier League dream more distant than ever, money haemorrhaging by the millions... If Marcus Evans knew then what he did now, would he still have bought Ipswich Town Football Club back at the end of 2007?
Milne, who worked for Evans in various roles for more than 20 years, pauses to think.
“I’m 99% sure, yes, that he would still have gone into it,” he replies. “Honestly, he loves the club. I’ve no doubt he has some regrets. It’s easy with hindsight, as I keep saying, but that time at the start of 2015 when the team was doing so well was a missed opportunity to invest more heavily. That January transfer season does happen very quickly though.”
It’s true that transfer fees received have not been directly reinvested into transfer fees for new recruits, with Evans’ financial input having drastically been reduced in the second half of his 12-year spell in charge.
However, the fact remains that without Evans’ level of investment the club would be in trouble in this heavy loss making business. The wage bill has risen every year and the club’s debt is now close to £100m – all of it owed exclusively to the owner rather than outside lenders. He would, almost certainly, have to write that off in its entirety at the point he decides to lick his wounds and walk away.
The sticking point for a sale could, potentially, be negotiations over future success clauses (i.e. if Ipswich get promoted in X years, Evans would want X). Right now though, that’s a moot point. As he’s said himself, there aren’t exactly a queue of bidders beating a path up the A12.
In short, Evans is stuck with Ipswich Town, as much as Ipswich Town are stuck with him.
“If someone comes along with an offer, and shows they could put a lot more money in that he does, and could convince Marcus they were right for Ipswich Town, then I am sure he would sell,” says Milne. “I’m not saying anything there that he hasn’t already said himself. At the moment though, in the absence of that buyer, he remains fully committed for the long haul.
“For someone like him, who has had so much success in business, failure is not easy to take. He’s determined to make a success of this still. There’s pride at stake, a stubbornness there.
“The last thing I want is for him to throw all his money away, but I should stress that it’s nothing like that at the moment. He believes that success is achievable within financial parameters if things are done the right way. “I’ve seen him a few times over the last few months and I can assure people he is still extremely enthusiastic about the club. He’s still very much involved from what I hear from my old colleagues and is trying very hard to push the club forwards.”
Milne continues: “I know supporters are frustrated about where the club finds itself, but you have to respect the amount of money Marcus has put into the club and continues to put into it.
“There’s only so much money that any owner can put in. He has and continues to put in as much as he can. It’s very easy to say ‘if he could just pump another five or six million in’. If he could he would.
“You’ve seen the escalating costs. Some of the wage bills in the Championship now are huge. Look at Steve Gibson (Middlesbrough), Mel Morris (Derby), even Steve Landsdown (Bristol City) – they could be about to go through a similar thing to what we were going through a couple of years ago.”
He adds: “Marcus, like so many owners, is supporting the club financially at the moment while there are no gate receipts coming in.
“A big part of his business is summits and conferences which are obviously all being cancelled during the current (coronavirus) crisis, so that’s going to be tough on cash flow. The good thing is he doesn’t have big bank loans so he is in a much better position than other owners who are mortgaged up to the hilt.”
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