Town's world changed a year ago today... it's been a whirlwind 12 months
- Credit: Archant
A year ago today, everything changed at Ipswich Town.
Marcus Evans’ reign was over after 13 years. The club was under American ownership and the future was looking a little brighter after years of decline. Optimism was in the air.
On April 7, 2021, the stage was set for a late dash into the League One play-offs under Paul Cook. The club’s new ownership took over with the Blues eighth in League One, just three points off the play-offs with eight games to go. An immediate jump to the Championship felt on.
But, as we now know, it didn’t happen and Town fell away to finish in ninth.
Then the great summer reset, with 19 players signed and the vast majority of Evans’ final Town ensemble let go. It didn’t work out for ‘Demolition Man’, he was out by December and Kieran McKenna appointed in his place.
Things have started well under the former Manchester United assistant, yet Town still sit outside the promotion places in the same ninth position, with a fourth League One season now virtually certain.
In that sense, and to outsiders, Ipswich Town may look like it has stood still during the first year of its new ownership. But there’s a lot more to Town’s last 12 months than results on the pitch.
Here, we take a look at a year of change at Ipswich Town.
- 1 Road near Ipswich flooded as drivers forced to find alternative routes
- 2 Fire breaks out in café near Ipswich town centre
- 3 VW Golf stolen from Ipswich road after thieves take car keys from home
- 4 Window smashed at Ipswich home in spate of attempted burglaries
- 5 Thunderstorms warning upgraded in Suffolk ahead of rain
- 6 Severe delays on A12 as carriageway floods during extreme rainfall
- 7 Car carrying three passengers not wearing seatbelts stopped on A12
- 8 Ex-Town loanee Bonne looks set to depart QPR
- 9 Pub with 'gorgeous views' named one of UK's best waterside drinking spots
- 10 'Tit for tat' attacks driven by gang members vying for position, police say
Aside from injecting some optimism into Ipswich Town, one thing Evans’ sale to the club’s new owners did do was essentially leave the club debt free.
Evans took on £32m of debt when he bought that club in 2007, with that figure rocketing to more than £100m at the time of his departure as Ipswich strived to remain competitive against bigger Championship budgets prior to Covid hitting.
Speaking the night of the takeover, at an introductory press conference, new chairman Mike O’Leary said: “We have repaid approximately £21m of debt and Marcus has waived the majority of all the other debts (which had exceeded £100m).
"There's a tiny bit of debt left, £400k, that remains between Ipswich Town PLC and Ipswich Town Ltd. That's the only debt that remains. Apart from that the club is debt free."
That can only be a good thing.
The takeover has, of course, installed new leadership at the top of Ipswich Town.
Evans exited and the now recognisable faces of Brett Johnson, Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer arrived, publicly spearheading the purchase with their ‘Three Lions’ group. O’Leary, a key player in negotiations with Evans, was appointed chairman and appears to be a calming presence who inspires confidence while avoiding the limelight.
The Three Lions of Johnson, Detmer and Bakay are important figures, of course, but the real power at the heart of the Ipswich Town takeover sits with ORG, the investment group which essentially owns the vast majority of the club.
Ohio-based Ed Schwartz, who has attended a number of Ipswich games this season, is the ORG representative in the Gamechanger 20 group, which was formed to purchase Ipswich Town. ORG manage funds on behalf of the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which is controlled by chief investment officer Mark Steed. That’s where the money comes from.
Then, of course, there is CEO Mark Ashton. Under Evans, Ipswich lacked hands-on executives with real football knowledge and contacts, with the former owner not readily empowering staff with decision-making ability.
But in Ashton, Town now have a former Championship executive of the year who is firmly in control of the club on a day-to-day basis. He’s made a real impression.
Evans remains involved on paper, with the former owner taking 5% of the Gamechanger group when the sale went through. But he has no involvement, no power to make decisions and hasn’t attended a game this season despite retaining the use of his executive box. He has allowed it to be used by the club on matchdays when he’s not attending.
Evans’ stake is likely to reduce as more and more money is put into the business from its ownership.
As he was bundled through the exit door himself, back in February of 2021, Paul Lambert was talking about the lack of structure at Ipswich Town.
It wasn’t articulated particularly well, but the former Town boss had a point.
The new owners have begun to address it.
Ashton’s a big piece in the puzzle and he’s moved to bulk out both the administration team and the football staff supporting manager McKenna.
Luke Werhun, Town’s chief operating officer, is Ashton’s right hand man in many areas and works closely with him, while new heads of department have been appointed in finance, media and beyond.
On the football side, Gary Probert is the director of football operations and heads up areas such as the academy, analysis and loan programme. He joined from Bristol City.
The same is true of Andy Rolls who, as director of performance, is in charge of a wide variety of areas which help the club’s manager prepare his team for matches. Rolls heads up the newly-formed performance team which, housing medical, sports science, analytical and nutritional experts, works alongside McKenna and his coaching staff.
A number of staff members have joined the performance team, which would remain in place even if the club changes its manager as Town strive for some structural stability.
A new head of recruitment, Sam Williams from Manchester United, is due to start next week in preparation for the summer transfer window.
Ashton has spoken regularly of his desire to build up Ipswich’s recruitment department, with more to come in that area, given player trading is likely to be a big part of the Blues’ business model in years to come.
The club’s structure has undergone significant change and modernisation but still appears to be a work in progress.
On the pitch
Clearest of all to see is the change on the pitch.
One squad shipped out and another signed, with 19 arriving in a single summer. Quite extraordinary.
Some have worked out and some haven’t. In Christian Walton, George Edmundson, Wes Burns and Sam Morsy, Ipswich hopefully have four players who will be part of the club’s climb up the leagues in years to come.
There have been solid contributions from the likes of Lee Evans, Sone Aluko, Cameron Burgess, Sone Aluko and Conor Chaplin to name a few more, as well as the growth of Bersant Celina over the course of the season. Signing him for League One football was a real statement.
But there are real question marks over the futures of the likes of Matt Penney, Rekeem Harper, Joe Pigott and Tom Carroll. Scott Fraser has already left for Charlton.
The new signings haven’t all been hits. Far from it. But when you sign that many players, they were never all going to meet the mark at the same time.
But what the list of incomings does show is the ambition of the club’s new ownership. Many of those players drew Championship interest in the summer or have played at higher levels, with Town identifying their targets and landing them. Sometimes against logic.
Ipswich are able to operate in different markets now, signing players from higher leagues. That’s a significant change under new ownership.
It’s set to be another exciting summer as McKenna fine tunes his squad further, with the Blues again set to be ambitious in their targets.
The jewel in Town’s crown was tired and run down. The state of Portman Road had become the perfect metaphor for years of decline on the pitch.
Rust, peeled paint, broken seats and plenty of bird mess blighted the famous old ground, but it’s been tidied up over the course of the last year.
Decoration to the back of the Cobbold and North Stands, ideas born under Evans’ ownership but actioned since, have brightened things up while car park lines have been painted, seats cleaned, plants removed from rooves and new signage put up. Nothing radical just yet, just a facelift which has brought real results.
More is planned, though. A much-discussed big screen appears to be finally on the way along with a revamp of Portman Road’s sound system, as well as new dugout areas and a commitment to upgrade the stadium’s playing surface in a year’s time.
There’s the prospect of development on the recently-bought land behind the South Stand, a new approach to catering as well as ongoing work to brighten up Town’s office areas. A significant six-figure sum has been spent to upgrade the club’s ageing IT system, while the ground’s main reception has been reopened and staff hired to tend it after years of closure.
New office areas have been built at the club’s training ground, in part to house new staff, while a full review of the facilities and pitches at Playford Road is also likely to yield changes.
As well as a raft of material and personnel changes, the way Ipswich Town presents itself has been given a refresh.
Evans chose to communicate with supporters through sporadic written statements, with one club video interview and two independent newspaper interviews (with the EADT and Ipswich Star) thrown in along the course of his 13 years.
But things are different now.
Ashton is accessible and is, in many ways, the frontman. He can be regularly seen talking to supporters on matchdays, with O’Leary regularly around, too. The CEO has given regular updates on camera or in front of microphones, through the club as well as with the media and also directly with supporters online.
The club’s owners, particularly in the early days of their tenure, were vocal on social media and helped build a sense of excitement during a time of such change.
Ashton also pledged to hold (and attend) regular fans forums to communicate with supporters, regardless of results on the pitch. The club have delivered on that.
We’ve recently learned that the club plan to move away from iFollow and launch ‘Town TV’ to help supporters follow games.
The aim of all of this is to make sure fans feel closer to their club as a result.
Judging by an average League One attendance of nearly 22,000 this season, the club’s highest in over a decade, they do.
Clearly, work to transform Ipswich Town off the pitch isn’t going to stop.
Ashton has regularly stated just how long his to-do list is, covering multiple areas of the club.
But the big one which needs to change in order for the club to move forward is for things to click on the pitch.
Town are facing up to a fourth season in League One now but, thanks to McKenna’s good start, it’s going to be a summer of optimism once again at Portman Road.
We’ve been there before. Ipswich have entered each of their three previous League One seasons thinking of promotion and, under Cook last summer, the title was a real goal.
Town have fallen short three times.
But there will be optimism once again once July and August roll around, with a clear plan in place on the pitch and a manager who clearly has the trust of the club’s bosses, the players and the supporters.
Good recruitment is needed but there’s every reason to believe the new structures in place at the club can yield better results.
Here’s hoping the two-year anniversary of Town’s takeover comes with Ipswich in a much better position than ninth.