“Entertainment has to be high on the agenda for the new manager. We want to pass out from the back but they have to have a plan B and a plan C if necessary and they’ve got to know how to grind out results when needed.” In a rare on-screen interview with the club’s website, Ipswich Town owner Marcus Evans laid out his blueprint for Mick McCarthy’s successor this summer, with a statement that sat somewhere between requesting a unicorn and flat-out damning the work of the deposed Yorkshireman.
Evans’ vision for his new man was undoubtedly shaped by opinion in the stands. After five and a half years with McCarthy at the helm, large sections of the Portman Road faithful were disillusioned with their manager’s style of football, and the atmosphere at the ground had turned toxic. With the owner informing him that a new contract wouldn’t be offered at the end of the season, McCarthy then agreed to cut his reign short after a particularly tempestous game, coincidentally against his hometown team Barnsley, where the substitution of debutant Barry Cotter provoked further opprobrium from the home support. With a sense that he was being hounded out of the club, McCarthy exited through the side door.
The beginning of a new era at any football club is exciting. Arsenal, for example, have been revitalised by the arrival of Unai Emery and, despite tasting success in the latter years of Arsene Wenger’s two-decade spell at the helm in North London, the anger in the stands has quickly dissipated thanks to a sense that change is in the air. Hopelessness has been replaced by hope, and for Ipswich Town supporters the arrival of Paul Hurst as McCarthy’s replacement brought renewed belief that, at the very least, the matchday experience would provide a little excitement, some enjoyable football and, above all else, become fun again.
The 44 year old was last season’s success story at Shrewsbury Town in League One, pushing promotion favourites Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers all the way, and only falling at the last hurdle against Rotherham United in the play-off final. He’d already earned promotion in his previous job with Grimsby Town, taking The Mariners back into the Football League in 2016, and found himself on the shortlist for a host of vacancies in the summer. For Evans, he looked to be the ideal candidate. The ‘Paul Hurst Way’, combining fluid, passing football with the ability to dig in and grind out results was the perfect formula. Crucially, too, Hurst had a track record of working on shoestring budgets and developing lower league players. The Ipswich Town owner had found his unicorn.
“Hurst’s approach to the division was at best naive. His apparent disrespect for what went before and for senior pros, the constant changing of the team, rambling press conferences, and poor treatment of youngsters made him appear well out of his depth.”
Bluefunk, TWTD Forum
As if playing the part of Alan Partridge in a meeting with Tony Hayers however, Hurst opted for revolution over evolution. The opening of the transfer window saw ten players depart, including experienced forward David McGoldrick and centre-back Adam Webster. Then, on deadline day, both Martyn Waghorn and Joe Garner were sold to fellow Championship sides. Within two months of setting up office, Hurst had disposed of Town’s three highest scorers from last season. Another, Bersant Celina, had returned to parent club Manchester City. To address the team’s lack of firepower, Hurst signed Ellis Harrison from Bristol Rovers and Kayden Jackson from Accrington Stanley, who’d scored 28 goals between them last season, albeit in League Two.
In total, seven new players joined on permanent deals, including two from Hurst’s previous club, while a further five loan signings were added to the squad, including former Town forward Jonathan Walters, Everton centre-back Matthew Pennington, and promising Chelsea defender Trevoh Chalobah. In the other direction, twelve players were either released or sold, with another six youngsters heading out on loan. Only two players that started the final league game of last season, Cole Skuse and Freddie Sears, remained at the club. Clearly a fan of seminal Glaswegian post-punks Orange Juice, Hurst had decided to Rip It Up and Start Again.
“I still think it was the right way to go. I didn’t expect every one of those to come in and play 46 league games, that’s for sure. But in time you want them to contribute.”
With dealings in the transfer market done, the new manager set to work imposing his style of play on his new charges. With big emphasis on fitness, those players signed late in the window were at a distinct disadvantage, but that didn’t stop Hurst throwing them into the first team. A 2-2 draw at home against promoted Blackburn, secured thanks to a stoppage-time equaliser from Fulham loanee Tayo Edun, was hardly the ideal start, though it at least got the pulses racing in the stands. Things soon went from bad to worse – defeat at old foes Rotherham was followed by one point from the next three games and a League Cup First Round exit to Exeter, going into the Hurst’s first Old Farm Derby. It was here that the under pressure manager blinked, abandoning the ‘Paul Hurst Way’ and ringing the changes to the first team, bringing six new faces into his starting line-up against Norwich, and dropping three-time Supporters Player of the Year winner Bartosz Białkowski. Going back-to-basics with a 4-4-2 formation and reverting to a direct style of play, suddenly Hurst stopped looking like the breath of fresh air Ipswich Town desperately craved. Though spoils were shared with their rivals, Hurst’s lack of belief in his own ideas was obvious.
Another five games came and went without a win for Town, and amidst rumours of discontent among the players after some harsh public criticism from Hurst, pressure began to build. A win at Swansea with the odd goal in five secured the Dee Daa a stay of execution, but crisis point was just around the corner. After a home defeat to QPR, in which Białkowski’s replacement Dean Gerken flapped at a corner to gift the visitors a goal, Hurst made another seven changes to the starting XI for the trip to high-flying Leeds. Unsurprisingly Ipswich lost the match, and Hurst lost his job.
Clearly the size of the task at Ipswich Town was far greater than Hurst had anticipated and, in a desperate attempt to stamp his mark on the club, the decision to clear out a group of experienced Championship players and replace them with lower league youngsters was ill thought out. Ultimately, though, over the course of his fourteen games in charge, he failed to fit Marcus Evans’ vision of the ideal manager.
“Harsh on Paul Hurst to be sacked by Ipswich Town…what did they expect…when they got rid of Mick McCarthy they should have been careful what they wished for”
Hurst’s sacking dredged up much chin-stroking schadenfreude from sections of the football commentariat, with certain individuals parroting the same lines from April when McCarthy departed Portman Road for the final time. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ they said. ‘Better the devil you know’ they said. ‘What makes you think you deserve anything more than this dull, unwatchable dirge you filthy plebs?’ they thought, probably.
Erstwhile Norwich City striker and professional buzzkill Chris Sutton had already had his say on Town’s predicament after his former club had returned from Suffolk with a point, only to repeat the exact same line when remarkably suggesting that Hurst had been hard done by. The motive behind Guardian writer and avid Republic of Ireland supporter Barry Glendenning’s comments in support of former Republic of Ireland manager McCarthy was slightly more mysterious, though the fact that the dour Yorkshireman has made a media career for himself by being the token miserablist and earning friends along the way surely has nothing to do with it.
“Mick’s achievements at Ipswich were underappreciated by a section of the fanbase, and some of the treatment towards him at the end of his tenure was an embarrassment. It was fairly obvious to me and anyone with half a brain that, given his budget, we were punching above our weight.”
C_HealyIsAPleasure, TWTD Forum
The truth is that, for the majority of his time in charge, McCarthy was revered by Ipswich supporters. When he arrived in 2012, Town were rooted to the foot of the Championship, mired in debt, and looked destined for oblivion. After lifting them to safety, three seasons of relative joy followed, as the former Wolves boss turned a squad of expensive, mediocre chancers into a cohesive unit, making excellent use of the transfer market on a pittance. Daryl Murphy, having spent two seasons on loan from Celtic, made the move permanently on a free and looked reinvigorated, scoring fifty goals in the next three seasons and earning a move to Newcastle United, which in turn pocketed Ipswich £3.5m profit. David McGoldrick arrived on a free from Nottingham Forest and would score fourteen league goals in his first full season. Christophe Berra, another free transfer, became the beating heart of Town’s backline, while Tyrone Mings, a £10,000 signing from Chippenham Town, would go on to be sold for £8m to Bournemouth, a testament to McCarthy’s ability to nurture young talent.
McCarthy’s high point would come in the 2014/15 season, as Ipswich reached the playoffs with a sixth placed finish. Though defeated in the semi-final by their East Anglian rivals, it provided a real sign of progress, and Town supporters were hopeful that the club’s upward curve would continue. They missed out on the playoffs by five points the following season, and a lack of investment in the first team saw results begin to suffer. McCarthy, having attempted to play more expansive football, was bitten by a 5-1 defeat at Reading, and quickly reverted to the direct, defensive fare that fans would soon become resentful of. A sixteenth placed finish in the 2016/17 season was the club’s lowest under McCarthy, and represented a side going backwards. With season ticket prices increased ahead of their last campaign and their manager becoming increasingly belligerent, sections of the Ipswich support began to rebel.
“Listen, unless somebody decides otherwise, you’ve got me, boring old big nose fucking fart with shite football until May. Unless somebody decides different.”
McCarthy’s biggest mistake was a complete lack of empathy for the supporters. Having watched their club go from hosting Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup to entering their seventeenth consecutive season in England’s second division, their loyalty had been admirable. Admittedly attendances had dropped over the course of their time in the Championship, however with the increase in prices combined with dire football and a sense of neverending stasis, that’s hardly surprising. Once calls for change arrived in the stands, the manager took it personally, rather than viewing the situation from the eyes of the fans. The angrier McCarthy got, the louder the calls for his sacking became, and the fewer people turned up to watch their team. Having already voiced his opinion in post-match press conferences on those dissenting voices, the Yorkshireman then took the ill-advised step of shouting at fans to “fuck off” when his side had taken the lead in a televised derby at Carrow Road. Norwich’s late equaliser will have bruised McCarthy’s pride, but his potty mouth had almost certainly sealed his fate.
Given the way it ended, McCarthy’s reign is worthy of revisionism. On the one hand, he was given the kind of budget non-league managers would scoff at, and very nearly succeeded with it. Were he able to work with the kind of money that Roy Keane and Paul Jewell were afforded in their disastrous reigns, Town’s recent history may look very different. Overall, he won more games than he lost, but none of those included an FA Cup tie – six third round matches, six defeats. Nor do they account for Old Farm derbies – played eight, drawn four, lost four. It’s these kinds of games, rather than the 2-1 victories against Doncaster Rovers that assure you of a top-half finish, that matter to the fans. When it came to the crunch, Mick McCarthy’s teams were found wanting. After five and a half years of the same old story, football supporters can begin to feel like Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors.
“Since Evans bought the Club however, no manager has been able to provide a consistent approach to either building a long-term project or putting together a team that can challenge as a one off.”
homer_123, TWTD Forum
Perhaps some of the ire has been misdirected though. Owner Marcus Evans is a divisive character, largely because of his insistence on near-anonymity. Having owned the club since December 2007, he gave his first public interview this summer. Whilst he consolidated the club’s debt upon purchase, that has since risen from £32m to £89.26m, according to the clubs most recent accounts, and Ipswich have made a loss of £6.75m every year since his arrival. His spectacularly short-sighted idea to increase season ticket prices last season came off the back of the club losing £1.4m in gate receipts the previous year, and undoubtedly caused more harm than good.
My annual investment in Town, I think, gives us a great opportunity to challenge for promotion. We’re not at the top of the investment league, but I still feel it makes us competitive and I still feel everything I’m doing gives us that opportunity to get promoted.
More than anything, though, the sense is that he lacks ambition. Those two managerial mis-steps with Keane and Jewell have had a knock-on effect that has left Ipswich Town drifting for the past few years, as Evans has preached caution in the transfer market, preferring managers to make use of an academy that has produced the likes of Kieron Dyer, Titus Bramble and Darren Bent. It’s a plan that looks all well and good on paper, but once these graduates are sold on, the reliance on replacing them is a heavy burden. Evans’ comments, on both his investment in the club and his vision for a new manager, reek of an owner who is completely out of touch with modern day football. He seems to envisage bringing the next Bobby Robson to Portman Road and backing him with the same kind of budget Robson himself was given in the seventies.
For now, the immediate future of the club has been placed in the hands of Paul Lambert. A surprising appointment given his ties to that club from Norfolk, Lambert at least provides the experience at this level that Paul Hurst lacked, and has in the past played the kind of football that Town supporters crave. Whether Lambert can achieve safety with the squad his predecessor has left him remains to be seen, but the Scotsman shouldn’t expect a war chest in January. Should the worst case scenario pan out, and Ipswich fall into League One, would the Portman Road faithful deserve a share of the blame for their part in the steady hand of McCarthy departing?
No. The beauty of football is the hope it gives you. Hope of promotion. Hope of upsetting the big boys. Hope of watching great players. Hope of winning trophies, leagues, or sometimes just games. It’s the hope, of course, that kills you. But better a swift, sweet, and hopeful end than death by a thousand cuts. If football supporters should be careful what they wish for, then all hope is lost.
Thank you to the forum members on TWTD.co.uk for offering the fans view for this piece.