‘We need a beating heart’: Ipswich Town takeover set to be game changer

An extraordinary general meeting of the Ipswich Town plc was drawing to a close on Monday evening when a familiar face stood up and said his piece. For the previous hour the club’s new chief executive, Mark Ashton, had joined his chairman, Michael O’Leary, and manager, Paul Cook, in taking questions from the assembled shareholders, who had not convened since an American-led consortium shifted the narrowing horizons in Suffolk beyond recognition. Taking the mic in the front row David Sheepshanks, whose departure in 2009 ended 130 years of control by landed Suffolk gentry, handed down his verdict on the new ownership.

“I’m convinced Mark, Mike and all of you will bring the loving feeling back to this club and that it will once again have a beating heart,” said an audibly emotional Sheepshanks, who presided over Ipswich’s most recent spell in the Premier League between 2000 en 2002. “Because football clubs are about real people and loves and dreams, and we need a beating heart again, and I think we’ve got one. In werklikheid, I think we’ve got several.”

It felt a significant intervention. Sheepshanks had passed the baton to Marcus Evans a dozen years previously but it had been fumbled horribly, culminating in a managed decline that left Ipswich flailing in the third tier. In April the Gamechanger 20 groep, primarily bankrolled by the pension fund for Arizona’s public safety personnel, completed a £40m takeover and unveiled a plan to regenerate one of football’s revered names. To an outsider, the vault from old-world charm when the white wine was famously kept topped up in Ipswich’s boardroom to an era of foreign investment with a clear bottom line might have seemed jarring. But Sheepshanks had seamlessly connected the old and the new: the merest thought of tension had been headed off at the pass.

Four hours before the EGM, Ashton is leading the way through the tight rabbit warren inside Portman Road’s administrative quarters. He has spent an hour talking animatedly about the good that can happen here: about how Ipswich, long downtrodden, will walk tall again. A diversion leads him to an office in which the farthest desk faces a large window. “This was Sir Bobby Robson’s desk," hy sê. “Can you imagine that view, across the stadium from one corner to the other? He could see everything.”

Deesdae, wel, all its occupant can perceive is an assembly of concrete, debris and seagull droppings, the consequence of a modern-day structure built above the players’ tunnel that obscures Robson’s old panorama. Resolving that is somewhere on Ashton’s lengthy to-do list and it works as a metaphor for the malaise he has been tasked with lifting since, in an eyecatching move, he arrived from Bristol City two months ago. Ipswich had lost sight of itself and its public.

“It felt like a club that needed a new burst of energy and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Ashton says. “The natural size is just incredible. If we can reach a tipping point where we get momentum, win games on the pitch, turn the stadium around, become more visible in the community, it’s the kind of club that gets to a certain point and then becomes like a snowball, unstoppable.”

Ashton scrolls through his phone and locates a picture of a placard bearing the words “Run towards adversity”, surrounded by signatures. He asked Ipswich’s players, a largely new team after a summer of sweeping change, to “sign it in blood” after a meeting last week. The phrase relates to the challenges faced by the firefighters and rescue workers whose contributions will directly fund the club’s ambition.

“They have to run into burning fires, towards bullets, towards danger," hy sê. “The only thing the pension fund have asked me is that, if you join this club, every time you go to work you run towards adversity and tackle the challenge head on. The players represent the fans and the community, but they represent those people as well.

“After it was presented to them, one of the squad went up to my director of performance, Andy Rolls, and said: ‘I owe you an apology, my running stats were down yesterday and I didn’t put in the effort I should have. It won’t happen again.’”

The Arizona Public Safety Retirement Personnel System (PSRPS) had been considering investment in football for about four years at the time of Ipswich’s takeover. It was particularly interested in the way clubs experience better financial performance in recessions and inflationary periods than traditional stocks. The potential shortfall incurred by a large League One club seemed slight, especially compared with the rewards accruable upon moving up the divisions. In Ipswich’s case, any worst-case scenario had essentially been premodelled: they had been relegated from the Championship in 2019 and quickly been hit by the ravages of the pandemic.

Partnering with Brett Johnson, Mark Detmer and Berke Bakay, who had invested in the US club Phoenix Rising, they made their move and Gamechanger 20 was born. Johnson is nominally the group’s frontman: football savvy, personable, content to hold video audiences with supporters while bedecked in Ipswich’s colours. Travel restrictions mean they will not be at Portman Road on Saturday for the opener against Morecambe but Johnson has expressed regret at missing a “phenomenal, historic” occasion.

The thought of a pension fund effectively propping up an English football institution is outwardly not for the squeamish. But in Arizona the view is more relaxed: by the PSRPS’s standards this is a minor initial investment, notable for its unusually public profile rather than its risk, that can be allowed to perform with little prospect of alarm bells ringing. When the deal reached the desks of English football’s authorities, they were keen to emphasise that the transparency, consistent cashflow and strong governance demanded of their industry set them apart from wealthy individuals who could change course upon a whim.

“The fund is regulated and has to behave, act and conduct itself in a certain way,” Ashton says. “I think that’s brilliant and football needs that kind of discipline. We’re going to build something, but build it properly in a long-term, sustainable manner. They’ll fund it well, but within a plan. It won’t be wild and extravagant to the point where it risks the club.”

The sense is that things have got serious at Ipswich, but few would disagree a shift in mentality was required. “The business has changed and if you don’t change with it you get left behind,” says Russell Osman, a centre-back in Robson’s 1981 Uefa Cup-winning side. “You can’t be half-hearted about making that change. Now it’s the start of a completely different era.

“People still have a love and respect for Ipswich and what the club has done before. Teams go there and look at it as a proper football ground, synonymous with good football, good pitches and a good atmosphere. A good, honest club run by proper people.”

Ashton wants Portman Road to regain that feeling. He was upset upon touring the stadium when he arrived: it felt neglected, remote from the community and closed for business. The job is to tell the world Ipswich are open again. It helps that Cook’s players will perform wearing shirts sponsored by Ed Sheeran, a supporter of the club. Sheeran’s involvement has turned heads beyond Suffolk; now Ipswich’s football must achieve the same.

Cook has been given every chance to ensure that happens. While Ipswich have brought in about £2m in transfer fees in pre-season, dampening insinuations from rivals that they are spending exorbitantly, they have lured several Championship-level players and are expected to compete for automatic promotion. The mood around their training ground, glum over the past two years, has brightened. Asked to make do during the chronically underfunded latter stages of Evans’s tenure, staff now benefit from a revamped sports science and medical setup that looks a cut above the club’s current level.

Oor 22,000 fans hope to see early fruit of that on Saturday. “The support has always been there,” Osman says. “They got a bit disfranchised over recent seasons but there’s a fantastic backing locally. Now you just hope they feel welcomed again and things go right on the pitch. It’s crunch time.”

For Ashton, the marriage of past and present so warmly endorsed by Sheepshanks begins here. “I always want the club to be modern and cutting-edge but there’s a feel about this place," hy sê. “You can sense the tradition, the heritage. I genuinely think we can do something really special.”

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