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Lambert facing uphill battle to save Ipswich - Interview
Monday, 24th Dec 2018 12:37 by Clive Whittingham

The collapse of Championship mainstay Ipswich Town into an odds-on bet for relegation is one of the stories of the season so far. Here we sit down with Harry Wainwright from our sister site TWTD for an in depth look at how it’s gone so wrong.

Why has it gone so wrong for Town this year?

Football supporters…. how can I put it? Well, we lack patience and we lack perspective and, oh yes, we can convince ourselves of a hundred implausible things before breakfast. Our judgement is not to be trusted, ever, when it comes to our football teams. We are convinced we have worked out the solutions to all our club’s problems when in reality we have not got the first blind clue in the world.

Why so? Well, I can give you thousands of Ipswich supporters who convinced themselves that Paul Hurst was the young, bright, progressive manager who would purge our souls of the Mick-encrusted dreariness which was seemingly spreading into eternity. Bronzed and athletic, Hurst was never going to be like fellow-candidate Tim Sherwood whom we feared would have set about the team and club structure with a baseball bat. Hurst would build patiently and incrementally on his inheritance…

We didn’t see it coming. We lost our four top goal scorers from last year. We loaned all our brightest youth prospects out to lower-league clubs, replacing them with unproved lower-league purchases. We set about building for a season against streetwise Championship teams based on a fitness-based programmes with little tactical subtlety and when results started to go against us, we decided that the thing to do was to bollock the players to the press — and in the dressing room for good measure.

I discussed the bewilderment on the faces of Town fans ahead of the Brentford game in my October preview, but if making six or seven changes doesn’t work once, why not try it again, and again. Any Rangers’ fans watching your 2-0 win in the Cobbold Stand in October will have seen the wreck Hurst had reduced us to. If our keeper palming the ball into the net wasn’t enough (the other keeper could also do this trick, as we later found out), a rookie centre-half could also donate a penalty. Job done.

At this point in time, there is no one single redeeming feature I can think of when describing Hurst. He utterly underestimated the Championship and set about systematically destroying the footballing side of the club from an organisational, tactical and morale point of view and, by the way, the fitness levels were nothing to write home about either. Maybe his approach works in the lower-leagues but I wouldn’t inflict him on any club at this level. Okay maybe one, but that said we all backed the goon.

A change of manager since we last spoke, did Hurst have to go? How much blame for this does he shoulder? What should he have done differently?

“Did Hurst have to go?” Any answer other than “bloody hell yes” has me hyperventilating. As I said in October, we are famously patient with our managers so for this genius to be run out of the club so quickly really took some doing.

You don’t treat players with proven track records and proven football intelligence like League Two journeymen for whom a few splattered teacups will do the trick. You don’t shut down channels of communication with the existing football staff and hide yourself in a bunker. You don’t drop your three-time player of the season 90 minutes before a huge local derby by reading the team-sheet out.

The squad has no Championship-standard strikers, being led up front recently by ex-Crawley reserve winger Jordan Roberts. We have no strength in depth and have regularly being playing four or five teenagers in starting line-ups. With Cole Skuse injured, we have no experienced Championship level midfielders and we lack any physical presence for set-pieces. It really takes some skill to achieve this.

From a footballing point of view, Hurst takes all the blame. If any more blame needs to be taken that we don’t yet know about, he can have that too. Some perverted fans enjoy being managers of their deadliest rivals on Football Manager and simply trashing the club into the dust. If you gave a bunch of diehard Norwich fans the keys to Portman Road, they would have struggled to do a better job.

Paul Lambert, not a particularly inspiring choice from the outside, and former Norwich to boot, how did that go down?

Lambert has been really well received. The fact that he left Carrow Road on not the best of terms is something working in his favour. The collective reaction up the A140 has been full Lady Bracknell, with “this simply cannot be borne” and “it just shows the measure of the man” so this has cheered us up no end as well. Choruses of “Paul Lambert is a Blue, he hates Norwich!” will be ringing out.

A LoftforWords poster made a really insightful comment after October’s game when he said that we could not have gone from Mick McCarthy straight to Paul Lambert as it would have seemed illogical. They are two experienced Championship managers, but Lambert’s football is played with a greater degree of optimism, and it was Mick’s relentlessly sour football that was killing us. Put it this way, did you enjoy watching Middlesbrough’s brand of football last week?

How's he done so far? What's he changed?

With no room for manoeuvre in the transfer market, Lambert decided the best thing to do was to pick us up of the floor and give us a hug. It turns out that hugs are nice things and they can make the most dismal positions feel not entirely hopeless.

It wasn’t just the morale of the players that had been ground into dust, He recognised that as a fan base we had lost connection with the club and possibly going back to Mick’s time. Whereas Mick was chippy and would criticise the fans like he would an underperforming right-back, Lambert sensibly saw that the fans were fundamental to his plans if we were to get out of the hell-hole we were in.

He invited club legends Terry Butcher, John Wark, George Burley and later Russell Osman to the club to meet the players and watch training, saying he couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done earlier.

This was not a PR stunt. It has been part of a strategy to galvanise everyone ahead of reinforcements coming in. At fulltime at a (wet and windy) Stoke ground, 1,000 Town fans stayed on to applaud the side off after a 2-0 defeat while the victorious Stokies drifted away grumbling. The galvanising has also been taking place on the training ground as he is building a new identity from his meagre squad.

Lambert’s great mentor was Borussia Dortmund boss Ottmar Hitzfeld. A key feature of his style of management has been taking a bespoke approach to each player and building their confidence and footballing identity. It’s different to Ian Holloway’s motivational ability, being more tailored and specific to each player. It is also the polar opposite of Hurst’s ramshackle and incoherent approach.

At a simple level, when keeper Bart Bialkowski was taken out of the firing line after his poor display against Bristol City under Lambert, it would not have been done via the team-sheet being read out. A plan is in place with a view to rebuilding his game and getting him back to being a viable Poland international again. Hurst’s management of him was reckless and we hope Lambert can rebuild him.

Names being mentioned for January? How much business can/will be done?

We need to talk about Marcus Evans, for if Hurst has earned the calumny of the gods for what has gone on from a footballing perspective, our owner is not blameless. If we do go down (and we have not been in the third flight since Alf Ramsey’s time) he will get it in the neck and deservedly so. I’m sorry for boring everyone senseless with my ‘Owners Relegate Clubs’ mantra. but it’s inevitably true.

If you look back over the last few years in the Championship, one in three clubs — Burton, Yeovil, Milton Keynes — will usually go down simply because they are not big enough. For the other two, always take a look at what is going on in the board room.

Two years ago, Blackburn (the Venky’s), Forest (Fawaz) and Birmingham (Trillion Trophy, who sacked Gary Rowett) were scrambling for one lifeboat space on the last day of the season, and each one had questions about how they were run.

Ipswich have drifted in Evans’s tenure from being a top-eight Championship club to a bottom-eight one. He ticks the patient and publicity-shy boxes and he cares about the club, but he has failed to keep up with the accelerating financial momentum in this division. As for his footballing judgement, I would prefer to have a Magic Eight-Ball making the decisions as we would fare a good deal better.

This is all relevant when it comes to January because Evans has painted himself into a corner. The Hurst experiment was done on the cheap, funded by player sales and the appointment of a manager who in Championship terms cost relatively little. Clubs know we are screwed and will have us over a barrel in negotiations. They also know that we need to do our business in a hurry given our status.

We are looking at players out of favour with Premier League and high-end Championship clubs as we need all the experience we can get. Strikers mentioned include Rudy Gestede and Daryl Murphy, and out-of-favour Budgie winger Ben Marshall has been linked having played for Lambert before. The latest name has been midfielder Liam Bridcutt, so this will give you an idea where we are looking.

Any business needs to be done quickly. Lambert has got the team playing to a 4-2-3-1 shape, passing out from the back and building play (within our limitations), but any new players need to be bedded in while we are in touch with safety and to give us a chance to build momentum and an identity. We need two strikers, one midfielder, one winger and at least one defender. Apart from that we’re okay.

Any stand out performers this year? Any weak links in particular you'd like to point out?

It’s funny how teams that are really poor end up being remembered with great affection by fans. We forgive them their faults because when things get that bad, it is usually not them that have gotten us into the mess in the first place. We have been so demonstrably lacking in quality this season that the phrase ‘stand-out’ brings back some uncomfortable memories.

A few of the newer players can hold their heads up. Centre-half Matthew Pennington has grown into the campaign, while midfielders Trevoh Chalobah, Flynn Downes and winger Jack Lankester are the three newbies who have played with character and shown potential in a team lacking experience.

Any weak links? Be nice to Jordan Roberts if he starts, because he is a player running his heart out despite being utterly out of his depth. Lambert likes a physical striker to bounce off defenders and we have had none, so Roberts has stepped into the breach. Ellis Harrison has been featuring since coming back from an ankle injury and he is a striker who closer fits Lambert’s preferred style.

Our other concern is both full-backs. Jordan Spence is good for the occasional marauding run at right back but he has been caught out defensively, especially if winger Gwion Edwards doesn’t track back to support him. Left-back Jonas Knudsen is a Denmark international who in happier times would not be problematic, but he has been playing within himself lately and may well leave the club in January.

Can you avoid relegation from here? What will need to happen?

In any rational year, a haul of 15 points from the first half-season would consign a club to outright and unconditional relegation, but this is assuming the Championship is a rational competition.

For some mad reason the league has the decided to elasticate this year. There is a clutch of teams near the top who would have been promoted in most other years, and a similar group of waifs and strays at the bottom playing some of the most dismal football you could wish to see. Remarkably, there is a chance that we can actually get out of this mess.

When Lambert arrived, we were four points from safety and the fear was that this might stretch to 10 points by the end of December given our shocking squad. The December defeat at Stoke saw the gap to safety stretch to eight points and we were fearing the worst, but a combination of four points from two games and none of the teams above us picking up anything has closed the gap once again.

This is hugely reassuring from a QPR point of view, for I reckon you are as safe as houses given your constraints this season. I feared for you after the West Brom debacle, but McClaren has stabilised your team and then incrementally added more and more attacking intent without disrupting the team’s balance.

The same crowd of idiots who were salivating over Paul Hurst in July were smirking at the manager merry-go-round at Loftus Road. As I said above, what the hell do we know? Your financially limited squad, with only youth prospects to call on as reinforcements, did the impossible and won at Forest in this of all seasons. From a neutral fan’s perspective, I hope you really enjoyed a memorable day.

As for us, we need experienced players and we need them quickly. This is the time for our owner to prove he is not the penny-pinching carpet-bagger which many have now labelled him. There is no time for messing around now. He has been lucky to get a good manager, so back him properly or sell the club to someone who knows what the hell they are doing.

Consequences of going into League One, financial or otherwise?

Not good. Under the current owner, the consequences of going down are more likely to be Coventry than Norwich, as he won’t back us and the collapse in television income next season could see us shambling around in the lower leagues for years.

My Stoke-supporting mate said that fellow-Potters were looking at the Championship last season ahead of relegation and thinking that many of the teams at this level were very beatable. Most Town fans aren’t so stupid and are looking at League One as a minefield. Mind you, these are the same Town fans who saw Paul Hurst as our saviour in July, so maybe there is some hope after all…

The Twitter @HarryFromBath, @loftforwords

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R_from_afar added 14:02 - Dec 24
A very interesting and insightful piece, thank you!

Respect to Harry the interviewee for this : "Your financially limited squad, with only youth prospects to call on as reinforcements, did the impossible and won at Forest in this of all seasons. From a neutral fan’s perspective, I hope you really enjoyed a memorable day". Don't worry, we certainly enjoyed it!


terryb added 14:06 - Dec 24
Thank you Harry & Clive.

A far more balanced Ipswich perspective than we used to get from Phil Hamm(?)! I'm certainly impressed with his view of next season if they are relegated. And they do have a chance of staying up. If Bolton could come back from the dead last season, Ipswich MIGHT this season.

I have to say that I have doubts about the result on Wednesday, but I'm hoping that I enjoy the drive back on the A12 more than the visiting fans!

CiderwithRsie added 00:51 - Dec 25
I don't suppose many here have much nice to say about Paul Lambert but that was really interesting thread about what he is doing at Ipswich.

I quite like both East Anglian clubs, so good luck to Ipswich in the New Year. But I want three points off them on Boxing Day and if their keeper can throw three shots from Eze into the net to boost his confidence that'd do nicely.

TacticalR added 13:45 - Dec 26
Thanks to Harry.

Hurst sounds really disastrous. How did he manage to get everything so wrong?

On the surface Evans seems to be doing all the right things (compared to QPR), but perhaps the right thing at one point in time is not the right thing forever.

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