Last month the Ipswich goalkeeping coach, Jimmy Walker, tweeted his views on this season’s third tier. “Massive few weeks ahead,” he wrote. “League One is bonkers … and dare I say it … very average. If we don’t finish top four minimum we might as well wrap up.”
Using Walker’s logic, Ipswich may be returning Portman Road’s keys to the local council in May. They sit sixth, although several sides below them have games in hand, and have lost five of their past eight matches. The decline of the last decade, which culminated in relegation from the Championship in 2019, is close to spiralling into something far more serious. Ipswich feel like a ghost of a club: an institution that fell asleep on the job and has been outstripped by a long line of smarter, brighter rivals.
Should Ipswich fail to win promotion their world will be shrunk by the new League One salary cap, which may level the playing field but presses the pause button on those with higher designs. They should be equipped to avoid that but the current run is no outlier. Their past 39 league games, taking in a catastrophic nosedive from top spot into mid-table last season, have brought 50 points and gathering unrest about the regime of a manager who had swept in promising so much.
Listening to Paul Lambert in February 2019, three months after his appointment, it was hard not to feel the tide would turn. Ipswich were going down but the blow was softened by Lambert’s realisation that a litany of disappointments had fractured the bond between town and club. He forged a relationship with Blue Action, a prominent supporters’ group, and succeeded in harnessing an atmosphere that should have helped propel Ipswich back up the leagues.
That appears to have soured beyond repair. Last Wednesday night a group of Blue Action members arrived at the training ground with a banner reading “Cheers for the beers but it’s time at the bar”, referring to Lambert’s occasional laying-on of drinks for supporters. It was a turning point in the fanbase’s attitude towards Lambert and the situation deteriorated on Saturday.
While Lambert was offering his thoughts on a 2-0 defeat by Charlton, commenting that “the fans are the most important people at any club”, news broke on social media that he had banned the popular local journalist Phil Ham from press conferences. Ham has edited TWTD, a vibrant and influential independent supporters’ website, since 1995 and has been a club sponsor for a number of years.
TWTD’s news operation runs alongside a message board and, before last month’s match at Lincoln, one of its posters revealed Lambert’s starting lineup. An irate Lambert ordered Ham’s exile upon being informed and has doubled down despite attempts to resolve the situation. It is a terrible look and at odds with Lambert’s earlier conciliatory approach; the widespread reaction suggests it has carried him beyond the point of no return.
Noises from around Ipswich’s camp have indicated a paranoid environment, with communication a particular issue. Lambert was particularly unhappy when local media discovered in August that five younger players, including the highly rated Armando Dobra, had been omitted from the squad photograph. He is entitled to feel frustrated about leaks but the fog of suspicion feels suffocating.
Such tittle-tattle usually becomes irrelevant if a team are winning. Ipswich plummeted in 2019-20 because they were unable to maximise a far more talented squad than most in League One. Their owner, Marcus Evans, bet heavily on Lambert with a five-year contract in January, effectively meaning the manager was off the hook when Covid-19 intervened.
Evans requested during the summer that Lambert minimise squad rotation while instilling a more attractive playing style; he then informed the players of those edicts in what, given his traditionally hands-off approach, was an extraordinary intervention. The season began well with Ipswich’s two outstanding talents, Andre Dozzell and Teddy Bishop, coming to the fore. But problems that have dogged them throughout Lambert’s reign soon resurfaced, most crucially an absence of wit and aggression in the final third.
Lambert can plead some mitigation. An inability to keep players fit predates him and casts a huge shadow. Kane Vincent-Young arrived from Colchester but has been out for 13 months; the centre-forward James Norwood was a high-profile signing from Tranmere but has rarely been fully fit since last September. Eleven first-team players are on the sidelines and the situation is too established to be dismissed as coincidence.
It is not the ideal time, then, to lose your fitness coach. The club confirmed on Monday that Jim Henry had left and would continue on a “consultancy” basis. Henry had been seeking a return to Scotland but it is understood coaching-related disagreements among Lambert’s staff have brought that forward. There are no plans to replace Henry, so Ipswich will muddle on.
That is exactly what they have done for most of Evans’s 13-year tenure. Even the official supporters’ club was moved to warn “the seeming stagnation of our club must not be allowed to continue” in an otherwise cautious statement on Monday. Perhaps they had confused “stagnation” with “accelerated decay”. At least it was something: the club’s supporters’ trust has been dormant for nearly four years, reflecting the organisation it should be scrutinising.
In the end, though, Evans is the only person who can begin arresting Ipswich’s decline. They are in deep trouble and are running out of chances to wake up and put things right. Anyone choosing to take the club off his hands could still peruse an inviting prospectus: a rich history, a genuinely excellent academy and, more importantly than ever, one of the most progressive women’s setups in the country.
For now Evans hopes Lambert will turn things around and the Guardian understands there is no prospect of a new manager being sought unless Ipswich fall well away from the top six. They visit Oxford on Tuesday in an effort to stave off that eventuality; by Walker’s measure a performance anywhere above average should, at least, begin to brighten the feeling of crushing sadness.