Diary of a Tractor Boy: 26th March – 1st April

Monday 26th March

Three big pieces of news emerged today – the club released season ticket prices for the 2018/19 season, confirming the rumoured 10% reduction in prices across the board until the end of April; an announcement on Mick McCarthy’s future would be made well in advance of that early bird deadline; and Marcus Evans would do a video interview for the first time to discuss his future plans for the club.

The news of a drop in season ticket prices was largely welcomed by fans on social media, particularly given the increases for the current season, though a bigger issue for many is the future of the manager. If McCarthy’s contract is extended then I can’t imagine a 10% drop would be enough to encourage a significant number of lapsed season ticket holders to return, so confirmation that his future will be decided one way or the other before the end of April is very welcome.

Having said that, it now appears very unlikely that McCarthy will still be around next season. Ian Milne’s comments to a number of fans at the recent game in Bristol suggested as much, and I think Evans will try to entice people back to Portman Road by presenting a new long-term strategy when he is interviewed in the next month or so. It’s clear to many that things cannot carry on as they are, and finally it appears those running the club have come to the same conclusion. McCarthy’s time is drawing to a natural end, offering the perfect chance to take a different approach.

Thursday 29th March

Today saw the long-awaited announcement that McCarthy would be leaving the club at the end of his contract, finally putting an end to a season of speculation around his future. The decision appeared to be a mutual one with both the owner and manager stating that they never even discussed a new contract, having independently come to the same conclusion that it was right for both parties if they parted ways in May. While some were clearly delighted with this news, my personal reaction was more one of relief that we finally had some clarity on the situation.

I’ll take a more in-depth look into the McCarthy era later this week, but my initial thoughts are that this is the right decision for all parties. It isn’t simply about results or entertainment, though we have been pretty light on both over the past couple of seasons. The relationship between the fans and McCarthy had deteriorated to a point of no return some months ago, and there had been no real effort made to reconcile those differences. The constant sniping and abuse thrown in both directions has become tiresome, as has the football on the pitch. Even when we won, McCarthy would use it as an opportunity to snap back at his critics, so the mutual ill-feeling was never far from the surface.

There’s little doubt that, if you look purely at the results and the budget, that McCarthy has done a good job at Portman Road, with the possible exception at last season. Yet as any fan will tell you, there’s more to football than results, and grinding out 0-0 draws at home to mid-table sides is only going to push people away. The attendance figures have fallen away drastically in the last two years, partly down to the changes to season ticket prices last season but mostly because of the football on offer. As we’ve seen for other pragmatic managers such as Pulis and Allardyce, people will tolerate their football while results are positive, but as soon as the team starts losing the mood can turn very quickly.

McCarthy’s reputation nationally will have been enhanced by his time at Portman Road. They will see the results of the first three seasons in particular and his small budget and conclude that Ipswich are foolish to let him go. They might prove to be right, but we can’t afford to let things continue as they are. The football is so turgid, risk-free and tedious and the mood around the club so overwhelmingly negative that it would arguably be more risky to let things continue as they are. If you’re paying in excess of £30 per match you at least want some semblance of excitement or entertainment. It’s easy to look in from the outside and tell us to be “careful what you wish for”, a phrase that has cropped up countless times already, but few would want to spend their hard-earned money watching a team merely attempting to survive. You can accept a safety-first approach in a relegation battle, but if you’re at home to an out-of-form Sheffield United or Burton Albion side and there’s no chance of relegation, is there any excuse for lining up with five defenders and three defensively-minded midfielders? Is it too much to ask for a bit of intent, to take the game to the opposition? Injuries have had an impact but the team is so fearful of defeat, despite the fact that there is no threat of relegation, and until a few weeks ago an outside chance of making the play-offs. It’s time to try something different.

Friday 30th March

Attention has now turned to who will take over from McCarthy next season. Plenty of names have been mentioned already, with the usual mixed reaction. Experienced managers such as Steve McClaren, Simon Grayson and Mark Warburton are among the favourites at this stage. Each of Evans’ three appointments so far had achieved promotion from the Championship, and while none of the those three have managed that in their career they all fit the mould of the sort of manager Evans has looked for previously.

A number of former Ipswich players have been linked to the position, in particular Tony Mowbray, Shefki Kuqi and John McGreal. Looking purely at their managerial records, only Mowbray has the results behind him to be a credible candidate for the position. The former centre-back has a mixed managerial record, having previously taken charge of Hibernian, West Brom, Celtic, Middlesbrough and Coventry before his current position at Blackburn Rovers. He couldn’t save them from relegation to the third tier last season but they have reacted very well and are competing for an immediate return, along with Wigan and Shrewsbury. This would be a popular appointment, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be willing to talk to Evans while in the midst of a promotion battle.

A few other managers from the lower leagues have been linked, such as Wigan’s Paul Cook, Lincoln’s Danny Cowley and Luton’s Nathan Jones, though they would have to be persuaded to leave their current clubs which will not happen before the end of the season. We could be in for a long wait before a new manager is appointed.

The international break has come to an end, and the first game after the McCarthy announcement is the same as his first in charge over five years ago – a trip to struggling Birmingham City. Now that the uncertainty over the manager’s future has been cleared up, hopefully the atmosphere will improve and we can enjoy the last eight matches of the season.

Sunday 1st March

Hmm… I doubt that anyone who attended yesterday’s match got much enjoyment from it. Birmingham have struggled all season and were in the relegation zone before the start of the game, yet we managed just one shot on target and limped meekly to a 1-0 defeat. The penalty was soft at best but this match epitomised why so many fans want McCarthy gone. The team simply never looked like scoring – it is now more than six hours since Waghorn’s late free kick at Wednesday. Injuries have chipped away at the attacking options but if you end the game with five defenders on the pitch plus Hyam and Skuse, you’re making things harder for yourself. As I mentioned earlier there’s no chance of relegation, so why not have a go? Why not take off one of the five defenders for the last few minutes at least? As ever there was no lack of effort or industry, but sadly there was also precious little quality. The manager may be off in the summer but the handbrake is still well and truly on.

McCarthy’s post-match comments were as honest as ever, admitting at Thursday’s announcement may have had an impact on his players. The original plan was to allow McCarthy to see out the season, but if he’s admitting that he’s struggling for motivation I don’t see much point in him carrying on until May. One option would be to put him and Terry Connor on gardening leave and hand the reins over to Gerard Nash and/or Bryan Klug for the last few games. The remainder of the season could be used for experimenting with line-ups and formations, and potentially giving opportunities to youngsters who could feature next season, but of course there is no incentive for McCarthy to do that – his focus will be on picking up as many points as possible.

Next up is Millwall, a side that is unbeaten since New Year’s Day and has won seven of their last eight matches. This run has seen them fly up the league and into the play-off scrap, with only a single point separating themselves and fifth-placed Derby. Neil Harris’ side are a direct, well-organised side built on a low budget (sound familiar?) and they’ll no doubt fancy their chances tomorrow. I’m expecting another tight, low-scoring game, the epic 4-3 win at The New Den in August now a distant memory. Fingers crossed for a goal or two…

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