Yesterday I looked back on Mick McCarthy’s first three years at Portman Road, up to the end of the 2014/15 season. At this point, Ipswich had just qualified for the play-offs for the first time in a decade, and despite losing out to Norwich there were plenty of reasons to be positive about the future…
2015/16: The start of the slide
Despite the evident progress made in the play-off season, the weakest area of the team was the midfield and in particular the wide areas, so McCarthy sought to resolve this over the summer. Paul Anderson, Darren Ambrose and Stephen Hunt were released, and Jay Tabb was told to find another club. In came two loanees from Premier League clubs – Ryan Fraser from Bournemouth and Ainsley Maitland-Niles from Arsenal. Jonas Knudsen arrived from Denmark as a replacement for Mings, Brett Pitman joined to strengthen the front line and Jonathan Douglas signed on a free after being released by Brentford.
In my view this was McCarthy’s weakest transfer window in his time at the club. While Fraser was outstanding when fit and Knudsen and Pitman were both reasonable additions, there was also a significant amount of waste – Douglas, Coke, Alabi, Toure, Oar and Malarczyk added nothing and the squad became somewhat bloated as a result.
Having said that, the season got off to an excellent start. After blowing a two goal lead at Brentford, three consecutive wins saw Ipswich move to the top of the early league table, scoring two goals in each match. There had been a concerted effort by McCarthy to change the style of play but two results put a sudden halt to this plan – the 3-2 reverse at home to Brighton and the 5-1 televised spanking at Reading. In attack the team was performing fine but defensively they suddenly looked brittle. Bishop was injured and the centre midfield pairing of Skuse and Douglas was not mobile enough, while Sears had been shoehorned into a wide midfield position. Tabb and Anderson had been strong defensively and their replacements were more attack-minded, so the back four was no longer getting the protection it had the previous season.
There was a typical McCarthy performance in the next game at Leeds, winning 1-0, but that was followed by seven games without a win leaving Ipswich in 14th after 14 games. Nobody was seriously calling for McCarthy to go at this point but there were a few question marks over his tactics and team selection. Any criticism was quickly quietened with a run of eight wins and three draws in the next 13 games, including five consecutive wins on the road, pushing the Blues back into the play-off race.
The team’s form over the following couple of months was indifferent and the style of football uninspiring, but despite this they stayed in touch with the play-offs and with nine games remaining they were still only one point off sixth. It was at this point the previous season that McCarthy galvanised his squad and found the results needed to make the top six, sadly it was the opposite this campaign – five draws and two defeats followed in the next seven games, scoring just three goals in the process. The run started with a miserable 1-0 home defeat to struggling Rotherham, a game where Skuse, Hyam and Douglas all started – this match is still referred to as one of the worst of the McCarthy era.
It certainly hadn’t been a disastrous campaign, in fact after the first two-thirds of the campaign there was still a great chance of making the play-offs again, but a mere five wins and 14 goals in the last 17 games killed off any excitement and led to some questions about Mick’s approach to games. Murphy could not reach the heights of 2014/15 and with only one other player scoring more than six goals in the league all season, the team was not as effective and boredom was starting to set in at home games in particular. A pragmatic approach is acceptable if the results follow, but once the wins dry up we’ve seen at other clubs that supporters can turn very quickly.
Stepping back for a moment and looking at the season in the wider context of McCarthy’s time at the club, this was the third consecutive top ten finish, something which hadn’t been achieved since the days of Joe Royle. Injuries had also played their part – McGoldrick, Bishop and Fraser all missed large chunks of the season, robbing the team of their most creative players. While 2015/16 had been underwhelming it was still a reasonable base from which to kick on and hopefully improve next season.
2016/17: Tension, tedium and terrible football
McCarthy had overall done a good job on a shoestring budget, but with the increase in parachute payments it was becoming increasingly difficult for a team like Ipswich to compete in the Championship. Marcus Evans finally loosened the purse strings a little in the summer of 2016, allowing McCarthy to spend £600k on Grant Ward and £750k plus Matthew Clarke on the highly-rated Adam Webster from Portsmouth.
Ward bagged a second half hat-trick on debut in a 4-2 win over Barnsley, but the first month of the season was indifferent overall and the team were struggling to find the back of the net. Then came a crucial blow – Newcastle signed Daryl Murphy for £3million at the end of the summer transfer window. This was a reasonable fee given his age and he deserved the chance to ply his trade at a bigger club, but he had been so crucial to the team’s style of play that a replacement was desperately needed. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen – Leon Best was signed on a free, with Jonny Williams and Tom Lawrence loaned in on deadline day. Best had been released by Rotherham and was clearly an inadequate replacement for Murphy, so everyone hoped that McCarthy and Connor would somehow be able to whip him into shape.
It’s safe to say they weren’t successful – from the start of September, Ipswich scored a pitiful four goals in the next nine games, leaving them in 17th with 14 games gone. They spent the rest of the season hovering between 13th and 17th. The entertainment value was nil and the results had also dried up, so unsurprisingly the supporters were growing restless. This festering negativity came to a head at the next game, at home to Rotherham. The visitors were cut adrift at the bottom of the league and hadn’t picked up an away point all season… until they arrived at Portman Road. McGoldrick’s 96th minute equaliser salvaged a point but some of the hardcore supporters in the lower tier of the SBR Stand had already turned, with the first chants of “Mick McCarthy your football is shit” heard during the second half.
The next game saw the first Tom Lawrence wonder-goal in an impressive 2-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday, and this would become a common occurrence over the next couple of months in particular. With Sears, Varney and Pitman struggling to find the net with any regularity, the young Welshman went from strength to strength and began winning games almost single-handedly. The form of Bialkowski should also be noted – the Pole was catching the eye with his excellent shot-stopping ability.
The team was incredibly inconsistent for most of this campaign – in the first 41 games, at no point did the team win or lose consecutive games. This was enough to stop them getting sucked into a relegation battle but that’s the best that can be said for this torrid, tedious season. There were a few high points – the previously mentioned win at Wednesday, the terrific 1-0 win at Aston Villa and the well-deserved 3-1 victory over promotion-chasing Newcastle to name three. Injuries again had a major impact on the season – McGolrdick, Bishop and Williams were all unavailable for a significant portion of the campaign, and without Murphy up front the team desperately lacked an outlet. The club had quickly gone from challenging for the top six to muddling through, and the relationship between manager and fans was becoming increasingly strained as a result.
For every high point in 2016/17 there were multiple low points. The team went five games without a goal in September and October, the longest goalless run in the McCarthy era at the time of writing. The gap between a play-off chasing side and this Ipswich team was perfectly demonstrated on Boxing Day, when Fulham came to Portman Road and gave them a footballing lesson, winning 2-0 but it’s no exaggeration to say it should have been five or six such was their superiority. On deadline day in January, the Blues were hammered 3-0 at home by Derby and the club were unable to make any permanent additions to the squad, signing Emyr Huws and Dominic Samuel on loan. There was also a strong possibility of captain Chambers returning to Forest, but the club eventually sorted out his contract and he was persuaded to stay. A few other additions were made in the January window – Spence, Steven Taylor, Danny Rowe, Diagouraga and somewhat bizarrely, Kieffer Moore from Forest Green Rovers. The budget was as limited as ever but McCarthy’s success rate in the market was decreasing year-on-year.
January also saw the most embarrassing performance of the McCarthy era. The FA Cup had always been treated as secondary to the league, and understandably so in some cases such as the play-off season, but the defeat to League 2 Portsmouth the previous season was hugely disappointing and at this point McCarthy still hadn’t won an FA Cup tie in his time at the club. This season the Blues were drawn at home to Lincoln City, and with the team languishing in mid-table this was a great opportunity to boost morale with a cup run. The home game was embarrassing enough, with Lawrence only salvaging a draw in the final five minutes, but the replay was even worse. Televised by the BBC, the Blues put in a pathetic display and Nathan Arnold won the game in stoppage time for the National League side. Terry Butcher was scathing of the team’s performance in the post-match analysis and many believed McCarthy should have been sacked immediately.
The atmosphere around the club deteriorated and attendances dropped as the season dragged on. The mood in the away end at Fulham was particularly unpleasant as the team was played off the park by Jokanovic’s men once again, with most of the abuse aimed at McCarthy rather than Evans or the players. The manager couldn’t resist biting back in press conferences which only poured petrol on the flames and reinforced the siege mentality that had long since set in. The victory over Newcastle boosted morale and put to bed any lingering fears of relegation, but the season ended with three defeats on the bounce and led to the club’s lowest finish in over half a century, only four points above the relegation zone and a massive 25 behind sixth-placed Fulham. The limp surrender on the final day at Forest rather summed up the season and left many feeling that McCarthy’s time at the club should be ended prematurely.
In defence of the manager, this was his first poor season at the club since his arrival, and the sale of Murphy at the end of August without an adequate replacement lined up had an impact on the campaign. Much like the previous season, injuries often forced changes of game plan and formation. He did at times try to change the style of play but with limited success, and he too quickly reverted to his default safety-first approach. If it hadn’t been for the sparking form of Bialkowski and Lawrence the season could easily have ended in relegation, so major surgery on the squad was needed and Evans needed to back his man for this to be successful.
2017/18: The inevitable divorce
For the first time since taking over and with only a year left on his contract, there was genuine pressure on McCarthy so the summer transfer window was crucial. Emyr Huws made his loan deal permanent, while Joe Garner and Martyn Waghorn signed from Rangers to bolster the frontline. There was also the usual batch of loan signings – Iorfa from Wolves, Celina from Manchester City and Callum Connolly from Everton. In the other direction, Berra unsurprisingly rejoined Hearts and Pitman was sold to Portsmouth, while the hapless trio of Douglas, Best and Coke were released.
Expectations were low but the 6-1 pre-season defeat at Charlton was startling, and left many concerned that a season-long battle against relegation was ahead of us. The team responded in the best possible fashion – despite being decimated by injuries, to the point where they started with four full-backs against Brentford, the first four league games all ended in victory. Garner and Waghorn hit the ground running and McGoldrick had finally worked his way back to full fitness, giving Ipswich the goal threat they sorely lacked the previous season. Nobody seriously expected this start to lead to a challenge for the top two, but it least offered the hope that there would be an improvement both in terms of results and entertainment. The 4-3 classic at Millwall showed the spirit in the camp and the pre-season negativity was quickly draining away.
Sadly, this didn’t last long – six defeats in the next eight, including yet another defeat to Norwich, saw the Blues slip back down to 11th and another season of mid-table mediocrity beckoned. McCarthy was unable to settle on a team and formation, partly due to the horrendous injury list but also because of his inclination to match up the opposition where possible, a tendency which has frustrated many. The loss at home to Norwich was particularly frustrating – this was McCarthy’s seventh local derby without a win.
The Blues continued to bumble along in mid-table with no real direction, scoring plenty of goals but struggling to keep them out at the other end. The ‘Fab Four’ of Waghorn, Garner, McGoldrick and Celina were banging in the goals but the defence was unusually porous, not helped by injuries in the early part of the season. The current points tally would be noticeably lower if not for the continuing superb form of Bialkowski, who has being linked to a Premier League move. McCarthy regularly switched between two and three centre-backs, eventually settling on the latter. The struggle between defensive solidity and attacking threat was a consistent theme across McCarthy’s last two seasons at the club.
The entertaining 4-2 win over Nottingham Forest at the start of December pushed the team up to 7th but from there it has been downhill all the way – the record since then in all competitions is: played 21, won 5, drawn 6, lost 10, scored 14, conceded 22. Put simply, the last four months have been utterly tedious and broken the relationship between manager and the fans beyond repair. The current position of 12th is probably about right for this squad, but there have been opportunities to grab the initiative in games that haven’t been taken and the fearful, safety-first approach has driven away many long-time season ticket holders. Five home games in a row without scoring from mid-January to the end of March effectively sealed his fate.
For the third season running, injuries had a serious impact on the season. Andre Dozzell ruptured his cruciate ligament on the opening day, Teddy Bishop, Tom Adeyemi and Emyr Huws all suffered a variety of injuries, and the seasons of Joe Garner and David McGoldrick were both ended prematurely. Was this simply bad luck, was the squad unusually injury-prone or were mistakes being made behind the scenes? We can only speculate, but whatever the cause it has made things significantly more difficult for McCarthy since 2015.
Three recent home games stand out in terms of cementing the negativity against McCarthy. Two unambitious 0-0 draws against Burton and an out-of-form Sheffield United were bad enough, but it was the 3-0 disaster against Hull that appears to have finally made the minds up of Evans, McCarthy and the few people left in the stadium by the full-time whistle. The switch to a back four had disastrous consequences and the mood in the stadium in the second half was deeply unpleasant. It must have been difficult for the players to remain fully focused on the game and some of the abuse was probably unwarranted, but for the good of the club it was now crystal clear that changes were needed.
The final derby match also did McCarthy no favours. When Chambers headed home what looked to be the winner in the 89th minute, footage clearly showed him shouting “fuck off” in the direction of the travelling fans. In his defense, a few minutes previously a minority of the support reacted angrily when he replaced Iorfa with Spence, leaving Celina as an unused sub. The chanting was unwarranted and unhelpful but the reaction of the manager showed a man who was clearly intent on getting one over his critics. Can you imagine the reaction on Sky Sports if Mourinho or Klopp had done something similar?
This pattern of behaviour had been established the previous season. McCarthy didn’t take kindly to any criticism from the terraces, which he is of course entitled to do and the personal abuse was out of order, but he appeared to take any questioning of team selection or tactics deeply personally and the results over the last two years were nowhere near good enough to repair the damage. Even the mild-mannered local press were on the wrong end of some terse responses to relatively gentle questioning. Comments such as those made after the Burton away game were unhelpful and hinted at an unhealthy siege mentality, which made the eventual split inevitable. It was McCarthy himself who forced the issue on the contract, calling the meeting with Evans where they mutually agreed to part ways.
So, what next for Ipswich and Mick McCarthy? The Yorkshireman’s reputation nationally won’t have been done any harm by his time in Suffolk, and he will no doubt go on to get another job in the near future – he has already been heavily linked to West Brom. Pundits and fans of other clubs will see the small budget and results, and conclude that Ipswich are foolish to let him go. They may well prove to be right but the club couldn’t allow the situation to continue, they simply have to take a risk at this point. Attendances are plummeting and the entertainment on offer has been almost non-existent for the past two seasons. The club needs to make an effort to re-engage the fan base, but given the lack of funds available the next appointment is crucial. If Evans gets it wrong there is every possibility of the Blues sliding from mid-table into a relegation battle, but there is the basis of a decent squad along with some excellent youngsters, so the right man could just lead the club back to the Premier League… we can hope, right?