Ipswich Town: Running Towards Adversity
Ipswich Town CEO Mark Ashton explains how the motto of their new investors is at the heart of a revival on and off the pitch.
At the start of the season, an Arizona police officer disfigured by 50% burns from a car crash while on duty came to speak to players and staff at Ipswich Town. Jason Schechterle’s inspirational talk had a simple theme – never be afraid to run towards adversity.
It happens to be the motto of the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, the public worker pension fund which is represented by the ORG Investment Group as the now majority owner of Ipswich Town.
However, after that speech to the Town staff, it now also adorns the changing room of a side which has fallen from the Premier League, and is trying to find its way out of League One under new ownership.
“The biggest thing we’ve done is given people hope,” says club Chief Executive, Mark Ashton who joined to help the new owners lead the new revolution just over a year ago from his previous role at Bristol City.
“This club had been run down for two decades. The signs outside were falling apart, the club was tired and people weren’t convinced there was a plan before to change that.
“As a result, the younger generation from our huge catchment area were bypassing this stadium and choosing to get on a train and go and see London clubs. But if you come into Ipswich on a matchday now, the fans are swarming back in their numbers and the town is very blue again.”
What you see at matchdays now back up his claim. Average attendances slipped to around 21,000 at a pre-Covid Portman Road. The opening day this season notched 28,000-plus, with average attendances getting back to above 25,000. A once decently attended pre-match fanzone is now thronging with all generations a couple of hours before kick-off.
On top of this, local boy and pop superstar, Ed Sheeran, helped bring global recognition to his hometown team by becoming its shirt sponsor and designing a third kit which has become a must-have for his fans, Ipswich fans and kit connoisseurs alike.
But whilst the world may think the Blues are en vogue courtesy of their celebrity fan, Ashton points to changes closer to the club’s front door that have lifted ticket and retail sales again.
“The two biggest things I think we have done to make people believe in us again are setting standards and ensuring constant communication with colleagues, staff and stakeholders,” he explained.
“All of the coaching staff that have come in from other teams have come from sides where they know what good looks like, and they’re simply driving our standards every single day as a result.
“They have a disciplined process and a hard work ethic. We’re in at 7am, we don’t finish until late. That sets the standards for everyone else. Kieran (McKenna) says to me he wouldn’t trust a player who couldn’t do the small things, like turning up on time, to do the big things like make that last-ditch clearance.”
And the same attitude has been permeated into the DNA of office colleagues at the Portman Road HQ.
“When I arrived on my first day in the role, the club reception was closed. It had been for three years, I had to come in by a side entrance.
“I asked why the reception wasn’t open and was told the air con broke down in there, so instead of fixing the air con unit, they closed the reception to save money and moved the staff upstairs!
“What message does that send to the outside world? That Ipswich isn’t open for business? That Ipswich is unwelcoming? I wouldn’t let that stick, so we got the air con fixed, and we opened the reception again.”
A lot of the push for better standards is about taking personal responsibility for the better of everyone in the business.
“In my first day, I wandered past the staff kitchen and saw some cups that had been left in a bowl unwashed for a few days. I didn’t walk past it. I took a picture of how they were, then washed them all and took another picture of the clean mugs. I emailed the picture to all staff and said, ‘if the CEO can wash the cups, anyone can.’ We need high standards in this club and that comes from within.”
The club also changed its structure, so people always have managerial support and focus.
“When we white-boarded the organisation chart, the current system was so flat that I technically had 21 direct line reports! Nothing was ever going to be decided that way, so we put in pillars of the business with new leadership who would inspire and motivate staff already here, as well as bring new people to Portman Road.”
And then it came to communicating with a set of downhearted fans who had heard promises of investment and rejuvenation before. But early correspondence to Ashton and the new owners indicated there was still goodwill to work with.
“The initial communication I was getting from people was not so much ‘prove you’ve got money’, but ‘what can we do to help you make our club great again?’. When you get that tone, it inspires you more to bring the club’s standards back to where they should be,” he said.
“So, then you try to bring those people in to talk more to them. You make yourself available to the wider community to listen to what they need from us. Not only how to get the football team to win the league, but also how we can support the community outside through charitable work.
“What we heard was we needed to change the way our community support function operated. So, we reinvented our old Community Trust into the Ipswich Town Foundation and brought on Trustees who worked in the public and charity sectors in Suffolk we needed to support alongside Conor Chaplin and Natasha Thomas who currently play in our senior teams.
“We’ve started a dementia café, we have empowered our respected former players and managers like Matt Holland and Simon Milton to go out there and do community and fan events. Our players actively ask to be part of community events because they get so much out of being with fans in our town.”
Raising standards and communicating clearly can often benefit a club more than the size of the war chest any new owner invests in players on the pitch.
And money doesn’t buy league position and Mark Ashton knows too well.
“…but the work we are doing to restore pride in this club is paying off in new fans, returning fans, better facilities and that is the best equipment we can offer our team physically and morally to go and win that league,” he says.
“There’s no better example of Running Towards Adversity than going 1-0 down 25 minutes in against Bolton in front of 28,000 fans at Portman Road on the opening day!
“We ran towards adversity that day and got a draw against a tough opponent. We’ll continue to run towards adversity to take this club where it should be.”
Images: Matchday Images – Words: Marc Webber