Hurst paid the price because owner won’t
THRIFTY EVANS STALLS TRACTOR
IT WAS just after 2.15 on a Saturday afternoon in August when the realisation dawned that Ipswich Town were doomed.
The Tractor Boys were at Hillsborough to face Sheffield Wednesday, their fifth match of an already cheerless campaign.
Early form is rarely a reliable barometer, of course. In August 2006, Sunderland sat bottom of the Championship without a point to their name. By April 2007, they were back in the Premier League and waving two fingers at everyone who’d written them off.
Maybe this was just a teething issue; the stolid conservatism of Mick McCarthy segueing jerkily into the brave new world promised by Paul Hurst. A colleague from Suffolk cheerily insisted they’d been playing well.
Then, 45 minutes before kick-off, the teamsheet arrived - and the true scale of Ipswich’s problems was laid bare.
Scanning that warm piece of A4 was like yanking a random page from the phonebook. The names meant nothing.
Loanees, kids, signings from the lower leagues; with the exception of Luke Chambers, Jonas Knudsen and keeper Bartosz Bialkowski, none of them had played in the Championship.
Up top, they were relying on Kayden Jackson, a 24-year-old signing from Accrington Stanley who was jumping two divisions.
It showed. Hurst’s men were lively enough but they were outsmarted at set-pieces, up front and eventually lost 2-1.
Since then the gloom has thickened, the form column a stormy sea of yellow and red. Defeat to Leeds in midweek left the Tractor Boys bottom of the pile and Hurst, just months after leaving Shrewsbury, is out of a job.
Hurst must shoulder his share of the blame for a recruitment drive that left Ipswich woefully short on experience.
Barnsley last season and Rotherham before that demonstrated that gambling on too many rough diamonds rarely results in sparkling performances.
Similarly, the use of 27 different players so far – the most in the division – can’t have helped a side short on confidence and cohesion.
Remember, though, that Hurst was explicitly directed to sign potential by an owner unwilling to pay the going rate. His failings are a symptom of the problems at Ipswich, not the cause.
Ipswich are £90m in debt and, like Mike Ashley at Newcastle, Marcus Evans has no inclination to speculate his way to profit. He spends only the bare minimum in a bid to maintain the status quo.
Since the start of the 2012-13 campaign, Town’s total outlay on players is less than £10m. This summer alone, eight of their rivals spent more.
Speaking after Hurst was dismissed, Evans hailed the “strong core” of his club. “This group of experienced players along with the additions we made to the squad this summer of younger developing talent, plus the ongoing progression of playtoothless ers from our academy, means the new manager will have a solid group to work with,” he said.
What experience? Which solid group? It was obvious back in August, and it remains evident now, that this Ipswich team – starved of investment and relying on kids – cannot survive in the Championship.
As Ashley has found at Newcastle – and will be forced to acknowledge again in May – repeatedly sailing so close to the wind inevitably results in calamity. But for McCarthy, Ipswich would have gone under years ago.
Would the Yorkshireman have kept them up? Probably. He’d have spent his meagre budget on crafty veterans, drilled them to defend and slogged to survival.
But supporters were tired and numb, and fair enough. Pundits who patronisingly warned them to be careful what they wished for have clearly never paid good money to watch bad football with no hope of success. As one fan eloquently put it this week, you have to risk hell to escape purgatory. Yet all that – the turgid football, the tetchy friction between McCarthy and supporters – was a symptom, too. At the root of it all is an owner who will not spend what is required to construct a successful Championship team. Until that changes, purgatory is the best anyone at Portman Road can aspire to.