Michael Walker: Mick McCarthy struggling to halt Ipswich’s downward slide

Club have slumped to 16th in Championship and haven’t scored a goal in four games

 Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy is under pressure. Photograph: Alex Morton/Getty Images

Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy is under pressure. Photograph: Alex Morton/Getty Images

 

Whatever happened to Ipswich Town and Mick McCarthy?

Possibly not the question on the tip of many tongues this morning, but it’s been one recurring for a few weeks in East Anglia. Perhaps even in McCarthy’s front room.

Just in case it slipped off your radar – and in East Anglia that is how it feels – McCarthy has been manager of Ipswich since November 2012. So a fourth anniversary approaches.

When he arrived the team were bottom of the Championship with one win in 13 games. Things were desperate. McCarthy brought recovery and relief. By season’s end Ipswich were 14th. At the same time, Wolves, McCarthy’s former club, were relegated to the third division.

There was a contrast to behold and at Portman Road McCarthy was described as a saviour, an experienced presence, a manager who made a team more than the sum of its parts. At Ipswich Town they appreciate these qualities.

It is not a hot-head club. McCarthy is the 10th manager in the past 47 years. Today’s opponents, Blackburn Rovers, have had 10 since 2004.

However, times change. Moods might not exactly swing at Ipswich, but they can ebb and go. Over the past month in particular, the frustration of pessimism has taken a grip on the club.

In that month Ipswich have played four times and not scored a goal. They are 16th in the Championship and after an international break McCarthy knows all about, there is a burst of three games in eight days: Blackburn away, Burton at home, Newcastle away.

Suddenly it’s back on. Five, six or seven points would alleviate tension and suggest an upward trend; even three draws would show the squad and management were battling for their club.

Alter the atmosphere

Whether that would alter the atmosphere is another matter. There is a general sense of stagnation.

Ipswich were relegated from the Premier League in 2002 and have been in the Championship ever since. That’s 15 seasons and they have made the play-offs three times. This season – eight goals in 11 games, only two in the first half, top scorer Daryl Murphy sold to Newcastle – fans foresee that becoming three in 16.

“It’s my hardest time as a manager here at the moment, without a doubt,” McCarthy said after the last match, a 1-0 home defeat to surprise leaders Huddersfield Town.

“I’m not deaf, I can hear the mumblings of discontent, the frustrations of the supporters. I understand that.”

As he said, McCarthy has ears. He was called a “boring” expletive early in the season by one Ipswich supporter and said the attitude of “I’m all right one week, but I’m not the next” from some “really does hurt”.

That was after a decent draw with local rivals Norwich.

This illustrates the rising dissatisfaction from within and without the dugout. Norwich are serious contenders for automatic promotion. They have spent four of the past six seasons in the Premier League and have the consequent economic wherewithal. The Carrow Road club appears stable and progressive with a zip of expectation – albeit realistic – about it.

And, as Tip O’Neill did say, all politics is local.

Not quite all, though. The comparison with Norwich is only part of Ipswich’s current situation. The top six in the Championship on the day McCarthy succeeded Paul Jewell read: Cardiff City, Leicester City, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace, Blackburn and Hull City. Five of those clubs have since made it to the Premier League and Leicester, obviously, have won it.

Palace and Hull have been to the FA Cup final. Ipswich followers consider themselves to be on the same scale as these clubs, if not bigger. Now they see Huddersfield 12 points ahead after 11 games.

Meanwhile, Ipswich sell. Aaron Cresswell, Tyrone Mings and Murphy have departed for around £15 million in the past two years. Would Ipswich be more credible promotion candidates with those three still at the club? Of course.

Would they be solvent? Businessman Marcus Evans bought the club almost a decade ago; McCarthy’s costliest signing is the £625,000 paid to Portsmouth for Adam Webster.

Sow’s ear

Ipswich were mis-managed into administration in 2003. Then the average attendance was 25,000. Last season it was 19,000. Against Huddersfield it was just over 16,000. A drop-off is upon the club and McCarthy privately may wonder why he would take a sow’s ear and make a purse if there’s nothing to put in it.

At Portman Road there is understanding of his predicament. The club’s decline pre-dates McCarthy and there is appreciation – quiet rather than shouted – that even as assets were sold off he shoehorned Ipswich into the playoffs two years ago. Painfully, it was lost to Norwich.

Last season Ipswich got to seventh, and McCarthy’s performance was recognised in a contract extension in January. If it is honoured, McCarthy will be Ipswich manager until 2018.

But an “if” has entered the room. It has joined grumpiness in there. At least some injured players are re-entering too. How Ipswich Town could do with a goal.

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