‘We didn’t have any money...we had to get it right’ - how selling the crown jewels eventually took Town to the promised land
PUBLISHED: 06:00 27 May 2020
As we celebrate Ipswich Town’s Wembley victory in 2000, ANDY WARREN takes a look at how the promotion-winning side was built over three years.
As Kieron Dyer left the Portman Road pitch on May 19, 1999, all those in attendance were fearing this was the end.
The end of a bright young star’s time at Ipswich Town and, as a result, the end of a prolonged promotion push which had ended in play-off pain three seasons in a row.
It was to be the end for Dyer but the pain of that night and of his departure was just another stepping stone on the bumpy journey to a wonderful promotion.
Dyer had just scored twice in a play-off semi-final defeat by Bolton Wanderers and was destined to go on to bigger and better things. Few would have begrudged him that, given this local boy had been a shining light during his two-and-a-half seasons in the Ipswich first-team and gave his all each and every time he stepped onto the field for the club he loved.
He had been part of a side which had lost three-successive play-off semi-finals and, after each, sacrifices needed to be made. First it was Tony Vaughan, sold to Manchester City in 1997. Then it was Mauricio Taricco, who left for Tottenham in 1998. And now it was the crown jewel’s turn to depart, as Dyer joined Newcastle United for £6 million in the summer of 1999. West Ham had been bidding, too, but couldn’t match the offer from the Magpies.
“It was really tough,” former chairman David Sheepshanks said.
“Every year we had to sell and we really did have no money, so whatever we managed to hatch we could spend alongside some very careful husbandry and as much as we could twist out of the bank.
“So as soon as we had lost to Bolton in the play-offs in 1999 we had microphones in front of us and I was being asked ‘this is the end, isn’t it?’ and was told ‘let’s be realistic, players are going to have to go and the team will be weaker next year’ George (Burley, manager) was being asked the same.
“Our response to that had to be resolute and to insist we would learn from this and be shrewd in the transfer market once again to find new players if we had to sell the likes of Kieron. That had to be said and that’s exactly what we did.”
Manager Burley added: “We had three disappointments in the play-offs and that was always a big challenge.
“We didn’t have the finance to invest every year and we had to balance the books, sell a player and then build it again. We maybe had to bring in a million a year to balance the books, so to sell someone like Kieron for £6 million really helped us.
“Losing Kieron was hard but when you bring young players through it gives you great pleasure to see them go on and do well. If you don’t have the finance to stop a big deal going through then there’s nothing you can do. We had to be realistic.”
Each time Sheepshanks and Burley replaced those who had departed. Vaughan’s sale, as well as those of Craig Forrest and Steve Sedgley, financed the arrivals of Matt Holland, David Johnson, Jamie Clapham and Mark Venus in 1997. Taricco’s was followed by the arrival of Fabian Wilnis and Jim Magilton during 1998/99.
The sale of Dyer, which brought by far the biggest windfall of the lot, was the driving force behind the recruitment class of 1999 which ultimately got Ipswich over the line in the most dramatic of fashions.
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But while 1999 was the final push, it was merely the continuation of a plan born four-years prior, as the Blues dealt with relegation from the top flight in 1995.
“We really had nothing following relegation from the Premier League, the cupboard was bare and the best players wanted out,” Sheepshanks recalls.
“We worked on a five-year plan as a board and everybody started chipping in and creating this plan, which we went public on. We focussed on the young players and engaging with the community again because, a little like now, there were more young kids dressing in green and yellow locally than in blue and white. We needed to change that.
“It’s worth remembering how tough it was back then because it makes it all-the-more remarkable really what George Burley achieved as manager.”
Money was still tight, of course, but the size of the Dyer fee meant, for the first time, Burley really had some room to work in the transfer market.
John McGreal and Jermaine Wright arrived in the first wave, then it was Gary Croft a few weeks later. Marcus Stewart was poached from promotion rivals Huddersfield in February 2000 and then, just before the loan deadline, Martijn Reuser was the cherry on top as he crossed the North Sea from Ajax.
In three summers, through selling a key player and spreading the profits across multiple signings, Sheepshanks and Burley had acquired 11 of the 14 players used at Wembley that famous day in May 2000. The only exceptions were homegrown players Richard Wright and Richard Naylor, as well as veteran Tony Mowbray, who arrived in the shadow of relegation in 1995. James Scowcroft, another homegrown talent, was the club’s player-of-the-season that year but sadly missed out on the big game through injury.
“The recruitment at the club was great,” captain Holland said.
“Losing key players, such as Kieron, was tough of course but George was able to replace him with some fantastic players and, just as importantly, some fantastic characters as well. That’s so vital to any success.”
“Just look at the amount of leaders in that team,” Sheepshanks added. “Tony Mowbray and Mark Venus have coached together for so long and then you look up and down the side and you see players who have coached. Richard Wright, Jamie Clapham, Marcus Stewart, Richard Naylor and Jim Magilton of course, who went on to manage the club.
“George masterminded this. We as a board did our best to facilitate in every way we possibly could and so many behind the scenes, as well as the fans, did so much. But George put it together and deserves so much of the credit.”