Football: Burley's rising family values

Norman Fox meets the Ipswich manager promoting a close-knit community
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The Independent Online
EVER since George Burley took over at Ipswich Town in the midwinter of 1994 when the spirits of this usually cheerful club were flat, his policy has been to "build on experience" and "keep the family spirit alive". The particular experience he calls upon today in the First Division play- off first leg against Charlton Athletic is that of having been in the same situation last year. "This time," he said, "we go in with bags of confidence and more relaxed." Charlton have a bundle of nostalgia and a pile of goals.

Burley is a Scot steeped in Ipswich. He played for them 500 times and was in the side Bobby Robson coached so successfully - the one that won the FA Cup and yesterday paraded around the town in an open-top bus celebrating their victory over Arsenal 20 years ago. Like Robson in the past, he relishes the idea of still belonging to "our family club". Charlton, of course, have come back from the threat of being lost from the family of football altogether. Their remarkable recovery gives them the edge in public sympathy, especially from the middle-aged who remember the deep Valley as it used to be. Burley thinks Ipswich havegreater depth in experience.

But what if this year Ipswich get through the play-offs? Has a comparatively small-town "family club", albeit with a pedigree, got a place among the rich elite of today's Premiership? "I think they have but you've got to work hard on bringing in the right sort of players and work that much harder on the training ground and as a team."

Seeing Everton and Tottenham struggle has convinced him that the theory of money being the only currency is not proven. "These days, of course, it's more and more difficult but what's happened to those clubs shows that having a lot of money doesn't always bring success. So you have to work well with what you've got. We know that we will have to go on buying and spending wisely and bring on the young players. I've brought in pounds 2.5m profit on transfers and we've got better. You have to be shrewd in the market and hope the youngsters come through."

As for today, his confidence is based on the fact that since Christmas Ipswich have got better and better. "I know that Charlton are also confident and in form. We've lost one game in 23 and they've won eight and drawn one in the last nine. Both sides have got young, exciting players. In the last couple of months we've been looking to win every game home and away. We've been scoring a lot of goals, especially at home, so we'll be looking to put their defence under pressure." But he is also aware that Charlton's Clive Mendonca in particular has had a good season and could cause damage. "But we feel we have more pace." Losing on away goals to Sheffield United in the last play-offs resulted in an inevitable loss of confidence. "It was such a big disappointment but we battled from Christmas. We've got a stronger squad now. Matt Holland has become a tremendous professional but all the new players who have come in have thrived on the idea that this is a family club, just as it is was when I was a player."

This season has almost been an echo of the last. "We had a very good run towards the end and finished fourth. This season, after the first month there were times when we had eight or nine injuries. When you've got key players missing, that depletes you badly. When you look back at some of our team-sheets for November and December, we had so many key players out. We always knew that once we got them fit again we would start stringing some results together, and that was the case. It had a snowball effect - one win after another. It bred confidence. The players who came back gave us competition for places and more options which we didn't have earlier in the season. We've now got 20 players all pushing for first- team places. That has to improve the quality of the side."

Among the players who have most impressed in the run-in are Micky Stockwell and the Ipswich-born goalkeeper Richard Wright who Burley sees as a future full England and Premiership player. With Ipswich? "Why not? He's family."

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