Magilton trusts in grey matter to spark a blue period

Order of Anfield boot-room as Ipswich turn to a player with history on his side
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The Independent Football

Jim Magilton is in the middle of explaining exactly what, as the new manager of Ipswich Town, he expects from his players when suddenly the air is thick with memories of a 16-year-old Belfast boy arriving in Merseyside having signed for Liverpool and for Kenny Dalglish.

"The secret of life," Magilton says, "is that there is no secret of life. It's as simple as that. If you are prepared to work hard then success will surely follow. If you are prepared to really dedicate yourself it should follow. When I went to Liverpool I was a sponge. I took it all in. Everything. Even though I realised, in the end, that I wasn't going to play there."

Magilton, an intelligent, indus-trious midfielder, spent four years at Anfield; from 1986, when they won the double, to 1990, when they last won the League title. Wonderful years, he calls them. "I had just left school, and to be around that and around that feeling was very special," he says. He eventually captained the reserve team, but could not go further. "I needed to play. But they had a squad of 19 international footballers, including Jan Molby and John Wark."

Mention of the latter makes Magilton smile. Wark is an Ipswich legend too. A reminder of what Magilton calls the "fine, fine traditions of this club". He is also involved now. On match-days Wark hosts hospitality, the rest of the time he helps the young players with their finishing. "And he's still the best," Magilton, who was apprentice to the Scot, says. "He also thinks I still clean his boots. I'm the manager of this football club and I still go and make him a cup of tea. So that's the effect it's had on me. I get up like an idiot and I do it."

It's the boot-room mentality. It's what Magilton calls "the Liverpool way or the highway". Despite being just two months into his new post, despite being the youngest manager in the Championship - "Well, it's better than being one of the oldest players," Magilton, 37, says, "because that was bugging the backside off me" - it's something he wants to recreate at Ipswich. "To try and recapture that would be fantastic," he says.

It's not so fanciful. After all, it's not that long ago that Ipswich were flying. "I know what that tastes like," says Magilton, who spent seven years in Ipswich blue, helping to take them to the Premier League and into Europe, "and I'd like to taste it again and for these players to taste it. We are trying to achieve it. We're working hard and we're bringing a thriving environment back to the club again."

Some ideas are cutting edge. Magilton is an enthusiastic advocate of sports science, he wants to know his players' minds as well as their bodies. He employs the boxer Steve Spartacus, he takes the players swimming at 8am - "They're like dolphins now" - and has increased the training schedules to three sessions a day while demanding feedback and individual responsibility.

He has also brought in "sweat boxes" and "first-touch boards" - devices that he first encountered at Liverpool two decades ago - and talks passionately about "repetition", of knowing their roles, of playing as a team, of being "problem-solvers" with a "winning brand of football". Magilton wants his players to be "bouncing-out-of-their-skin fit" but he also wants them to think. "The human body can withstand almost anything," he says. "But it's the grey matter that matters most."

The environment at the training ground is important. As he surveys it, Magilton explains further what he wants. "I have my own thoughts. I don't like players lying around. I don't like players sitting in treatment rooms. I don't like weights rooms and gyms being empty. I don't like looking out at these wonderful facilities and seeing them empty. I want to see young players constantly working at their game. I like to see senior players doing it. I like good pros. I like humour and a work ethic. I like the place bouncing. Win or lose."

Ipswich lost a little too often last season, finishing 15th. It hurt. It hurt Magilton, then a player, and it hurt his predecessor as manager, Joe Royle, who decided to step down. Magilton always wanted to be a boss and he told Royle, whom he deeply admires, ("A class act") that he would be applying for the job. Royle told him to go for it, as did Magilton's friends, including Charlton's Iain Dowie, even if he admits he thought the first interview would only be practice for other posts.

"I'd never had a job interview of any kind before," he says. "But when opportunities like this come along you either thrive or shrivel up. I never compromised as a player. And I don't intend to as a manager."

He was bitten. By the second audience with the Ipswich board he had a "real belief" he could "take the club forward". So had the directors. "I'm sure it was a difficult decision," Magilton says. "Because the chairman [David Sheepshanks] knew there would be the accusation that I was the easy option, the cheap option."

Magilton decided he would not shake up his squad too much. "Being an insider, if you like, I was always aware that a lot of players had not really fulfilled their potential. I felt they under-achieved. Massively. I think we also had a few who didn't realise the expectation levels." He has now set them the challenge of "rededicating" themselves to football and to Ipswich Town.

The Promised Land is the Premiership, although Magilton is a realist. He does not expect an overnight transformation, but he does expect improvement, and with it could come momen-tum. "And when you get on a roll in this division, as Watford proved, it can be an unstoppable force especially with the spirit it engenders," he says. The achievements of Watford and their young manager, Adrian Boothroyd, even younger than Magilton, are something of "a blueprint". "It can be done. He proved it, his players proved it and it's something we want."

He is yet to take his coaching badges but has been quick to surround himself with experience. There is his assistant, Bryan Klug, the former director of the highly successful youth academy, and Steve Foley. It is Magilton's very own boot-room. He is also able to reel off a long and varied list of managers he has worked for - from Brian Horton at Oxford United, through to David Pleat, Graeme Souness, Alan Ball and George Burley - and learnt from. And, of course, Dalglish. Magilton said Dalglish appeared to make it all look so easy, although subsequently he knows he found it anything but. Unlike the former striker he will not be combining playing with managing.

This also helps to put some distance between Magilton and the players, who were given one week to stop calling him "Jim" and start calling him "gaffer" before the "enforcers" on the fines committee got to work. "I've had no problems stepping back away from it," Magilton says of playing. For now, though, he might have to wait a little longer before he can stop having to make Wark his daily brew.


"When I went there I was like a sponge. I took it all in. Everything. Even though I realised, in the end, I wouldn't be playing there"


"I want to see young players working at their game, the senior players too. I like the place bouncing. Win or lose"