One of Jim Magilton's first deeds, when appointed manager of Ipswich Town in the summer of 2006, was to switch the home and away dressing rooms. As a player, it had never felt right to walk so far down the murky tunnel, past the physio room, past the opposition. "You used to walk into our dressing room and find it half-empty," he says. "So we changed things round, and knocked a couple of walls down. I wanted it bright, I wanted a guy to walk in and want to feel part of it."
Unfortunately, it has since come to seem as though the only away dressing room in the country where his players feel remotely at ease is the one at Portman Road. Their hopes of promotion to the Premier League have been undermined by a gross disparity in home and away form, measured by an average this season of 2.35 and 0.65 points per game. It was only this month that Ipswich finally won on the road. Perversely, the following weekend they promptly surrendered their unbeaten home record in the Championship, to Watford.
If the curse has been exorcised, it might be just in time. Though they lost 1-0 at the leaders, Stoke, on Saturday, they remain on the cusp of the play-offs in seventh. While that twilight zone has become rather a natural niche over the past 20 years, ambition at the club has been rekindled by a brand new owner in the reclusive tycoon, Marcus Evans. After all, any team capable of dishing out a 6-0 hiding to second-place Bristol City clearly has legitimate Premier League potential.
Though a deep thinker about the game, Magilton struggles to account for his team's split personality. He is exasperated that his men could overwhelm all comers with their fluency at Portman Road, and then succumb to inhibition against precisely the same opposition away.
"Confidence doesn't come and go on that regular a basis," he says, each syllable stony with Belfast candour. "Like any team sport, football's about personal battles. And the first five, six away games we were very competitive, we were unlucky. Then we had a few poor performances, and you did begin to wonder if it was psychological. But the principles remain the same. Unless you're prepared to scrap and fight, and earn the right, you're not going to win any games, home or away. Once it built up, once it became an issue, players became a bit intimidated. In the end it comes down to how they take pressure. And if this club has any ambitions to play in the Premiership, the players will have to perform under pressure week in, week out."
As such, he hopes that the experience will ultimately prove cathartic for a developing team. "Towards the end, we were waiting for the transfer window," he admitted. "We had targets, we knew they could bring in a different attitude. They weren't bogged down by it."
New funds from Evans were used to reinforce the midfield. In the process, the club addressed a new incongruity in its self-image, but a far more propitious one. Admired by many neutrals as a model of modest endeavour, dependent on its youth academy and the dignified legacy of two footballing knights, Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson, Ipswich are suddenly in the money. No Championship manager spent more on a player, during the window, than did Magilton when he paid Plymouth £2m for David Norris.
Evans will certainly get a dividend if the club can break free of the purgatory that began with its Premiership immolation in 2002. Promoted via the play-offs two years earlier, Ipswich surrendered a Champions League place only on the final day of that dizzy first season. As it was, they found themselves playing Internazionale in the Uefa Cup, a competition George Burley, the manager, had won under Robson in 1981. Before they knew it, however, Icarus was in free fall. Ipswich were relegated, and entered administration soon afterwards.
"George showed great confidence in the players who got us promotion," Magilton says. "One or two new faces were introduced, but in a slow, subtle way, and those that came in were the right kind of characters. But in the second season, we had an influx of players, and one or two were always going to take time to bed in. We were probably rash in some signings. But I understand why George did it. Expectation levels had risen unbelievably."
Regardless of that collective fit of vertigo, Magilton does not feel that promotion necessarily dooms a Championship club to scrape and scratch against the abyss. He insists that there are many dimensions between the realistic bookends of ambition for almost every Premier League club: namely, fourth from the top, and fourth from the bottom.
"The ambition is to become recognised as a Premier League team, and to regard yourself that way as well," he says. "Bolton got promoted the year after we beat them [in the play-offs] and they've stabilised. We got promoted, and the next year were in the Uefa Cup. So it is possible. But the infrastructure has to be right. We still believe in youth development. We still believe in giving kids a chance, in bringing them through when the time is right. And we have a bunch of 17-year-olds here that we're very hopeful for."
Schooled in the Liverpool creed as a teenager, he sees a kinship in Ipswich and takes pride in the club's traditions. Along with David Sheepshanks, his chairman, Magilton is composing "a bible" for every member of staff. "We're calling it 'The Ipswich Way'," he says. "We're very proud of the heritage of the club. First and foremost, we have a way of dealing with people. And from a footballing point of view, we've always tried to play the game the right way. There is a very special atmosphere at this football club, and it always struck a chord with me, even when I came here as an opposition player."
As an apprentice at Anfield, he was responsible for Jim Beglin's kit. He was watching in the stands in 1987 when Beglin broke his leg in a derby game with Everton. In any meaningful sense, the emerging star's career was over at 23, and the lesson will have recurred to Magilton after what happened to Eduardo da Silva last weekend.
Sure enough, Magilton believes that the mutual responsibilities of clubs and players go deeper than any contract. When he joined Southampton in 1994, his first game happened to be against Liverpool. Southampton won 4-2, and he will never forget the Liverpool manager Roy Evans and coach Ronnie Moran waiting for him to leave the pitch. "I'm sure they had a million and one other things going through their minds," he said. "But they still thought of me, they stayed behind to shake my hand, and I thought so highly of them for that. I was very overcome that night."
Little wonder if Magilton, 38, is unabashed by statues of Ramsey and Robson at Portman Road. He says that their names do not intimidate him, but inspire him, and cherishes the privilege of being able to ring Robson at any time. There is, moreover, a direct link to the club president's heyday in Charlie Woods, the veteran chief scout. "I've brought two lads to the club after watching them 20 minutes," Magilton says. "If you try to dissect a player, you can end up over-analysing. But you get a tap on the shoulder from Charlie, and it's: 'Let's go'."
Though Magilton confesses that he spent his entire career planning for management, he felt a little cheeky when seeking an interview after Joe Royle left the club two years ago. Ipswich had just finished 15th, a 40-year nadir. "But I wasn't just going in there just as an ex-skipper who'd given good service," he said. "I wanted them to know that I had a vision of where I wanted to take the club. I think I shocked the life out of them. One, I had a passion for the place. Two, I had a plan. I wanted to turn round the work ethos, I wanted to develop the youth programme, I wanted a new scouting network, I wanted the morale of the club to change."
As a Belfast boy, raised during the Troubles, Magilton's instinct has always been to stand up and be counted. In 52 appearances for Northern Ireland, he led by example. It was difficult at first, admittedly, for some colleagues suddenly to address him as "gaffer". "I said on that first day that I wasn't going to mollycoddle anybody," he says. "But if they gave me everything they had, I would respond in kind."
He lost his first three games and was dumped out of the Carling Cup by Peterborough. Did he wonder what he had let himself in for? "I hated losing as a player, and it doesn't sit well as a manager," he says. "But I knew there was enough experience around me for it to turn. I think I've got better at controlling emotion, though you'd better ask the players about that. They will expect blood and thunder at times. Players want to come in at half-time and be given a sense of direction."
Discovering that some players would go home for an afternoon nap, Magilton changed training times to mirror match days. "We tried to keep things fresh, keep people thinking," he says. "Everything emanates from the four walls of the dressing room. That's where the inner belief comes from.
"Enthusiasm. Dedication. Perseverance. Those aren't just words to adorn the walls of our gym, as they do. They should mean something. You know there are going to be a lot of knocks. But it's about the getting up. This club has had a knock. It's been through administration. Now we've been given this huge lift: an investor who's come in, and has ambitions for the football club. There is an air of optimism about the place.
"I don't need telling how precarious the job is. Iain Dowie got sacked the other day, a personal friend of mine, the 30th manager to go this season. It's shifting sands, football. Instant success: everybody wants it. But what we're trying to build here is something that will not only give us that success, but a structure to keep it in place for years."
Packing a Suffolk Punch: The Ipswich managerial tradition
August 1955 to April 1963
Won promotion from Third Division South in second season, Second Division title in 1961 and League title in 1962.
May 1963 to September 1964
Took them back down to the Second Division.
October 1964 to November 1968
Top-five finishes in three of his four seasons, culminating in Second Division title in 1968.
January 1969 to May 1982
Had nine top-six finishes in 10 years plus wins in the 1978 FA Cup and 1981 Uefa Cup. Left to take over as England manager in 1982.
August 1982 to May 1987
Finishes of ninth place, 12th and 17th before relegation from the old First Division in 1986.
June 1987 to May 1990
Three top-10 finishes in old Second Division.
May 1990 to December 1994
Second Division champions in second season.
December 1994 to October 2002
Could not avoid relegation in 1994-95. Three successive play-off semi-final defeats before beating Barnsley in 2000 final. Fifth in first season back earned a Uefa Cup slot, before relegation in 2002.
October 2002 to May 2006
Three top-10 finishes, but lost twice in play-off semi-finals.
June 2006 to present
Appointed after seven years on the playing staff.
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