The Royle 'we' coaxes Town closer to the promised land

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The Independent Football

As he sails through his 23rd year as a manager Joe Royle has acquired, it must be said, an avuncular quality. It must also be said that it suits the man. Once it was dear old Joe Mercer who operated under the sobriquet Uncle Joe. Now Royle wears the mantle, and wears it well.

As he sails through his 23rd year as a manager Joe Royle has acquired, it must be said, an avuncular quality. It must also be said that it suits the man. Once it was dear old Joe Mercer who operated under the sobriquet Uncle Joe. Now Royle wears the mantle, and wears it well.

Royle was a contented Uncle Joe the other day at Ipswich Town's training ground, having the previous night watched the club's kids knock out Tottenham Hotspur to reach the FA Youth Cup final. It was an indication of what a dedicated club and excellent manager can achieve, despite what Royle called "the stigma of administration" that Ipswich have had to endure.

This afternoon Royle's steelier qualities will be under examination as his bigger boys tackle Sunderland at Portman Road. It is a contest which will go a long way towards deciding who gets into the Premiership next season. Mathematically it is not, Royle points out, a "must win" match but it is a mighty important one.

"If we lost this one and won our final three we would still have a chance of going up," he said. Winning the last three is something Royle once did, in the space of seven days, to keep Oldham Athletic from relegation, so what Sir Alex Ferguson refers to as "squeaky-bum time" is nothing new to Joe. Indeed, he knows little else.

"I can only remember one season in my 23 as a manager when I have not been battling at one end of the table or the other. There were seasons at Everton fighting relegation or going for Europe, three seasons at Manchester City, one down, two up. Quite honestly, I don't know any other way. It doesn't get to me now. I care, but I have never been a raver and ranter."

Nor is Joe Royle a poseur. "We must be doing something right," is his way of summing up the club's promotion chase. But he hastens to add: "When I say 'we' it's the royal 'we' because it's got nothing to do with me."

There are quite a few Suffolk folk prepared to take issue with that disclaimer. The Royle "we" is precisely what has guided Ipswich into a three-team race for the two automatic promotion places, and Joe does allow himself a glimmer of satisfaction over that achievement. "Last summer we lost eight players and brought two in. We were being tipped for mid-table mediocrity or even a struggle. All we've done is keep selling our cash-worthy players, but the lads who have come in have done great. These boys are pulling off miracles here.

"I am delighted with what has happened, but it's not the job I came for. I came to take Matt Holland, Hermann Hreidarsson, Jamie Clapham and Darren Ambrose and company back into the Premiership but I soon realised that wasn't on when administration hit us. So we have sold the big wage earners and replaced them with frees or kids."

For that reason, Royle refuses to criticise his players' blips, such as the 2-0 defeat by Wolves last Monday. "From the moment we came off the pitch at Molineux we have been planning for the Sunderland game. That is bigger now because of Monday. Sunderland can see us off if they win. They would go eight points clear with a better goal difference, so the prize is massive. Beating Sunderland would be an amazing statement to make."

Since the third promotion-chasers, Wigan, were the club Royle forecast to go up, he needs no reminding that his opposite number today, Mick McCarthy, would be happy to go back to the North-east with one point. "So they won't be coming at us, they won't be gung-ho. They have had a lot of away wins by hitting sides on the break, so we have to be aware of that."

Darren Bent, Ipswich's top scorer with 18 goals, knows how much depends on using his speed to get behind Sunderland's defence. "They are a big, physical side and if you stand there they will kick you. So the main thing is to get the ball down, get them chasing and play our own game." Though Bent, who has another season on his contract, reiterates that Premiership football with Ipswich is the ambition for someone who has risen through the club development system, the top flight is where he wants to be. "I am sort of biding my time," he said, "but I want to get there soon."

That comment is further indication of what Royle is up against when it comes to keeping his key performers, so he has been especially cheered by the youth team's progress. "Grass roots is the reason this club has survived, the reason we are chasing promotion as opposed to what has happened at Wimbledon and Bradford."

One of those who saw off Spurs was a certain Charlie Sheringham, son of you-know-who. "I think Charlie has grown a foot since he has been here," said Royle. "He's a ringer for his dad, he has a lovely touch and a lovely feel for the game. We have high hopes for a number of that youth squad. Already four of them have been on the first team bench, and they regularly train with the senior players."

Which is perhaps as well. Royle has been able to buy only one player, Darren Currie, for £250,000 towards the end of last year, and he confirms that even if promotion does happen "we certainly wouldn't be going on a spending spree". As for a return to the Premiership, where he dwelt for so many seasons, Joe grins and suggests: "Come back in May and perhaps we can talk about it then."

Meantime, he is quite happy with his dreams. "There is nothing I would love more than to take a team to Goodison Park or the City of Manchester Stadium." When Royle took the Ipswich job, lots of people in the game stressed what a lovely club and place he was going to and that it would make a nice change from Premiership hassle. But the top division is what he signed up to achieve. As Uncle Joe points out, with a smile of course, he didn't come to Ipswich for a jolly.