By Mike Rowbottom
May 26 - The Portman Road pitch, always one of the fairest in the land, glows green in spring sunlight as the groundsman, Alan Ferguson, mows it into stripes.
The ground is full of empty blue seats whose habitual occupants will resume their places come August with expectations mounted sky-high – or more precisely, Premier League high.
From the top of the stairwell in the Britannia stand, Ipswich Town’s second newest signing, chief executive Simon Clegg, surveys the scene with shining eyes.
"I’ve been here almost three weeks now, and I still get excited every time I come out and look at all this," says the man whose sporting satisfaction has come from within the Olympic arena in the last 12 years as he has masterminded Britain’s escalating performances at the Games from his position as chief executive of the British Olympic Association (BOA).
Down to his right, a party of schoolchildren on a guided tour settle themselves into the home dug-out. "This is where all the substitutes sit," the guide announces. "And this is where Roy Keane will sit."
Suddenly, every eye is focused on a particular spot.
The arrival of the volcanic Irish manager - Ipswich’s most recent signing - has stimulated local anticipation to levels not experienced since the days when Bobby Robson steered the club to the FA Cup and Uefa Cup wins of 1978 and 1981.
Clegg, who is looking for a flat in the area, has already caught some of the local feeling at the tail-end of a season which has ended promisingly with Keane overseeing an away win at Cardiff and a home win over Coventry.
"The buzz in the town since Roy arrived has been extraordinary," he says. "We’ve had to re-open our early bird season ticket deal – we already had a 13,000 take-up but now that figure has risen much higher."
Among the letters Clegg has received is one from a 90-year-old lifelong supporter who had regretfully decided against renewing his season ticket because he could no longer cope with how cold he got during the winter. "Once Roy came, he wrote back again and renewed his ticket," Clegg says. "He said he had never been so excited about anything."
The convergence of Clegg and Keane at this Championship club, as masterminded by the mysterious multimillionaire owner Marcus Evans, has raised an obvious point of speculation – how are a patrician, ex-major from the Paras and a fiery phenomenon from the rebel country of County Cork remotely going to manage working together?
Well, Clegg for one believes it is a task that can be accomplished. Because the devil is in the detail – or rather, the attention to detail.
At the time of his infamous implosion in Saipan as he prepared for the 2002 World Cup finals with Ireland, Keane employed a favourite phrase to help heap scorn on the manager, Mick McCarthy: "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail."
It wasn’t, but it might have been Clegg’s regimental motto. It has certainly been his own as he has worked tirelessly on the logistics which have assisted Britain’s Olympians to reach their full potential, an effort which was rewarded at last summer’s Beijing Games when the target of reaching fourth place in the medals table was achieved four years ahead of the scheduled date of the London 2012 Games.
"I’m absolutely convinced, even more convinced now having had an opportunity of working with him for the last two weeks, that Roy Keane is the right man for this club and will lead us back to the promised land," Clegg says as he sits in an office which has yet to see his name on the door. "We are going to have to create step changes in this club, and those will be driven by attention to detail. In that regard Roy and I are very similar.
"Roy is just incredibly focused and driven in the way that some of the great Olympic athletes I had the privilege of managing over the years are – the Redgraves and Pinsents of this world. You can see it in Roy’s eyes. It’s as if failure is not within the vocabulary, simply not an option, because the drive is so great. He sets exceptionally high standards for himself and expects others to step up to those standards."
Strangely enough, Clegg’s concern with detail will not extend to telling Keane where to live and when to come in to the club – two of the reasons the former Manchester United midfielder cited for his falling out with the club he managed previously, Sunderland.
"That’s not my style anyway," Clegg says with a loud laugh. "I wil not be telling Roy any such thing. He makes his own mind up. But what will influence his decision-making process is – is it in the best interest of this club?"
Clegg will meet very soon with Keane, and then with Evans, to discuss the central issue of how the team is to be re-shaped for a season which all are determined will see a dramatic improvement in fortunes.
"Roy has already spent a lot of time on the training ground getting to know the coaching staff up there and the players and formulating his views on them," Clegg says. ‘"n the very near future we will be having a big meeting to effectively brainstorm the way forward.
"We need to makes some fairly urgent decisions about the 13 players we have out of contract. The transfer window is open and the mind is very much in terms of making sure we are are putting in place those building blocks over the next couple of months so we can get back to the Premier League at the earliest opportunity."
Mystery millionaire offered Clegg job
Although Evans, 128th on the most recent Sunday Times rich list with estimated assets of £400 million, bought the club in December 2007, and the branding of his eponymous company – "One of the world’s leading business information companies" – is all over the offices and board room, his existence still remains a mystery to the club’s supporters, to whom he has never been officially introduced.
I have to ask. Does Marcus Evans actually exist?
The question raises another guffaw from Clegg, who immediately recalls his decision to travel to the last away match of the season, at Cardiff, on the fans’ coach. "I went up and down the coach talking to individual fans and trying to get a feel for their view of the club," he says. "About half a dozen said: “You’re Mr Evans really, aren’t you?'"
"Marcus Evans does exist, but he doesn’t court publicity, and for someone so successful I find that quite refreshing. He watches matches whenever he is in the country, but he does not advertise his existence. I think the fans here now accept that’s the way it is. It doesn’t in any way dilute his enthusiasm and support for this club."
Clegg and Evans met through the latter’s fund-raising for Britain’s Olympic team in Beijing, and soon after those Games had ended they met again for dinner.
"The discussions we had when we came back from Beijing were very much focused on him trying to pull out from me some of the things we at the BOA did, the attention to detail, with a view to seeing how transferable that was into a football environment. And then as the situation developed, so the nature of our discussions took a slightly different turn."
Clegg is unwilling to be drawn on exactly when he knew that Keane would be replacing Jim Magilton as manager, but he hints at the sequence of events.
"It was very clear from the discussions I had with Marcus that the cornerstone of any club in terms of delivering success was making sure we had the right manager. Marcus clearly understood that.
"In Jim Magilton, we’ve had a manager here who’s been a fantastic servant of this club as player and manager. But it needs to be recongised that Jim had very close to three full seasons here with considerable made in the playing staff since Marcus took over, and despite that level of investment it has not achieved the level of success that everyone hoped it would do. And whilst everyone in this club takes a degree of collective responsibility, ultimately the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the manager."
As Keane gets used to that weight on his own shoulders, Clegg has set out five key areas of endeavour for the club – promotion at the earliest opportunity, ensuring there is a sound business model, reinvigorating links with the local community to draw on the club’s huge catchment area, improving the branding, including the experience for spectators, and lastly maintaining the supply of excellent young players such as Darren Bent through the Academy.
Among recent visitors to Portman Road was a Manchester United youth team of 14 and 15-year-olds who took on their Ipswich Town counterparts. "We beat them 2-0," says Clegg with a grin. "I’m looking forward to seeing that on the scoreboard in the Premier League soon."
A dream too far? We shall see.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.