FORMER Ipswich Town midfielder Ian Westlake says he owed his professional career to relegation – and believes it could be a similar story for the club’s current crop of talented youngsters.

The 35-year-old, who made over 100 appearances, seized his opportunity after George Burley’s side dropped from the Premier League to the Championship in 2002.

He signed his first professional contract that summer and never looked back, spending four years at Portman Road before going on to play for the likes of Leeds United, Cheltenham Town and Wycombe Wanderers.

He still lives in Ipswich and keeps close tabs on the modern-day Blues as wife Clair works in the club’s education department at Playford Road.

In addition to happily reminiscing about his own career, he believes the current players should be “rubbing their hands together” at the prospect of shining in League One.

Town are not mathematically relegated yet but are 13 points from safety and would appear doomed. As Westlake puts it, they “need snookers”.

“I might never have played professional football had it not been for relegation,” said the Clacton-born former midfielder, who made his debut against Gillingham in October 2002.

“Administration meant the club were forced to sell players and that opened the door for people like myself, Darren Bent and Darren Ambrose.

“It gave us our chance and, as odd as it sounds, I personally feel I owe my career to relegation.

“It could be the same next season and the young players at the club should be buzzing.

“They’ll have a massive chance that they might never have got in the Championship.

“If I were coming through the ranks and on the fringes of the first team, I’d be rubbing my hands together.

“I’d train hard and come back super-fit, ready to impress the manager and stake my claim.

“For me, it was such a weird time to be an Ipswich player.

“The first team seemed so far off when they were flying in the Premier League.

“Then, not long after they’d been relegated and I’d signed my first pro deal, all the players were called into a big meeting.

“I thought ‘I’ve made it’ because I had to go in with all the senior pros – only to be told the club had gone into administration and that there was an issue with our wages.

“It was a dark time and there was a lot of bad feeling, from supporters but also local businesses who lost money.

“Overall, though, I’ve got great memories and was lucky to be part of Joe Royle’s side (Royle replaced Burley in October 2002).

“We were so attacking and always tried to outscore sides.

“It was a great way to play football and it’s not something I experienced anywhere else in my career.

“At other clubs we were endlessly drilled on defending and being solid but it was more fun at Ipswich.

“If ever I was going to be a manager, that’s the way I’d want my side to play.

“As players, our freedom levels were through the roof and it makes me smile just thinking about it.

“Don’t get me wrong – we trained hard and were super-fit.

“But it was all about attacking and in Darren Bent and Shefki Kuqi we had two of the top scorers in the Championship.

“Jim Magilton was so creative in midfield and then players like myself and Tommy Miller had legs and could get from box to box. It was a great team to be part of.”

Westlake experienced another relegation in his career, during his time at Leeds.

He transferred to the Yorkshire giants for a £400,000 fee, plus the transfer of left-back Dan Harding, in a part-exchange deal in August 2006.

He made 29 appearances in the 2006–07 season in which the Elland Road side dropped into the Championship.

“Relegation can be a nasty thing and it’s something I experienced at Leeds,” said Westlake.

“The whole city was in turmoil when that happened.

“The players didn’t want to leave home because everyone was annoyed with us.

“Everyone was down and even the dinner ladies, who would always chat with us, couldn’t muster a smile.

“Thankfully, it’s not like that here and most people are right behind the manager.

“He’s such a positive guy and the players clearly want to play for him.

“Next year should be great and Lambert has a track record in League One.

“For me, it’s now about writing this season off and starting afresh next year.

“It makes you wonder what the mood will be like if the team do well and are up near the top of the table.

“Next season could be really fun.

“I’m talking like the team are definitely relegated but I think it’s fair to say that’s going to happen. They certainly need snookers.

“I don’t know the manager but (former Town midfielder) Matt Bloomfield, who I’m friends with, played for him at Wycombe and my old Leeds team-mate Jonny Howson was with him at Norwich.

“Both spoke really highly of him and said his motivational skills were second to none.

“They said he was a brilliant manager and that players wanted to play for him and go the extra yard; that he fostered a great team spirit.”

Westlake, who has two daughters, aged six and three, still follows Town closely.

Wife Clair is a big fan, as well as working for the club, and he detects a positive, upbeat mood among Blues supporters.

“She’s a real fan and so I get upset for her when things aren’t going well,” he said.

“I went to the recent Wigan game and sat in the directors’ box, so it was a great chance to catch up with Joe Royle (who is on the Latics’ board. Son Darren is chairman).

“We had a great time reminiscing and they were my favourite times in football.

“As for the current-day side, the big problem was last summer, when the club brought in lots of new players.

“There were too many changes and then the team made a horrendous start.

“People say winning is a habit but it’s the same when you’re losing.

“There was a lot of doom and gloom and I picked up on that when I was speaking to people at the gym or around town.

“But Lambert has come in and the whole atmosphere has changed. The clouds have lifted.

“It’s bizarre because results haven’t improved too much but the mood around the club is so much better.

“He interacts with the fans and has got everyone onside.

“Everyone’s feeling positive and excited.”

Westlake, who also watched the recent draw against Derby County, ended his career playing for Needham Market, where father-in-law Graham is a trustee, and finished with a promotion during his stay at Bloomfields.

“I don’t really miss football, to be honest,” he said.

“I’ve managed to fill the void with a million other things, including playing table tennis.

“I have my own lettings company and project manage new builds across Ipswich.

“I always wanted to get out and do other things.

“I had coaching opportunities but never saw myself in that world.

“It was weird sitting exams again and felt like going back to school but it was satisfying learning something new.

“I’m putting everything into my work and thankfully it’s going very well, but I’ll always be thankful for my years as a professional footballer. They were great memories.”