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After 23 long, often bruising, years came 24 minutes of perfection at Portman Road.
As goal after goal rattled past Exeter City goalkeeper Gary Woods in a thrilling first half, the mood shift was palpable from nerves to disbelief to ecstasy among the Ipswich Town faithful. At 5-0 before half-time, there was little denying that Kieran McKenna’s swaggering brand of football had brought what fans have been waiting for since the turn of the century: promotion, at last.
There had been little room for error in the three-horse race for two automatic promotion spots in League One, with Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield Wednesday in the fight until the penultimate game of the season. After amassing 96 points, Wednesday were the unlucky side to fall short and enter the play-offs, not that the Ipswich players will be spending much time worrying about that now as they head off to Las Vegas with their golden ticket to the Championship in their back pockets.
Though Plymouth were crowned champions on the final day, along the way, Ipswich’s numbers have been remarkable. Just four defeats all season and a goal difference of plus-66, with 101 goals scored. This all came in former Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur coach McKenna’s first job in management after 14 years of working his way up the coaching ladder and being forced to retire as a player due to a hip injury at the age of 22.
Under American ownership group Gamechanger 20, who bought out businessman Marcus Evans in April 2021, Ipswich’s transformation from languishing former UEFA Cup winners to ambitious achievers is complete. This is how they did it.
US owners revolutionising Town from top to bottom
Looking out from the executive boxes at Portman Road at the pitch — if you can still call it that — makes it difficult to comprehend the fact Ipswich played and won a match of football there just 10 days earlier. The muddy rectangle below is covered in yellow diggers and workmen without a single blade of grass in sight, but this was all part of the plan.
Avoiding the play-offs has enabled the early launch of the latest phase of serious investment in the club’s infrastructure: the relaying and multi-million-pound modernisation of the pitch. Proper irrigation channels are being dug, undersoil heating laid, pop-up sprinklers installed and a hybrid pitch set to be grown over the summer months.
It will bring Portman Road up to date at a cost to owners Brett Johnson, Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer — three investors representing a five per cent share in the club — but it has long-term benefits, even if pre-season will be spent entirely on the road to enable the grass to grow for the new season.
The works took over a year of planning and required the opening at the corner of the Cobbold and Sir Alf Ramsey stands to be widened last summer to allow the machinery and specialist grounds staff onto the pitch. It is the latest investment by the new ownership, who bought out the unpopular Evans after 13 years of ownership in a deal worth around £40million ($50m).
The trio of American businessmen have experience in football with USL side Phoenix Rising, but the majority owners (90 per cent of shares) belong to a US investment firm called ORG, which manages pensions. The takeover saw Ipswich’s debts of around £100million effectively wiped and the group pledged further investment, including plans for the redevelopment of the changing rooms, canteen and the pitch at the training ground, requested by McKenna.
“At the training ground, we have pitches on two sides of a road but only a building and infrastructure on one side,” says Ipswich director of football operations Gary Probert.
“The arrangement we had meant players changed on one side and crossed over the road to train. We had an area of pitches — three pitches’ worth — on the same side as the buildings that we used for another purpose that we’ve completely relaid over the past four months before Christmas. It improves the standard of the pitches and also the flow and organisation of the training ground. It’s made a huge difference.
“Kieran is very considerate of that environment and how the experience is for players and staff. We’re so fortunate our ownership gives us some stability and it allows us to make sensible, considered improvements to the infrastructure of the club. They absolutely understand the club, the business, the industry, and they spend a lot of time understanding that and getting those decisions right.”
Probert’s role was a new addition as he oversees the academy, women’s team and first team as well as being involved in recruitment with chief executive Mark Ashton, who has been an influential hire since joining from Bristol City in June 2021. The off-field structure gives McKenna and his staff the ability to focus on the football, which was effective in a demanding final three months of the season when Ipswich only dropped eight points in 17 games on the way to securing the second automatic promotion spot.
Probert and Ashton (Photo: Matchday Images)
“A lot of my role is to keep everything away from them,” Probert says. “They didn’t need to concern themselves with things we could take away or deal with. So they could just think about training, preparation for games, games, review the game, prep next game. They were in that cycle for those last two months of the season.”
Portman Road has been spruced up and attendances have made it a fortress this season, with a combination of winning football and a re-engagement with the community bringing renewed connection between the fans and club. Over 29,000 were in the crowd for the promotion decider as a new generation experienced their first taste of success after consecutive League One finishes of 11th, 9th and 11th and no promotions since 1999-2000.
McKenna’s magic touch
“Positive” and “brave” are the words McKenna uses to describe the way his team played on their relentless march to promotion, which feels a fair summary for a side that mastered the balance between style and substance under mounting pressure in the final weeks of the season. With Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley snapping at their heels and eventual league champions Plymouth still in reach, Ipswich’s final results consisted of two 6-0 wins, a 3-0 win and a draw on the final day.
Standout performers Conor Chaplin, who won the golden boot with 26 goals, and defender Leif Davis made the EFL’s League One team of the season, while goalkeeper Christian Walton bagged the golden glove with 23 clean sheets. A final goal difference of 66 surpasses any other side in England’s top four tiers as McKenna built on last season’s 11th-place finish, making an instant impact having joined mid-season from Manchester United to replace Paul Cook.
“There’s real clarity with everything and he’s so methodical,” says Walton, who signed for the club on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion in August 2021 before making the move permanent in January 2022. “It’s in-depth but simple, everyone knows their role and responsibility. So when you play on a Saturday having that in your head, you feel that you’re able to perform.
“To use a recent game as an example, like Barnsley. We knew exactly their threats, what they would try to do and it was happening in front of me. I was like, ‘I’ve seen that on the videos’. We knew exactly what to expect and won 3-0.”
“When you’re coming in mid-season, you’re trying to articulate a set of ideas and build trust and faith in those ideas and a group of players,” McKenna says after producing an upturn in results that saw them lose just four games from December to May last season. “You need a high level of competency. Those ideas need to be well-developed in your belief system and you need to have a lot of practice and experience of getting those across on the training pitch. It was my first job as a manager, but I’d spent so many years building up those experiences.
Kieran McKenna (Photo: Matchday Images)
“I don’t find that much difference between this job and my role as a youth team manager at Tottenham or Man United. As a manager, there is a little bit more scrutiny externally as the face of the club and there’s more demand on your time for media and to lead in certain situations. But when you’ve been a first-team coach at Manchester United, there’s probably no more intense scrutiny or focus that you can experience; it was great preparation for some of the challenges of being a manager off the pitch.”
McKenna’s leadership off the field, as well as his tactical nous developed in spells at Tottenham, Nottingham Forest, Leicester and Manchester United, has been one defined by unifying moments, such as regular team dinners to help players settle — as most are required to move to Suffolk to play for the club. As well as loan player George Hirst, Walton and other senior members of the squad have finally found a home in Ipswich.
“It’s definitely better to be settled,” Walton says. “I was on my own for such a long period of time that I never found a home. Brighton was my home, but it wasn’t because I was rarely there; I was there half a season in and out (on loan). I never really got settled anywhere. I’ve been at clubs where you’re in a big town — Wigan and Blackburn – and no one lived there because you have Liverpool, Manchester and so many other places to live around there. It’s very rare players live in the town they’re playing for.
“At Ipswich, you have to relocate. There are not really many places you can commute from, so you are moving here to play. It was the same when I was at Plymouth, so maybe it has an effect. You’re in it together and the manager has helped with that. He’s put on things throughout the year on a Wednesday or a Tuesday night, where we meet for food at a restaurant as a team and watch the football or do events, which brings everyone together. I know from experience it’s not nice being on your own somewhere you’re not used to living. It’s good that the manager has put things in place.”
McKenna’s management style has produced intriguing coaching techniques, such as using former Manchester United goalkeeper Lee Grant to help coach the club’s attacking players, including top scorer Chaplin, and not troubling players with formation or system changes but tailoring instructions to their specific role.
“We tweak the system and the team all the time, but I rarely speak to the players about systems or formations because we don’t define their roles in that way, we define them in terms of their jobs on and off the ball, in and out of possession in different phases of the game,” he says. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in the style of play we’ve managed to implement. That’s been a big challenge in League One and one we’re really excited to take on to try to implement. It’s a really positive, brave playing style.”
“There’s been a real onus on the style we play and the manager’s obviously got clear ideas of how he wants the team to look,” says Walton. “There’s probably only 20 minutes to half an hour in the season where we’ve not been up to those levels of running more than the opposition. We’ve gone up with a different style that people might feel wouldn’t have worked at this level, where a lot of it can be just getting the ball forward and getting numbers in the box. We’ve done it with a real identity and a clear style, and teams have struggled to cope with that.”
Building from the back has required Walton to develop his distribution, as Ipswich have made effective use of wide players Wes Burns, Davis, Harry Clarke and Janoi Donacien to play an intense, entertaining brand of football.
“The main thing is the style and building it up from the back and having those pictures in your head on a matchday,” says Walton. “You know where we’re going to build and identifying how the opposition has set up and how they’re going to start and find enough solutions. This season, pretty much every team has changed their system to cope with us and that gives us a lot of respect.”
McKenna’s influence on women’s team
Thirteen miles down the road from Portman Road in Felixstowe — described as somewhere “you don’t pass, you’re either going there or you’re not” by Town women’s manager Joe Sheehan — and a crowd of 844 are watching Ipswich’s final game of the season against Oxford United. Given the men’s side kicked off just 90 minutes earlier away at Fleetwood Town, the turnout is impressive and is a mark of the importance of the match.
After a stellar season to rival that of McKenna’s side, it all comes down to this. Sheehan needs a win and to hope Watford slip up if they are to keep their promotion hopes alive. Arsenal loanee Freya Godfrey scores the only goal of the game but, much like their club mates on the Lancashire coast, the league leaders are too strong and take the title.
The harsh part is that, in the Women’s National League, only one team wins promotion to the Women’s Championship from two regional divisions, meaning Watford advance to a play-off against Nottingham Forest while Ipswich miss out on goal difference. Another season in the National League South beckons, but the season has brought plenty of cause for optimism for the future, not least because reforms will see the play-off done away with and winners of the National League North and South promoted automatically from next season.
“Four of the six National League divisions were won on goal difference, so if it changes, then at least two can make that jump,” says Sheehan, who is a full-time member of staff. “We’ve been relentless since Christmas and won 10 in a row. We took four points off Watford but this is a really young group. The average age of the squad is 20 and in the final game, every outfield player was under 20. So this is an experience they’ll benefit from.”
Sheehan has lent on McKenna for advice (Photo: Matchday Images)
Among Sheehan’s young squad, 84 per cent of players have progressed from the academy, which reflects the club’s strong reputation for developing young players and offering them a pathway to senior football. Missing out on promotion means Ipswich will no longer be part of the competitive WSL Academy League, where they were previously the only side in the division without a WSL team, while they will also face the familiar battle to keep hold of their brightest young players.
Last summer, defender Paige Peake joined promoted Southampton. Ipswich’s strength in “hoovering up” the best talent in Suffolk means she is unlikely to be the last to land a move up the pyramid. The target for Sheehan is to make sure his side is next — and their ability to offer professional contracts, medical support and use of the training ground will go a long way to attracting players to replace those they lose.
“Our facility, our pitch exclusivity, our changing area, the opportunity to get fed, access to a gym and for players that are injured for longer than three weeks get taken on by the men’s medical team. The on-pitch stuff in terms of training, what we can offer through the week, is the biggest pull rather than the money,” he says. “We’re not a survival club. In all my years here, I don’t think I’ve been looking over my shoulder wondering if I’m three games away from them getting rid of me. We’re not results-driven, so our focus can go into developing players.”
Sheehan shares McKenna’s belief in player development and it is not the only quality the two first-team managers have in common — they share a playing ideology and often discuss problems and challenges facing their teams at the training ground. Walton is among the men’s players who have been down to Felixstowe to watch games and the hope is that, after a steady period of integration with the men in recent years, a first match at Portman Road will be on the cards.
“There is a shared methodology that spreads across the men’s and women’s teams, so usually I will spend two mornings with Kieran and the first team. Last year, one of our players, Paige, that we sold to Southampton, she’d train with the boys’ youth team and then played for us. There’s real crossover, we talk almost every day about us, them, goals, opposition. He shares a lot of really useful bits we can take on.
“Anything I ever need, I ask the question and we’ll go sit in his office for 20 minutes and go through stuff. If you come and watch the women on a Sunday and the men on a Saturday, you see an almost identical style. We have a very supportive fanbase across everything, so we have a real reach and an exciting period ahead for supporters.”
Recruitment changes have paid off with results
As reactive signings go, few EFL teams this season have pulled off a deal as effective as Ipswich’s capture of Australian international Massimo Luongo, who signed in January from Middlesbrough until the end of the season.
Goals against Shrewsbury Town in March, a dominant performance against Peterborough United in April and the second of the six goals scored against Exeter only tell part of the story of his importance playing in central midfield alongside captain Sam Morsy. Rolling the dice paid off.
It was not a signing driven by a desire to collect players just in case — experienced midfielders Lee Evans and Dom Ball suffered injuries, leaving academy graduate Cameron Humphreys and Morsy as the only central midfielders available to McKenna. The other players added in January — striker Nathan Broadhead the most notable from Everton for an initial fee reported to be £1.5 million, and fellow striker George Hirst — played their part in helping Ipswich over the line and were the product of measured transfer planning that has become standard at the club since the appointments of Ashton and Probert.
“There has been change but what we tried not to do is make it too erratic,” says Probert. “It’s trying to get the balance of still trying to deliver in the short term, but also behind the scenes trying to develop the club for the longer term. So if I go back to that November (2021), Paul Cook was still the manager and our recruitment team was one or two junior analysts. We didn’t have a head of recruitment, we didn’t have a network of scouts, we didn’t have any real systems, processes or anything. I was fortunate enough to be involved behind the scenes in the process to find a new manager, which ended up with Kieran joining us.
“Our big thing was that we need to leave the club with a more established modern infrastructure in place than what we all inherited. We’ve not gone crazy. We’re not getting 10 people in, but we’ve built a small team of staff that are really bright, hungry people with a real commitment and desire to keep improving.”
Ipswich’s early forays into the transfer market in the immediate aftermath of their US takeover brought mass signings, including the arrivals of Burns, Chaplin, George Edmundson, Morsy and Sone Aluko. After a slow start to the season under Cook in 2021, McKenna’s arrival prompted a trimming of the squad before last summer’s standout signings of Davis, Marcus Harness and Freddie Ladapo.
“The first January window we were here for, we had just arrived. The priority at that point was cutting the squad down to a more manageable level after a season and a summer of big upheaval,” McKenna says. “This January certainly made an impact. We knew we wanted to improve from a position of strength and make some additions that would give us a big push for the second half of the season and stay with us and hopefully go into the next division.
“You hope and want the team to improve the longer you’re here. And I think that is the case. You can look at so many of them and say they’ve improved each month as it’s gone by. So there’s definitely been an evolution, an improvement in the team.”
McKenna’s ability to develop players was a key draw for the recruitment team when Ipswich were looking for Cook’s replacement, and their decision to hire the 35-year-old in his first managerial position has paid off handsomely.
“We were fortunate to start from the position of having a first appointment under a new ownership group, so there was no previous methodology or way of doing it,” says Probert. “It was that chance, and it sounds a bit cheesy, but that blank sheet of paper where we could discuss what we were looking for and what we were doing. We went through some personal qualities that we think are important for anyone in the business and that shouldn’t be any different if it’s your first-team manager or anyone else.
“We looked at the playing philosophies they used, a track record of improving teams, improving players, getting clubs promoted, who’s really good in League One, who is really good in the Championship. We used quite a bit of data which threw up some fascinating people, but we realised there was one group we hadn’t encountered and it was people that had never managed before. It was through that search Kieran’s name was recommended.”
Probert praises CEO Ashton for his willingness to give managers and leadership staff a chance. He himself benefited from that approach after moving from his role as academy manager at Bristol City to reunite at Ipswich. The move into management has paid off for McKenna and fellow Manchester United first-team coach Michael Carrick, who has led a stunning transformation at Middlesbrough as they prepare for the Championship play-offs.
Character and the desire to improve is the most important quality Ipswich consider when recruiting players and staff. Despite McKenna boasting a strong reputation for tactical awareness, his first meeting with Ashton centred around whether Ipswich would be a good fit, with little discussion about football.
Ashton summed up his approach to player recruitment in a recent interview with the PFA, saying: “When a player joins this football club, I take them for a walk around the pitch and I talk to them about their involvement in the community, what is going to be expected from them. If you don’t want to sign up to that, if you don’t want to engage and genuinely work with our local community, it doesn’t matter how good you are on the grass. Join another football club.”
“Looking back now, it felt like a big call (to hire McKenna),” Probert says. “But it’s been a great one.”
Investment has arrived, but youth will still be at forefront
Ipswich have a rich pedigree in producing players through their academy — Kevin Beattie and John Wark from the glory days of the Sir Bobby Robson era to Kieron Dyer, Richard Wright and Jason Dozzell under George Burley in the Premier League.
Of the present team, defender Luke Woolfenden and Humphreys have progressed from the youth ranks, with hopes that the pathway to the first team will remain clear under McKenna.
McKenna’s CV shows he is not afraid to give youngsters a chance, with Woolfenden and Humphreys playing their part in the squad despite the need to pick up points to stay in the promotion race.
“Kieran’s a huge advocate of youth development, from his own career as a player and in his second career as a coach and a manager; that was really important for us,” says Probert.
“One of the metrics we focused on was somebody that can develop players. Whether that was to develop and improve somebody like Morsy or Aluko, who are really invested in how we train and how much we train, or whether that is for someone like Cameron Humphreys, who’s just come out of the academy and played some games or anything in between, Kieran’s passion and knowledge of youth development is key.
“Without that, we’re not able to sign people like Harry Clarke, Leif Davis, Nathan Broadhead — because those players see that we can improve them as footballers and help their career. In our model, having a manager like Kieran that can help develop players is crucial.”
Geography is also in Ipswich’s favour under FA rules, which limits a club to signing players who can commute to training within a 60-90 minute travel time, depending on their age. Only East Anglian rivals Norwich to the north and League Two Colchester United in Essex pose real competition within that radius.
Despite being born in Colchester, this season’s breakthrough young player Humphreys is an example of the reach and success of Ipswich’s academy system, with the 19-year-old scoring twice in 17 appearances in central midfield after being handed his debut in December 2021.
As the Ipswich players jet off to Las Vegas, work is beginning for next season as Ashton, Probert and McKenna start the hard task of drawing up a strategy for success in the Championship. Ambitions remain high.
For Walton, there are similarities between the gradual build planned at Ipswich and the one he experienced at Brighton, who are now an established Premier League force and pushing for Europe.
Walton has had a stellar season as Ipswich’s No 1 (Photo: Matchday Images)
“When I signed, I knew it was a big club, it is steeped in history,” he says. “I didn’t need to be told that by my dad or older generations. I wanted to be part of another big club. Brighton is a big club and did well, and I would say Ipswich is on the same journey as Brighton. They were middle of the Championship when I signed, had new infrastructure and the owner was spending money on the training ground and stadium and it’s pretty much the same here.
“The stadium is great, there are plans at the training grounds. It’s an amazing project to be part of.”
“There’s been such a good connection and feeling between the players, the supporters, the staff, the ownership,” McKenna says. “Everyone’s been pulling in the same direction. When you achieve something, it makes it all the more satisfying that everyone has played a part. There is relief and tiredness after a really long season where you’re just glad you know it’s over and you’ve achieved what we set out to achieve.
“Now we can rest and have a holiday with our families and get the energy back up for the big challenges ahead.”
Ipswich Town are back and this is only the beginning.
(Top image design: Sam Richardson; photos: Matchday Images)