Feature

How Ipswich ended 22-year exile from Premier League

By Adrian Kajumba 4 May 2024
Ipswich celebrate promotion

Adrian Kajumba looks at the club, the manager and players who have sealed back-to-back promotions

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Ipswich Town have enjoyed a season beyond their supporters’ wildest dreams after following their promotion from League One last season by sealing a return to the Premier League for the first time since 2002.

In doing so, they have become just the fifth side to earn back-to-back promotions to the Premier League after Watford in 1999, Manchester City in 2000, Norwich in 2011 and Southampton in 2012.

Ipswich promoted image

Here we take a look at how Ipswich finally ended their long wait to get back to the Premier League. 

Ipswich’s Premier League past 

For 22 years Ipswich have been absent from the Premier League but they will start their third stint in the division when they return next season.

Their first spell was between 1992 and 1995 with Ipswich securing one of the coveted spots in the first Premier League season of 1992/93 by winning the old Division Two the previous season.

Following their relegation in 1995, they spent five seasons in the second tier before a playoff final win over Barnsley returned for the first time in 2000. 

They enjoyed a remarkable first campaign back, securing a fifth-placed finish and qualifying for the UEFA Cup under George Burley, who was named Premier League manager of the year. 

But the following season it all went wrong and Ipswich suffered relegation, starting a period outside of England’s top divisions that has lasted over two decades.

What happened next? 

Ipswich experienced a gradual and painful decline. At their lowest, the Tractor Boys found themselves finishing 11th in League One as a number of managers tried but failed to take them in the opposite direction back to the Premier League.

Joe Royle initially came close by reaching successive playoff Championship semi-finals in 2004 and 2005. But they found themselves treading water for the next nine seasons.

Permanent managers Jim Magilton, Roy Keane and Paul Jewell came and went during that time until the team of Mick McCarthy (pictured below) also reached the playoff semi-finals in 2015. 

mick mc carthy

Then came three more seasons outside the promotion picture before, in 2019, they dropped into the third tier, League One, for the first time since 1957 after finishing bottom under Paul Lambert.

Lambert could not bring Ipswich back up and neither could his successor Paul Cook.

Ipswich finally struck gold with their new American owners Gamechanger 20 Ltd, who ended Marcus Evans’s 13-year ownership in 2021 and are backed by a US pension fund, appointed Kieran McKenna.

Who is Kieran McKenna?
mckenna

McKenna was a young midfielder at Tottenham Hotspur before he was forced to retire at the age of 22 by a hip injury before he was able to make his first-team debut. 

He has since successfully channelled his energy and expertise into coaching.

McKenna held Academy roles at Spurs and Manchester United before becoming part of the first-team coaching staff at Old Trafford under Jose Mourinho, Ralf Rangnick until Ipswich handed him his first managerial role in December 2021. 

McKenna’s Ipswich impact 

A sign of what was to come was there in McKenna’s first half-season.

Though he was unable to secure a playoff spot after taking over when they were 12th, he did win seven of his first 10 matches, keeping seven clean sheets during that run and eventually setting a club record of 559 minutes without letting in a goal. 

Then came the successive promotions, with Ipswich’s points total this season beating Southampton’s previous Championship best for a promoted side of 88, set in 2012.

McKenna achieved both promotions playing a bold and brave brand of attacking football that has certainly entertained supporters. 

Ipswich netted 101 goals in League One and led the Championship scoring charts, with 92.

Playing out from the back is key to his philosophy and the meticulous McKenna’s methods have paid off on countless occasions.

Winger Wes Burns’ outside-of-the-foot goal against Coventry in December, which went viral, was just one example of a goal scored by Ipswich at the end of a move that began near their own goal. 

As well as being a victory for his coaching Ipswich’s promotion is also a result of never-say-die spirit McKenna has fostered.

No team has claimed more points after going behind than their 32 or scored more goals in the final 15 minutes than Ipswich’s 25. 

Goals from substitutes have also been a feature of McKenna’s Ipswich as his squad have bought into the owners’ motto about running towards adversity and demand that they fight to the end, a nod to the instincts of the firefighters and police officers the pension fund is for and which is ultimately supporting the club. 

Key players 

Leif Davis (left-back, 24)

leif davis

The Englishman joined from Leeds in 2022. He topped the League One assist charts, with 14, and repeated the trick in the Championship with 18 ahead of the final day. A set-piece taker and big open-play outlet too with his tireless running up and down Ipswich’s left. Goals from his cutbacks have been a common feature. 

Sam Morsy (central midfield, 32) 

sam morsy

Ipswich’s captain and Mr Consistent. The fans' player of the year has only failed to start four league matches all season. His 14 bookings and 73 fouls - league-highs going into the final weekend - and the division's second-most tackles (116) underline the Egyptian's combative qualities.

Vaclav Hladky (goalkeeper, 33)

vaclav

The Cezch was Ipswich's No 2 during their League One campaign but has taken his opportunity with both hands in the Championship after a pre-season injury to previous first-choice 'keeper Christian Walton.

Hladky has started every league game this season and is key to Ipswich’s playing out from the back, being good with his feet and an impressive distributor. He has also produced countless spectacular stops on his way to 14 clean sheets, the league’s third-highest tally ahead of final fixtures. 

Omari Hutchison (winger, 20)

hutchinson

The former Arsenal Academy prospect is on loan at Ipswich from Chelsea. Hutchison has really come to the fore during the run-in, bringing an impressive end to his first senior loan spell.

Skilful with a work ethic to match, the left-footer has caught the eye with some spectacular goals, such as his long-range double at Hull last month, assists, trickery and his acrobatic backflip celebration.

How the season has unfolded

Most pre-season predictions had this being a season of consolidation for Ipswich. At best an outside push at Championship playoffs. 

But those expectations have been significantly exceeded. 

Ipswich have rarely been far from the automatic places after picking up where they left off in League One last season. 

The lowest position they have occupied was sixth after their fourth-match home loss to Leeds, the only defeat they suffered in their first 16 matches.

After that setback against Leeds fourth place was as far as Ipswich fell after a run of two defeats and six draws in nine games over Christmas, the New Year and into February. 

But six straight wins followed, lifting them back up to second, and Ipswich’s belief during the season has been further fuelled by their string of late wins.

None more so than their Easter Monday 3-2 success over Southampton courtesy of Jeremy Sarmiento’s 97th-minute winner. 

At that stage Ipswich were top before an East Anglian derby defeat by Norwich and three successive draws saw them fall back out of the automatic places again. 

But Leeds’s 4-0 defeat at Queen's Park Rangers reopened the door to automatic promotion.

And they eventually took full advantage in their final two matches against Coventry City and Huddersfield Town to seal second spot in the Championship and reclaim a Premier League place. 

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