Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Ipswich Town celebrate remarkable promotion to Premier League

IPSWICH, England — Manager Kieran McKenna could walk on the River Orwell that flows past the Ipswich Town ground tonight, and no one would blink twice. Miracle man McKenna has guided the club to back-to-back promotions, with their 2-0 win (stream a replay on ESPN+, U.S. only) over Huddersfield Town on Saturday securing second in the Championship and their place back in the Premier League after a 22-year absence.

A couple of hours after full time, McKenna was reflecting on the last week. “We’ve all lived a monk-like existence,” he said. They’d left nothing to chance, not even booking a restaurant for a potential celebratory dinner just in case it’d tempt fate.

They headed in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off needing a point to secure a return to the top flight, but this group wasn’t ever going to be timid. It’s not the approach McKenna has instilled at Portman Road, and not the DNA that has guided the club from midtable League One obscurity when he took over in December 2021 back to the promised land in just 30 months.

As afternoons go, few could have dreamt this. It was as perfect a performance and occasion as an Ipswich fan could have wished for. Whenever you have these types of matches, with a finishing line in sight but still the gut-wrenching uncertainty and scars of previous heartbreak tempering optimism, there’s a tendency to expect the worst-case scenario.

Huddersfield still had an unlikely chance of avoiding relegation — they required a 15-goal swing on Plymouth Argyle — while Ipswich, given a 98% chance of promotion, needed not to concede to secure the runners-up spot behind champions Leicester City.

But the team played without nerves, attacking from the off and camping in and around Huddersfield’s penalty area. When referee Simon Hooper sounded the final notes of this season and confirmed Ipswich’s passage to the promised land, the players were engulfed by thousands of fans who streamed onto the pitch. Somewhere in the middle of all of it was McKenna as the stadium announcer pleaded with the fans to leave the pitch so they could get a trophy presentation together. It was a thankless task.

Over in Miami, Ipswich fan Ed Sheeran — on tour and unable to be at the game — FaceTimed attacking midfielder Conor Chaplin and the club’s chairman, Mike O’Leary, saying how much he’d wished he was there.

“It hasn’t hit home,” McKenna said. “I’ve been so disciplined, and then staff and players have, at not getting carried away. Look, 96 points in the Championship as a newly promoted team with so many of the same group we had two years ago, the way we’ve done it and the style we’ve done it, it’s an incredible achievement.”

They’ve been dreaming of this day since May 11, 2002, when a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool relegated them to the second tier, just one season after they had finished within three points of making the Champions League under George Burley. A year on and they were filing for administration; the collapse of the ITV digital television channel and poor recruitment saw them teeter on the brink of extinction. But still they battled. They reached the playoffs three times, but instead of heading back to the top table, they plummeted further in 2019 when they were relegated to League One, a far cry from the club’s days under those immortal managers like Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson who are honoured with statues outside the ground.

The club’s proud history is detailed on the wall of the West Stand. From the club’s birth to the Sir Alf Ramsey era, their league title in 1962, Ray Crawford’s club-record 227 goals, winning the FA Cup in 1978 under Sir Bobby Robson to John Wark’s heroics in 1981 to steer them to the UEFA Cup. “Burley’s Bar” breaks up the wall of fame, as it continues with their story through to the Premier League, their European run in 2000-01 and the recognition of Kevin Beattie as the “best Blue ever” in 2008. They have two free panels at the end of the stand. While a statue of McKenna is still a little premature, surely he will be immortalised on the wall for this historic pair of promotions.

The Tractor Boys’ Northern Irish manager is now an honorary son of Suffolk. When McKenna took over, they’d just lost in the FA Cup second round to non-league Barrow, prompting ex-Ipswich legend Terry Butcher to say: “We’re not a big club anymore. We’re a small club, really, when you think about how far we’ve sunk.” Burley said this week the club was “not bringing players through the academy and doing away with the community projects, not looking after the ground and fans [were] not enjoying the football.”

Paul Cook was sacked by owners Gamechanger 20 — who took on the club in April 2021 — after the defeat to Barrow, and they turned to McKenna, who was Jose Mourinho’s assistant manager at Manchester United and then part of the coaching team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick. Ipswich was his first senior managerial job, realising the potential of taking a sleeping giant back up to the top flight, the owners’ vision selling him a dream.

Both he and CEO Mark Ashton have worked to reintegrate the club with the community. On Friday, Ashton visited Gusford Primary School; he was greeted by a hall full of children wearing Ipswich shirts, chanting “Blue Army.” Relations mended, just a few years after they’d lost their way to the extent Norwich City — their arch-rivals — were running school sessions in Ipswich.

“Just outside of Ipswich, I’ve seen it go through really difficult times and I know that being in the Premier League is going to be bringing not just real excitement to the football club, but also real excitement and joy to the town and lift it up, which is really important,” Sheeran told ESPN’s Nate Saunders in Miami.

Behind the scenes, their recruitment has been well-judged, with the starting XI for Saturday’s game costing in the region of £4.5m. The January business reinforced the squad with Kieffer Moore, an astute loan signing from AFC Bournemouth to cover an injury to George Hirst, and Jeremy Sarmiento — on a temporary move from Brighton & Hove Albion — bolstered their options on the wing. Lewis Travis added depth to the defence from Blackburn Rovers.

But it all comes back to McKenna. “He’s worked wonders,” one supporter said before the game, who’s also part of the pitch team. He talked with just as much animation about their £2.5m hybrid surface they installed last summer as he does the calmness of McKenna. “The only time we’ve really seen him get angry was against Hull City when he smacked the side of the bench,” he says. “He’s been brilliant.”

The fans have loved their unapologetic attacking approach. Ashton calls it their “hunter mentality” — resolutely restarting each time with a short ball from the goalkeeper, looking to press unrelentingly and keeping possession before executing rapidly in the final third. And all that on a budget far inferior to those of their promotion rivals — Leicester, Southampton and Leeds United were all relegated last season from the Premier League and armed with the cushion of parachute payments.

They’d been preparing for this all week in the town centre. The team behind Ipswich Central — charged with improving the town’s business prospects — issued a rallying call to local businesses asking them to deck their stores or cafés out in royal blue. The “Green Room” café on St. Margaret’s Green was renamed the “Blue Room,” local opticians had blue bobble hats on their glasses models, a locksmith decked out the mascot in a blue Ipswich shirt.

Ipswich supporters the world over made their pilgrimage back to their footballing home. Garin Hubbard bought a one-way ticket from Sydney back to Suffolk just in case they ended up in the playoffs. He didn’t have a match ticket but needed to be there, just like others who’d come from places like the U.S. and the Middle East. On the other side of the Irish Sea, McKenna’s family’s Manor House Country Hotel on the shores of Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, was decked out in blue, offering a free pint to anyone wearing an Ipswich shirt.

The fan group Blue Action called on supporters to meet on the corner of Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Constantine Road to welcome the coach at 11 a.m. They were there in full voice from 9 a.m., a group of 100 or so already singing songs honouring Sarmiento. A local fireworks shop put on its Facebook group: “By the amount of blue and white smoke bombs we have sold it is going to be an epic day.” They weren’t wrong. There were fans asking for any spare tickets — more in hope than expectation.

Some fans were nervous — preempting disappointment as self-preservation. A father and son talked about how they were going to put £60 on the unlikely scenario of Leeds getting promoted at 16/1 (at the expense of Ipswich), so that if things somehow went off the rails against Huddersfield, they’d wake up with an extra £1,000 to soften the blow.

By 11 a.m., the fan zone hugging the stadium was packed, and outside it was pandemonium. Thousands of fans greeted the coach, the sky a wall of dense blue smoke of eye-pinching intensity blowing down Sir Alf Ramsey Way; the drums relentless, the chants continuous, as the coach snaked through. But away from there, some preferred to spend a moment reflecting. By the time the coach had edged through the crowd, a little further away on the other side of the stadium, a couple sat by the club’s memorial garden, remembering a friend and lifelong Ipswich fan who’d passed away in the week. It was an experience both personal and collective.

Ipswich came into the match with perfect symmetry — a record of 191 goals and 191 points over the past two seasons. They added their 192nd in the 28th minute. The party had already tentatively started in the stands with Leeds losing, leading the Ipswich fans to sing about their fellow promotion hopefuls “falling apart, again.” But it was Burns’ goal that triggered sheer elation. The West Stand shook under the weight of celebrations. “We are going up,” they sang into the early afternoon sky after Burns slotted home first-time from a neat Chaplin pass.

Any lasted nervousness was gone just three minutes into the second half as Chelsea loanee Omari Hutchinson danced through flailing Huddersfield lunges on the edge of the box to score. The chants of “We are going up” got louder, now boosted by unwavering belief rather than expectation, with “Stand up if you’re going up” soon following.

As the match ticked on, still they pressed and prodded, looking for a third. A banner was unveiled in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand, reading: “We’ve got super Kieran McKenna — Mind the gap.” And in the 89th minute, they replaced goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky with last season’s No. 1, Christian Walton, for his first Championship minutes of the season.

Referee Hooper was halfway toward the changing room when he blew for full time. And in an instant, the pitch was covered with Ipswich fans, the sky coated in blue smoke, and players held aloft, popping up on shoulders among the throng. It was sheer, unbridled joy.

This group will be immortalised in Ipswich history. Their captain, Sam Morsy, has been brilliant across both promotions, along with central defender Luke Woolfenden and the brilliant Leif Davis — an outstanding full-back and one of the best players in the Championship. Chaplin has been superb as a No. 10, just like he was in League 1, while Hirst led the line in the first half of the season until injury hit. Yet this was always about the collective. Davis will not be short of suitors, however, having chipped in a remarkable 18 assists.

“We’re all buzzing but it hasn’t sunk in yet. [McKenna’s] taken my game on a massive, massive amount,” Davis said. “I hope he stays and we get to work with him for years to come. I had a Newcastle season ticket when I was younger and I can’t wait to play at St James’ Park.”

McKenna will enjoy the celebrations over the coming days, but you imagine he’ll already have turned attention to next season. They have some of their summer plans in place, looking to renovate their Playford Road training ground, while they’ll also have to keep envious eyes away from McKenna. He is under contract through to 2027, but he has already been linked with several Premier League jobs, most recently Brighton.

“I couldn’t have dreamt this,” McKenna said. “It was a long road, a lot of work to be done. We had the goal of promotion but everybody has that.

“To achieve that has taken an incredible amount of work. It’s been one of the toughest Championships, and this will bring challenges, there’ll be challenges ahead but that’s not for now. Now is the time to revel in this.”

You also feel there’ll be no reckless recruitment; they’ve built sturdier foundations than that. Ipswich will build, spend astutely and look to the long-term.

“What’s brilliant about football is it is very unpredictable, and you never know what’s going to happen,” Sheeran told ESPN. “We’ve seen the top six teams in England fall from grace before and you’ve seen people like Leicester win the league. You never know, if we avoid relegation next season that’s the biggest success for me, but you never know what’s going to happen.”

But today and across the rest of this Bank Holiday weekend, and likely the entire summer, they’ll be celebrating this remarkable feat.

At the start of the season, they were targeting midtable, maybe an unlikely playoff push, but not this. The pubs in Ipswich had already stocked up — learning from last year’s promotion party to over-buy beer — and though this club will always now be associated with Sheeran, they’ll be bouncing to their own version of Shakira’s “Waka Waka”: “Morsy and McKenna’s men, we’re going up again.”

Additional reporting: ESPN’s Nate Saunders, in Miami.

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