The Insight: Why January could be ‘now or never’ for incredible Ipswich

 | January 08 | 

6 mins read

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Like a rose between three thorns, Ipswich Town are piercing the elite at the top of the Championship.

The three recently-relegated Premier League teams, buoyed by incredibly strong squads and parachute payments, are arguably as good as we have seen in the second tier, but they’ve not had everything their own way thanks to the remarkable Tractor Boys. 

A lot of praise has been placed at Kieran McKenna’s door, and rightly so. The young manager has dragged this club up from the mire of League One and taken them on an incredible run, spanning almost the entirety of 2023. Across the 12 months, they lost just six competitive games in all competitions, two of those to current Premier League outfits in cup games. 

It’s been a remarkable rise, and they enjoyed the second greatest start any Championship team has ever made to a second-tier campaign. Since then, they’ve failed to win their last league five games, the busy Christmas period stunting their rapid progress. This downturn has seen Southampton close the gap between second and third to just three points, but the Suffolk side don’t need to fret. 

Ipswich Town Championship odds

  • Ipswich to beat Sunderland @ EVS
  • Ipswich to get promoted @ 8/11

This slight drop-off in form can be attributed to two things. Number one is key injuries to arguably their two most pivotal players this season in the form of left-back Leif Davis and striker George Hirst. Davis has registered a league-high total of nine assists already this term, taking his tally in 2023 to an English league leading 16, and the team are set up to allow him to find space when overlapping on the left. 

Number nine-turned-wide forward Nathan Broadhead often nominally starts from the left wing, but spends the majority of matches in central areas looking to force overloads and overwhelm opposition defences. This allows Davis the freedom of the wide area to cause havoc, and with his exceptional delivery it has been a cause of success for Ipswich ever since McKenna came in. 

Meanwhile, the sheer chaos Hirst has caused with his size and relentless energy will be missed and the manager will have to come up with a solution to his absence. The son of former England international David Hirst, George will be out until the back-end of the season having ruptured his hamstring on Boxing Day. 

In the subsequent matches, Kayden Jackson and Freddie Ladapo have shared the responsibility of being the starting striker in McKenna’s 4-2-3-1, but Hirst's absence has clearly impacted the Tractor Boys. Having been one of Europe’s highest scoring teams in 2023 - and number one in the whole English league system with 103 in the calendar year, they’ve failed to score in back-to-back games. 

It would be unfair to put all of the blame on the number nine, as Davis’ lack of availability is clearly impacting the attacking fluidity of this team, but the step down in quality is clear. Both Jackson and Ladapo have spent the majority of their careers in League One, and this is by far the highest level they have played at consistently. With six Championship goals between them this season, they’ve so far not proven that they can produce what it takes to keep Ipswich at the top end of the division.

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When you compare this absence of depth to the likes of Leeds United, who currently have club-record signing Georginio Rutter keeping Patrick Bamford out of the team, you can see how important this January window could be for Ipswich. They’ve not had time to build a squad packed with Championship depth, which shows how incredible McKenna’s work has been this term. 

This January, they have to get their recruitment right in order to keep pace with the big boys, and they’ve already made a good start to the transfer window. They’ve brought in Brighton winger Jeremy Sarmiento on loan, an exciting Ecuador international who should help bolster their attacking options. Next on the incoming list was Blackburn Rovers captain Lewis Travis, a hugely experienced midfielder at this level who had fallen out of favour with Jon Dahl Tomasson. He's joined on loan until the end of the season, and he could be the perfect addition to help Town get over the line. 

They’ve also been linked with the permanent signing of Jay Stansfield from Fulham. The striker has impressed on loan at Birmingham City so far this term, scoring seven goals, but there is a feeling that Fulham may look for a January sale, especially given how his progress was stunted under the now-departed Wayne Rooney. 

If Ipswich can secure his signing, plus one or two others, it could give them the springboard for an exceptional second half of the season that could carry them all the way to the Premier League. Arguably, the only reason Ipswich got promoted from League One last term was because of their exceptional January window which saw them bring in Massimo Luongo, Hirst, Broadhead and Harry Clarke.

From the close of the January window in 2023, they didn’t lose another game in League One, amassing an incredible 98 points in total. Given that the recruitment has been so good over the past 12 months, one more exceptional window could see them take a giant step towards the Premier League and an unlikely double promotion. 

They are in a huge position of strength right now, and there is the case to be made that they need to strike while the iron is hot. They couldn’t have envisaged such a strong start to the season, and there is a three-point gap between them and Southampton in third. If they don’t invest now and go all out for promotion, they may not get this chance again.

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The club is clearly on an upwards trajectory, but if they don’t achieve promotion this term, McKenna may be tempted by a Premier League job given he is arguably the highest-rated young manager in the entirety of the EFL right now. When you consider how much of Ipswich’s success is down to him, it feels like a sliding doors moment this season.

They are on the crest of a wave, with McKenna and the entire squad all over-performing, pulling in the right direction. If they can hold their own amongst the strongest relegated trio we have ever seen at this level, it will go down as one of the great footballing achievements. 

The Tractor Boys are way ahead of schedule, but that shouldn’t quell their ambitions. Managers like McKenna don’t come around often, now it’s up to Ipswich to put all their chips on the table and give him the tools he needs to take them back to the Premier League.

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