Ipswich Town have secured back-to-back automatic promotions into the Premier League. Stuart Watson spoke to chief executive Mark Ashton about beating the odds this season.


Mark Ashton has never been shy in setting bold targets for Ipswich Town. He's always relished proving the doubters wrong.

In an early management meeting back in the summer of 2021, the newly-appointed chief executive's proclamation that 'we’re going to sell 18,000 season tickets' was met by looks of disbelief from assembled staff. That was understandable given that attendances prior to the behind-closed-doors era had dipped as low as 15,000 and the club was now preparing for a third season in the third tier.

In the summer of 2022, Ashton summoned a number of club legends and key stakeholders to Portman Road in order to outline his and the American ownership's vision of reaching the top flight with an entertaining brand of football under bright young coach Kieran McKenna. 'When this rocket ship leaves the launchpad it won't be stopped,' he told the room. More eyebrows were raised. Premier League? The team had just finished 11th in League One, 13 points adrift of the play-offs.

And yet here we are. Portman Road is the hottest ticket for miles around. Ipswich Town, remarkably, will soon return to the top table after registering 194 points and scoring 193 goals during back-to-back promotions.

East Anglian Daily Times: Mark Ashton looks up to the stands after Ipswich Town secured promotion to the Premier League.Mark Ashton looks up to the stands after Ipswich Town secured promotion to the Premier League. (Image: PA)

“I think if I’m honest with you there’s a bit of justification in there for me personally," said Ashton, speaking exclusively to the EADT and Ipswich Star.

“I just had a call with Ed Schwartz (the club's main owner) and he reminded me of a conversation we had last summer. Ed and I met in London for a couple of days to sign off the plan and Ed asked me at that point if I genuinely believed we could get promoted. He reminded me, ‘You looked at me Mark with absolute steel in your eyes and said “100%, yes.”’

"I couldn’t guarantee when, because we have jeopardy in sport. There but for a width of a post is win or a defeat. But I had - and have - an absolute belief in this club, in its staff, in Kieran and in the players. 

“I said we would attack this division. Some people laughed at that, some people scorned that. We saw that."

He pauses and smiles, before adding: "But I think it’s been justified now on the basis that we’re in the Premier League."

East Anglian Daily Times: Mark Ashton celebrates Ipswich Town's promotion to the Premier League alongside forward Kayden Jackson.Mark Ashton celebrates Ipswich Town's promotion to the Premier League alongside forward Kayden Jackson. (Image: PA)

Last November, Ashton made another big statement. He vowed that Ipswich, having put themselves in the early Championship promotion mix, had financial 'firepower' to strengthen the squad and would be 'brave and bold' in the January transfer window.

"For me, the challenge came after Leicester at home (on Boxing Day) when Hirsty (leading striker George Hirst) got injured," he said. "I think at one point we were going into a series of games and Kayden (Jackson) was probably the only fit nine that we had in the building. I just wondered whether we could be resilient enough to get through that period and get to the window in January."

Tricky winger Jeremy Sarmiento and experienced midfielder Lewis Travis arrived to add squad depth early in 2024, but it was strikers that were needed most. Finally, in the latter stages of the month, Ali Al-Hamadi and Kieffer Moore were added to bolster the attack. The pricey loan deal to bring experienced striker Moore from Bournemouth was wrapped up just a few hours before the deadline.

Words, once again, had been backed up by actions.

East Anglian Daily Times: January transfer deadline day signing Kieffer Moore contributed seven important goals in the second half of the season.January transfer deadline day signing Kieffer Moore contributed seven important goals in the second half of the season. (Image: Ross Halls)

"I knew we needed to have a good window," said Ashton. "I felt the pressure of that because that’s ultimately my responsibility. I think we ended up having another solid January and that gave us the boost we needed squad-wise just to get that momentum going again."

It was during that winter period that pundits and rival clubs' fans lined up to predict that Ipswich wouldn't be able to keep edging high-scoring thrillers and would fall away from a false position.

Again, it was an understandable assumption for outsiders to make. Ipswich were operating with a large number of the players who'd got them out of League One. Injuries, illness and suspensions hit over a hectic Christmas period that included several tough fixtures. A spell between mid-December and mid-February saw just one league win in eight and an FA Cup exit at the hands of Maidstone United.

Meanwhile, Leicester, Leeds and Southampton, who had all just dropped down from the Premier League, were setting a relentless pace. So they should have been too. In April last year, a study carried out by the EFL concluded that clubs receiving parachute payments were three times more likely to be promoted than others.

East Anglian Daily Times: Leeds United finished third after losing four of their last six games.Leeds United finished third after losing four of their last six games. (Image: PA)

Those closer to Ipswich knew some special ingredients were being underestimated though. There was a recent shared promotion experience that contained several pressure wins on the road to call upon. The club had stability, momentum and deep bonds. The 'running towards adversity' mantra was meaningful. Calm and composed boss McKenna kept everyone process driven to the bitter end. Consistency ultimately got Town over the line as Leeds and Southampton crumbled under pressure. Suffering just six defeats in 46 was, arguably, the most impressive stat of all.

“Myself and (chief operating officer) Luke Werhun were in the league meetings, we were in other clubs’ board rooms and we heard the chatter," said Ashton.

"It was, ‘Ipswich will fall away’, ‘Ipswich will have a blip’, ‘the big clubs will go past them’. Nah. Not with this manager, not with this team. I had the faith because you could see the strength, you could see the togetherness. I’m just really proud of them."

The Blues chief continued: “I’m not sure it will happen again. Listen, I may be proven wrong, but there are three big parachute payment clubs that have just come down (Leicester, Leeds and Southampton), plus other clubs in the division still on parachute payments (Norwich and Watford). (And West Brom only two years removed from the Premier League).

“Have we actually been outside of the top three for the majority of the season? I don’t think we have. We’ve always been there or there abouts throughout."

East Anglian Daily Times: George Hirst was Ipswich Town's most expensive signing last summer at £1.5m.George Hirst was Ipswich Town's most expensive signing last summer at £1.5m. (Image: Steve Waller)

Just how big an underdog success story was this? I ask Ashton to estimate where Ipswich's wage bill would have ranked among this season's 24 Championship clubs. 

“Let me just work this through..." he says, before counting on his figures.

"Well, the three teams closest to us (Leicester, Leeds and Southampton) are probably four or five times our salary base. So I think that gives you a steer. Beyond that, we’d be mid to low midtable."

The biggest transfer fee paid for a current member of the Town squad remains £1.6m for Jackson back in 2018.

There's no doubting that Town spent well under new ownership in an attempt to escape League One, with Leif Davis (£1.2m), Nathan Broadhead (£1.5m) and Harry Clarke (£1.5m) all seven-figure additions and Conor Chaplin, Cameron Burgess, George Edmundson, Marcus Harness having all arrived for around £750k each prior to that.

The only 'significant' fees shelled out since stepping up to the Championship, however, have been for George Hirst (£1.5m), Jack Taylor (£1.5m) and Ali Al-Hamadi (£1m), with McKenna keen to improve what he's got while slowly adding young players he can develop along the way.

"If you look at our transfer fees in the Championship we haven’t spent a ton of money," said Ashton. 

“We said we would build Premier League standards in League One that we believed could carry us all the way through. I think people, even close to us, looked and went, ‘Yeah, those are just words, you’re just telling a story, Mark’. But they weren’t. We actually believed that was possible, that we could attack the division and that we could be competitive.  

“I’m not saying our plan is perfect by the way, it’s not, this is just the Ipswich way of doing things. Other people will be successful doing things their own way. Good on them for that. But we sat down, Kieran and I came up with a model for how we wanted to do this and through rain or shine we stuck to it."

The grand plan came to fruition. Ipswich Town are back in the big time.