COMMENT: Plenty of hope and a few fears as Ipswich Town prepare to start their 2014/15 campaign
It’s that time of the year when football fans across the country assess their hopes and fears for the season ahead. For Ipswich Town supporters, finally, it’s the former which is probably just about outweighing the latter.
This is the club’s 13th successive season in the Championship. Comfortably English football’s longest serving current second tier side, a Groundhog Day sensation has led to a growing feeling of apathy in recent years. A decade of declining attendances at Portman Road tells the tale.
However, 18 months of slow and steady progress under Mick McCarthy’s management has seen a feeling of cautious optimism creep back. ‘Cautious’ being the operative word because we’ve been here before, of course.
Anything seemed possible when the iconic figure of Roy Keane first arrived and started splashing the cash on transfer fees, likewise when Paul Jewell – twice promoted from the Championship – brought in ‘star names’ such as Jimmy Bullard and Michael Chopra.
Town fans have learnt not to get carried away. They use a healthy dose of cynicism as an emotional shield. Low expectations dull the feelings of disappointment and frustration which so often follow. Whisper it quietly, but something feels different this time though. This growing feeling of optimism seems based on something of real substance, rather than instant hype and razzmatazz.
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Having purchased a crumbling mansion, owner Marcus Evans tried to restore it to its former glory by appointing celebrity interior designers. Hindsight (a wonderful thing) shows it was a naive decision. While messers Keane and Jewell were applying a lick of paint and installing fancy new furniture, the grand old building was still subsiding.
To continue the analogy, McCarthy arrived as the structural engineer in November 2012. He took one look at the damage and immediately got to work. The scaffolding went up and the diggers got down to the foundations. It’s not been pretty, but it’s work that was long overdue. Without it, it was always going to be a case of papering over the cracks.
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The wage bill has been slashed to a healthy level, key contracts tied up ahead of time, the average age of the squad drastically reduced, while loan players now supplement the squad rather than making up its core.
Character has been valued just as highly as ability during the recruitment process and, as a result, the spirit and togetherness in the camp is palpable.
The foundations are solid once more. Now we find out whether McCarthy can tart the place up a bit.
And now’s the time I should probably stop talking about houses.
So what are realistic expectations? The Blues may have flirted with the play-offs for much of last season, but they never really looked like they would get the date. The table doesn’t lie and in the end it was ninth-place.
Never underestimate how far consistency, stability, familiarity, organisation, hard-work and spirit can take you in the gruelling Saturday-Tuesday schedule of the Championship.
The hope is that all those qualities can overcome the big budgets of their rivals. Burnley, promoted in second-spot last season, are being held up as an example of what can be achieved by the underdogs.
The fear is that Ipswich have far too many limitations to take another massive step in the right direction. A lack of goals and creativity from a workmanlike midfield was painfully apparent last season and that hasn’t been addressed thus far. The squad is arguably weaker than it was at the end of last season and the Championship seemingly stronger.
Aaron Cresswell – constantly hailed as ‘the best left-back in the league’ by his boss last campaign – has gone to Premier League club West Ham. And there is no Jonny Williams to call upon anymore either, the exciting Crystal Palace midfielder set for bigger things following his scintillating end of season loan spell at Portman Road.
Full-back Jonathan Parr and winger Cameron Stewart arrive with plenty of experience in English football’s top two tiers, but keeper Bartosz Bialkowski is an educated risk, while Alex Henshall, Kevin Bru and Balint Bajner are out-and-out gambles.
What could make the difference is if a few youngsters, the likes of Tyrone Mings, Elliott Hewitt and Jack Marriott, have a breakthrough campaign.
Gatecrashing the top six is by no means out of the question, but Ipswich Town are very much the underdogs. Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff come down from the Premier League with an obscene amount of parachute payments – the gap between the haves and have nots getting bigger every year. And the trio which have just come up from League One – Wolves, Brentford and Rotherham – all look well equipped not only to survive, but potentially thrive. Derby, Wigan and Brighton will all look to kick on after missing out in the play-offs, while Reading, Blackburn, Bournemouth, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Watford and Bolton all have reasons to believe they can be up there competing at the top. As the old cliché goes, there’s only one thing predictable about the Championship though – it’s unpredictable.
As strong as the newly-relegated trio look, history dictates that it can be difficult to shake off that losing habit. Equally, the disappointment of missing out in the play-offs can leave a hangover too.
And McCarthy still has time to add to his squad, remember. One or two top class loan signings from the Premier League could yet make all the difference.
Playing two newly-relegated sides at home early on could work in Ipswich’s favour. A good opening month and anything would seem possible.