Assessing Town's lingering play-off hopes as McKenna's margins get ever smaller

Kieran McKenna's side are six points off the League One play-offs

Kieran McKenna's side are six points off the League One play-offs - Credit: Pagepix

Oxford’s late equaliser on Saturday was like a dagger to the heart of Ipswich Town’s play-off hopes. 

Three points looked to have been secured, courtesy of Bersant Celina’s 70th-minute strike, which would have closed the gap to the final play-off place to just four points.  

Results went in Town’s favour on Saturday, with Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Wycombe and Portsmouth all drawing. Sadly, Town couldn’t take the chance to close the gap and it instead stands at six. 

Three of those teams are above Ipswich, with the Black Cats sixth, while Pompey could also sit above the Blues should Danny Cowley’s men win their game in hand. 

Oxford celebrate in a chaotic penalty area as the equalise with almost their last touch of the game.

Ipswich drew 1-1 at Oxford on Saturday - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

That’s some serious traffic to overcome with just seven games left to play. 

Of course, it’s still mathematically possible. It is.  

Seven wins will almost certainly do the job from this point, with number-crunching websites giving Ipswich a 97% chance of making the play-offs if they finish perfectly on 82 points. 

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Six wins and a draw (80 points) comes out at a near 75% chance while six wins and a loss (79) produces a 49% chance. Any hope rapidly diminishes after that, with five wins and two draws (78) giving a 29% chance and five wins, a draw and a loss (77) yielding just a 13% chance. 

The generally accepted pre-season play-off mark of 75 points brings just a 1% chance of the play-offs this time around. A total of 73 has been enough on average over the last 10 years – there's zero chance of making it on that this year. 

Those odds don’t look great, whichever way you look at them. 

Reasons to be cheerful 

If your glass is close to overflowing with optimism, there is a valid argument as to why you might think Town could make it. 

The Blues are unbeaten in 10, are playing well and are defending even better. 

The majority of the remaining games are certainly winnable, meaning clashes with mid-table Shrewsbury, Cambridge and Charlton should really yield three points if you’re feeling hugely optimistic. Crewe, bottom of the table, will likely be relegated by the time Town go there for the penultimate game of the season. That’s four wins. 

Bersant Celina celebrates at Oxford.

The Town players celebrate Town's 70th-minute opener - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

Town are unbeaten at Portman Road and have only conceded one goal in Suffolk under Kieran McKenna, raising hopes for this Saturday’s game with Plymouth. 

Then there’s the Easter double-header with Rotherham and Wigan. Both of those sides could be promoted by then (though MK Dons will have a thing or two to say about that) which may mean their feet could come off the gas? Maybe. If you’re being really optimistic. 

So that’s the path to seven victories, which would give a 97% chance of the play-offs. Chuck a single draw in there and you’re working with a 75% chance.  

Good odds if you can hit those marks. 

Town players huddle up before kick-off at Oxford.

The Town fans huddle up before the Oxford game - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

Reasons to be fearful 

Anything less than the above two scenarios and you’re down to a below 50/50 chance of reaching the play-offs. 

The margins are extremely small and it’s not in Town’s hands. Even a perfect finish doesn’t statistically guarantee a spot from this point. It almost certainly would get Town in, at 97%, but it’s not a sure thing. 

So, if even perfection might not be good enough, then there is real reason to doubt. 

Ipswich are still yet to beat a team in the top seven of League One this season (seven draws, four losses) but they’ll need to beat at least two of them and draw the other to have a real chance this season. 

Plymouth Argyle's Macaulay Gillesphey (centre) celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the gam

Plymouth Argyle come to Portman Road this weekend - Credit: PA

Plymouth, the first opponents of the seven remaining, are flying. They’re on a run of five-successive victories and haven’t conceded a goal in any of them. They beat Accrington Stanley 4-0 at the weekend. Saturday’s match will arguably be McKenna’s toughest on home soil. 

Rotherham and Wigan could be up by the time the Easter fixtures roll around but, on the flipside to that, they may not be. They may still be fighting. 

Rotherham, who completely schooled Paul Cook’s Ipswich earlier in the season, have slipped a little of late and will likely need a victory in front of their own crowd in a game currently scheduled for Good Friday. Wigan, in excellent form, could well be in title-winning territory by the Easter Monday clash. They will be incredibly motivated for that, should the scenario arise. 

The mid-table sides (Cambridge, Shrewsbury and Charlton) should really be beaten by an Ipswich team charging for the top six. Town beat Shrewsbury at home in October, but could only draw with Cambridge and lost miserably at Charlton in the away fixtures this season. Nine points are certainly needed from those games – a big improvement from the four they took in their first meetings. 

Rotherham United's Oliver Rathbone (centre) battles for the ball with Wigan Athletic's James McClean

Ipswich still have both Rotherham and Wigan to play this season - Credit: PA

And that’s how Town’s opponents could prove a threat to Town.  

The Blues themselves have been good in recent weeks, but they’ve not been perfect. We’ve seen chances created and missed in games with Morecambe and Cheltenham, as well as Portsmouth and Oxford. The displays were good in all of those games, but a lack of goals saw deserved wins transform into frustrating draws. 

That can’t happen more than once in the next seven matches. 

In short, the odds are against McKenna’s side, however enthusing they have been lately. 

Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna with Tom Carrol following the 0-0 draw.

Kieran McKenna's Ipswich are six points off the League One play-off places - Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com

Conclusion 

There’s a lot to like about this Ipswich Town team. 

If the season had started on the morning of McKenna’s first match in charge, the Blues would be fifth in the League One table with a game in hand on some of the four teams (MK Dons, Wigan, Rotherham and Bolton) above them. 

That’s an excellent return. If we were now 16 games into a season which began in August, we would all be confidently tipping Town to make the play-offs by May. Perhaps even more.  

‘McKenna’s at the wheel’ the Town fans chant. It’s reassuring to feel a real confidence in the driver of the Ipswich side. The former Manchester United assistant has certainly made a good impression with his new supporters. 

We know McKenna’s team are a defensive titan. Six goals conceded in 16 matches, 11 of which resulted in clean sheets, is ridiculous. The definition of solid. 

Christian Walton, Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson appear to be core pieces heading into next season. You can add Sam Morsy, Lee Evans and Wes Burns to that list, too.  

Bersant Celina is beginning to purr as we knew he could. He wants to be here next season. Hopefully Mark Ashton & Co can make that happen.  

Plenty of other players have made real contributions, too. 

The core is there and the fans are onboard. Away ends are sold out and the future’s bright. 

But, in the here and now, there’s surely too much to do. 

If logic is wrong, though, we need to prepare for the spectacular over the course of the next seven games.