Ndaba has had three failed cracks at the Town first-team... he's better equipped than ever for attempt four
- Credit: Steve Waller
We’ve asked this same question in each of the last three summers.
Will this be the year Corrie Ndaba pushes himself into Ipswich Town’s first-team picture?
The answer has ultimately been ‘no’ every time. But this year feels a little different.
That’s because the Irishman has gone away and proved himself in English football for the first time, becoming a central figure for loan club Salford and playing his best football as the business end of the campaign rolls around.
We’ve always known Ndaba has the tools. He’s strong, vocal and quick, while reading the game well when he’s playing at his best.
But, for whatever reason, it hasn’t quite happened for him yet.
Remarkably he’s yet to make his league debut for the Blues, despite Paul Lambert insisting a first appearance was imminent after relegation from the Championship was confirmed in April of 2019.
“Corrie will play at some stage before we finish, whether it’s Friday, Monday, Sheffield United or Leeds I don’t know,” Lambert said at the time.
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“He’ll definitely play though because I have to see what he can do.
“He’s been doing well in his own age group but the jump to first-team level is a big one.
“You won’t know until you throw them in but he will definitely get his chance.”
It’s understood Lambert wasn’t happy with the way the Irishman reacted to those comments, meaning his debut was delayed, but he got his chance to impress during pre-season, ahead of Town’s first stab at League One.
He featured in friendlies during Town’s tour of Germany and again once they returned to England, but was edged out of the picture as trialists James Wilson and Jon Guthrie battled for contracts. Wilson won one while Guthrie headed for Livingston (he’s now at Northampton) and Ndaba faded from the picture.
Still waiting for a Town debut, Ndaba had two disappointing loan spells in non-league with Hemel Hempstead and Chelmsford City where he barely played, with his absence meaning he wasn’t around for Town’s EFL Trophy games. Opportunities missed, perhaps.
But he was back the following summer and, once again, had an opportunity to impress as football returned from its Covid hiatus. He played in every one of Town’s pre-season friendlies, holding his own in games with Tottenham and West Ham and finally came off the bench on what was the opening day of the new season, as Town beat Bristol Rovers in the Carabao Cup.
He’d finally made his Ipswich debut, but the arrival of Mark McGuinness once the season had already begun pushed him to the fringes again, with three solid EFL Trophy appearances preceding a loan move to Scottish side Ayr United for the second half of the campaign. The temporary move went well enough, but he was perhaps ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Then it was summer number three, this time under Paul Cook, where Ndaba was required to play throughout pre-season as Ipswich’s squad was built from the ground up. The youngster was loaned out to Salford, though, as Cook’s cast took shape, though he had impressed enough to earn a new deal until the end of next season.
“Left-footed centre halves bring natural balance and he’s aggressive, wants to engage and have contact,” Cook said.
“He’s still learning the game tactically and how teams can suck you out of positions but I think he’s done well, especially against Newport at home.
“A loan to Salford is good for him and it’s good for us because we can watch him play and gauge his progress and hopefully he can go there and sustain league football.”
And it’s been an impressive season for the Irishman, even if it’s been disrupted by injury, with the 22-year-old earning rave reviews and making 28 appearances.
He’s played at left-back for significant spells but is back at centre-back now, earning multiple appearances in the League Two team of the week. He scored his first career goal, too, as he strode forward from the back and fired in with his left foot from the edge of the box against Hartlepool.
He’s said to have been outstanding in Salford’s 2-0 victory over Harrogate at the weekend, which extended the Class of 92-backed side’s unbeaten run to 13 games and further strengthened their claims for a place in the fourth-tier play-offs.
So, what next for Ndaba? Well, after he’s hopefully helped Salford win a much-coveted promotion, it will be back to Suffolk for a fourth crack at the Ipswich Town first-team.
It’s arguably the toughest summer he will have faced as he bids to make the step from academy to first-team at Ipswich but, in many ways, it’s the year Ndaba will be best-equipped to compete.
Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson formed a formidable back three prior to the latter’s injury, while Cameron Burgess has proved himself to be an able contributor since stepping into the team in his place. His red card at Shrewsbury shouldn’t detract from that.
Those four will surely be part of Kieran McKenna’s side next season.
So is there a vacancy? Well, if McKenna is going to be playing a back three he will surely require more than one back-up. Elkan Baggott is next in line and could make his own league debut at Rotherham due to Burgess’ suspension.
But Ndaba should fancy his chances this summer and it will be up to him to show McKenna what he can do when the Town boss gets a first look at him.
Adding Ndaba and indeed Baggott to the mix, McKenna may just have all of the central defensive tools he needs in-house, leaving the Town boss, CEO Mark Ashton and the recruitment team free to strengthen Ipswich’s positions of real need and limit player turnover this summer.
Ndaba should take heart from Luke Woolfenden’s journey under McKenna, with the homegrown defender now a central figure in the Ipswich side and hitting the high standards we’ve love-known he’s capable of. It looked like his Ipswich career was over heading into January.
Could the high standard of training on offer at Town work wonders for Ndaba, too? That has to be the hope.
Woolfenden’s now 23, the age Ndaba will turn on Christmas Day. The Irishman’s contract is up at the end of next season and, at that age and without a league debut in the books, you have to think the time is now for him to make his mark. A fifth opportunity surely won’t be there.
“The goal is to come back at play for Ipswich. I’ve been at the club since I was 15 and it’s all I know,” Ndaba said in an interview with this newspaper in September. “I want to make it there, break into the team and be a big player for Ipswich Town.
“Hopefully that can happen – I just have to work hard and keep going.
“I’ve been around the first-team at Ipswich for a while but it’s maybe the experience I’m lacking.
“I’m physically ready but there are a lot of things you need to learn. This loan will benefit me and give me a better chance to go and get in the Ipswich Town starting XI. Games are key and I don’t have many of those under my belt.
“League One is a big test so hopefully I can do well here in League Two, go back to pswich with the experience I get and take things on.
“Players like Luke Woolfenden (Swindon) and Flynn Downes (Luton) have been on loan to League Two and then jumped into the Ipswich team the next season, so there’s no reason I can’t. I want to take the same path.”
Time will tell if the young defender is able to make it happen.