Centurion Woolfenden could have moved on in January... now he's looking like the full package under McKenna
- Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com
It’s all starting to come together for Ipswich Town defender Luke Woolfenden.
We’ve known the academy graduate has ability since he first stepped foot on the pitch in a blue shirt, back in August of 2017 at the age of just 18.
But, as he prepares to make his 100th appearance for the club at Oxford this weekend, he’s looking more-and-more like the complete package.
The arrival of Kieran McKenna feels like a big moment in the career of the 23-year-old. It’s a small sample size – just 15 matches – but all of the signs are positive.
He’s operating at the heart of a back three which doesn’t concede goals. The ball’s crossed the Ipswich line just five times in those 15 games, with 11 of the contests ending with a clean sheet. It’s a remarkable record.
Woolfenden has played a huge part in that. He’s the middle man. The one who sweeps up when needed and operates in a role where he needs to read the game well to both attack the ball and stand off when necessary.
The back three seems to suit him more than a four but that’s not to say Woolfenden’s more comfortable simply because he has more defensive bodies around him. His attributes suit the role and he’s made improvements in his own game too.
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A line of former managers and team-mates have referred to Woolfenden’s relaxed persona, of him ‘needing jump leads sometimes’ and ‘if he was any more laid-back he would be sideways’. Paul Lambert questioned whether he had a heartbeat, too.
Woolfenden is as calm as they come, but don’t confuse that for a lack of concentration or drive. He’s supremely sure of himself and that’s a key element to his game. Yes, he’s occasionally been caught out during his Ipswich career, but no more than team-mates.
He’s engaged, both in a possession game which has a significantly heightened purpose under McKenna, especially when compared to the slow and predictable fare under Lambert, and in the physical fight.
He’s faced combative strikers Sam Vokes (Wycombe), Vadaine Oliver (Gillingham), Colby Bishop (Accrington), Ellis Harrison (Fleetwood) and John Marquis (Lincoln) under McKenna and has dealt with them all well enough.
We’ve always known he’s comfortable on the ball, can turn on the after-burners to clear up trouble and has a cool head. But to see him make strides in terms of aerial battles is really pleasing.
Ipswich look well-coached. That’s not something we’ve been able to say consistently for a long time. Players have made improvements under their new manager and Woolfenden is the poster boy for that.
“I’ve enjoyed working with him so far but it’s very early days,” McKenna said of Woolfenden recently.
“Luke’s still a very young player. I don’t think he’s anywhere near his full capacity yet, I think he’s got a lot of development to go in all areas.
“He’s very responsive and coachable and has got a good brain for the game, and I’m really hoping and looking forward to pushing him and challenging him now to see if he can keep going in that direction.
“It’s up to him now to stay hungry to keep improving. I think he’s in an environment here where he’s got every chance to improve and take himself to higher levels.”
It’s exciting to hear McKenna say that and the hope must be that Woolfenden can move through those higher levels in an Ipswich shirt. He’s contracted until 2024, with a club option year on top of that.
He’s part of the future.
In many ways it’s a shame his good friends Flynn Downes and Andre Dozzell aren’t still around, too. What could McKenna have done with young players like them? Thankfully the Ipswich-born defender wasn’t moved on as well, as Paul Cook undertook his summer cull.
The player himself admitted his 2020/21 campaign was ‘completely average’ as the Blues finished with a whimper under Cook before the detonator was pushed. His season never truly got up-and-running before the former boss was sacked in December. It certainly has now.
If there hadn’t been a change of manager this season, it's certainly possible Woolfenden could be playing his football elsewhere now following a mid-season move.
How quickly things change.
Woolfenden is only the 10th academy graduate to reach 100 matches in Town blue, since the Ipswich finishing school opened in the late 1990s.
It’s an academy with rich tradition and Woolfenden is blazing a trail at the moment. It’s hard to see a new centurion reaching the mark any time soon. Idris El Mizouni is the only other graduate (not counting Macauley Bonne) in the senior squad right now. He’s made 24 appearances.
Of the current squad, only Kayden Jackson (118) has played more games for Ipswich. Woolfenden’s an elder statesman in that regard.
The defender's seen a lot during his time at Portman Road. He’s played games for five permanent managers at the club and all have seen something in him.
He emerged under Mick McCarthy and played briefly under Paul Hurst before being loaned out to Swindon. That was a great move for the teenager.
He returned for the start of Lambert’s first full season in charge and has so far made the bulk of his Ipswich appearance (53/99) under the Scot.
Under Lambert, Woolfenden was excellent during the first six months of the 2019/20 season which led to plenty of interest from higher levels.
An offer of £3million was the rumoured to be on the way from Sheffield United, a figure Lambert scoffed at in January of 2020.
"You can put another three in front of that and then I might think," Lambert said at the time.
"Three million?! Three million doesn't even buy you a Flake! There's absolutely no chance whatsoever that would ever happen.
"The big lad is playing fantastically well, everybody knows it. Three million? No way. Put it this way, I won't let the same mistakes happen like happened with (Adam) Webster and the boy (Matt) Clarke, that's for sure.”
Lambert was wrong. Despite recent inflation you can indeed buy a Cadbury Flake if you have £3million to spend. But his sentiment was right.
Woolfenden’s a significant asset to Ipswich Town and the hope must be that his value only increases under the management of McKenna.