Hope is in the air again as Town's McKenna era begins with Wycombe visit
- Credit: Stephen Waller
Kieran McKenna will lead Ipswich Town for the first time when Wycombe Wanderers visit Portman Road tonight. Andy Warren looks ahead to the game.
So much has changed
Ipswich Town thumped Wycombe Wanderers 4-1 on their own pitch at the start of November.
What’s happened since would have been inconceivable as the Blues left the Adams Park stage to a standing ovation.
The two sides meet again just 57 days later, with Town’s world almost unrecognisable.
The Blues have been knocked out of two cup competitions, have seen a promising charge towards the promotion places completely fall away, have sacked a manager and appointed another. They’ve won just once in the league in seven attempts since handing out that thorough beating to Gareth Ainsworth’s men.
This period, with 2022 fast approaching, was supposed to be the time where Ipswich had worked themselves right onto the coattails of the top six, if not breaking in to it, having recovered from an extremely poor start.
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Instead, we’re at the start of a new era once again looking for positive signs.
But, despite two extremely disappointing months, we’re here for the final game of 2021 with thousands of fans heading to Portman Road with a feeling of hope.
The appointment of Kieran McKenna has been well-received with a cautious optimism, putting a young, modern coach at the helm of a group of players who surely have much more talent than their league position suggests.
He’s had to wait for his first game in charge, after the Boxing Day clash with Gillingham was postponed due to Covid in the opposition camp. But that has meant McKenna has had some extra time on the training field before leading Town into action for the first time.
Like all Ipswich managers before him, McKenna will receive an excellent reception as he walks out of the Portman Road tunnel to meet the Town supporters. Sadly there will be no flags or pyrotechnics this time, unlike when Sunderland visited earlier in the month.
And he’ll do so in front of a crowd of around 26,000 – the first time a Town manager has been cheered on by a support even close to that figure in their first home game since Roy Keane in May 2009. That was a 2-1 home victory over Coventry, in front of a crowd of 27,225, while Jim Magilton attracted more than 25,000 for his first match in charge against Crystal Palace in 2006.
Keane’s win proved to be a false dawn. Hopefully a victory in this one can be the start of something much more positive.
A crowd of this size is an incredible achievement, given Town’s current league position, and will give McKenna and those watching from the stands in suits another reminder of just how big a prospect a successful Ipswich side on the pitch can be.
What will we see?
It’s a big night for McKenna.
After working his way up the coaching tree, to almost as lofty a position as you can get within the game before becoming a manager, he’s stepping out on his own for the first time.
He’ll have dreamt of this moment for a long time.
McKenna will learn a lot tonight and the thousands watching from the stands will learn plenty about him, too.
We knew Paul Cook would come straight in and play a 4-2-3-1 system but, given he’s never managed a senior game before, there’s no history telling us how McKenna will play things.
In any case, the new boss has already said it’s style and an overall approach to the game that will underpin his football philosophy, rather than formations.
McKenna watched from the stands as Ipswich drew 1-1 with Sunderland in their last game and he will have seen plenty he will have liked.
He’ll have seen Macauley Bonne and James Norwood work hard and apply pressure in attack, Sam Morsy have his best game for a fair while in the centre of midfield and a back three of Luke Woolfenden, Janoi Donacien and George Edmundson operate well for the vast majority of the game.
So it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the new boss stuck with much of what John McGreal, Kieron Dyer and Rene Gilmartin went with against the Black Cats.
The new boss will have learnt a lot about his players in training this week, so it will be interesting to see if any of those who watched on against Sunderland have quickly managed to force their way in.
The ‘C’ section
Sadly, these previews are going to need to talk about Coronavirus again, given how much havoc it has caused across the EFL of late.
Of the 33 planned EFL games slated for Boxing Day, only nine were played. Town’s game at Gillingham was of course one of the victims.
Former interim boss McGreal spoke of Ipswich players missing games after being close contacts of Covid cases during his short time in charge and, with instances of the virus rising, it’s entirely possible that McKenna may be without players for tonight’s contest. The Town boss has already revealed the trio of Toto Nsiala, Kyle Edwards and Rekeem Harper have returned to training after missing a spell due to the virus. They're not ready to be involved tonight.
But the Blues have strict rules in place at their training ground and have been praised by the EFL on a number of occasions for their work in tackling the spread of Covid, so the new boss will have a good variety of options available to him.
We’ll find out later.
Ready to go?
Tonight’s about McKenna and the new boss getting off to a good start.
But the overall picture looms large.
The Northern Irishman has spoken, in an understated way rather than with any kind of tubthumping message, about there being plenty to play for between now and the end of the season and of a group of players who have shown little sign of accepting the campaign is dead.
But the task is a tough one.
Town, sitting 11th, are 17 points off the top two and 10 back from the play-offs, with the majority of those above and some close behind holding games in hand.
It’s going to take a special run from this point if Town are to truly push their way back in.
But if we can’t feel positive about that happening on the morning of a new manager’s first game in charge, then when can we?