Exit interview: Pennington's Ipswich arrival was low-key and underwhelming but he leaves as a player of year contender
PUBLISHED: 06:00 05 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:34 05 April 2019
Matthew Pennington’s season was cut short by an ankle injury. ANDY WARREN takes a look back at the defender’s time in Ipswich blue.
Luke Chambers was the only fit central defender on Ipswich Town’s books heading into the opening day of this season, following Paul Hurst’s drawn-out and ultimately failed attempt to sign Curtis Tilt of Blackpool.
Those attempts continued beyond the deadline for permanent deals and into the loan window, while there were also failed bids for Deji Oshilaja of AFC Wimbledon as Hurst desperately looked for reinforcements following the sale of Adam Webster.
So when Pennington arrived as a deadline day loan from Everton, the defender was viewed as something of a stop-gap, third-choice signing.
The reviews from his season at Leeds were mixed, but within a few days Pennington had shown signs he was a good acquisition.
He trained just once with team-mates prior to replacing the suspended Toto Nsiala in the 1-1 draw with Norwich in September, in which he played well, and has kept those high standards since.
His performances, prior to a season-ending ankle injury (suffered when kicking a post in training, rupturing ligaments and leading to surgery) have put him firmly in contention for the Blues’ player-of-the-year award.
What went well
It was clear from the off that Pennington was the most comfortable Ipswich Town centre-back when it came to playing the ball out from the back.
Positionally he’s good, too, using his body well to win the ball from strikers both in the air and on the ground to punch above his 6ft frame.
His finest Ipswich performance arguably came in the 1-0 victory over Wigan in December, where he was the pick of the bunch as the Blues held on to secure a rare win. He mastered tricky conditions, defended superbly, dominated in the air and kept a calm head during a nervous ending.
He backed that up with another man-of-the-match display a week later, keeping David McGoldrick quiet in a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United, and put in an heroic effort in January’s win over Rotherham from right-back as he imperiously helped deal with an aerial barrage.
There was also the last-gasp, goal-saving, tackle on Preston’s Lukas Nmecha in the final seconds of Paul Lambert’s first game in charge. The tackle secured a point and, at the time, felt like it could be a big moment in Ipswich’s season.
Sadly that’s not proven to be the case, but is further evidence of Pennington’s contribution.
His one Ipswich goal came in the 2-2 draw at Birmingham in September, before being sent-off in stoppage time, but what sticks in the memory will be his ability to block goalbound shots.
Pennington averaged a block a game during his season with only three players (West Brom’s Ahmed Hegazi, Chey Dunkley of Wigan and Reading’s Liam Moore) averaging more across the Championship.
Areas to improve
There has been an over-reliance on loan players at Ipswich in recent years and that’s something Paul Lambert has made a point of trying to change.
For that reason there are probably Ipswich fans who took longer to take to Pennington than if he had been a permanent signing, but his performances have won over the majority.
The fact he’s been a part of an Ipswich defence which has conceded 64 league goals this season can’t be ignored, of course, and Pennington has had some tricky moments during the course of the season. There have been occasions when he’s lost his man in a crowded box, resulting in goals, while he’s also found some of the division’s bigger strikers a little tough to handle at times.
Overall, though, he has been one of Ipswich’s most consistent performers in a torrid season.
What the future holds
First up for Pennington is rehab, with a recovery time of 8-10 weeks meaning he will be fit for pre-season following surgery.
He’s under contract at Goodison Park until the summer of 2021 but will return to find himself well down the defensive pecking order at a club he joined as an 11-year-old.
His displays for Ipswich caught the attention of Derby, with the Rams attempting to lure him to Pride Park at the end of the January transfer window and expected to reignite their interest this summer.
Pennington has proven he has what it takes to perform at Championship level and, at the age of 24 and with five loans behind him, now is surely the time for him to find a permanent home where he can truly build his career.