Ipswich Town in the Premier League: How Kieran McKenna and Mark Ashton inspired Tractor Boys to promotion


If you want to understand the scale of change at Ipswich Town, the widely shared social media clip of a school hall packed with hundreds of primary school children chanting “Blue Army” is a good place to start.

At the time of McKenna’s appointment in December 2021, the Blues languished in League One. They had already completed two seasons in League One and were well on their way to finishing a third. Lockdown had provided a ‘new normal’ and for Town fans it was also beginning to feel as though they would be remaining in the third tier for some more time.

The fact that less than three years later Town are now preparing for life in the Premier League is testimony to the incredible job McKenna has done; especially given his experience at Portman Road remains his only senior role in football management.

The calmly-spoken Northern Irishman has already said how promotion is a proud achievement. But even heading into Saturday’s crucial match with Huddersfield Town his focus remained on getting the job done rather than being distracted by the noise surrounding the fixture.

Away from Portman Road and the club’s Playford Road training base, however, Town fans have been feeling sick with a mixture of nerves and excitement. Shop windows throughout the town have been adorned with blue and white scarves, flags and shirts – even a local church was lit up blue on the eve of Town’s crunch promotion tie.

So what has been behind McKenna’s success with Town?

When the players exit the comfort of the home changing room they are met by the words ‘Run Towards Adversity’. It’s a motto the club has adopted since being visited by the former police officer Jason Schechterle.

The American – whose beat used to be the streets of Phoenix where some of Town’s American ownership have links – has endured a rollercoaster life since he was involved in a near-fatal crash when a taxi, travelling at over 100mph, collided into the rear of his patrol car as he rushed to an emergency call.

Upon impact Schechterle’s vehicle burst into flames and he was trapped inside for more than 90 seconds, leading to fourth-degree burns. Through a series of miraculous circumstances, Jason survived and now works as a public speaker.

His inspirational journey culminates in that ‘run towards adversity’ mantra. The club adopted it in such a way that the collars of previous kits were lined with the motto and a sign, with names of office staff, coaching staff and players, is the last the players see before they exit the tunnel.

It’s a motto that the Tractor Boys have backed up on the pitch. Town have picked up the most points after falling behind in the Championship this season (32) and no team has scored more goals after 76 minutes than the Blues (25) – including seven in second-half stoppage time.

Jeremy Sarmiento’s stabbed effort to beat Southampton, Omari Hutchinson finding a way to score the winner against Rotherham after Cafu’s penalty had seemingly given the Millers a point, and Sam Morsy’s composed finish to bring three points home from Watford. They are all examples of Town’s never-say-die attitude.

It also extends to Town’s impressive squad depth. More than 20 of Town’s Championship goals this season have been scored by substitutes – a record McKenna is particularly proud of.

And that constant bravery to attack challenges has also allowed McKenna and his squad of players to remain calm and fixated on the end-goal. It’s what helped Town on an incredible 18-game unbeaten run to earn promotion into the Championship and it is what has assisted them in ending their 22-year exodus from the Premier League.

That collective drive on the pitch comes from a similar sense of unity off the pitch. Sam Morsy is the dedicated captain, but away from matchday a group of players work alongside the Egyptian international to discuss off-field matters.

“It’s something that the players vote for,” McKenna previously said. “It’s a set-up that I like, we implemented it last season where we got the players to vote for four players to join Samy in a leadership group. Samy’s a terrific captain and we all can see drives standards on the pitch, in the game and in training.

The purpose of the group is so that the captain isn’t handling every single thing in the dressing room and has the support of others around him. Having the right mentality away from fixtures is important with players varying in experience from the likes of Kieffer Moore to Cameron Humphreys as well as different ages, backgrounds and cultures.

McKenna said: “They need all different types of support and that can come from the staff but they also need support and leadership from within the dressing room, which is why it’s important to have a variety of leaders within the dressing room and we feel we’ve certainly got that.”

Whilst other clubs raised eyebrows towards players, McKenna has helped them develop and showcase their talent. That’s been the case when securing Omari Hutchinson and Sarmiento on-loan from Chelsea and Brighton respectively as well as negotiating a bargain fee of around £1m for Leif Davis from Leeds United.

Davis is now valued at well-over double figures after contributing a crucial 18 assists in the Championship – the highest in the league despite being a left-back by trade. He told Sky Sports: “From day one when I walked in the door he told me he’d help me to improve my game, and he has done massively, going forward and defensively.

“I didn’t think I had that quality in the final third, it definitely wasn’t my strongest point, but now I’d say it is. The way he has worked with me in training to be more comfortable with the ball at my feet in the final third, and to find passes instead of just getting it into the box and hoping for the best.”

Hutchinson adds: “Sometimes when you come into the team as a sub the manager tells you we need a different dynamic. A skillful player that’s going to get at your man and who can go both ways. For me personally, I enjoy that. I like to entertain the crowd, and the manager gives you that freedom.”

McKenna’s influence has not just been on the pitch but away from it too. The former Tottenham Hotspur academy player’s eye for detail stretches into the facilities available to him and his group of players.

Three new pitches were installed at Playford Road last season with focus then turning to upgrading the site’s fixed facilities. New plans show a main entrance off Rushmere Street with parking where the iconic dome is currently found. A state of the art ‘performance centre’ will be erected overlooking the first-team pitch and the current main building will become dedicated to the academy.

Town have been based at Playford Road and Bent Lane sites either side of the road since the mid-1990s with the club initially leasing before buying the land in 2001. It was initially intended as a home for the academy but over the years the first-team and women’s sides have used it more frequently.

It says much that even an arch-rival can find time to compliment the job McKenna has done. Norwich City boss David Wagner – who picked up four points from a 2-2 draw and 1-0 win against Town – was full of praise for the Blues boss despite the tense Norfolk-Suffolk relations.

“What he has done is remarkable,” he said before the two sides’ meeting in April. “Big credit to him and his staff. How they approach it is outstanding. He deserves to win Manager of the Year in this season.”

Even Canaries legends Darren Huckerby and Chris Sutton have conceded being in a position where they “can’t knock what them lot down the road are doing” and praised McKenna’s “remarkable job”.

In April, Sutton said: “They have had a brilliant season. He’s my manager of the season, regardless, with the whole story of getting up from League One. He has been phenomenal. It is now about trying to see it through and it is one hell of a race that we have got on.”

It feels a long time has passed since McKenna was appointed Town boss. But with swathes of the community finally enchanted by their local club, is it any wonder this has proven to be the ideal partner to return Ipswich Town to the Premier League?


About Author

When not busy covering local news for EssexLive, Matt Lee can be found in the press box at Portman Road covering Ipswich Town's return to the Championship and push for the Premier League.

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