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Championship

Are Ipswich Town punching above their weight?

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Those of a certain age or disposition will recall Ipswich’s glory days under Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson when the Suffolk club were key fixture in the top tier of English football. But this is the modern game where money talks and more than heritage is required to earn a place in the Promised Land.

After making their first play-off appearance since 2005 under Joe Royle, Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich will be looking to go one step further this time around. Despite being compiled on a shoestring budget, the Suffolk side secured a top six finish only to suffer play-off heartbreak at the hands of sworn East Anglian rivals Norwich.

Since taking charge of the Portman Road outfit, McCarthy has improved their final league position each year finishing 14th, 9th, and 6th respectively. Like a Test batsmen making respectable scores but yet to convert them into a century, Ipswich will be looking to build on that gradual progress made since McCarthy’s arrival.

With two previous promotions from the Championship under his belt, McCarthy is well aware of what it takes to get out of the league. He will be looking to continue that trend and bring Premier League football to Suffolk for the first time since the 2001/02 season, that stretch outside the top flight signifies the Tractor Boys as the division’s longest serving club.

McCarthy’s reign in Suffolk has been typified by a shrewd transfer policy seeing the first team squad compiled for next to nothing, spare change in the context of football’s current financial climate. Of last season’s first team playing staff, only Freddie Sears and Tyrone Mings commanded transfer fees, a combined total of just £110,000, the rest of the side assembled with free transfers and loans, that blueprint looks set to continue in the current off-season.

The one major piece of outgoing business from Portman Road has been the sale of highly rated left-back Tyrone Mings to Premier League new boys, Bournemouth. Plucked from lower league obscurity, Mings cost Ipswich just £10,000, a bargain considering the deal taking him to the South coast is reported to be worth in the region of eight million pounds to the Suffolk outfit.

The deal sees Brett Pitman and Ryan Fraser move in the opposite direction, Pitman, another free transfer, penned a three-year deal while Fraser arrives on a season-long loan. McCarthy described the business as a “symbiotic deal”: “It’s mutually beneficial for all parties, I think. We’ve taken two really good players, that will make us a stronger squad. Of course that was bitter sweet because we’ve lost a really good left-back and a great lad. “

In Jonathan Parr, Ipswich have a readymade replacement to fill the void at left-back, the versatile Norway international operated in the wide left role for spells last season but looks set to resume his more natural position that he occupied at former club Crystal Palace.

Despite the coffers being significantly swollen as a result of the Mings deal, McCarthy remains pragmatic looking set to continue a policy of shrewd dealings. Speaking to Radio Suffolk the former Republic of Ireland manager reiterated his approach:  “If I identify the right players, and we can get them, then yes [we’ll spend]. We’re not just going ‘we’ve got eight million quid, let’s go and spend it’ though. Let me tell you, when you do get a few quid from selling somebody then everybody else doubles their values when you try and buy. We’re not going to get drawn into all of that.”

In addition to Fraser and Pitman, Ipswich have secured the services of 17 year-old Arsenal prospect Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who, like Fraser, arrives in Suffolk on a season-long loan. The youngster is already catching the eye in pre-season finding the net twice and displaying pace, trickery and an eye for a pass. Alongside the likes of Adam McDonnell, Dylan Connolly, and Alex Henshall, McCarthy looks to be tempering experience and grit with youthful exuberance.

In the past McCarthy’s teams have been exemplified by natural wingers, with the likes of Michael Kightly and Matt Jarvis at Wolves, something Ipswich have lacked in recent times. Fraser looks to be of that mould, the Scotland U21 international made 21 league appearances last season and McCarthy has high hopes for the wide-man:  “He’s going to be a revelation. He’s got pace and power and trickery.”

Additions in the middle of the park could be the key to success this season if Ipswich are to mount a promotion challenge once more, as McCarthy suggests: “We certainly didn’t get enough goals from midfield and wide areas last season.” No midfielder found the net more than twice last time out, even centre-backs Christophe Berra (6) and Tommy Smith (5) outscored the midfield personnel.

That lack of midfield potency is glaring and emphasises the reliance on the Championship’s leading marksman Daryl Murphy. The Irish international found the net on 27 occasions in what was comfortably his most prolific season to date. Murphy recently put pen to paper on a new two-year deal ending the inevitable speculation after such an impressive year. Regardless of any forthcoming transfer dealings, securing Murphy’s services is arguably the most important piece of business Ipswich will complete this summer. Understandably delighted, McCarthy said: “There’s been lots of interest but we always wanted to keep him and the feeling was mutual. We’re absolutely thrilled with that.”

With Freddie Sears, David McGoldrick and Pitman, Ipswich’s front four, spearheaded by Murphy looks to be a match for any strike force in the league. Pitman, who despite only making 18 starts, scored 13 league goals in Bournemouth’s promotion charge, has found the net four times in three pre-season games, the deal already looks like more sleight of hand from Merlin, sorry, *Mick.

Sears hit the ground running after making a January switch down the A12 from League One Colchester. When Murphy endured a rare dry spell, and with McGoldrick side-lined by injury, Sears took on the mantle scoring nine times in the latter half of the season. Highly rated as a youngster after bursting on to the scene at Upton Park for West Ham, Sears perhaps epitomises a case of too much too young, there is something admirable about the way in which he dropped down to League One football with Colchester in order to resurrect his career, now on his way back up the leagues, Sears could be about to fulfil that early promise.

McGoldrick missed a large part of the last campaign, making his return from injury in the second-leg play-off semi-final defeat at Norwich. Ipswich will hope the front-man remains injury free, if so the quartet will provide a real task for Championship defences.

One to Watch – Teddy Bishop:

Academy product Bishop, 18, broke into the first team last season going on to make 35 appearances, scoring once and providing five assists. The central midfielder is already attracting attention from top Premier League clubs with scouts in regular attendance at Portman Road. Bishop likes to pull the strings in midfield and possesses a level of composure and quality on the ball akin to Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, while former Ipswich player Mick Mills compares the youngster to Ray Wilkins. Speaking to Radio Suffolk, Mills said: “He’s like a quarterback, I remember playing with Ray and that is all he would do – never going beyond the ball but always supporting.”

Bishop’s partner in the centre of the park, Cole Skuse, spoke highly of his potential saying: “I think he could play in the Premier League tomorrow…he’s that good.” A sentiment reiterated by their gaffer: “He puts his shift in and he’s a fabulous footballer. He’s got Premier League ability, no doubt” said McCarthy.

Bishop himself comes across as a grounded individual, responding to Premier League interest, the midfielder said: “All of that is flattering, but I’m really happy here and know this is the best place for me to progress.” Looking ahead to the coming season Bishop referred to lack of goals from midfield:  “We want to create more and score more goals as a team this season. I want to do that more this season personally.” While reflecting on last season Bishop is confident that the club will push on again this year: “Losing in the play-offs was obviously disappointing, but when you look back we had a good season so we take a lot of positives from that heading into this season. We finished sixth and the goal now has to be automatic promotion. We’ve got the players, we showed that last year, we’ve just got to show more consistency and hopefully we’ll be right up there.” He speaks in the same fashion that he plays the game, composed, measured with positive intent, Bishop’s quality is undeniable, he could be a key component if Ipswich are to succeed this year.

As the adage goes, next season looks set to be as competitive as ever, McCarthy would be the first to tell you there are ‘no easy games’ in the Championship. Yet with his own penchant for getting teams promoted, and with the core of last season’s team settled, Ipswich look set to challenge once more.

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FA Cup

Sheffield Wednesday 0-0 Swansea City – Tammy Abraham didn’t take first-team opportunity

Jake Jackman

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Swansea

Swansea City were held in the FA Cup away to Championship club Sheffield Wednesday. The Swans have been drawn to face lower league opposition in every round of the competition so far and this occasion saw Carlos Carvalhal return to his former club. It was a huge day for him and he will be slightly disappointed by the performance that he witnessed.

Although the Premier League side selected a talented team, it was an even contest and both teams had chances to score. Neither team deserved to go through on this viewing and they will have to meet again at the Liberty Stadium in just over a week’s time.

It will be interesting to see who will await the winners of this tie in the next round and that could dictate whether Swansea take the replay seriously or not. Here are three talking points from Hillsborough:

Tammy Abraham didn’t take his opportunity

It was a frustrating day for Tammy Abraham as he had few chances to impress in the final third and he was taken off midway in the second half. That will be a disappointment for the forward as this was an opportunity to earn more game-time in the Premier League and his contribution on Saturday is unlikely to bring that.

During the match, he failed to have a single attempt on goal, while his pass success was at a poor 58%. The service he received was non-existent as shown in the second half when Luciano Narsingh refused to play the striker in.

Abraham did nice work to release the winger and spin in behind his marker, but the return ball didn’t arrive. The striker was visibly annoyed that the ball wasn’t given back.

Jordan Ayew was the man that replaced Abraham and he offered more when he was on the pitch. He was willing to drop deep to be given possession, while he got two attempts in on goal during his short time on the pitch.

His distribution was more effective, as displayed by his two key passes. The former Aston Villa man is the player that should lead the line for the relegation-threatened club.

Adam Reach stood out in midfield

This has been a season to forget for Sheffield Wednesday as they are a considerable distance off promotion, despite being one of the best Championship teams in recent seasons.

The match against Swansea provided the players with an opportunity to prove they can compete with Premier League opposition and Adam Reach was one of the standout performers.

The 25-year-old showed glimpses of both attacking and defensive quality, which shows he can contribute in both halves of the pitch. He will be the first to admit his final ball could have been better, but he regularly got in positions to cause problems for the away side. During the match, he attempted three shots and completed 86% of his passes.

Meanwhile, he worked hard out of possession and didn’t allow Swansea to dominate the midfield battle. Reach won four tackles and made a further two interceptions. He was relentless in work rate and his energy rubbed off on the rest of the team. The midfielder will be a player to keep an eye on in the replay.

Alfie Mawson had to miss the match through injury

The Swansea City defender was pencilled in to start in the match, but he was injured in the warm up and had to be replaced in the starting eleven by Kyle Naughton.

This was a major blow for the team as Mawson is a born leader at the back and offers composure to the back-line. He was later pictured wearing a knee brace and holding crutches, in what was a worrying sight.

The last thing Swansea need is a serious injury, especially to one of the team’s most important players. Towards the end of the game, the cameras showed that he was moving his leg more freely, but it is a concern nonetheless.

Naughton came in and did well, with one excellent challenge saving a goal in the first-half. The entire Swansea defence played well, with Kyle Bartley standing out as a Premier League centre-half.

The former Leeds United loanee won five aerial duels and made four ball recoveries. He could be required to step up if Mawson has to miss some of the run-in.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 4-0 Hull City – Willian plays himself into Champions League contention

Jake Jackman

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Chelsea

Chelsea continued their upturn in form with a convincing 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup. The Blues were overwhelming favourites for the tie, but they had to get the job done and they did so effectively, scoring four times in the first-half.

They would have had one eye on the Champions League tie against Barcelona that is upcoming and that led to Antonio Conte making several changes.

The Italian decided to rest key players such as Eden Hazard, Ngolo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta. It was the right decision as they progressed with comfort. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud is off the mark

One huge positive to come out of the game for the hosts was Olivier Giroud’s first goal for the club. He signed in January to provide competition for Alvaro Morata and his performances have been encouraging since signing, but to hit the back of the net takes the pressure off the Frenchman.

The signing carried relatively little risk for Chelsea as the striker has lots of experience in England and his consistency is already shining through in a Blues’ shirt.

Early into the game, he had a great opportunity to open his account, but he blazed a volley over the bar. It was a difficult chance as the ball was lifted over the defence to play him in, but a striker of his calibre should have done better.

Three goals were scored and he didn’t score one of them. If he had finished the match without scoring, it would have been talked about and that is why his goal just before half-time will relieve the pressure from him.

The rest of his game was excellent as he got two assists and linked up the play well from the front-line. Although he was brought in to be the back-up striker, Conte may give him the start against Barcelona as he is the player in form.

Hull City showed fight in the second half

The contest was over by the time the players stepped back out for the second-half, but Hull City showed fight and commitment to keep the score down to 4-0.

Nigel Adkins knows the importance of every mental victory when battling against relegation and to draw the second half can provide the players with confidence ahead of a return to league action.

Their performance was markedly improved as they created good opportunities and came close to scoring from the penalty spot. David Meyler stepped up and saw his penalty saved, but that didn’t see the players lose focus as they continued to create opportunities. During the match, they had 10 shots to Chelsea’s 14, which shows that they were far from embarrassed. They just didn’t have the quality in the final third that their Premier League opposition did possess.

It would be a huge blow for Hull City to suffer back-to-back relegations and their manager will be aware of that. This match against Chelsea was a good occasion, but it was far from a priority and their defeat won’t live too long in the memory.

They are currently 21st in the Championship and only above the bottom three by one point. Their far superior goal difference provides encouragement, but they must show this level of commitment until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.

Willian proved his quality before the return of the Champions League

Rotation can cause problems in the FA Cup, but in this case, it provided an opportunity to those that are on the fringes of the first-team to play themselves into contention for the Champions League.

Willian is an interesting case as he does feature prominently, but he isn’t a guaranteed first-team starter, as Pedro often gets the nod to start ahead of him.

Willian was excellent against Hull City and certainly gave his manager some food for thought ahead of the match with Barcelona. He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made three key passes as he terrorised the opposition defence. On the day, he scored twice, but he easily could have got a hat-trick.

Antonio Conte will be aware that his team’s big weakness is an over-reliance on Eden Hazard. The return of Cesc Fabregas goes some way to providing some support to the Belgian, but if Chelsea can get Willian playing to this level consistently, that would be a positive. He is more dynamic than Pedro and offers more flair to the attack. This performance could see him start against Barcelona.

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Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time to succeed

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time if he is to achieve success at Nottingham Forest, writes Greg Whitaker.

Greg Whitaker

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Aitor Karanka
Photo: Reuters

The Championship is awash with British footballing institutions this season.

Leeds United, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves have all been Champions of England in their time, while Aston Villa have won nearly everything there is to win in the game, including the European Cup in 1982.

Yet, it is Nottingham Forest that hold one of the most unique records in football history, as the only British side to win back-to-back European Cups.

However, two decades of instability on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom have frustrated the Forest faithful.

Twenty years since the Reds last graced the top flight, nights of European glory under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor seem an eternity away.

If new manager Aitor Karanka is to bring the good times back to the City Ground, Forest must break with the bad habits and mismanagement that have plagued the club in recent years and back their man – both with time and the investment needed to wake this sleeping giant.

Since taking the hot-seat at the start of the year, Karanka has not enjoyed the best of starts.

With just one win and five defeats making up his first six league games in charge, one could be forgiven for suggesting the Spaniard is already under pressure.

After all, Karanka is the 13th manager in just ten years to take the reigns at the City Ground. But paradoxically, this is exactly why the former Real Madrid man must be given time.

Indeed, it would certainly be fair to suggest that the painfully inconsistent nature of Forest’s league form over the past decade or so comes as a direct result of their trigger happy mentality when it comes to their manager, paired with their scattergun approach to appointing a successor.

In the last four years alone, Karanka represents the seventh man tasked with kick-staring the Tricky Trees.

What is more concerning is the blindingly obvious lack of consistency in these appointments. Never has a list of seven managers contrasted so much.

From Billy Davies to Philippe Montanier, Stuart Pearce to Mark Warburton, each manager has come with radically different ideas, approaches and management styles.

As Forest legend Garry Birtles was quoted as saying in the local media last month, Consistency breeds consistency but the same is true of inconsistency.’

Although it could be argued that the appointment of the pragmatic, Jose Mourinho-esque, Karanka, immediately after the very English style of management offered by Mark Warburton, smacks of no joined-up thinking at board level once again, the appointment was welcomed by fans.

Whilst he has garnered a bit of a reputation for his short temper, the former defender has a good record in the Championship, leading Middlesbrough to the Premier League in 2016.

Of the 13 managers to take to the Forest dugout over the past decade, Karanka is certainly one of the more exciting prospects and warrants the time needed to put his own stamp on this Forest side.

Despite a poor start, the Spaniard must now work with the ragtag squad of players he has inherited and ensure Forest are still a Championship club come May, before rebuilding in his own image next summer.

After all, the squad undoubtedly possesses a good deal of ability and potential, with a number of exciting young prospects also making their way into the first team fold.

However, much of this ability is raw or inconsistent.

Karanka’s first job is surely to inject much needed confidence and organisation into this group of players.

During his time at the Riverside, Karanka managed to turn an underachieving Boro team –  who were arguably in a similar state to that of the current Forest side – into promotion winners.

He did this through implementing his own pragmatic approach – making his side defensively very well-drilled and difficult to break down.

Although this style, labelled as negative by some, proved not as successful when applied in Middlesbrough’s single season in the Premier League, this meticulous focus on preventing the opposition from playing their natural game often pays dividends in the rough and tumble of the Championship.

What is certain is that Karanka views Forest as a project.

He has shown in recent interviews and press conferences that he understands and respects the rich and prestigious history of the club.

However, he has also indicated that he is under no illusions that making Forest a true force again will require time and, in the long term, large investment in his squad.

What it all comes down to now is simple.

After five chaotic years under the ownership of Fawaz Al Hasawi, will new owner Evangelos Marinakis show Aitor Karanka the patience and investment needed to revitalise one of England’s biggest footballing institutions?

After all, in the words of Nottingham Forest’s greatest ever manager, Brian Clough: ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day … but I wasn’t on that particular job.’

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