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Are Ipswich Town punching above their weight?

Are Ipswich Town punching above their weight?

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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