Paul Cook has put some tantalising ingredients together at Ipswich. They should finally back up their reputation as League One favourites.
This upcoming League One season, perhaps more than any other in the modern game, has a high abundance of ‘big’ clubs vying for promotion. But Ipswich Town look to have finally unlocked the secret to making that reputation count for something tangible.
With the Tractor Boys approaching their third successive third-tier season following catastrophic relegation from the Championship in 2019, and after two mid-table finishes in their first two campaigns at this level since the mid-20th century, a change of approach was needed at Portman Road.
Much of the initial groundwork was done late last season, with former Wigan Athletic manager Paul Cook taking the reins in early March and overseeing what everybody connected to the club will be hoping was the start of a transition as opposed to another chapter in an arduous book of apathetic misery in Suffolk.
Two seasons ago there was much expectation from almost every outlet in the land that they, along with Sunderland and Portsmouth, would be far and away the best three teams in the division and that at least two of that trio would be playing Championship football in 2020/21.
Going into 2021/22 and all the three of them have to show for their combined efforts is one failed play-off campaign. League One is now awash with clubs traditionally bigger than this level, each with desires of making it back into the second tier; the three aforementioned clubs, Bolton, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday could all stake claims to being far more regular second division and even top-flight clubs, while a good further half a dozen sides will have their eyes on a top-six place.
So what stands Ipswich out above the rest at this stage of the summer?
They have, for want of a better term, won the transfer window so far. Much like Aston Villa last summer, they have spotted the weaknesses in their side and without much in the way of nonsense, sought to plug those gaps as quickly and with as much quality as possible.
James Norwood was the club’s top scorer last season with just nine league goals, having never hit the heights expected following his move from Tranmere Rovers. The top scorers for the three promoted sides last term – Hull City, Peterborough United and Blackpool – scored 70 between them.
The dual signings of Macauley Bonne on loan from QPR and AFC Wimbledon talisman Joe Pigott look like excellent and consistent goal sources. A one in three strike rate in Bonne’s first season in the Championship following successive 20-goal campaigns in the National League make him a great shout for a leading Football League marksman. Yet there is every chance he won’t even be the highest scorer in the Ipswich side.
Enter stage left, former AFC Wimbledon captain and forward Pigott, with 42 goals across the last three League One seasons, nearly half of which came last term for a side finishing 19th and outscored by two relegated outfits.
𝗝𝗼𝗲 𝗣𝗶𝗴𝗼𝘁𝘁 𝗶𝘀 𝗹𝗼𝗼𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗮 𝗻𝗲𝘄 𝗰𝗵𝗮𝗹𝗹𝗲𝗻𝗴𝗲, 𝗵𝗲 𝗱𝗼𝗲𝘀 𝗺𝗼𝘀𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗴𝘀 𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘆 𝘄𝗲𝗹𝗹
— Liam Henshaw (@HenshawAnalysis) May 27, 2021
Like the industrious Lee Evans, adding some much-needed experience to a young midfield, and left back Matt Penney, a youthful option far more exciting than previous incumbent Stephen Ward on that side of defence and likely more consistent than Myles Kenlock, Pigott has arrived on a free transfer. But the new owners at Ipswich have not been afraid to splash the cash this summer.
Gamechanger 20 have lived up to their name in the blue corner of Suffolk, injecting some necessary investment into what had become a tired and rather stale playing squad.
Welsh winger Wes Burns joined after well over 100 appearances in four somewhat successful years in a tumultuous Fleetwood Town side, while arguably the best keeper in League Two last season – Salford City’s Václav Hladký – also joined this summer for an undisclosed fee.
Young midfielder Rekeem Harper looks a coup having just failed to make the permanent grade at West Brom despite appearing twice in the Premier League last season and on 26 occasions in the two Championship seasons preceding that, and you would be forgiven for expecting the second tier to have been his next destination.
But in putting together this talented crop of players, in a league littered with clubs on tighter budgets than before, wage caps and reduced cash flow owing to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Championship looks an extremely likely next stop for the Tractor Boys.
Like Villa in the Premier League in the summer of 2020, who brought in Matty Cash to add youth and excitement to their right-back ranks and Ollie Watkins to provide a reliable source of goals, Ipswich have improved in pretty much every position they needed to.
The icing on the cake is the midfielder that every club in the division, and a fair few in the league above, would love to have, regardless of their options in the position already. The signing of Scott Fraser epitomises everything that Cook wants from his team.
A technically quality midfielder with 36 goal contributions across his last two seasons at this level, he is the ultimate League One star to add to the Gatracticos that Ipswich are putting together. Like many of his new teammates, he is technically proficient in the unique roles and positions that Cook favours.
Having been restricted with a largely aged squad, many of whom knew they wouldn’t be at the club for the long term with the arrival of the former Accrington Stanley and Chesterfield chief, Fraser is the ideal Cook signing: an attacking midfielder able to interchange in the attacking positions behind the striker with the likes of Harper and potential new signing Matt Crooks.
Cook is not a manager who has a penchant for traditional wingers. Burns could reprise the role he performed part time for the Cod Army as a right wing-back – Penney having operated wide on the left for Sheffield Wednesday and sometimes even further up the pitch in a loan stint in Germany with FC St. Pauli.
In football, there are never any guarantees and Cook hardly set Suffolk alight in his first three months in charge, recording a 25% win percentage from his 16 games in charge so far. But already that feels immaterial.
The squad looks fresher, more confident, more exciting and more dynamic – what else would you expect from Cook? – than it has in years.
What this all means is that there is now a clear vision at long last between the hierarchy at the club and the manager. They know exactly what they want from their playing staff and have already been given the keys to unlock that full potential from the get go of this League One season.
Ipswich Town have previously been touted as League One promotion favourites on name and reputation alone. This summer, while their obvious rivals continued to muddle along, that favourites tag has never been more deserved.