Relegation Diaries – Ipswich Town

After struggling all season, Ipswich Town finally clinched the inevitable, securing relegation to League One after failing to win either of their two matches last week. With a 1-1 draw against Birmingham City on Saturday, Ipswich is 14 points behind 21st place Wigan Athletic with four matches left. They’ll be playing tier three football in Ipswich next season for the first time since the 1956-57 season, ending one of the longest runs in the top tiers of English football.

Here’s a quick look at how the Tractor Boys ended up in this position:

What Went Wrong

Ipswich Town settled into the bottom spot of the table after match five (a 2-1 loss at Sheffield Wednesday), and failed to leave the relegation zone the rest of the season. They didn’t win their first match of the season until their 12th match, opening the season 0-6-5 with a -8 goal differential. They really weren’t that far out it at that quarter point, all things considered, though they definitely had a lot of work to do if they wanted to compete to stay in the Championship for the 18th consecutive season.

A 0-2-7 stretch (-13 GD) before their second win of the season disabused that notion, digging the club into a hole that any club would have difficulty climbing out of, let alone a club that had the worst goal differential in the league. After a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United on 22 December, they entered the second half of the season 2-9-12, four points from safety.

While the other clubs above them started to find points in the new year, Ipswich continued to struggle, though they picked up their third win of the season on 12 January against fellow relegation zone club Rotherham United. But that win was in the midst of a 1-0-7 stretch to start the second half of the season. The last ten matches have been a bit better for the club – at least as compared to earlier in the season – with a respectable 1-6-3 record down the stretch that could be a bright sign for next season.

What Went Right

There were some bright spots in a terrible season….right?!?

Usually, the arrival of a new manager in the middle of a season is not a positive move for a club, and Paul Lambert‘s results since taking over the job have not been great, with a 3-10-15 record since replacing Paul Hurst in October. Still, his focus on youth (i.e. cheap contracts) could serve the club well next season, with reductions in television revenue (as much £6 million) and a likely loss in gate receipts.

Recent English Football League History

In the Premier League era (1992-93 on), Ipswich has spent 22 of 27 seasons in the Championship, with the other five seasons spent in the Premier League; (the Blues were inaugural members when the Premier League began. Their average finish in the 21 seasons prior to this was 9th, including seven seasons with playoff-qualifying finishes. They were last in the Premier League for the 2001-02 season, which ended in an 18th place finish.

As mentioned above, the last time the Tractor Boys were in tier three – which is now known as League One – was a championship season in 1956-57, their second such championship in four seasons. Since then, they’ve won one championship in the first tier (pre-PL in 1961-62) and three championships in the second tier (last in 1991-92 prior to the beginning of the Premier League).

Who’s Playing Elsewhere Next Season?

The club has 10 players with expiring contracts, with three of those players holding options for next season. In addition, there are five players currently on loan that are set to return to their home clubs at season’s end. With Lambert’s focus on younger players – primarily from the club’s academy – these players may be allowed to leave for nothing.

There are only four players that appeared in more than half of the matches this season, and if the players are willing to stick around, it might be worth retaining them. One player – leading scorer Freddie Sears – suffered a severe knee injury in a February match against Norwich City that may prevent him from playing anywhere next season. Defender Jonas Knudsen has appeared in 28 matches this season and may be worth retaining at the right price.

Of the players in on loan, Trevoh Chalobah (on loan from Chelsea) is second on the club in appearances with 39, scoring two goals along the way. Fellow loanee Matthew Pennington (Everton) has 23 appearances (all starts), adding a goal from his defensive position (in a match he was later sent off in). Both players are signed by their home clubs through 2021, so the chances of getting them on a permanent transfer are slim, but it might be worth the ask for another loan to help the club return to the Championship.

With the relegation to League One, some players may have out clauses as well, though it seems that most players currently with contracts beyond this season are not of the caliber to attract much attention above the Championship. With the wage rules in place in League One, it may be worthwhile for the club to sell a player or two to help get their wages in check.

Chances of a Quick Return?

We won’t know what next season’s League One looks like for a few more weeks, though Bolton Wanderers may not be far behind the Tractor Boys in clinching a move back to League One as well. Lincoln City has already clinched promotion from League Two, so there’s at least one opponent that will be known for sure. As of matches played through 13 April, five League One clubs – Luton Town, Barnsley, Sunderland, Portsmouth, and Charlton Athletic – have secured at least a berth in the promotion playoffs, so expect three of those five clubs to be gone as well.

Ipswich Town supporters are hoping for a quick return back to the Championship and a return to mid-table finishes and competing for playoff spots in the second tier. Whether they can do so after one season remains to be seen, and their play in the Championship this season doesn’t really lend much hope for the immediate future. That said, Paul Lambert has had relatively recent success of leading a similar turnaround with Norwich City, and I expect there are few similarly situated managers that are better prepared to do such a thing.

Until next time…

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