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Ipswich Town: How Kieran McKenna has taken club to brink of back-to-back promotions

Ipswich face two huge games across Easter as they chase Championship automatic promotion, both live on Sky Sports; Watch Blackburn vs Ipswich on Good Friday from 5pm on Sky Sports Football and Ipswich vs Southampton on Monday from 5pm on Sky Sports Football

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Ipswich Town boss Kieran McKenna says he is looking forward to another record-breaking promotion race as they target a spot in the Premier League

With Easter on the horizon, Ipswich Town sit in a position few could have imagined at the start of the season, in a race not only for Championship promotion but a shot at the title as well.

Go back only a very short period of time and not only would that above sentence have sounded optimistic, it would have been almost laughable.

Saturday March 20, 2021: Portsmouth 2-1 Ipswich Town in League One.

Behind closed doors at Fratton Park as football continues to be played without fans under Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, recently appointed Ipswich manager Paul Cook sees his side surrender a first-half lead at one of his former clubs.

The third defeat in Cook's first five games leaves the Tractor Boys two points adrift of the play-offs as Pompey, under the management of Danny Cowley for the first time, leapfrog them into seventh.

Wind the clock forward three years and all the names mentioned above are experiencing very different footballing circumstances.

As a club, Ipswich find themselves in a dramatically different equation and are also a very different prospect thanks to revolutionary changes both on and off the pitch.

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Takeovers, makeovers, investment partnerships, managerial and playing staff changes, the brand backing of a pop music global icon, supporters proud to show their allegiance to the club once again rather than shy away and at its centre, a team playing exciting, eye-catching football under the guidance of a tactically astute young manager.

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Wes Burns' thumping equaliser against Norwich City in December sent Ed Sheeran and Portman Road into a frenzy!

With eight Championship games to play, they sit a point behind leaders Leeds United and second-placed Leicester City and in arguably their best position for nearly 20 years to win promotion back to the Premier League.

All this less than a year after being pushed right to the wire to guarantee automatic promotion from League One in their rookie manager's first full season in senior management.

So how has it gone so right for Ipswich under Kieran McKenna?

As his side face two pivotal Championship games across the Easter weekend, both live on Sky Sports, away to Blackburn on Friday and then at home to fellow promotion contenders Southampton on Monday, fans can be forgiven for getting carried away with the pace of progress.

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"In Kieran McKenna, I think tactically, you've got the best manager in the league," said Joe Fairs from the Blue Monday Podcast.

"The way in which he sets the team up, others can't live with how we play. Whilst a lot of the players are League One players and haven't previously played at the top end of the Championship, McKenna is not only a brilliant tactician but also a brilliant man-manager in how he's kept everyone going."

Behind McKenna sits a team of equally forward-thinking and progressive coaches, performance analysts and recruiters not previously seen in the corridors of Portman Road.

McKenna's arrival in December 2021 saw the club's "collegiate approach" fostered by charismatic chief executive Mark Ashton finally begin to work in harmony between the coaching and performance teams.

"When you look at the players at McKenna's disposal this season and you talk about which ones might get themselves a Premier League move, (left-back) Leif Davis is probably in that ballpark," Fairs told Sky Sports.

Image: Conor Chaplin (left) and captain Sam Morsy have been two of Ipswich's pivotal players this season

"But the rest of them just seem to be in such sync with each other, working in such a good system set up exactly how they need to showcase all their strengths and hide all their weaknesses.

"McKenna's done such a brilliant job in building this team, this squad to compete with three highly-powered and highly-charged teams in Leicester, Leeds and Southampton for automatic promotion.

"If this was any normal season, we'd probably be six points clear at the top of the league at this stage, let alone battling for second place."

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Simeon Gholam and David Prutton look ahead to Good Friday on the Sky Sports Championship Predictions podcast, with Leeds, Leicester and Ipswich all in live action

As the chant that rings out from the now regularly sold-out Portman Road stands goes: "We've got Super Kieran McKenna, he knows exactly what we need…"

Rather than completely rebuilding the squad that got Ipswich out of League One last season and going on a spending spree, McKenna has finely tweaked the personnel to fit the overall tactical plan.

Former Manchester United player Axel Tuanzebe has added defensive versatility and experience while Chelsea loanee Omari Hutchinson has shown how much a player can grow in a different environment over the course of a season.

Hutchinson's eye-catching displays and useful knack of producing clutch moments late in games also saw him named Championship player of the month for February. But on top of those two additions, other players already in the building have thrived under McKenna's influence.

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Omari Hutchinson chats to Sky Sports about Ipswich Town, making his debut against Man City and being praised by Pele

Goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky has been ever-present in the league having been recalled at the expense of last year's League One Golden Glove winner Christian Walton, who suffered an unfortunate foot injury in pre-season.

Midfielder Marcus Harness, scorer of Portsmouth's winning goal in that League One fixture in March 2021 no less, is another who has taken his game to new levels with no prior Championship experience, chipping in with goals off the bench at vital times too.

"It obviously helps when on the first day of the Championship season, you go away to Sunderland, you play quite well and do deserve to win," Fairs said. "But in doing so, you manage to hold on throughout loads of stoppage time and a wave of momentum from the opposition in the closing stages.

"From there, the team took on that trait of knowing how to win a game into the next half a dozen matches."

How Ipswich have stayed in the promotion race

Seven wins from the first eight league games this season then became 12 from the first 14 and by early December, a late Sam Morsy winner in a come-from-behind victory at Watford put them top of the table, albeit for just 24 hours, as the gap to then third-placed Leeds stretched to 10 points.

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Ipswich's Wes Burns scored a beauty with the outside of his boot in a 2-1 win against Coventry in December

There have been wobbles and setbacks though along the way.

Just one win from nine either side of the busy Christmas and New Year period coincided with a chastening 4-0 defeat away at Leeds, first-choice striker George Hirst rupturing his hamstring against Leicester on Boxing Day and an embarrassing FA Cup fourth-round defeat at home to non-League Maidstone United.

But in amongst that came just the two league defeats and hard-fought draws against Leicester (twice) and play-off contenders West Brom.

Since then, the arrival of Kieffer Moore on loan from Bournemouth and the acquisition of fellow striker Ali Al-Hamadi from AFC Wimbledon has helped produce seven wins from eight, a record only blighted by an agonising 2-1 defeat at Cardiff City where the hosts scored twice after the clock had passed 95 minutes.

A 6-0 home win against Sheffield Wednesday before the international break saw Ipswich bounce back and in doing so, pass the 80-point mark and bring their goal tally up to 80 for the campaign.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday

At a time where strength in depth could be crucial for sides in the run-in, both Ipswich and Southampton top the charts across the EFL for goal involvements from substitutes with 28 so far.

The likely loss for the remainder of the season of right winger Wes Burns to a hamstring tear will be tempered by the knowledge two players who have regularly made their mark off the bench this season in Hutchinson and Kayden Jackson, have proved more than able deputies.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Ipswich Town and Bristol City

"I guess the one thing we've got that the other three automatic promotions contenders haven't is a manager who's already gained promotion after chasing down a seemingly impossible target, where last season we had to get to 98 points just to finish in second place, winning 13 of our last 15 games," Fairs told Sky Sports.

"But it's not just a manager who has done it before for us, albeit at a different level, but the squad have done it before together as well.

Image: Nathan Broadhead is Ipswich's joint-top scorer in the Championship this season with 12 goals

"Whilst it's clear Leicester, Leeds and Southampton have all got more talent in their squads than we have, if we are able to get over the line, it will be what they learned together last season. That's our trump card in this promotion race.

"It might not be enough. But if it isn't, there's not a lot you can do.

"We're going to pick up 90+ points this season and that's normally enough for promotion 99 times out of 100. But we have a team that finds ways to win games and get over the line."

The run-in - Ipswich's remaining Championship fixtures

March 29: Blackburn (A), live on Sky Sports, kick-off 5.30pm

April 1: Southampton (H), live on Sky Sports, kick-off 5.30pm

April 6: Norwich City (A), live on Sky Sports, kick-off 12.30pm

April 10: Watford (H), live on Sky Sports red button and app, kick-off 7.45pm

April 13: Middlesbrough (H), kick-off 3pm

April 27: Hull City (A), kick-off 3pm

April 30: Coventry City (A), live on Sky Sports, kick-off 8pm

May 4: Huddersfield Town (H), kick-off 12:30pm

To get over that line, an old adversary in Norwich City may stand in Ipswich's way more than once between now and the end of the season.

The Canaries sit sixth in the table and if the music stopped now, the play-off semi-finals would pit the East Anglian rivals against each other as it also did in 2015 before Norwich went on to win the final against Middlesbrough. David Wagner's side also await Ipswich at Carrow Road on Saturday April 6 in another game you can see live on Sky Sports.

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Trips to play-off hopefuls Hull City and Coventry City are also on the agenda before the regular season culminates for Ipswich with the visit of relegation-threatened Huddersfield Town, the same afternoon when Leeds and Southampton face each other at Elland Road.

Do Town fans dare to dream the unthinkable?

"They'll be twists and turns along the way," Fairs added. "But we've shown enough times this season that when a game looks to be petering out to a draw, we find a way to win.

"McKenna finds a way to make them win."

Watch Ipswich travel to Blackburn on Good Friday, live on Sky Sports Football from 5pm and host Southampton on Easter Monday, also live from 5pm on Sky Sports Football.

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