So far, so good for Lambert and Ipswich?

Premier League stadium, League One football

Photo by James Cracknell, CC BY 4.0

Looking at the League 1 table, it would certainly appear that all is looking good for Paul Lambert and his Ipswich Town side. They sit on top of the table and seem to have made the transition to life in the third tier of English football fairly seamlessly. Does that tell the whole story, though?

How they got here

It is hard to be too critical of any club that, after falling through the dreaded relegation trapdoor, are able to regroup quickly and successfully enough to make a real go of bouncing straight back up. For a club with such a proud and glittering history, plying their trade in League One is something of a novelty—they were last there back in 1957. That comes on the back of 17 years of Championship football, where they were gradually becoming less and less competitive—a result of them simply not being able to compete financially with much of the league. After an initially successful Mick McCarthy era—one that saw a somewhat acrimonious parting—owner Marcus Evans rolled the dice and went for upcoming manager Paul Hurst. Suffice to say that the risky move did not work, and Paul Lambert was brought in to save them from relegation and rebuild the club. He was not able to do the first of those tasks, but he has certainly done the latter, putting a pride and identity back into the club despite their new lowly status.

The positives

Things are different now, of course, and new pressures face them. They are one of the biggest sides in the league and are playing with a target on their back every game. It’s been a long time since bookmakers have tipped the East Anglian outfit for anything other than relegation. Now we are mid-way through November and they are odds on to make a quick return. With a five-point gap to third place, plus two games in hand, it is not far from a perfect start. They also have the meanest defence in the division, and only three sides have found the back of the net more than they have.  

Sunderland found themselves in a similar position to Ipswich a year previous, and they will testify as to how hard a task it is to adapt to the new league. Even in their second year down they are yet to find their feet, and an automatic place is already looking a distant prospect, with Phil Parkinson’s team unable to find any kind of consistency.

Despite Ipswich’s drop in leagues, crowds and season ticket numbers have risen (season ticket sales increased by almost 15%), and the sometimes toxic atmosphere of recent seasons has lifted. Suddenly going to Portman Road is a pleasurable experience for their large and vociferous group of fans who have been put through the mill of late. That atmosphere has filtered down onto the pitch, and the players are enjoying playing there again.

Luke Woolfenden, one of a number of exceptional young talents at Ipswich

Photo by Ncadc2004, CC BY 4.0

Another positive has been the willingness and ability of Lambert to play their youths. Ipswich has always been renowned for producing talented young players. The financial situation of late has meant that they have been forced to sell them. Additionally, owing to the incredibly tough nature of the Championship, those whom they have kept hold of have (more often than not) been sent out on loan to get minutes on the pitch and develop as players and men.

This season has seen the likes of Flynn Downes, Andre Dozzell, Luke Woolfenden and Armando Dobra all featuring, and no matter what level you are at, seeing one of your own playing in your first 11 is special.

Flies in the Ointment?

There are not too many Ipswich fans getting carried away yet, though. They are all too well aware that nothing is won until April or May. Those who have watched them this season will tell you that, though they have won the majority of games, they have been far from dominant in most of them. There is also the little matter of the FA Cup—a competition in which Ipswich have been woeful of late—and even starting in round one didn’t help, as they drew 1-1 with fellow League 1 side Lincoln. There is also the nagging doubt that if they do achieve promotion, they will need to strengthen; and despite having the momentum of a successful season behind them, won’t they simply be back to square one again?