Premier League

How Kieran McKenna guided Ipswich Town to the Premier League’s promised land

How Kieran McKenna guided Ipswich Town to the Premier League’s promised land

Kieran McKenna has turned Ipswich Town into a force heading for English football’s top flight (Getty)

All the next great managers tend to be described in the same way: obsessive, a perfectionist, a details guy with a personal touch who always remembers the kit man’s birthday.

Ipswich Town’s Kieran McKenna is certainly one of those: he has amassed more points than any manager in English football since taking charge in League One in 2021 and is on the verge of leading Ipswich to back-to-back promotions. A win against Huddersfield on Saturday sealed their return to the Premier League after 22 years away.

McKenna has big tactical ideas and a distinctive way to play. He conveys energy and enthusiasm and earns the trust of his players. But what stands out is that, first and foremost, McKenna is a coach: he doesn’t just get the best out of players, he makes them better.

His talents were honed during his academy work at Tottenham, Leicester and Manchester United. The blossoming career of Ipswich’s prolifically creative left-back Leif Davis tells the story: he is the Championship’s top assist-maker and among Europe’s most productive players, an attacking full-back who credits McKenna for his rise.

“I can thank him for all the assists because of the way he has helped me improve in the final third of the pitch,” Davis told The Athletic. “He has helped me so much in my decision-making and knowing which pass to choose. I’m not just getting my head down and crossing. He’s developed me in so many other ways – my heading, my one-v-one defending…”

McKenna (left) worked under Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Getty)

Davis will soon be hurting defences in the Premier League after a transformative three years for Ipswich Town. New American owners began investing in the roots of a club that had long been neglected. Director Ed Schwartz and CEO Mark Ashton sifted through a spreadsheet with 450 names to find the right manager. Ashton, who gave Brendan Rodgers his first managerial job at Watford, took another calculated gamble on McKenna.

McKenna moved into the Salthouse Harbour Hotel near the centre of town, a 15-minute walk from the stadium, and began work in earnest. He established his preferred 4-2-3-1 system and put a hard emphasis on fitness and endurance. Within a few months, Ipswich were scoring more goals, conceding fewer and near the top of every running metric in the league. McKenna’s family moved down from Manchester as he committed himself to the project.

“A lot of people have asked me what he is like compared to Marcelo Bielsa,” said left-back Davis, who worked under the Argentinian coach at Leeds. “He’s exactly the same. His demands in training, his intensity of training, the way he wants to make everyone better. He wants the players to be really fit. ‘If you don’t want to run,’ he says, ‘you might as well not be here’. That suits me because I love running.”

Ipswich became one of the most enthralling Football League teams in recent memory as they stormed League One, scoring 101 goals. They retained the team’s nucleus in the Championship and have kept pace with far more lavishly assembled squads at Leicester and Leeds at the top of the table.

McKenna has built a close relationship with Ipswich CEO Mark Ashton (Getty)

McKenna asked Ashton not for expensive signings but for improved facilities. He had two state-of-the-art hybrid-grass pitches installed at the training ground and persuaded the club to spend £2.5m on replacing the decaying Portman Road pitch. The new surface is among the best in the Championship and has been the stage for Ipswich’s imposing home form, where they have lost only once all season.

McKenna worked under Jose Mourinho at Manchester United but there is no great correlation with Mourinho’s reactive philosophy, given the way Ipswich like to press aggressively up the pitch. They bait opponents before cutting through them with pace, reminiscent of Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton; the playmaker-full-back role is something from Jurgen Klopp’s playbook; the many cutbacks into the area look like something designed by Pep Guardiola.

It is a mosaic of ideas that McKenna has been piecing together ever since he gave up on breaking into Tottenham’s senior squad, aged 22, due to a hip injury and focused his mind on coaching.

“The style of football we’ve been playing takes a lot of work – a lot of video analysis, work on the grass and conversations,” captain Sam Morsy said recently. “He’s very detailed, you can see he’s put a massive amount of effort into his craft to get to where he is.”

McKenna urges on his team at Portman Road, where they have lost only once all season (Getty)

The goalkeeper, Vaclav Hladky, is key to build-up play with the ability to chip over the opposition’s press. There is no fixation with possession for possession’s sake, and that more direct approach can make for some wild games at times. Ipswich have scored the most goals in the Championship this season but they have also conceded as many as several teams in the bottom half of the table.

Their games are almost always entertaining and there have been some thrillers this season: the 3-2 win over Southampton after a 97th-minute winner; the 3-2 win over Bristol City after an 89th-minute winner; the 4-3 win over Rotherham after a 95th-minute winner, having conceded a penalty a minute earlier. All the late goals tell a story of resilience and spirit: Ipswich’s most reliable goalscorer is the bench, with substitutes accounting for 20 per cent of their goals.

Fans were clamouring to find tickets to Saturday’s game. Huddersfield supporters urged their club to let Ipswich have their allocation to the match – Huddersfield were all but relegated, a fate that was later confirmed, and they were in favour of Ipswich winning anyway as it stopped Yorkshire rivals Leeds getting promoted automatically.

The match itself was a slice of history. For two decades there was little to excite loyal supporters at Portman Road. Now they are back in the promised land.

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