Why Ipswich Town Will Make the Championship Play-Offs in 2014/2015

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Why Ipswich Town Will Make the Championship Play-Offs in 2014/2015
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Five years is a long time to be dark horses and nothing more, but Ipswich Town may finally be set to make a concerted push for the Championship play-offs.   

Since 2009, the club have struggled to build on pre-season hype, with the managerial tenures of Roy Keane and Paul Jewell resulting in disappointment.

However, the arrival of experienced boss Mick McCarthy in 2012 ensured that solidity and optimism became the latest buzz words around Portman Road.

The vast improvement in 2013/2014 saw the club regenerate from a relegation-battling group of individuals to a play-off chasing team. Things can only improve. Town, with minor alterations, can challenge at the top next season.

Defensive stalwart Christophe Berra, an outstanding acquisition on a free transfer last summer, told the BBC that McCarthy had "done a great job on a small budget." This is perhaps the most pertinent argument for Town's play-off push next season.

The former Republic of Ireland manager was able to sign Berra, Cole Skuse and Dean Gerken on free transfers in the summer of 2013. All three were regulars in the side that missed out on a play-off berth by four points.

Paul Anderson, who netted five goals last season, told the East Anglian Daily Times that Town's tight-knit squad, assembled on a shoestring budget, was one of their biggest assets. "We always believed that our work-rate and togetherness would be our strength," said the midfielder.

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This point was vindicated by some exceptional statistics. McCarthy used only 26 players throughout the course of the league campaign; a testament to the togetherness that Anderson referred to. To attain a ninth-placed finish with a small squad also highlights McCarthy's ability to get the best out of the players at his disposal.

Another impressive feat saw Town lose only three games against teams in the bottom half of the Championship table all season, according to Statto.com. This was better than three of the sides who finished above them (Wigan Athletic, Brighton & Hove Albion and Blackburn Rovers).

McCarthy's first-choice back four, which cost only £420,000 to assemble, were ranked eighth by Statto.com for the fewest amount of goals conceded. Only Aaron Cresswell cost the club a fee, with Berra and Luke Chambers free transfers and Tommy Smith promoted from the academy set-up.

Derby County, who finished the season in third, were reported by the BBC to have spent more than £1 million alone on current centre-back and captain Richard Keogh in 2012.

The Rams conceded only two goals fewer than Town in 2013/14; this is perhaps the best indication of the work that McCarthy has done on his cost-effective defence.

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Town must find a way to replace Aaron Cresswell

However, the former Sunderland and Wolves manager will be hoping to bolster his defensive ranks following the departure of Cresswell to West Ham United. The former Tranmere man, who made 13 assists last season, was voted into the PFA Championship team of the year for 2014.

His departure could see Tyrone Mings, a free signing from Chippenham in 2012, occupy the vacancy at left-back.

Makeshift right-back and captain Chambers was often caught out by pacy wingers, although McCarthy may be hesitant to replace him with the inexperienced Elliott Hewitt.

It will be intriguing to see whether McCarthy opts for a Premier League loanee, particularly given the impact made by Jonny Williams upon his arrival from Crystal Palace last season.

A teasing, attacking midfielder, Williams injected life into Town's play-off push after talisman David McGoldrick had his season cut short by a knee injury in February.

The Welsh international shone in back-to-back wins over Brighton and Derby and looks set to attract plenty of attention from other clubs over the summer. Even if Town could afford him on a permanent deal, the 20-year-old is destined for bigger things.

A lack of creativity in central midfield stands out as being the area most in need of attention this summer. Despite the solidity of Skuse and tenaciousness of the home-grown Luke Hyam, neither offered much in the opposition's final third over the course of the season.

Stuart Watson, reporter for the EADT and the Ipswich Star, also spoke of the need, via Twitter, for McCarthy to invest the money from Cresswell's sale into "an out-and-out creative/goalscoring central midfielder."

According to the Football League website, Skuse provided only three assists and failed to score in 43 appearances. Hyam, perhaps the more naturally attacking of the two, scored only once from his central berth.

Leicester City, the division's standout performers and champions, showed the importance of having a central midfield that contributes in an attacking sense. The Football League recorded Danny Drinkwater and Matt James as having scored four goals and provided eight assists between them in 2013/2014. 

However, there is another reason for Town fans to be optimistic. The signing of pacy winger Cameron Stewart on a free offers a previously unavailable option to McCarthy. While Anderson and Jay Tabb were often deployed down the wing last year, neither offer the trickery of former Hull player Stewart.

The workmanlike nature of McCarthy's side last season meant the team needed a lift in quality from midfield; Williams was the catalyst for better attacking play but was often deployed in a No. 10 role off of Daryl Murphy.

Stewart will provide that quality, as well as a goal threat. The former Manchester United academy player will have supporters on the edge of their seats. He may even put Town on the edge of the play-offs.

McCarthy's side begin the season at home to Fulham and will also face local rivals Norwich City before August is finished; both sides were relegated from the Premier League last season.

Sky Sports pundit Peter Beagrie told the broadcaster's website that there is great pressure upon the likes of the Cottagers and the Canaries, citing Harry Redknapp's play-off-winning QPR team.

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Beagrie said: "I think, when you look at the way they [QPR] went about their business, we said Harry was not over-enamoured with the Championship. But it wasn't that, it was the pressure, and because of how critical it can be for teams coming down."

With Reading and Derby also early-season opponents, the first month of the campaign may seem a slightly daunting one.

However, Beagrie's assessment of the pressure relegated sides must endure will give Town supporters hope that both Fulham and Norwich may leave Portman Road empty-handed.

With some more astute business in the transfer market, the club could be strong candidates for a top-six finish. McCarthy has found the formula to promotion before. Town must hope he can find it again.

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