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An end, a beginning, an epic. Around 7 o’clock on Sunday evening, 3,000 Ipswich Town fans in the middle of a 600-mile round trip from Suffolk, took a collective gulp when the fourth official at the Stadium of Light raised his board to show an extraordinary 13 minutes were being added to an already draining second half in which Ipswich scored a second goal, conceded one, saw Sunderland reduced to 10 men, then play like they had 12.
Thirteen minutes? If you are an Ipswich supporter who has stared down four seasons in League One, known miserable days at places like Northampton, Burton and Cheltenham, what you do not need at the end of your trial of faith is a test of endurance.
There were no major injuries but somehow the new refereeing edict aimed at time-wasting produced a 105-minute match (two minutes were added to the first half). And within a gripped stadium there was a feeling rising that Sunderland’s pressure would push open one last crack in the visitors’ back line. Sure enough, in minute 104, the crack appeared.
(Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)
Dan Neil, who had scored a late volley to make it 1-2, was found at the far post and shaped to guide in another. Neil’s strike was accurate and it seemed an equaliser was Sunderland’s, but Ipswich, who lost their No 1 goalkeeper Christian Walton last week to injury, have a steady replacement in the experienced Vaclav Hladky. The Czech got enough on Neil’s effort to divert the ball onto the post. The stadium gulped again. Sixty seconds later, the whistle blew. Ipswich had their first Championship win since May 2019.
Collin Quaner was their match-winner then. Those were the days; those were not the days. That arid period in the club’s history is over; this is the new start.
Kieran McKenna is the manager who brought water to Ipswich Town — well, the Irish coach and the U.S. ownership, Gamechanger. McKenna, 37, is in his first front-line management role and has taken it in his Fermanagh stride. He talked calmly through his analysis of the game and when asked the personal question of what the victory meant to him, he initially replied cautiously: “Doesn’t mean too much in the big picture, to be honest. It’s the first game of the season.”
Perhaps sensing this was an insufficient response to the occasion — and it was one — McKenna added: “Of course, it’s a proud moment for myself and for everyone to have guided the club back to this level. It’s back where we want to be — and beyond — hopefully.”
And considering the context, Ipswich Town are back. It may be one game, but it can be seen as a small statement, a little whisper to the rest that Ipswich have not come up to go back down. It was arguably their most significant away win at Championship level since 2015 when a Richard Chaplow 90th-minute winner at Watford lifted Mick McCarthy’s team into the top six of the division. The Premier League was on the horizon then. (There followed a most painful play-off semi-final defeat to a club called Norwich City.)
Ipswich are a Championship club once more. Maintaining that status will not be easy, McKenna was clear, but he spoke of spring last season when promotion was chiselled out on victorious away days as they raced frantically with Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield Wednesday.
Jobe Bellingham started for Sunderland (Photo: Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
“I think we had some games similar to this,” he said, “though this was the hardest, no two ways about it. But at the back end of the season, League One was so competitive we had to win almost every game to go up. We had to go away to Derby, Bolton, Peterborough, Barnsley, among others. To win away from home at clubs like this, and this is another level up, you have to have all the ingredients we did today.
After an opening 25 minutes in which young Sunderland flowed on the breeze of over 40,000 home voices, Ipswich were given a foothold by the obduracy of Luke Woolfenden and the nous of Sam Morsy.
It was a scramble at times — in League One under McKenna, Town usually had 60-70 per cent possession; here it was 26 per cent after 10 minutes and just 33 by the end of play. Away from home, in particular, Ipswich will be different, although McKenna said: “It’s not like all of a sudden we’re going to be a counter-attacking team.
“But we know there are going to be phases of every game where we’ll have to be compact, show resilience off the ball and be ready to break.”
Even when Sunderland held early control, Ipswich did break — Leif Davis and Conor Chaplin had good chances before Nathan Broadhead scored in one of those first-half minutes added on. Not long after the interval, the 24-year-old George Hirst got his first at Championship level with a smacked finish. At 2-0 down, Sunderland had Trai Hume sent off, perhaps harshly, for two fouls.
Neil’s 86th-minute goal brought hope, as did Jobe Bellingham’s deft, intelligent performance. He is 17.
Sunderland were far from terrible, but Tony Mowbray was left with last season’s story: no No 9s. Luis ‘Hemir’ Semedo did well on his debut, but he is 19 and, from Benfica B, this was his first senior men’s football match. Hemir will grow and in August 2024 or 2025, he will be a better first-team striker. It’s just Mowbray needs one in August 2023.
Tony Mowbray (Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)
The home crowd stayed with the team and, by and large, have stayed with the ownership. But the hierarchy must know Wearside will demand a significant sum be spent soon on a centre-forward. Their ongoing commitment merits it; there were over 44,000 here for a game at 5pm on a Sunday live on television.
That illustrated the appetite locally for football’s return, but it goes further — on the EFL’s first weekend, there were near-30,000 attendances at Wednesday, Middlesbrough and Derby, 20,000 at Bolton, almost 10,000 at Stockport County and, in the fifth tier, 6,000 at Southend.
English football is not just a Premier League product. Ipswich Town fans can tell you that. And every one of those here will begin with two words: thirteen minutes.
US investment, McKenna’s magic and a united club – Ipswich Town are being brought back to life
(Top photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)