Ipswich Town are preparing for life back in the Championship. STUART WATSON assesses the squad ahead of the transfer window opening.
Clubs can register 25 players (only non loans aged under 21 at the start of 2023 exempt) at Championship level.
If Massimo Luongo and Sone Aluko sign the deals they have been offered then Ipswich currently have 28 candidates.
They are: Walton, Hladky, Hayes, Clarke, Donacien, Woolfenden, Edmundson, Burgess, Ndaba, Davis, Leigh, Morsy, Luongo, Evans, Ball, Camara, El Mizouni, Harper, Burns, Jackson, Chaplin, Aluko, Broadhead, Harness, Edwards, Ladapo, Pigott, Ahadme.
Exempt: Baggott, Humphreys.
East Anglian Daily Times: Christian Walton was a Championship regular at Wigan and Blackburn.
CHRISTIAN WALTON, having just claimed the League One Golden Glove award, returns to a level he knows well.
The Cornish keeper was a regular for Paul Cook’s Wigan when they finished 18th in the Championship in 2018/19 and again for Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn when they finished 11th in the Championship in 2019/20.
Only a freak pre-season injury prevented him being Brighton’s starting keeper in the Premier League after that.
Walton now returns to the second-tier, at the age of 27, a more-rounded keeper than before. No doubt about it, Town have their starting No.1.
The back-up role is a little more up in the air.
Vaclav Hladky has said it’s been ‘special’ working with manager Kieran McKenna. In turn, the Blues boss declared: “I don’t think there are many better in English football with his feet.”
But will the Czech keeper, who turns 33 in November, be content to warm the bench for a third successive season?
Town wanted more than £100k for the former Salford man last summer – a valuation that ultimately put Aberdeen off. Now in the final year of his contract, that price would have to come down.
Meanwhile, Nick Hayes – a 24-year-old who keeper coach Rene Gilmartin sees real potential in – looks set to resume his role as third-choice keeper after recovering from a nasty ankle injury.
The more experienced Joel Coleman, who was brought in as temporary cover, has just been released.
VERDICT: Persuading another keeper to come and be back-up would be a difficult sell. I can see Hladky, no doubt keen to experience the Championship for the first time, seeing out his contract.
East Anglian Daily Times: Harry Clarke had a taste of Championship football last season at Stoke.
Town paid out more than £1m to bring Playford Road academy graduate HARRY CLARKE back to the club from Arsenal in January.
The 22-year-old made nine starts and nine substitute appearances in the Championship for Stoke in the first half of last season, with the verdict from Potters pundits being that he was ‘athletic, energetic, if a little bit raw’.
We’ve seen both parts of that assessment during his time at Town. The confident, marauding part of his game is great fun to watch. Defensively, however, this is going to be a bigger test.
Clarke is, remember, suspended for the opening league game due to his daft red card at Fleetwood on the final day of 2022/23.
As it stands, Janoi Donacien will be the man to step in.
Town recently triggering the one-year extension clause in his contract was a no-brainer.
The 29-year-old is reliable, versatile and low maintenance. He returns to the Championship far more prepared than when he joined Paul Hurst’s utlimately doomed outfit in 2018/19.
VERDICT: One dynamic, youthful starter with lots of room for growth and a strong one-v-one defender as back-up. Are those two enough? Probably. I can see a scenario where Donacien is used as a utility defender and another right-back is brought in for extra competition though.
East Anglian Daily Times: Luke Woolfenden made two Championship starts for Town at the end of the 2017/18 season.
The experienced Richard Keogh has been released, while Championship football looks too soon for Corrie Ndaba and Elkan Baggott (who, with two years on their deals, are likely to be loaned out again).
That leaves Luke Woolfenden, Cameron Burgess and George Edmundson.
Woolfenden’s calmness on the ball should, in theory, make him better suited to a higher level. There was a reason he was being linked with a £3m move to Sheffield United back in 2019. I’m looking forward to seeing the 24-year-old step up with his hometown club.
Edmundson also falls in the *should* be able to do it a level higher category. The 25-year-old has played for pressure-cooker club Rangers and helped Derby secure Championship survival with a 10-game loan spell in 2021. He certainly looked a ‘far better than League One’ player in his early months at Ipswich, but two nasty ankle injuries have slowed his progress.
Then there’s Burgess. The big Scot’s transformation under McKenna has been remarkable and he deserves all the plaudits for his key role in helping the team secure promotion. But might some of the 27-year-old’s limitations be more exposed a level above? The Fulham youth product has spent the last eight years in the lower divisions.
VERDICT: The bottom line is that Town’s three senior centre-halves – with 13 Championship starts between them – are all unknown quantities at this level. There’s reason to believe that all of them, with expert coaching, are capable of stepping up. But they’re going to need some help. Signing an experienced starter is, for me, a major priority.
East Anglian Daily Times: Leif Davis made nine league starts for Bournemouth when they were promoted to the Premier League.
The £1.5m fee paid to Leeds for Leif Davis last summer looks an absolute bargain after his 14-assists debut season for the Blues.
The 23-year-old made seven league starts for Bournemouth when they were promoted to the Premier League in 2021/22. Manager Scott Parker said there had been some ‘big learning’ for the youngster along the way.
Greg Leigh provides the back-up. Picked up on a free transfer from Morecambe last summer, the powerful Jamaican international was ready whenever called upon in 22/23.
The 28-year-old has played in the Scottish Premier League and Eredivisie, but this will be the biggest test yet for the former Manchester City youngster.
VERDICT: Like goalkeeper, this is a position I feel really confident about. Davis has the lungs and technical ability to keep climbing the ladder. Leigh may be useful against some more physical opponents.
East Anglian Daily Times: Sam Morsy has been a solid Championship player at Wigan and Middlesbrough.
Town will have four midfielders with plenty of Championship experience going into next season.
Massimo Luongo made 173 Championship starts at QPR and Sheffield Wednesday, while Sam Morsy made 140 Championship starts at Wigan, Barnsley and Middlesbrough.
We know those two – combative and controlled – combine well.
Lee Evans made 98 Championship starts at Wolves, Sheffield United and Wigan, while Dominic Ball made 79 Championship starts at QPR.
Also in the midfield mix is homegrown talent Cameron Humphreys, the fit-again Panutche Camara, plus returning loanees Idris El Mizouni and Rekeem Harper.
Eight players for two positions is too many. There will clearly need to be a trim.
VERDICT: I can see Humphreys and Camara joining League One clubs on loan. The former now needs regular game time to develop, while the latter needs to prove his fitness after three lots of groin surgery.
An exit for Harper looks almost certain after his uninspiring spells at Crewe and Exeter. Wages mean that might have to be another loan, unless Ipswich want to go down the ‘mutual consent’ pay-off route.
El Mizouni is an interesting one. He’s been linked with Derby and Watford after starring for a Leyton Orient side that won the League Two title.
My instinct is that Town will want to take a good look at the Parisian over pre-season but that ultimately he will be sold or loaned out.
Cutting four of the eight midfielders would allow McKenna to add a slightly different profile of midfielder to the mix.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Blues boss attempt to sign Peterborough’s Jack Taylor for the third window in a row.
East Anglian Daily Times: Wes Burns struggled for Championship game time at Bristol City.
Wes Burns has become a real fans’ favourite at Portman Road after providing 24 goals and 15 assists during his first two seasons at the club.
You have to go back to 2015/16 for the last time the Welshman played in the Championship though. He scored one goal in two starts and 19 sub appearances at second-tier level for Bristol City.
The 28-year-old, confident and settled, could well continue his positive momentum and prove to be a top-end second-tier player later in his career. It’s no slam dunk though.
The same is true of Kayden Jackson. The 29-year-old’s one season in the Championship was the relegation campaign with Town in 2018/19.
McKenna will, I’m sure, utilise his pace and work rate at appropriate moments. The reality, though, is that he’s another player in his late 20s who has generally played in the lower divisions.
VERDICT: I can see a signing in this department to really compete with Burns for a starting spot. Jesurun Rak-Sakyi – the exciting 22-year-old who has just returned to parent club Crystal Palace after lighting up League One with Charlton – has already been linked.
East Anglian Daily Times: Conor Chaplin was a key part of the Barnsley team that finished fifth in the Championship.
NUMBER 10 ROLE
Conor Chaplin, 26, returns to the second-tier full of hunger and belief after a 29-goal campaign.
He was sold by Barnsley after playing a key role in their fifth-place Championship finish of 2020/21 (four goals in 31 starts and three sub appearances) and declared: “I don’t want to play in League One for longer than I have to.”
Sone Aluko, 34, has been offered a new playing deal. He’ll keep standards high in training and be a useful in-game option at times, but it’s unlikely he’ll make a load of starts.
VERDICT: Firstly, I can see Chaplin, now heading into the final year of his contract, being rewarded with a new deal soon (in the same way Woolfenden and Burns were last summer).
Secondly, I can see a player being brought in to provide cover/competition in this role. Perhaps someone who can act as an alternative striker option too. Tyreece John-Jules could well tick that box.
East Anglian Daily Times: Nathan Broadhead scored five Championship goals for a struggling Wigan side in the first half of last season.
Nathan Broadhead scored five Championship goals for a struggling Wigan side in the first half of last season. (Image: Ross Halls)
Nathan Broadhead proved a revelation in this tucked-in-off-the-left role after arriving in a £1.5m deal from Everton in January.
The Welsh international scored five Championship goals in a struggling Wigan side during the first half of last season, so there’s every reason to believe he’ll take this step up in his stride.
Marcus Harness and Kyle Edwards provide competition.
Harness, 27, has had one season in the Championship (all 10 of his league appearances for Burton in that 2016/17 campaign came off the bench).
Edwards, 25, made 12 starts and 20 sub appearances in the Championship at West Brom, helping them reach the Premier League in 2019/20.
VERDICT: Even though Harness played a lot more than Edwards last season, I feel like he is the one in most danger of being sold if McKenna wants to free up some space for attacking recruitment. I still have hope that Edwards’ star can shine brightly at Town. Broadhead’s injury record means you can’t hang your hat on him starting 40+ games.
East Anglian Daily Times: Freddie Ladapo scored nine Championship goals for a Rotherham side that was relegated.
Freddie Ladapo scored a very respectable nine goals in 23 starts and 19 sub appearances for a Rotherham side that was relegated from the Championship in 2020/21.
The front man came on leaps and bounds under McKenna’s tutelage last season and should be a very useful asset next season.
Joe Pigott and Gassan Ahadme return from loan spells at Portsmouth and Burton respectively.
Pigott’s future looks like it lies elsewhere, while Ahadme – signed as a longer-term project – could well be loaned out again.
VERDICT: It’s pretty clear that Town’s talisman is not currently in the building. Signing George Hirst permanently, following his superb impact on loan, would be the preferred option. If Leicester get relegated and don’t want to sell, however, then it will be fascinating to see what level of striker Town can attract. This is where the big money will be spent.
Town may have been promoted in style, but no-one should forget just how gruelling and competitive the Championship is following four years away.
Town have got the core of a squad ready to take on the second-tier – a brave style of play, the FA Cup performances against Burnley and the way newly-promoted Sunderland recently finished sixth – gives me the confidence to say that.
But I do think some strengthening is required if there are real ambitions of being involved at the top end of the table.
Selling or loaning Ndaba, Harper, Camara, Pigott and Ahadme would free up five squad places. I’ve mooted El Mizouni and Harness as potential exits in this piece too if further wriggle room is required.
Signing an experienced centre-back and starting striker have to be the top priorities, followed by a couple of players to add competition to the forward unit (that’s where a quality loan or two could come in).
Another centre-back, full-back and central midfielder are also possibilities.
In summary, I think we’re looking at 5-7 exits and 4-5 arrivals.
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