Championship surprises – how have Ipswich and Preston risen to the top?

03.10.2023 15:11:08 Adam England
Football player kicking ball, English Championship
  •  Ipswich Town and Preston North End sit alongside relegated Leicester City near the top of the Championship table
  •  Not many expected Ipswich, promoted from League One, and Preston to challenge right at the top this season
  •  Leeds United and Southampton, both relegated with Leicester last season, have struggled to find their feet so far.

 

A couple of months into the Championship season, we’re about one-fifth of the way in. The table is slowly starting to take shape, and while it’s impossible to discount the possibility of a team rising from nowhere or hurtling down the table, there are already some decent indications of where teams might expect to find themselves come spring.


It’ll be of no surprise to anybody that Leicester City are at the top of the table with an almost perfect record of eight wins and one loss from nine games. Many of their players are, quite frankly, too good for the Championship, and they’ve made some decent additions like Harry Winks, Conor Coady and Stephy Mavididi too, not to mention exciting prospects Callum Doyle and Cesare Casadei on loan from Manchester City and Chelsea respectively. Simply put, were they not to finish in one of the automatic promotion places come April, it would be a major surprise.


However, it’s perhaps more surprising that the other teams vying for automatic promotion right now are Ipswich Town and Preston North End. Ipswich are back in the Championship again after four seasons in League One, while Preston have finished between 7th and 14th in each of their eight Championship seasons since promotion from League One in 2015, the archetypal mid-table team. How have they done it, and will the good times continue? 

 

Leeds United and Southampton, both relegated along with Leicester last term, sit 9th and 10th respectively, while Middlesbrough, who made the play-offs last season, are 21st and out of the relegation places on goals scored. Beaten play-off finalists Coventry City are 14th, while Millwall and Blackburn Rovers, both unlucky to miss out on the play-offs, are 15th and 18th respectively.

 

Enter Ipswich and Preston. Admittedly, many tipped the Tractor Boys to do well this season, but to be second at the start of October? Surely not even the most optimistic Ipswich supporter would have predicted this. 

 

Can Ipswich make it back-to-back promotions?

It’s testament to the management of Kieran McKenna, who’s in his first senior managerial role after spells coaching the under-18 sides of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, and then being assistant manager of the latter’s senior team. 

 

He was just 35 when he took over at Ipswich in December 2021, but the following season took them back to the Championship. And this summer, he’s signed some talented young loanees from the top six to complement an exciting squad. 

 

Attacking midfielder Omari Hutchinson has joined from Chelsea, as has Manchester United left-back Brandon Williams – at local rivals Norwich a couple of seasons ago – and Dane Scarlett, the young Tottenham Hotspur forward on loan at Portsmouth last term. 

 

In terms of permanent additions, they lean more towards the solid than the spectacular. Midfielder Jack Taylor joined from Peterborough United, forward George Hirst arrived from Leicester, and defender Axel Tuanzebe joined after leaving Man United.

 

It might be surprising to see Ipswich doing so well, but it’s not unheard of for promoted teams to make the most of the momentum from the previous season to make it successive promotions. Southampton did it just over a decade ago, and Norwich City did it the previous season. Meanwhile, Luton Town went from League Two to the Championship in back-to-back seasons in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. 

 

Since McKenna took charge, no team in the top four English leagues have won more points than the Tractor Boys, and only Man City’s Pep Guardiola has won more league games than McKenna since he took over. 

 

It’s notable that he hasn’t changed the team’s style of play too much from that which was so successful a tier below last year. They don’t tend to dominate possession, and play slightly faster and more direct this season, possibly due to a higher standard of opposition, but McKenna hasn’t opted for wholesale changes. 

 

Preston could end years of mid-table obscurity

Meanwhile, Preston have a talented young manager of their own. Ryan Lowe, like McKenna, has been at his club since 2021, before which he was manager at Bury, and then Plymouth Argyle.


Lowe built a reputation of being a manager who likes his teams to play attacking, entertaining football. However, he’s had to tweak things at Preston, and his versatility and flexibility is partly why they’ve made such a good start to the season. They’re more resilient and gritty – not just playing ‘pretty’ football. 


Preston haven’t exactly made wholesale changes this term, but one smart addition has been striker Will Keane, who joined for an undisclosed fee from Wigan Athletic, relegated from the Championship last season. The 30-year-old has never been a particularly prolific scorer, but has four goals already this season, averaging just under a goal a game in the league. 

 

24-year-old attacking midfielder Mads Frøkjær-Jensen, a former Denmark U-21 international, has been another good signing, as has American midfielder Duane Holmes, who joined from second tier rivals Huddersfield Town. Milutin Osmajić, a striker from Montenegro, is more of an unknown quantity, but has one goal in two games so far. 

 

Of course, it can’t be ignored that Preston were well beaten at the end of last month by a clinical West Bromwich Albion side, who shocked the Lilywhites 4-0 away. But could this just be a blip? The signs suggest it might be. 

 

Leicester will almost certainly be at the top come the end of the season. Southampton and Leeds could rise up the table, while last year’s losers in the play-offs may also have something to say. But if you’re Ipswich or Preston right now, you’d be forgiven for enjoying life a lot.

 

 

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