Town facing stiff test to return

Ipswich Town will be facing a stiff test to get promoted from the Championship next season, with more than half the teams in the league looking to return to recent top-flight status.

By Mel Henderson

Ipswich Town will be facing a stiff test to get promoted from the Championship next season, with more than half the teams in the league looking to return to recent top-flight status. Mel Henderson reports

IT is debatable whether the scramble to exit the Championship for the promised land of sell-out crowds and a gushing fountain of cash has ever been more intense.

Ipswich are one of 14 clubs who, having already had a taste of life in the Premiership, will be battling to return there in the new campaign.

That number could increase by one depending on the outcome of this weekend's League One play-off final between Swansea and Barnsley, who are resurfacing again after the briefest of flirtations with the money-laden top flight eight years ago.

Very early days, perhaps, but it would appear that Town are going to have their work cut out to muster a sustained promotion challenge, with a top six slot threatening to prove elusive - based, that is, on their own shortcomings and the strength of opposition they are set to encounter.

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They will not be alone, of course, in being encouraged by Watford's magnificent achievement of seeing off Leeds at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Sunday to book their place among the elite.

A team viewed as relegation fodder by many people, fans and so-called experts alike, instead confounded their critics to hit the financial jackpot.

Even if they only manage to survive for one season, the Hornets will be considerably richer for the experience, with millions salted away to equip them for an even stronger challenge next time around.

With rookie boss Aidy Boothroyd at the helm for just one year, Watford have become the model for others to follow, with a number of clubs trying to seek out tomorrow's top young managers to plot a

similar route to the big-time.

Promotion to the Premiership might not be a cure-all as far as Ipswich are concerned, but it would be a significant step towards casting the aside the ball and chain currently forcing them to drag their feet.

Returning to the financial straight and narrow will remain a task too far as long as they are marooned in the Championship, but even one season upstairs would provide the financial kiss of life and eliminate a large chunk of their enormous debt.

But if last season's trials and tribulations are a yardstick, and based on the fact that a lack of cash will prevent Joe Royle's successor making wholesale changes to the playing staff, Town are unlikely to figure among the bookmakers' favourites in the promotion stakes.

Take the relegated trio of Birmingham, West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland, add the clubs who failed in the play-offs, Crystal Palace, Leeds and Preston, and consider the likes of Wolves, Norwich, Southampton and Leicester, all of them under-achievers last term, and there are ten clubs likely to feature ahead of Ipswich in the betting.

Indeed, if Luton and Cardiff can continue the revivals engineered by Mike Newell and Dave Jones respectively last season, if Sheffield Wednesday's expected resurgence materialises and if the combination of a new consortium and manager both serve to enhance Derby's prospects, it could be reasonably argued that the new man in charge at Portman Road will have his work cut out to achieve even a top-half finish.

The club's 12th manager in 70 years since the advent of professional football at Portman Road will be under severe pressure to deliver, if not in his first season at the helm then certainly in his second as the club looks to take advantage of a two-year break from interest payments on its mortgage, as the £25 million bond is commonly known.

Those supporters under the illusion that having negotiated the vacation, the club can divert a sizeable sum of money elsewhere, need to get real.

It was because they envisaged not being able to raise the money required to meet the interest payments that the club sought the bondholder's permission to hold fire for two years.

In other words the money doesn't exist in the first place, putting Town at a distinct disadvantage to a number of their rivals who remain eligible for parachute payments of around £7m, which are designed to cushion the blow for relegated clubs over the subsequent two seasons.

Such a windfall would drastically alter Ipswich's way of thinking, but they have no alternative for the time being other than to battle on in the face of extreme adversity.

They are at a distinct disadvantage, for example, to the three clubs who dropped out of the Premiership last month, together with Crystal Palace, Norwich and Southampton, the relegated trio from 2005, in that the parachute money is available in each of the first two seasons after exiting the top flight.

Add to that the fact that Derby, like Leeds and Leicester before them, have written off millions of pounds of debt run up by previous boards of directors, creating an instantly healthier financial environment, and Town will be competing on a far-from-level playing field.

With a takeover at Stoke also releasing funds for new recruits, they are another club with ambitions and it might only need a bit of fine tuning to convert them into genuine contenders.

Returning to last year's relegated clubs, Palace may receive a further injection of cash from the sale of £10m-rated striker Andy Johnson, Norwich have already banked £7m after selling Dean Ashton to West Ham and Southampton pocketed £5m as a down payment on World Cup-bound starlet Theo Walcott.

Compared to Ipswich, where they have no alternative but to keep a careful check on expenditure, those three clubs boast considerable riches.

There was plenty of evidence towards the end of last season that ex-Town manager George Burley, who had to cope with massive upheaval during his first few months in charge, was beginning to get his act together down on the south coast.

True, there could be disruption in the shape of a boardroom takeover aimed at ousting Rupert Lowe and his cronies, but the new power brokers are unlikely to want to jeopardise Burley's chances of finishing what he has started.

Having already spent £2m to be reunited with Polish international striker Grzegorz Rasiak, whose goals helped Derby to make the play-offs when Burley was briefly in charge at Pride Park, Southampton are clearly in another league financially to Ipswich.

Expect Burley to recruit further players, while Town's new manager will, by comparison, have his hands tied, a lack of funds severely handicapping his efforts to strengthen a squad whose shortcomings were vividly exposed last term.

Of course, as Watford so expertly showed, and John Lyall amply demonstrated on Ipswich's behalf in 1992, the right manager can often go a long way towards compensating for other restrictions.

And the Ipswich board are probably quietly relieved that their financial meltdown, which followed relegation from the Premiership in 2002, did not occur at an even greater cost.

Look, for example, at Milton Keynes Dons who, in their previous guise as Wimbledon, were members of the Premiership for eight years in succession before suffering a spectacular fall from grace.

Relegated in 2000, they have continued to slump, to the extent that they will be members of the bottom tier of the English game in the new season, where they will be joined by Swindon, who were members of the top flight in 1993-94.

Consider, also, how Nottingham Forest, who finished third in the Premiership in 1995, have plunged as far as League One, where Oldham, Bradford and Barnsley are currently ensconced after rubbing shoulders with the big boys in the not-too-distant past.

Scant consolation perhaps, but Ipswich fans should realise their agony could have been far more pronounced.

And while their promotion prospects may appear bleak, who is to say they cannot follow Watford's example if they find the right manager and he has better luck with injuries than his predecessor Joe Royle, who left Portman Road two weeks ago today, was forced to endure?