Three weeks from the end of a Championship promotion race whose pace and tension were almost unparalleled, Ipswich held meetings across all their departments. They were close to an achievement that, to most outsiders, seemed unthinkable and it was time to brainstorm for the smallest possible gains that could push them over the line. One of the ideas implemented was simple but effective: turn off televisions around the club whenever Leicester, Leeds and Southampton, the parachute-funded clubs battling to supplant Kieran McKenna’s team, were playing. Nobody needed to waste emotional energy on rivals’ fortunes when Ipswich had control of their own destiny.

Ipswich did not blink. Their staff resisted temptation to obsess over what they could not control and, having confirmed second place, they will spend the summer preparing for a first Premier League season in 22 years. There will be plenty of goodwill towards a club where the air still feels a little bit different; an institution whose historical achievements still linger in the consciousness, and whose manager has become one of Europe’s rising stars. They are back from the wilderness at last and now face their biggest challenge of all: ensuring a smooth-sailing ship does not run aground on rocks that are crueller and more jagged than in their last top-flight spell.

“Our plan won’t be reckless or wild, but it will be to thrive and be the very best version of ourselves in the Premier League,” says the Ipswich chief executive, Mark Ashton, who inherited a club stranded in mid-table of League One upon joining three years ago. “It’s a very difficult thing to do, but I was told last season that getting 96 points and being promoted automatically would be impossible. If you look at clubs like Brighton and Brentford, they have thrived because they’ve had a way of doing things and stuck to it. Similarly, we’ll work in our way.”

Those examples provide inspiration but Ipswich have some catching up to do. The bulk of their squad has been in place through consecutive ascents from third tier to the top and they will have to strike the right balance between upgrading and preserving an exceptional group that has carried no one. The striker George Hirst is, at £1.7m from Leicester, their most expensive acquisition since McKenna’s transformational arrival in December 2021 but that will have to change. The squad’s evolution from third tier to Championship was sensitively managed and the stakes are higher now.

Ashton says Ipswich will be “brave and bold” in their summer dealings. They are realistic, though, about the limits imposed by current profitability and sustainability regulations (PSR). The need to adapt to the EFL’s version of those rules in the event of relegation next season is a particular consideration. Money is little object for Ipswich’s owner, the US group Gamechanger 20, or the private equity firm Bright Path Sports, which bought a 40% stake in March, but they will not be able to throw cash around wantonly at this point.

Ipswich chief executive Mark Ashton and manager Kieran McKenna with the Championship runners-up trophy. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Ipswich will need to avoid any parallels with Burnley, who came up a year ago playing similarly bright football under a feted young manager but changed too much and have been relegated relatively meekly. In McKenna, though, they have a potentially world-class asset whose mere presence gives them a chance. McKenna, who turned 38 on Tuesday, has a stream of admirers and Brighton are among those with a long-term interest. He has also been listed among the names Manchester United, where he was a first-team coach before moving to Suffolk, would consider if Erik Ten Hag departs. But it would be a surprise if he were lured elsewhere in pre-season; any suitor would have to come up with serious money and Ashton believes Ipswich can serve his ambitions.

“People who are as successful as he’s been are in demand,” he says. “But Kieran and I are really close, our relationship is probably the tightest at the club, and he’s never given me any indication that he wants to do anything other than be as successful as he can here. I see him continuing his development to be a top, top manager, and I foresee that being here.”

McKenna’s brilliance has, Ashton believes, comprehensively answered those who told him he had erred in appointing him to his first senior role. He admires how the Northern Irishman has taken on the weight of expectation, not always bearable, that has descended upon every Ipswich manager since the eras of Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson. “I think those two former England managers would be very proud of him,” he says. “Not just what he’s done but the way he’s done it.”

There is the sense a beast is stirring whose potential, even in those glory days in the second half of last century, has yet to be fully realised. Ipswich have sold more than 63,000 shirts this season, a figure the majority of the Premier League would not blush at. They were cheered by about that number of supporters in an ecstatic bus parade two days after going up. A tie-in with Ed Sheeran, who will continue to sponsor those shirts for a fourth year, has brought a global profile and rich rewards; including for the players, who had their own celebration with the singer at an obscure bar in the tiny north Suffolk town of Halesworth last Wednesday. “I think we’ve seen the rebirth not only of a club but of a town, a community and two missed generations of supporters,” Ashton says.

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Retaining that feeling will be crucial when the ravages, and pound signs, of the highest level hit. “It won’t change,” he continues. “If we lose those values we lose everything. This is a unique club. The embeddedness in our community is our heart and soul.”

Ipswich captain Sam Morsy lifts the trophy as he, and his teammates, celebrate beating Huddersfield to clinch promotion. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

Ashton and McKenna held their post-season debrief on Thursday; the focus now shifts to recruitment and the multimillion-pound works that will bring Portman Road, an idiosyncratic town-centre venue, up to date. The squad will prepare for 2024-25 at a venue favoured by McKenna in Austria; there is no pressure from above to try cracking the US, despite its obvious allure, at this point. Ipswich have been successful in large part because their backers have shown no inclination to tinker from afar, or to put themselves front and centre.

At the club’s post-season awards party McKenna half-joked that he would like the signing of Omari Hutchinson, the gifted loanee who has now returned to Chelsea, for his birthday. Time will tell whether any deal can be done but Ipswich feel their unflappable focus will ensure they are ready to compete come August. “The unity here is very special,” Ashton says. For now, at least, those screens can be switched on again.



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