Ipswich seal stunning promotion to Premier League as Huddersfield drop

Someone has brought an actual tractor. Someone has brought a flag the height of a small house. Someone has brought about two dozen smoke bombs and is letting them off one by one, like rounds of gunfire. Someone is holding a giant drum and someone else is beating it with all his might. A wheelchair emerges out of the blue fog, crushing the broken glass and discarded canisters and empty Madrí cans under its wheels.

It’s 11am, and already the centre of Ipswich feels like a battlefield being looted and pillaged. There are thousands gathered here, descended from the Suffolk villages and the Essex commuter towns and the London suburbs, some with tickets and some without: all here on the promise of joy, starved of it, trying to grasp and gulp and plunder as much of it as they can.

How can you not adore football on days like this? How can you walk these streets and not feel the passing of time, the 22 years of watching and waiting, a volcano of ennui and frustration finally bubbling over into something strange and beautiful? The police officers are covered in a fine blue soot. The queue for souvenir programmes stretches a quarter of a mile. Someone starts up a song and everyone joins in: “Robson conquered Europe and won the FA Cup, we all follow Ipswich, when they’re down and when they’re up.” Someone chides Ed Sheeran – celebrity fan and club sponsor – for choosing the Miami Grand Prix over this.

And of course there is a kind of mental displacement to all this, a way of not thinking about the 90 agonising minutes to follow. I text an Ipswich-supporting mate: “How you feeling?” The reply comes within seconds. “Horrendous.”

I hadn’t been to Portman Road in years. I used to cover Ipswich quite a lot when I was first starting out as a reporter, hours spent on Greater Anglia trains and rail replacement buses for the privilege of being bawled at by Roy Keane every other weekend. What struck me most, even back then, was the absence of hope. The sense of faded prestige. The sober realisation that this was a place with more past than future.

Wes Burns scores Ipswich’s first goal of the match to set them on the way to promotion. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

Then, in the final days of 2021, along came a young coach called Kieran McKenna with fresh ideas, fresh energy, fresh hope. Not jaded or grizzled, not trying to save a career, but trying to make a career. Less interested in signing better players than in making better players; five of Saturday’s starting XI arrived before him. A coach who preaches boldness, but who also urges patience, perseverance, trust in the process.

And as Ipswich run up against Huddersfield’s deep block, these are again the qualities they require. Nine shots come and go. Conor Chaplin misses a header from six yards. Wes Burns goes clean through on goal, and misses. Leeds go 1-0 down to Southampton. Leeds equalise. None of this is helping.

But Massimo Luongo and Sam Morsy are running the midfield, relegated Huddersfield are offering nothing, and on 28 minutes patience is finally rewarded. George Hirst bursts towards the edge of the box, works it to Chaplin, who works it to Burns, who scores. And in that moment the sun is out and the flags are billowing and the vibes are immaculate and everyone just knows.

Early in the second half Omari Hutchinson advances, is brought down, somehow stays on his feet. Chris Maxwell gets hands to his shot, and somehow it still goes in. And really this is a pretty good metaphor for Ipswich this season, a team with an inexorability and an inevitability to them, a team who when confronted with walls and barriers have simply walked through them.

What a monumental achievement to get promoted not just from the Championship but from this Championship, with the might of Leicester and Leeds and Southampton casting their shadow, with Middlesbrough and West Brom looking strong, with Norwich and Watford still fat on parachute payments. With what is still essentially a souped-up third-tier squad, and only a handful of players with any top-flight experience.

The whistle blows and the fans stream onto the turf like a wave, like the same wave that washed this small-town club from the League One relegation zone to the tropical shores of the Premier League. And of course that wave must one day break: perhaps the first time they get stung by VAR, or the first time they get gutted by some supergiant with a billion pounds of talent on the pitch.

But through it all, you hope that Ipswich keep the ambition that got them here. You hope they keep this squad together. You hope they keep McKenna. You hope, above all, that they keep remembering to hope.

The Guardian