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Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna hails ‘a big win’ against Sunderland for his changed side

Ipswich Town boss Kieran McKenna felt the Blues’ 2-1 home victory over Sunderland was ‘a big win’ given the changes he’s recently had to make to his side due to a number of regular starters being unavailable, rather than the result ending a five-game winless run.

The Blues were without suspended skipper Sam Morsy as well as the injured George Hirst and Massimo Luongo for the Sky Sports-televised visit of the Black Cats, while Cameron Burgess is at the AFC Asian Cup with Australia.

Stand-in skipper Conor Chaplin headed the winner in the 75th minute as Town came from a goal down with Jack Clarke having given the visitors the lead on 26 before Kayden Jackson levelled seven minutes later.

Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna addresses the media after his side's 2-1 victory against Sunderland Picture: Phil Ham
Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna addresses the media after his side's 2-1 victory against Sunderland Picture: Phil Ham

The Suffolk side had dropped to third in the Sky Bet Championship table ahead of their 5.30pm kick-off but regained second spot and a three point lead over Southampton after getting back to winning ways.

“I thought it was a really good game, a tough game against a good side, lots of talented players, a really high technical level,” McKenna said.

“It was a really hard-fought game and a really strong and committed performance was needed to get the win, and that’s what we gave.

“I thought it wasn’t our smoothest performance in terms of some of our build-up and some of our connections through the pitch, but that’s normal and that’s to be expected. That’s normal across the season; you’re not always going to be at your best.

“But with the players we have missing and new players coming in, things aren’t always going to be as smooth as they are with players with great familiarity.

“But when you’re not at your absolute highest level, then you have to show the other ingredients, commitment, intensity, the running, the work-rate for the team and we certainly showed all that, both those who started and those who came on.

“I thought we carried a threat throughout the game, we had the better of the chances and it was great to get the win and a goal from a set play as well.

Conor Chaplin (left) scored Town’s winner against Sunderland Picture: Barry Goodwin
Conor Chaplin (left) scored Town’s winner against Sunderland Picture: Barry Goodwin

“Overall, I think a good night, a strong performance, of course areas to keep improving but I think that’s both natural and understandable and really nice for the group and for the players and everyone to get the feeling of a victory and nine days now to get back to the training pitch.”

Asked whether it feels like a big win against another team chasing promotion given recent results, McKenna reflected: “It feels like a big win. Nothing to do that we drew three games in a row over Christmas, that’s not it, that’s normal for any team, and certainly for a newly-promoted team, there’s going to be a spell when you don’t win games.

“But it does feel like a big win because it’s a period where we’ve gone from having a really, really settled XI for 12 months really, to making a lot of changes.

“The QPR game we had maybe seven players stepping into the first XI who haven’t played very much and some of them playing out of position.

“Again tonight, we’ve talked about our build-up, we’ve got the left centre-back, two pivots and the striker [absent], so that’s basically your spine, your central connections on the ball are all gone.

“It feels like a big win because we’re missing players who have played regularly, we’re missing big players for ourselves.

“We’ve got other people stepping into different roles who are trying to develop. We weren’t at our absolute most fluent on the ball and we’re playing against a really good side.

“So when you come out of nights like that and you show the spirit, you go behind in the game and show the spirit that we did and you come out on the right side a hard-fought game, it feels like a big victory, for sure.

“More in the context of our team and our season and the moment that we’re at than not winning for a couple of games in a row.

“It may from the outside feel like a big pressure for us, but for us we know we’re not going to win every game.”

McKenna was pleased for one of those players coming into the team, Kayden Jackson, who netted Town’s equaliser, his third goal of the season.

“I’ve spoken on Kayden quite a few times and not just Kayden, other lads in the group and probably more the representation of people who are really, really important to your group, who work every day to improve our culture, work really hard on themselves, fantastic members of the group and are ready to do whatever the team needs whenever required,” he said.

“He’s certainly one of those players in that bracket and we know what he can give us. His strengths are obvious, he’s spent probably the large majority of the last 18 months working as a right winger and developing his game and developing his pictures there.

“And now through injuries, he’s having to work now as a centre forward again and develop those habits and those positions, and that’s not easy.

“He’s done terrifically at that and he gives what you know he will give, his work off the ball as a striker is as good as anyone in the league. He stretches the opposition and gives the number 10s and those behind a chance to get on the ball and to top that off, it’s great for him to get a goal because on an individual level, all forwards and all strikers want to score.

“To top it off with a really good finish, makes it a good night for him and, of course, we’re all really pleased for him.”

McKenna handed Lewis Travis, who recently signed on loan from Blackburn Rovers, his debut in the centre of midfield and was impressed by the 26-year-old’s display.

“I thought he did well,” he continued. “As I said before the game to the in-house media, it’s a big challenge to come into our group in any position and have a few days’ training and go straight into the team for a game like.

“But probably the number six position is probably the biggest challenge of all because so much of our play goes through there.

“Our job description in midfield is really specific, the players who have played in there have worked hard for a long period of time now on certain details that enable us to play through the pitch well.

“And to come into that after a few training sessions with a late injury on Thursday afternoon that changed our plans, normally Lewis would have been on the bench tonight and had a chance to integrate from the bench.

“To come straight into the team was a big challenge and I thought considering that, he coped admirably.

“I thought he showed his physicality, he showed his character and his bravery on and off the ball, did some good things and now will be stronger for the game and a chance to work on some things to improve on.

“Really good to get the first one out of the way nice and early when it ended like it did today.”

Having netted twice from set pieces at AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup last week, McKenna was delighted that the winner came from a free-kick this evening.

“Very important,” he said. “The level of this game, it was always going to be fine margins because it was two good sides.

“When games are tight and when the margins are tight, it’s so often that set pieces are the thing that makes the difference.

“We haven’t scored one in a little while. We’ve had a couple of games, the Leeds game, for example, when we conceded an early set piece, and West Brom away. The only two games we’ve lost since August have been games where we’ve conceded an early set play from a corner.

“We know in big games set plays make a massive difference, so to come out tonight and to win the game on a set play, that’s a big boost for the group and it’ll be an important part of the second half of the season again.”

Not for the first time, stand-in captain Chaplin won the ball from the set piece to plant a header in the corner of the net, despite being the smallest man on the field.

”Conor’s really good in the air,” McKenna added. “Of course, he’s a smaller player, but he’s really good in the air and he can score such a variety of goals, from distance, he can score great goals, he scores scruffy goals.

“On crosses a lot of the time, he does like to stay out for cut-backs but we’ve actually been speaking a bit more about [it], I’ve seen him score headers for Portsmouth, for Coventry, for Barnsley, he can head a ball well, so it’s not always about size, it’s timing and movement, and he’s got that. Great for him as captain tonight to step up with the winning moment.”

McKenna was also happy with the impact his subs made with Omari Hutchinson and home debutant Jeremy Sarmiento both causing Sunderland significant problems.

“I really liked the subs, to be fair,” he added. “Again, it’s such a big part of our playing style.

“First of all because the intensity that the players play at is almost impossible for the forward players to do it for 90 minutes, to be honest.

“We make changes in every game and those who come onto the pitch have as important a role as those who start the game.

“I thought Omari came on and gave us his usual thrust, I thought Jeremy did terrific for his first game at Portman Road.

“Both the impetus he gave us on the ball and also the running. I liked the tackling, I know he got caught with it but that’s the type of thing that endears you straight away to your teammates, to a crowd and he’s a really talented footballer.

“I’m sure everyone’s going to enjoy watching him play. When you do something like that within 10 minutes, it shows that you’re all in.

“I thought Dominic [Ball] did terrific. Almost every time he comes on the pitch I end up saying the same thing but he had two things to do of real importance in the game.

“One was a one-v-one with one of the best wingers in the league down the side of the box and he steps across him and wins the ball back and we go up the pitch.

“And I thought Marcus [Harness] did really well coming on as a nine as well, held the ball up, won some flick-ons, won some throw-ins. Little things but they’re massive in the margins of a game. I really liked the impact from all the subs tonight.”

Did he believe his side should have been awarded a penalty when Black Cats skipper Luke O’Nien sent Hutchinson flying in the second half?

“It certainly looked like it,” he said. “It looked like the referee was waiting to give it, the only reason he didn’t give it was that there was an advantage and we had the shot a second later and he doesn’t give it.

“It looked like a penalty, I haven’t seen it back, so it’s always hard from the sidelines, but it did look like it at the time.”

Meanwhile, McKenna said midfielder Luongo will undergo a scan on the ankle injury which ruled him out of this evening’s victory.

The Australian was set to start the game against the Black Cats until suffering the knock in training.

“He rolled his ankle in a really unfortunate incident on Thursday,” McKenna said. “He’ll be having scans this week to see the severity.

“We hope that it’s not very severe but certainly there’s some swelling and he was nowhere near it for tonight.”