For years, there had been an accepted truth in the Championship. Ipswich Town were, and likely always would be, a firmly mid-table club.
Between 2005/06 and 2012/13, the Tractor Boys had finished between 13th and 15th in six out of eight seasons. They were simply one of those clubs - good enough to keep themselves safe in the second division, but never much of a threat to those with grander ambitions.
The final season of that spell was Mick McCarthy's first at the club, having left Wolverhampton Wanderers after a five-year spell which had seen promotion and two years of Premier League survival.
McCarthy had previously rejected an offer from Nottingham Forest due to apparently wanting another top-flight job, but he signed a contract in November 2012 at Ipswich with the team on a 12-game winless run in the league. On a fairly short two-year contract, it seemed like he had been employed in a firefighting capacity.
McCarthy points Ipswich in the right direction
McCarthy steadied the ship in his first year and, in his first full season in charge, finished 9th the following year - Ipswich's best league finish in five years.
More impressively, he did so despite having to work largely with the squad he inherited and free transfers. Seven players were signed for nothing and six more arrived on loan. This is not totally unusual in the Championship, but context is helpful.
At the end of the 2013/14 season, Fulham broke the second-tier transfer record, spending £11 million to take Ross McCormack away from Leeds United. He scored 19 goals in his first season, but the Cottagers finished in 17th.
Meanwhile, McCarthy was leading Ipswich to the heady heights of the playoffs. It was their first top-six finish in a decade, powered by the 27 goals of Golden Boot winner Daryl Murphy and achieved despite the loss of star man Aaron Cresswell to West Ham.
Tiny budget, big ambition
The left-back had been sold for close to £5 million, but again McCarthy was forced to operate on a pittance. Freddie Sears was signed for less than £150k, the only permanent signing in another crop of freebies and temporary deals, but the forward scored nine goals to compliment Murphy's haul and ensure a hugely positive season.
It finished on a sour note, with a play-off semi-final defeat to rivals Norwich City, but the line-ups at kick-off had been evidence of the different conditions around the two clubs.
While McCarthy had been cajoling the utmost out of his cut-price squad, Norwich had recent Premier League millions to fall back on; they had brought in midfielder Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe for almost £5 million and rebuilt their entire frontline with the purchases of Cameron Jerome, Kyle Lafferty, and Lewis Grabban. Money talked, and Norwich were promoted.
Their best young prospect, Tyrone Mings, was sold at the end of the season for £11 million and replaced by £500k Dane Jonas Knudsen, who has impressed ever since and could feature for Denmark at this summer's World Cup.
Beginning of the end?
In the 2015/16 season, Ipswich finished one place below the playoffs - and it was a season which seemed to signal the beginning of the end of McCarthy's budget-defying miracles.
With newly demoted big boys Newcastle United taking main man Murphy over the summer, Ipswich could only muster a 16th-placed finish, and things have been similar this season.
At the time of writing, Ipswich are 12th. They are a long way clear of a relegation fight, but a daunting nine points off the playoffs and their most recent game saw significant unrest in the stands.
An embarrassing and demoralising 3-0 defeat at home to relegation-fighting Hull City was witnessed by precious few, with dour football and uninspiring results leading to their lowest home attendance in a decade. Each of the Tigers' goals was met with jeers, Ipswich's long balls forward with boos, and successful passes met with sarcastic applause. Angry chants were aimed directly at the manager.
At full-time, McCarthy held his team-talk on the pitch and apologised. He felt he was the reason for the toxic atmosphere in the stands, attempting to shield his players from any further damage to morale.
McCarthy intends to remain in his job and fully believes he has the backing of the dressing room, but it is beginning to look like a case of treading water at best for a very capable manager.
Another club may offer McCarthy more backing
McCarthy has been a victim of his own success. Five years ago, a 12th-place finish would have been the norm, not cause for revolt in the stands. He raised fans' expectations but the ambitions of the club didn't seem to rise with them - it couldn't last forever.
He has also, clearly, been a victim of a lack of investment from owner Marcus Evans, who has repeatedly failed to provide McCarthy with the chance to build a team capable of making their fans dream.
The halcyon days of that irresistible play-off push seem a long time ago now. McCarthy may decide enough is enough at the end of the season and it would be difficult to blame him. He has won the Championship twice as a manager and it is a long time since he was given the chance to show what he could do with a bit of pocket money. Another club might be willing to give him it.
Ipswich fans would do well to remember all that McCarthy has done for them in his five-year tenure. They have had good times at Portman Road, due in no small part to their forever likeable manager.
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