As the bones begin to be picked out of the 2021-22 campaign, Ipswich Town once again find themselves contending with a sense of what could have been. As a side that has graced a Premier League stage in the 21st century, they have become a big fish in a small pond.
It is, however, proving trickier than many could have imagined establishing dominance in League One as plucky rivals find a more streamlined way of swimming against the tide. At least 12 more months are going to be spent trying to work out what the winning formula is.
They are far from being the only side that could be considered to be punching well below its weight. Bolton Wanderers and Portsmouth finished just above them this season, while 2013 FA Cup winners Wigan Athletic have only just bounced back up into the Championship. Meanwhile, Sunderland have another play-off final to contend with as they seek to earn favour in football tips on the best bets and up-and-coming teams after four years of thrashing around in the third tier.
Ipswich have just completed their third season at that level and have done little more than tread water in that time. Finishes of eleventh, ninth and eleventh hint at consistency, but it is the wrong kind as forward momentum remains elusive.
That, in many ways, is nothing new to those at Portman Road, with much of the last 22 years having been spent trying to avoid slipping out of neutral and into reverse. There has, a few play-off appearances aside, been little to get excited about since the turn of the millennium.
Mid-table mediocrity on the third rung of a Football League ladder is far removed from the standing that Ipswich enjoyed when the year 2000 was welcomed in. On May 29 of that year, Barnsley were seen off 4-2 at Wembley Stadium to see a return to the Premier League rubber-stamped.
An impressive fifth-place finish was enjoyed during a first season back among the elite, but then the wheels came off in dramatic fashion. Relegation was endured in 2002 and all efforts to become upwardly mobile again have proved fruitless.
In fact, another trapdoor opened up in 2019 that could not be avoided. With backward steps becoming alarmingly common, it has now been over 8,000 days since loyal supporters in Suffolk took in an experience to get collective pulses racing.
In that time, if you so wished, you could have circumnavigated the globe on foot 23 times. That adventure would have offered some serious benefits to personal step counts, with over 572,000 miles covered, but is ultimately another example of going around in circles without ever reaching an ultimate end goal.
That just about sums up Ipswich Town’s existence right now, with best-laid plans delivering annual doses of hope and expectation that is eventually crushed by the time spring has truly sprung. The hope is that another cause for celebration will be taken in at some point in the near future. But any party hats put in storage back in 2000 have likely mothballed by now and sausage rolls carefully wrapped in tin foil will not have withstood an 8,000-day wait in the back of a fridge.