Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ipswich Town 2010/11: It started off well, then got progressively worse

So there we go. A 4-2 loss to Leicester City and our miserable season has finally finished. Some of the Town players were probably thinking of their holidays abroad even before kick-off. Some of the other Town players were probably thinking of other lucrative contract deals, taking them away from Suffolk. It's a far cry from where we were mid September.

It's difficult to believe that we were once second. In fact, it was so long ago that I don't really remember. I did, however, take a screenshot of the table in a mild delirium at Ipswich actually doing well: 

The one game that we'd lost was to QPR and that was the night that we were served a dose of reality. In order to get out of this division, we'd have to be slick on the counter attack, take our chances and pretty much play better than we have done for the past 5 years. I know I hark on about Darren Bent and the like, but those are scars we have never recovered from. I know I keep harking on about them, but we have never been able to replace the goals we once had.

At the moment, we have a striker that I could probably out run, Tamas Priskin and an 18 year old capable of wonder goals, but who's still growing and requires nurturing properly (hence why, I believe, it'll be better for him to remain at Portman Road and really hope that he does for the moment).

After the start, which was superb compared to the previous season where we didn't win for 16 games, things seemed to reach a blip around mid Ocotber. By mid November, it still seemed to be a blip, as we recovered from three league losses on the bounce to beat Millwall and Sheffield United (I was there, which makes a victory even more incredible), but little did we know what was lurking around the corner. Derby, then Barnsley (where the crowd ironically cheered Barnsley's football), then Hull beat us. Three losses in a row. Again. Then came the big one, the East Anglian derby, the first for a season. Excitement was building, annoyance was growing that the BBC had handed the job of presenting the programme to a Norwich supporter, Town fans hoped for a performance, Norwich fans were looking for revenge.

And that's exactly what they got. Holt got a hat-trick in Norwich's 4, Delaney got sent off, Darren O'Dea was awful, the Town players didn't look bothered and Keane continued to watch broodingly on from the sideline.

he result was very much the beginning of the end for Keane. Some of the supporters who'd backed him through thick and thin began to turn and the run got even worse as Swansea and Preston (bottom of the league, couldn't win at home, victory on a plate) beat us. We'd lost 6 League games in a row and had only won two of the previous 10. Even the Carling Cup run couldn't distract Town fans from the depressing reality. If we didn't improve sharpish, we were looking at a relegation fight.

One of the stand out games in the League last season was the one played on December 18th, the day the south east was at the mercy of the elements. Heathrow had been submerged, London based Premiership matches were postponed and even shopping centres were shut down. I was making my way back from university and managed to miss all the madness. Until I got into Ipswich.

The snow began to fall as soon as my dad parked the car. It continued through the warm up, but it wasn't too bad. Then, when the game kicked off, it got to blizzard conditions and I, unfortunately, was in the very front of the South Stand... 

The game was, luckily, being shown on the TV, because if it wasn't, it would've been called off. It was a bizarre experience for the crowd present inside Portman Road, the management of both Town and Leicester and most of all, the players. We were 3-0 up in the first half, with Norris opening the scoring and Scotland bagging a couple (it was perfect conditions for him, as he was able to hold the ball up). Then Atwell took the players off. Leicester fans were hoping that would be it. Town fans started chanting, "Get your brooms out for the lads" as the groundstaff and stewards desperately swept the pitch to give Town the precious three points:

And it worked. In the end, Town won 3-0, after two delays as sales of hot beverages went through the roof. It would be Keane's last victory as Town boss, as the bitter winter weather saw the Watford home game be called off (to the disappointment of all the groundstaff) and Doncaster call off the match after a heavy frost. New Year's Day saw us draw 1-1 with Coventry (I was still in Australia) and a couple of days later we lost 1-0 to Forest (again, still in Australia).

The defeat to Forest was the final nail in the coffin for Keane. He was sacked after nearly two years at the helm. It ultimately proved to be an expensive experiment and Keane has since said that he joined the club without meeting the Chief Executive. When he came to Portman Road, I was not a big fan of the idea. To me, it was the new owner trying to get some revenue into the club by creating some press coverage. We were "Roy Keane's Ipswich". As soon as he was shown the door, we were back to being plain old "Ipswich Town" again. And that, that, was wonderful.

Charlie McParland was given the role as caretaker for the menacing FA Cup fixture against Chelsea. It didn't go well. I was in on my way home and my mum and dad kept me updated as I sat in Bangkok Airport. I had to board the flight again at half time, so had no idea we'd lost 7-0 until I landed at Heathrow (severely tired, but determined to stay awake until a reasonable hour) at 5:55 in the morning.

After that hammering, our attention turned to my favourite fixture and arguably our best performance of the entire season. 

Our Carling Cup run had been a success of Keane's tenure at Portman Road. It all started back in August, as we made the long trip down to Exeter City (luckily, my brother lives around the corner from the ground, so it wasn't too bad for me). It was shaky as our youth mixed with experience managed to overcome Exeter in extra time to win 3-2. We beat Crewe, then Millwall, then Northampton and were facing West Brom a few days after the travesty that occurred in Norfolk. I couldn't get to Portman Road that night, but I have a decent excuse of being in the top end of Lancashire. Many stayed away, citing ticket prices, poor football, a fear of being absolutely thrashed and wanting Roy Keane gone. What happened was fantastic. I listened to the first half and couldn't handle it. We were playing so, so well and I just feared that West Brom would hit us on the counter-attack and be in the semi-finals. It didn't happen. Leadbitter got a penalty and we were into the semi-final of a major competition for the first time in my lifetime of supporting this club. We were drawn against Arsenal.

Wednesday 12th January 2011 is a date that will forever be in my memory. A week earlier, I'd been in Sydney, watching England pile on the runs against Australia to win the Ashes 3-1. Portman Road was packed, not always with Ipswich fans (I'm pretty sure I was surrounded by Arsenal fans, which was absolutely gutting). There was a buzz. We were playing one of the best sides in the country. We were 19th in the Championship, couldn't buy a win unless it was being played on a blanket of snow and had just been thrashed 7-0 by Chelsea.

So when Tamas Priskin scored in the 78th minute to hand us a lead as we went off to the Emirates, it was incredible. 

It was only the first leg and of course we were always going to lose at the Emirates, but at that moment, the players had finally shown they could play with pride, passion and commitment. They put a smile back on our faces. Which made Cesc Fabregas' and his comments regarding a "rugby kick" and the state of our pitch, public enemy number one at Portman Road. A team containing Arshavin, Bendtner, Walcott, Wilshere and Fabregas could not break down our defence. We'd exposed their weakness and I like to think that we played a small part in the eventual break down of Arsenal's title challenge in the Premiership.

For some unknown reason, I was one of the lucky ones to be sent a letter informing me that I was entitled to a ticket for Arsenal away. I'd only been to three away games, Exeter, Sheffield United and Preston. I was back up in Lancaster, but I'd got my ticket before going away to Australia. So I set off down to London after my seminar and was set on enjoying it, like many other Town fans. I didn't care about the result, I just wanted Town to play with pride and give Arsenal a game. And we really did do just that.

At half time, it was 0-0, we still had the lead and some optimists around me were cautiously allowing themselves to believe. Of course, it all came to nothing in the second half, as our absolutely shattered team finally succumbed to the Gunners, but they had done everyone proud. I left the Emirates with my head held high, and as I wandered through the swathes of Arsenal fans back to the tube, I felt very proud of the Suffolk Punch badge on my chest.

The bright side of losing to Arsenal was that we no longer had the Carling Cup as a distraction.  We also now had a new boss. McParland had gone after the Arsenal home game and Paul Jewell had been handed the reigns after having a break from football. Paul Jewell has done a decent enough job at most of the places he's been, his Wigan side pipped us to promotion in 2004/05 (we beat them in fog. It was awesome) and so long as he could lead us to safety, he'd be able to build a squad.

It started off with a loss to Millwall on the Saturday after the Arsenal home game. It was expected, our players were knackered after their exploits. Doncaster at home followed the next Saturday and it was this match that seemed to suggest that happier days may well be returning to Portman Road. 1-0 down at half time, Town equalised then took the lead, only for Donny to equalise themselves. Edwards scored in the 64th minute and we had our first win since the Leicester game. The Doncaster victory and the amazing loan signing of Jimmy Bullard only added to the happier feeling around Portman Road. Victories over Derby and Sheffield United meant we were chasing a fourth win in four, something that hasn't happened at Town for years. We drew 1-1 with Barnsley on a dodgy sounding pitch, but then bounced back with an astonishing 6-0 win, where Wickham scored a hat-trick, over Doncaster in the rearranged fixture after the postponement in December.

The run was fantastic compared to the miserable form we'd been in through November/December, but it came to a halt as we faced the team destined to become the Championship winners, QPR. Whilst we played a lot better than we did in September against them, we still lost 2-0 as our defence showed its weaknesses again. This was followed up by a defeat to Portsmouth on a grey and miserable late February afternoon (again, I was there), as  David Nugent showed why I really, really cannot stand him by celebrating like an absolute moron. Again.

The form was erratic, as we beat Cardiff, then lost to Reading (although they were on a role that saw them become play-off contenders and finish 5th) and Watford. There was a draw with Leeds, then a victory over Scunthorpe that signalled the beginning of a run of form that put us 6 points off the play-offs (before another harrowing defeat to Norwich). We beat Burnley and then Palace with a couple of crackers from young Josh Carson. But then, that fourth victory in a row eluded us again as we drew 3-3 with Middlesbrough. 

This match was a good match for neutrals. Town started really well and scored in the 6th minute, but then, after a horrible injury to a Seb Hines, in which he broke his jaw, it all started to fall apart. Boro equalised, then took the lead as our defence fell apart. Delaney was having a nightmare as he inadvertently set up Boro's second by hitting it onto our own crossbar. When Boro took a 3-1 lead, things were looking grim. But then Wickham scored and suddenly we were believing. In the 76th minute, Lee Martin was tripped in the box (I still maintain there was contact, I was in the top of the North Stand) and Leadbitter stepped up to score the equaliser. Either side could've won it, with our defence looking nervous every time Boro came forward, but it was this result that has given me some hope for next season.

After a well fought and scrappy victory over Bristol City, where we won after playing with 10 men for over an hour and a nasty knock to the head for Grant Leadbitter that created over 10 minutes of stoppage time, gave us the belief and contributed to the optimistic build up to the second East Anglian derby of the season. I'm not going to go over the result again. There's another blog for that and to be honest, I'm feeling pretty happy at the moment so would rather not remember that awful night. 

After all the optimism had been ripped out of us after the result, we headed down to South Wales for more misery. I'd decided to go, because I'd never been to Swansea and fancied a new stadium. We had no Bullard and no Wickham, so that wasn't the best of starts and then we lost 4-1, to add insult to the massive injury given to us on the Thursday. We beat Preston in a game of two halves and then lost 4-2 to Leicester in a game where the crowd were there to pretty much to have a good time, regardless of the score.

So. That was the season briefly summed up. It's been a performance that Jekyll and Hyde would be proud of, as we've gone from sublime to abysmal in the space of 90 minutes and it's made for a pretty interesting summer. 

I've been having a think over the past few days about what could happen over the summer and where it'll leave us in August. Jewell now has time to build his own squad and get rid of the players that he doesn't want. Delaney signed a contract citing "optimism" was his major reason. I've come up with some reasons to be cheerful and some reasons to be worried, and because I'm a pessimist, it's the latter that has more of them.

Reasons to be cheerful
  • The youth. We've seen some potential "stars" emerge from the youth academy. Much has been written about Connor Wickham, but names like Josh Carson, Luke Hyam (although he appears to have disappeared), Ronan Murry and Shane O'Connor (and others) have all put in decent performances over the past season, and they've all been given a chance by Jewell with contract extensions. 
  • Money is said to be there (although I will do the counter claim in the next bit).
  • Jimmy Bullard seems to want to play for Ipswich Town.
  • We have put in some decent performances at points over the season, whether it be in just the first half. 
  • We don't have to play Norwich next season. 

Reasons to be worried:
  • Simon Clegg. I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him and essentially, don't really trust him to do well with any contract talks as he stated that "the club wouldn't be held to ransom" by any player. His press releases are mostly political spin and he just doesn't seem to understand football all that much. 
  • Lack of money for leaving players. Again, this can be put down to Clegg and co. McAuley, Norris and Murphy have all been allowed to leave the club (good luck to them all) but on a free. We paid £2 million for Norris, meaning we have lost money. My fear, fuelled on by our completely ridiculous local press, is that should someone come in with an absolutely mad offer for Connor Wickham, he'll be allowed to leave, which whilst it may be good for the club to have some money (although how much would be available would be questionable), it wouldn't be best for the player. Of course, by saying this, I'm helping to contribute to rumours and I am just being a massive pessimist, all too used to good players leaving Portman Road.
  • The Jimmy Bullard saga. I'd love to sign him. You'd love it if we signed him. But we could just be looking at another Gio situation, which would be of no help to anyone. 
  • Claims of money being available have been made in the past, so I'm always cautious whenever this statement is made.
  • And then, the usual concerns with the defence, striking department, etc... that have been on repeat for the past 5 years.
I hope Jewell has a good summer. I hope our pre-season helps us to become a team and I hope that we find a decent centre half to replace McAuley, who has been a decent enough performer for us over the past few years. He's always been the better of a bad bunch. And good luck to Norris. Whilst many think he may not be that bigger loss, he has been one of our top scorers this season. I thought he was a good enough captain (even though I still think the football captaincy doesn't really matter, but then I love cricket and am probably being blinkered) and he always worked hard in midfield. But then running around a lot doesn't really win many people over. It wasn't his fault that we paid so much for him, but still. Good luck to both of them for their futures.

So, what do I think will happen next season? It all really depends on what happens over the summer, but it'll probably be mid-table again. I've seen flashes of brilliance, but not enough to inspire great hope and belief that we will be challenging for the promotion next season. So much is relying on the signature of Jimmy Bullard and that situation changes every day. It's certainly going to be an interesting few months, but the thing is, even if Jewell does create his own team, it won't happen immediately.

And in that case, bring on 2012/13. 

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