The Halfway Point - Town's Story So Far: Part II
With Ipswich Town having passed the Halfway Point of the Championship season, Vital Ipswich brings you Part II of our look back at the first half of the Blues' campaign.
October 2010 - Signs Of Decay
Despite only collecting 5 points from 5 matches in September, the competitive nature of the Championship meant that Ipswich went into October still in the playoff hunt. Having slipped out of the top six after losing at Reading however, Roy Keane's team needed a repeat demonstration of the bouncebackability they had shown after the QPR defeat to avoid falling off the pace.
Ipswich's next outing against newly-promoted Leeds United saw them repeat the trick they managed against Cardiff. Richard Naylor and Alex Bruce returned to Portman Road with the opposition, but the defensive pair found themselves quickly beaten as debutant Jake Livermore set up Jason Scotland to finally break the Blues' first half scoring drought in the league. An equaliser from Robert Snodgrass sewed some seeds of doubt, but Town didn't give up. Under Keane's instruction, Andros Townsend did old boy Bruce up like a kipper and the son of Steve wound up getting sent off, not long before Tommy Smith made himself the hero of the day with a late winner.
That victory sent Ipswich into the international break on a high, back in fifth place and back to winning ways. They were further boosted by the return of an old friend, Steve Bruce obviously harbouring no hard feelings for Alex's misfortunes as he allowed 2009/10 Players' Player of the Season Jack Colback to come back to Portman Road on loan. Aside from a six-week layoff for Darren O'Dea, there was plenty to be cheerful about.
How peculiar it was then that the first signs of decay began to emerge the following week. Lukas Jutkiewicz and Colchester old boy Clive Platt turned up at Portman Road with Coventry City and subsequently put the Blues 2-0 down at half-time. Despite the customary Saturday afternoon home goal from Scotland, Town fell to only their second home defeat of the campaign. Rather than bouncing back in the next game, they went to Watford and did the same thing. Stephen McGinn and Marvin Sordell did the damage just before half time with David Norris' second-half header making little difference, even though it did make the midfielder Town's top scorer in all competitions. Maybe that was part of the problem.
For all their problems last season, Ipswich had never lost three games on the trot under Keane. How bad the timing was therefore that they now had to travel to the City Ground, where Nottingham Forest had only lost twice in over a year. Town fans wouldn't have expected miracles then, but they would at least have expected their team to have learned something. For the third game in a row, the Blues were 2-0 down at the break thanks to David McGoldrick and a bullet from in-form Lewis McGugan. If defence was one problem, attack was clearly another - this time Town couldn't even get a consolation, and fell to their third successive defeat.
All of a sudden, there was talk of crisis. Ipswich supporters had spent August and September dreaming of a long-awaited promotion, but this run had dumped the Blues into 14th, and doubts were starting to resurface about Keane. Reality hadn't quite bitten, but it was having a nibble.
Ipswich were probably quite glad therefore to get away from the league the following week as the next instalment of their Carling Cup story took place. It looked fairly straightforward against League Two Northampton Town - the lowest-ranked team left in the competition - but having disposed of Liverpool in Round 3, the Cobblers were fancying their chances again after Liam Davis somewhat fluked a stunning opener. Carlos Edwards and Damien Delaney dug deep though to unearth the rarest of commodities at Portman Road this year - first half goals - before Tamas Priskin sealed a place in the Quarter Finals.
That seemed to be the perfect antidote for Town's Championship collywobbles as they looked to get their league campaign back to full health. The Blues had already gotten the better of Millwall in the Cup, and the Lions were to be tamed again at Portman Road. Scotland's Saturday tradition made its comeback in the first half and Grant Leadbitter scored from the spot in the second to send Town into November back on a high.
November - The Beginning Of The End
After getting excited about promotion for the first two months of the season, October had served to show Ipswich fans the danger of celebrating too soon. Even so, the fireworks were going up as Town made it two wins back-to-back at Sheffield United. First half goals had once been a rarity but they were now positively flowing, Priskin and Gareth McAuley scoring either side of a Stephen Quinn equaliser to send Town rocketing back up into the playoff places on 24pts. Crisis over. Or so it seemed.
When in-form Derby County arrived in East Anglia the following Tuesday night, nobody could possibly have conceived of what was to follow. It wasn't Kris Commons' opening goal that was to prove the most decisive incident in that match. It wasn't even his second twenty minutes later. The biggest blow of the evening came between the two, when Gareth McAuley was taken off the pitch. The defender had been one of the Blues' stars of 2010, but when it emerged that he now needed surgery for an Achilles injury, it would be 2011 before the Northern Ireland international could make a comeback.
The loss of McAuley was a catastrophe for the Town defence, who had already been looking shaky. It was a nightmare for Keane too, who was now juggling so many injuries that he was beginning to drop the ball. For all his failings the previous year, the fans had stuck by him, but the next game at home to Barnsley was to prove the turning point. Goran Lovre, a Marton Fulop own goal and a Garry O'Connor strike were three straws too many for the camel's back, and the Portman Road crowd snapped. Smith's late consolation might have gotten the loudest cheer of the afternoon, but it was the home fans' infamous cheering of every Barnsley pass that resonated the most with Keane. That, and the stormy salvo of boos that rained down on the manager when he decided to take off Priskin, who was finally winning fans over with his recent displays. There was no doubt about it; the mood had changed, and the tide was turning against Keane.
When the Blues subsequently made it another hat-trick of horrors thanks to Robert Koren's goal at Hull the following week, it was now starting to look like October wasn't just a blip. Town were back in the bottom half, and now all the talk was centering on one thing - the East Anglian Derby. The significance of that fixture was clear for all to see - particularly for Keane, who quickly sought to add reinforcements to his injury-hit squad with the short-term signings of Gianni Zuiverloon and Rory Fallon, just before the loan window closed. It might have seemed like a last throw of the dice from Keane, but the gamble would need to pay off. If not, he would write his name into the history books for all the wrong reasons.
D-Day arrived on 28 November and Ipswich Town and Norwich City met at Carrow Road to do battle. Still without McAuley however and under the pressure of the big occasion, Town's backline crumbled in front of the cameras as O'Dea allowed Grant Holt to run clear and deliver the first punch. Delaney hit back, but his dismissal soon after proved to be the knockout blow for Town. As the moustachioed Holt celebrated his hat-trick and Wes Hoolahan applied the finishing touch to a record-breaking worldwide humiliation, 'Roy Keane's Ipswich' hit a new low. The Irishman had already been in hot water with the fans since the Barnsley game, but if tempers had been heated then, they were now boiling over.
December 2010 & 1st January 2011 - Bleak Mid-Winter
After the derby day disaster, Keane's fate looked to be sealed. Four straight losses had left Ipswich languishing in 16th place, and summer seemed a distant memory. As the days grew darker, there was but one shining light; the Carling Cup. Victory over Northampton in November had earned a Quarter Final tie against Premier League West Bromwich Albion. Much like Town, Roberto Di Matteo's side had started the campaign well only to falter as winter approached, but having beaten Everton 4-1 the previous weekend, the Baggies were firm favourites. Complacency seemed to get the better of them however against a wounded Town, and when Leadbitter struck the only goal of the game from the spot, Keane's struggling team had somehow caused a cup upset to earn themselves a League Cup semi-final date with Arsenal. Maybe there might just be some hope left after all.
Indeed, a recovery looked to be on when Andros Townsend gave Ipswich a well-deserved lead at home to 3rd placed Swansea City that weekend. Just as the Sky cameras seemed to be capturing a revival however, the defence got the jitters again. In particular, a moment of madness from Smith allowed Joe Allen to put the visitors in the lead after Craig Beattie's equaliser, and when Andy D'Urso denied the Blues a lifeline, a sublime second by the Swans striker killed off any hope left over from beating the Baggies.
So obscene was that cruel twist of fate that it was now starting to feel like another win would never come. A match away to bottom of the table Preston North End might have offered the perfect opportunity to bounce back, but instead Iain Hume's strike continued Town's dismal Deepdale record and made it half-a-dozen defeats on the spin; the club's worst run in over 15 years. Now stuck in 18th place, a repeat of last season's relegation battle looked to be on the cards - only this time, the trend was pointing downwards.
The cameras seemed to be catching the worst of the Blues, and they circled Portman Road again for the visit of Leicester City a week later. It was make-or-break time for Keane, who was now widely reported to be on the brink of being kicked out. There seemed to be little hope left for the manager - even the weather seemed to be against him, with an incoming snowstorm turning Portman Road into a Winter Wonderland. What followed on that white wasteland however was nothing short of a miracle - an opener from Norris and a first Ipswich brace for Scotland gave Town an astonishing 3-0 lead at half time, only for the unrelenting snow to threaten the cruellest blow yet to the Blues. Just as Keane must have been cursing his luck however, a determined display by the ground staff, coupled by a stunning show of assertiveness by young referee Stuart Attwell, saw a dramatic evening brought to a close with Town's first league win since Bonfire Night. After sitting on 24 points for nearly two months, Keane's men had finally stopped the rot.
That was the Blues' 22nd game of the season, and Ipswich were eager to tuck into the festive fixture list with some winning momentum under their belts. The landmark 23rd game should have come at home to Watford, but despite having played in a blizzard against Leicester, Boxing Day ice at Portman Road coupled with a solid surface at Doncaster Rovers' Keepmoat Stadium served to freeze the Blues out of their entire Christmas programme.
It was not until a fortnight later therefore that Town could taste action again with a trip to the Ricoh Arena. Coventry City were out of form themselves, but whatever magic might have been sprinkled on the snow at Portman Road two weeks earlier, now it seemed to have worn off - even with the influential McAuley back in the team. Fallon's first goal for the club was cancelled out by a former Norwich striker, Freddy Eastwood, to send Town into 2011 and the second half of the campaign with just one more point - and more importantly, leaving them dangling in 19th place in the Championship table.
And so we come to January 2011. The first half of the 2010/11 season has been a bittersweet affair - a campaign which at one time offered so much promise yet, but for a magical cup campaign, has since faded into further frustration and fear of relegation. A New Year brings new hope, but we can only wait and see what the next four months will bring. Who knows quite where we're heading, but having travelled halfway down the winding road of another Championship season, all we can do is keep on rolling.
By Darren Campbell
You can still find Part I of 'The Halfway Point - Town's Story So Far' here on Vital Ipswich - so if you haven't seen it, be sure to have a look!
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