Exit Interview: Bialkowski’s final Ipswich season ended in disaster... but the Town icon’s legacy was written well before then
- Credit: Archant
Bartosz Bialkowski is set to leave Ipswich Town after five years at Portman Road. ANDY WARREN looks back at the goalkeeper’s ups and downs.
Little did we know that a free transfer from Notts County would go on to become an Ipswich Town icon.
Bartosz Bialkowski leaves Portman Road as the only man to have won the club's player-of-the-year award three seasons in a row, one of just a handful of players to have represented the Blues at a World Cup and as a true fans' favourite.
He leaves having made nearly 500 saves in 178 games, having won the Blues bucketfuls of points on his own and as a man universally liked by all connected with the club.
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He was voted the third-best goalkeeper in the club's history as part of an online poll, only behind Paul Cooper and Richard Wright, and was regularly hailed as the best goalkeeper in the Championship.
But he also leaves following a season in which Ipswich were relegated to League One, during which Bialkowski fell well short of the high standards we had come to expect.
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And that's where things become a little blurred.
Does one below-par season cloud an otherwise exemplary five years at the club?
Though the here and now is fresh in the mind, surely, in the fullness of time, his stay at Portman Road will be remembered for what came before.
It took three months to win the starting spot from Dean Gerken but he went on and helped the Blues reach the Championship play-offs in his first season.
The death of his father Marek in August 2015 proved to be something of a turning point for the Pole's career.
The passing of a man he idolised hit the goalkeeper hard and cost him his place in the side in the harshest of manners as he grieved in Poland, but it also proved to be the beginning of an unstoppable surge which took him to the 2018 World Cup.
It took him until the following February to regain his place from Gerken and he played just 17 games before the end of that season, but that was enough to win the first of three player-of-the-year awards.
Stunning performances packed with reflex saves became the norm, with the goalkeeper leaned on too heavily in 2016/17 as he rescued his side time and again. The eventual 16th-place finish was the club's lowest in 60 years but, without Bialkowski, it could have been far worse.
He was regularly hailed as the Championship's best goalkeeper throughout 2017/18, as the Poland management checked on his progress and intrigued journalists flocked from his homeland to learn more about the Ipswich goalkeeper, with his form earning an international debut against Nigeria and then a call-up for the World Cup.
Inevitable interest followed, with a £3million offer from Birmingham turned down, before he signed a richly-deserved bumper new contract in the first few days of Paul Hurst's management.
He had just 10 days off before returning for pre-season under Hurst and new goalkeeping coach Darren Smith, following the retirement of long-term mentor Malcolm Webster, with physical and mental fatigue taking its toll in the early weeks of the season as he struggled for his best form.
News of Bialkowski being dropped to the bench still came as a shock when Town faced rivals Norwich in November, with Bialkowski open in his dismay after being told the news by Hurst just an hour before kick-off.
He returned to the team in Hurst's final game at Leeds and kept his spot under Paul Lambert before being stood down again, following costly errors against Bristol City and Nottingham Forest, but was back at the end of January as his form picked up without ever reaching his previous high standards.
It wasn't enough, though, with the Blues falling through the relegation trap door. From there it looked inevitable Bialkowski would move on.
What went well
The first four years of Bialkowski's time in Ipswich were simply stunning.
There are too many saves and too many games in which he excelled to mention, but watching online compilations of his efforts tells you the story of that period.
There are saves with his legs, diving at the feet of attackers to block shots, reflex stops, top corner claws and getting down low to deflect danger round the post.
The two saves he made in the home victory over Nottingham Forest in 2017 show the last-ditch efforts required of him, as he kept the ball out with inches to spare, while his performance at Derby that season was nothing short of sublime.
How many times did McCarthy or team-mates simply respond with a smile when asked about Bialkowski's performances in post-match interviews?
Luke Chambers once referred to him as being 'a god' at Ipswich Town.
Just as Tony Mowbray, Matt Holland and Marcus Stewart are synonymous with George Burley's Ipswich tenure, Bialkowski's role in the McCarthy years will be remembered forever.
Areas to improve
The first task for Bialkowski is to put last season firmly behind him.
There are reasons for it, of course, but the Pole was nowhere near his best during a 2018/19 season which saw the Blues drop through the relegation trap door.
There is no doubting his ability as a shot-stopper - we've seen just how good he is over a prolonged period - but there are areas of his game where he can still improve.
Kicking is becoming more and more important for modern goalkeepers and, while Bialkowski is certainly not bad with his feet, we've seen the advantages having a stopper who can comfortably play out from the back can bring. Being asked to do so by both Hurst and Lambert didn't suit the 31-year-old or the defence in front of him.
He is not the most vocal of goalkeepers and could do more to command his penalty area but, when you are making save after save, game after game, these slight deficiencies are easily hidden.
They were exposed last season by the standard of defending in front of him.
If he can regain the form which saw him sweep the board in the Blues' player-of-the-year awards year after year, the Lions will have netted themselves an excellent goalkeeper.
The move to Millwall was originally meant to be permanent, a £900k fee and wages agreed, but the Championship flagged issues with his knee at the medical stage. They tried to renegotiate the structure of the deal and, in the end, Town owner Marcus Evans pulled the plug.
That was nearly six weeks ago. Millwall subsequently signed keeper Frank Fielding and the deal looked dead in the water. Talks were resurrected though and it's a season-long temporary switch which has this time been agreed.
The two clubs will assess the situation again next summer. Millwall finished just four points and one place above the drop zone last season, while Ipswich are among the favourites for promotion in League One.
Then again, no-one really knows how Town will fare in the third-tier. And we must remember Neil Harris's men are just a year removed from finishing eighth in the Championship during a superb campaign in which they beat the odds and were viewed as 'the model clubs like Ipswich should follow'. They will be hoping for much better this season.
Bialkowski is still motivated by the prospect of regaining his place in the Poland squad and adding to the one cap he has won for his country. What got him there in the first place was excelling behind a defence which ensured he had plenty of saves to make, with the same conditions likely at The Den.
Perhaps this is simply a case of au revoir and not goodbye? Bialkowski has always said that he plans to live in Suffolk once his hangs his gloves up. It's not out of the question that he returns refreshed and like the proverbial 'new signing'. We'll see.
Whenever and however he returns to Ipswich, he'll always be given a warm reception.