Bent gives Town chance to go top

ONE glance at the table will tell you Ipswich Town can go top of Division One on Saturday.The mathematics are simple. Town must win at Millwall, Norwich fail to beat Cardiff at home and West Brom lose at home to Crewe (unlikely).

ONE glance at the table will tell you Ipswich Town can go top of Division One on Saturday, writes Derek Davis.

The mathematics are simple. Town must win at Millwall, Norwich fail to beat Cardiff at home and West Brom lose at home to Crewe (unlikely).

Whatever happens, things will certainly be set up for an even more important than usual derby game against the debt-ridden Canaries as they and Town today sit in second and third respectively.

To be in such a lofty position almost midway through the season is testament to the qualities which have been instilled in this Blues side.

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Sitting rock bottom in September after going six games without a win, things looked bleak and for all the talk of potential there were no points backing them up.

An inspired dip into the loan market helped turn things around as Ipswich found a settled side to suit the system they wanted to play.

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But this team, indeed squad, is more than just about a system. So even when Town are as disrupted as they were against the Rams on Saturday, their inherent quality, belief and sheer bloody-mindedness sees them through. This was not the best of displays by Town, but it was as effective as it had to be against a poor side still trying to find its feet.

Although Darren Bent got Town off to a dream start, and then made the second in an excellent all-round personal performance, there were still some jittery moments for Town, especially when Marcus Tudgay pulled one back.

There were shades of a two-goal comeback in reverse after Town had been behind at Pride Park before scraping a draw. But they need not have worried and the ninth home win in 10 games saw them move up a place into third. The last time Ipswich enjoyed such heady heights, Derby boss George Burley was a few yards further along the demarcation line between touchline and dug out.

Burley's demeanour has not changed a jot. Arms folded and scowling. Or face intense as he gestured wildly – push on, hold back, like Lionel Blair telling his dancers exactly where they should be. But in the Town area he used to march to each home game before taking a swig from a water bottle and then rub his hands, stands a new manager. A different man in many ways.

Joe Royle does not orchestrate his team, but rather cajoles and befriends in equal measures. Four of those who finished the game were brought in by him, and it was he who gave Ian Westlake his full debut. He chooses to allow Willie Donachie or Tony Mowbray to point out the more technical aspects when required.

With major disruptions in defence, which in turn affected the midfield, the two coaches earned their money.

Jermaine Wright was used, as he was at Pride Park, as a right-back with Fabian Wilnis this time dropping out with injury. With Georges Santos suspended, John McGreal had come back in, playing his first senior game since last February.

His tentativeness was understandable and when Richard Naylor was forced off after 22 minutes with a spasm in a hamstring muscle it left the defence looking vulnerable.

The back line only had Matt Richards, an 18-year-old in his first full season, as a regular defender, but he rose to the challenge superbly and was the legs for the wily McGreal, who called on his years of experience. He needed to be especially alert as Chris Bart-Williams, who had dropped back into the centre-half spot, naturally drifted forward and out of position. It was difficult for the on-loan Charlton midfielder, who was caught in no-man's land at times.

Although Jim Magilton more than adequately filled the deep holding role, the Blues midfield was disrupted. With Tommy Miller on the right, Alan Mahon came on to go to the left side, while Ian Westlake went into the attacking midfield spot. Derby had to do without their impressive 16-year-old midfielder Tom Huddlestone, while Lee Holmes, another youngster not old enough to vote by two years, was left on the bench suffering from fatigue.

The warm glow Burley felt as he made his way along the touchline in front of the main stand to a standing ovation lasted just 26 seconds after kick-off. Under pressure from Tommy Miller, Simo Valakari played a ball back from the Town half and Bent was on to it like a flash while Derby keeper Lee Grant came, then hesitated and the England under-21 striker lofted the ball over him from 25 yards to net for the third time in a row against his international team-mate. Bent's pace and ability to find space earned Town their second as he burst clear, turned inside Pablo Mills before firing in a low shot which Grant saved. The ball rebounded out and, with Shefki Kuqi threatening, Youl Mawene's attempted clearance crept inside a post for an own goal.

Derby managed to keep themselves in the game by pulling one back three minutes later when a McGreal headed clearance was nodded back in by Adam Bolder to Tudgay, who looked to be offside. He lobbed the advancing Davis but almost looked embarrassed to celebrate the goal.

Davis had a rare off day with his distribution, getting caught a couple of times, conceding a corner once and clearing straight to Tudgay on another occasion. But, fortunately, the Derby forward hit a poor return pass.

Although Grant easily saved low shots from Miller and Bent, he should have been better tested by Shefki Kuqi, who headed over a Mahon cross.

The striker now signed permanently from Sheffield Wednesday was again full of running but lacked finesse around the box which Spaniard Pablo Counago may provide.

Royle was tempted to push on Counago, fit again after injuring a hamstring at the away Derby fixture, and Martijn Reuser, also better after a long-standing groin problem, but thought better of it as he wanted to stay defensively as tight as he could.

Things remain tight at the top of the Division One table, but the next three weeks promise to make for an exciting football festive period.

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