Familiar feel to second leg

THE SUPERSTITIOUS among us might like to avoid any such talk, but the second leg of the play-off semi-final against West Ham is set up to be a repeat of what many say was the best-ever game at Portman Road, writes Steve Mellen.

THE SUPERSTITIOUS among us might like to avoid any such talk, but the second leg of the play-off semi-final against West Ham is set up to be a repeat of what many say was the best-ever game at Portman Road, writes Steve Mellen.

In May 2000 Ipswich beat Bolton Wanderers 5-3 after extra time to put themselves on the road to Wembley, and the Premiership, but before that they had to negotiate a tricky first leg at the Reebok Stadium, a game that has uncanny parallels to this year's encounter with the Cockneys.

Goals from Dean Holdsworth and Eidur Gudjohnsen had Town on the back foot early on, and as wave after wave of Bolton attacks flooded forward, there was a chance that if someone didn't step in, Ipswich would be out of the tie altogether without the need for a second leg.

It wasn't just the goals that had George Burley's side in a pickle though, they were running out of first-choice players. Leading scorer David Johnson was helped off with a shoulder injury just after the half-hour mark, joining defensive lynchpin Tony Mowbray, who was already sitting on the bench doing a good impression of a boxer after 12 rounds, nursing a badly swollen eye.

The stage was set for a hero, and record signing Marcus Stewart looked around, adjusted his collar and stepped into the spotlight. First he hit a long-range shot that dipped past the despairing dive of Jussi Jaaskelainen. Then with 25 minutes to go he took a Martijn Reuser pass in his stride, rounded the keeper and curled his shot past two defenders on the line.

So, way before Joe Royle's side earned the name 'comeback kings' the Ipswich side of 2000 had fought back to haul themselves back into contention.

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Bolton fought tooth and nail at Portman Road three days later (sometimes a bit too eagerly) but the momentum was with Ipswich.

Fast forward five years and it's harder to pick out an individual hero, but the game at Upton Park on Saturday took many of the fans from East Anglia down memory lane.

For example, the danger of being swept away before the two-legged tie was even a quarter of the way through was the same in both instances, as was the manner of the fightback with Town getting one back before half time in both games, then another goal midway through the second half.

And if you want a hero from this year's efforts, perhaps Shefki Kuqi deserves the accolade, winning the free-kick that led to the first Town goal and scoring the second himself.

The question is; could we all handle a repeat of the epic against Wanderers, which was only put to bed when referee Barry Knight took exception to the visitors' 'physical' approach and flashed his cards in every direction? And who could forget the terror of seeing Jamie Clapham take a crucial penalty in extra time, regular spot-kick man Jim Magilton having backed off after seeing his second penalty of the night saved just before the interval?

We'd also need a strong referee if the game is anything like that blood and thunder encounter. Word has it that Sam Allardyce has never forgiven Knight for his performance on a night when he showed five yellows and two reds in the direction of players in white shirts, whereas the Blues escaped without a single caution.

In defence of the hapless official, this was a Town team that would go on to win the Fair Play league, and Bolton shot themselves in the foot on a number of occasions.

Robbie Elliott picked up David Johnson in a wrestling-style manouvre, and hurled him to the ground with the scores level in extra time. It was possibly the stupidest foul ever committed on a football pitch, and needless as well, with the ball trickling harmlessly towards the goalkeeper.

Elliott then compounded his folly when, having already been booked, he scythed Martijn Reuser to the floor on the touchline and was dismissed. Reuser then wrapped the game up with a blistering finish.

Of course one omen can be completely discounted. Jim Magilton scored a hat-trick against Bolton in 2000 to write his name into Ipswich Town history, and that simply can't be repeated.

Or can it?

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