Fightback thrills Portman Road crowd

FOR sheer emotional drama Saturday's thriller at Portman Road surpassed any match I can recall at Portman Road over the past 40 years.

FOR sheer emotional drama Saturday's thriller at Portman Road surpassed any match I can recall at Portman Road over the past 40 years, writes Tony Garnett.

Ipswich Town, trailing by two goals and reduced to 10 men, looked destined for defeat at the hands of Sheffield United. Then came a remarkable transformation during which the never-say-die spirit of teenagers Darren Bent and Darren Ambrose, coupled with an eye-opening 45 minutes from Marcus Bent, turned the tables to leave home fans jubilant.

Town supporters played their part to the full by providing the sort of atmosphere which Ambrose reckoned lifted the team performance by 10%. There is now fresh hope that the good times in the Premiership may be restored more quickly than many dreamed possible.

This was football entertainment at its very best. Even Sheffield manager Neil Warnock was generous in his praise for the Ipswich players and the significant role their fans played.

The sorry defeat at Bradford the previous weekend was soon forgotten. A new wave of optimism has come about through 35 minutes of unbelievable excitement.

The death of assistant-manager Dale Roberts from cancer had cast a cloud over Portman Road last week. He was only 46. As details of his notable contribution to Ipswich Town were read out there was a burst of spontaneous applause that spread all round the ground. Then the minute of silence was observed immaculately.

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There were three significant incidents before the interval. In the 17th minute Ambrose sent Darren Bent through only for Paddy Kenny to leave his line and smother the shot. It was good to see both Darrens in the starting line-up.

Three minutes later Pablo Counago, who seemed to have been fouled by Michael Brown, retaliated in front of the referee. A raised arm means a red card. Not even the pleading of Jim Magilton could save the Spaniard who now faces a four-match ban because it was his second dismissal of the season. He let his club and colleagues down, yet somehow their determination to overcome adversity seemed to fire them up.

Then in time-added-on before the interval. Sheffield went ahead. Michael Tonge, Sheffield's star teenager, provided the opening. The red-gloved raider Peter Ndlovu chased through the inside-right channel, cut inside Thomas Gaardsoe and then beat Andy Marshall with a stinging low left-foot shot.

A reshuffle had become necessary when Chris Makin turned his ankle and went off in the 34th minute. This meant Matt Holland dropping back into defence to make way for Jermaine Wright in midfield.

Marcus Bent took over from Magilton for the second-half, the Irishman finding it hard to control his frustrations. His body language was transparent. If Ipswich faced a massive task at the interval, it was made greater still in the 55th minute when a lapse in concentration by Wright led to Dean Windass putting the Blades two up. Tonge knocked the ball through. Windass escaped Holland before firing just inside the post. Windass attracted Ipswich interest in his early days at Hull and has always had an eye for goal.

The ground was subdued with supporters fearing the worst because, make no bones about it, Sheffield are one of the best sides in the Division. Even so the Ipswich players, especially the two Darrens, felt there was still hope so long as they kept battling. A quick response was vital to lift the fans. This is just what happened in the 57th minute. Ambrose squared the ball from the left into the path of Tommy Miller in central midfield. He, in turn, picked out Fabian Wilnis on the right. The Dutchman laid the ball off to Wright whose accurate pass into the box enabled Darren Bent to accept a difficult chance with a volley just inside the near post.

The atmosphere changed dramatically. Portman Road became a cauldron of excitement and anticipation. Surely one goal could lead to another. Certainly the 10 men were showing the skill and the spirit to overcome apparently insurmountable odds.

Marcus Bent was playing like a man inspired. This was by far his best display in an Ipswich Town shirt as he responded brilliantly to the demands made on him. It was a surprise to see him on the bench. That may not happen again for a while if he can maintain this sort of appetite for hard work. Hermann Hreidarsson was to be seen up with his forwards during the late onslaught as Ipswich gambled, well aware of the danger of being caught on the break.

Marshall saved a thunderbolt from Michael Brown in the 69th minute but then Ipswich were back pounding away at the Sheffield goal, the visitors perhaps having considered the points to be in the bag once they scored their second goal. Of course Sheffield should have known all about the Ipswich fighting spirit after the FA Cup tie at Bramall Lane when their 3-0 lead evaporated.

In the 78th minute Ipswich had a slice of luck when a misplaced Sheffield clearance landed kindly for Marcus Bent. He chipped the ball across the goalmouth for Ambrose to head home. Kenny got a hand to the ball but was off balance and could not prevent it from crossing the line.

There was a crescendo of noise from all the Ipswich stands as Royle's men pushed on. Their courage was rewarded two minutes from the end when Ambrose crossed from the left. Darren Bent rose at the far post to head home a winner that left grown men close to tears. Even then it was not all over. Brown fired one final salvo, an Exocet which skimmed a foot wide of Marshall's right-hand post before Sheffield, their early supremacy gone, were forced to concede all three points.

Fortune favoured the brave. Ipswich are now again on the fringe of the play-off zone. Portsmouth and Leicester may be pulling out of reach, but dreams of an Ipswich return to the Premiership have been rekindled. This was red-blooded football action that even left Warnock wondering why Ipswich were not on top of the table. The final 35 minutes will go down in Ipswich folklore. It will be recalled as the day two teenagers called Darren, a striker by the name of Marcus and an Icelander named Hermann, combined to inspire their side to an epic victory.

Wolverhampton Wanderers are next visitors to Portman Road tomorrow week. Wolves are ambitious and they have teeth. Ipswich should not be lulled into any form of complacency just because the Molineux giants came a cropper at Brighton on Saturday. It will be a play-off "six pointer" and promises to be another massive occasion.

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