Bullard stars, but was it Norris’ Portman Road swansong? Verdict on the Preston game
Elvin King’s vedict of Saturday’s Ipswich Town game against Preston.
IPSWICH Town may have returned to winning ways after their Easter weekend disasters but the manner of their victory summed up their season – pretty mundane.
Another vote-catching performance from on-loan Jimmy Bullard and the non-appearance of Gareth McAuley on a post-match ‘lap of honour’ that suggests his imminent departure to Rangers apart this was a quickly forgettable way to bring the curtain down on the 2010/11 Portman Road campaign.
An inexperienced Preston side were there for the taking and for most of the opening period it looked as though this would be a comprehensive home win that would give optimism for a much brighter 2011/12.
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But it didn’t turn out that way with a rather makeshift Blues’ side’s goal having a charmed life after Paul Coutts’ 52nd minute goal.
Despite missing key players in McAuley and Connor Wickham, Ipswich were still much better equipped than their opponents who included a number of debutants and with a side selected with next season in League One in mind.
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The final whistle could not come quickly enough – and this has been in Town manager Paul Jewell’s mindset for around the last six weeks.
From the time he had successfully completed his initial brief to keep his side in the Championship he has had one eye – at times two – on preparing for his next task, which is to mount a serious promotion challenge if not next term then the one after.
He has done his job well enough up to now lifting Town from the edge of the relegation zone to the top half of the table.
And he has done it with players that he admires but not ones that he universally considers good enough to play any part in the building process that he is undertaking.
Apart from Damien Delaney and most probably McAuley, who would be churlish to not seriously consider what is bound to be a lucrative Rangers offer, Jewell has offered new contracts that – as we said in this space last month – are not of the variety that would inspire players to rush to put pen to paper.
Skipper David Norris would appear to be in this boat with the manager’s message being ‘I’ll happily keep you but if you get a better offer I’ll not lose any sleep if you go.’
On the field after three months of doggedly keeping to a strict 4-5-1 (or 4-3-3 if you listen to some at the club) formation he played two up front, which saw Jason Scotland in a different light with his goal the icing on the cake for a constructive first period playing beside a busy Ronan Murray.
Struggling to beat a bottom of the table side 2-1 at home does not bode too well for a better future, but those in the know would suggest that no more than five of Saturday’s side would be in line to start the opening game of next season.
Jewell is receiving good vibes on the behind the scene moves that he has already made to strengthen his side, and with his intimate knowledge of the Championship and how it works he can be relied upon to successfully complete the majority of his currently ‘work in process’ deals.
WILL HE OR WON’T HE
When Bullard left Portman Road a good hour and a half after Saturday’s final whistle a crowd of 50-plus fans were waiting at the main gate to wish him well.
A few hours later this hold that he has over Ipswich fans was confirmed when he was voted player of the year at the Supporters’ Club end of season night.
Bullard’s impish grin and his ‘Jack the Lad’ East End nature makes him easy to like and his footballing ability is there for all to see.
His love of the game has increased since he moved from Hull in late January to meet up with his former boss at Wigan and given the choice there’s no doubt that he would be happy to extend his stay.
But it is in the lap of the Gods for a player whose presence has breathed much needed life into a dull few season.
Much will depend on Hull’s stance and whether they are prepared to continue to part finance him, and much will depend on whether a top flight club comes in with a offer to purchase the 32-year-old midfielder.
It’s up for grabs with Ipswich no doubt poised to do all they can to retian him, but a betting man would probably be offering odds of around 60-40 against.
With their young inexperienced side Preston were nothing of the quality of the opposition in Town’s two previous games and it appeared that it would be a substantial home victory when Ipswich went two goals ahead.
The Blues were weakened by injuries and a suspension to Lee Martin, but they knocked the ball about with freedom and no little skill and it only appeared to be a matter of time before more goals arrived.
But it all changed after the break with a good individual goal from Coutts although Town’s defending should have been much more secure.
For the next 30 minutes an equaliser looked far more likely that an additional home goal.
Bullard caught the eye with his ability to find space and retain possession and also play in telling balls from dead ball situations.
Norris, who was probably playing his final home game for Town, moved to the right and worked his socks off as usual and being on hand to net what turned out to be the deciding goal.
Fulop was in the right place at the right time on a couple of key occasions but did not fill one with confidence, and for the rest it was an average day at the office although Troy Brown did himself no harm with a stead display beside Damien Delaney.
Town made five changes as Jewell rang the changes in a rare move for him. Out went Arran Lee-Barrett, Colin Healy and Andy Drury all dropped and McAuley and Darren O’Dea who were both injured.
In their places were Fulop in goal for his first senior game since the home Watford defeat in the middle of March, Brown, Mark Kennedy, a fit again Bullard and Murray who was recalled from Torquay last weekend and was making his full Ipswich debut.
Brian Murphy came into the squad for the first time this year while Tom Eastman was also on the bench having not featured in the final 18 since the defeat at Millwall in mid-January.
GOOD AND BAD
Following the home heartbreak of losing 5-1 to Norwich City on Maundy Thursday, which was followed by another mauling at Swansea on Easter Monday, the attendance figure was a testament to the faith of the Ipswich faithful.
To attract 5,000 paying customers – as opposed to season ticket sales – for a meaningless end of season game only goes to prove what a special set of supporters Ipswich have and how they would love to have a cause that could lead them to make the old stadium rock again.
Can Town blossom without McAuley and possibly Norris? Yes, it would be a major surprise if Jewell hasn’t been planning for this eventuality for sometime.
Should Brown have been sent off? The tackle had similarities to the one that saw Martin shown a red card at Bristol City. His lunging feet looked high, and perhaps the time of the incident had a bearing on an efficient referee’s yellow card.
The visitors had been beaten just once by Town in their previous 12 meetings, so in front of a crowd that did not include club owner Marcus Evans it was in that respect a positive result showing the resolve if not the impressive talents of the current squad.