Grant Ward magic lifts Blues in scrappy victory against below-par Preston North End
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Ipswich Town began life without Daryl Murphy with a scrappy 1-0 victory over Preston North End on Saturday afternoon, their second victory of the season.
Grant Ward scored the only goal of the game – his fourth in the league this season – after 15 minutes, before Town hung on to see out a game with little goalmouth activity.
The match will not live long in the memory of a paltry crowd, but the subsequent build-up and post-match sub-plot will, Mick McCarthy revealing that Murphy was close to joining Championship rivals Newcastle United for a fee thought to be around the £3m mark, having handed in a transfer request
We will never know whether or not Murphy’s absence had a detrimental effect on the team, but after an encouraging first-half display, it is hard to see how the Irishman would have improved a low-key second half showing, given Town’s lack of creativity in the final third.
Mick McCarthy made two changes for the Blues’ home game with Preston.
Summer signing Adam Webster made way for Tommy Smith at the heart of the defence, while Brett Pitman made his first start of the season, replacing Newcastle United-bound Daryl Murphy.
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Town went into the game searching for their second victory of the season, having not won in the league since the opening day, while Preston were looking to secure back-to-back league wins, having notched their maiden Championship victory of the season, at QPR, last weekend.
They were unchanged from that success at Loftus Road and started the game playing 3-5-2, up against Town’s 4-1-4-1 formation.
News of Murphy’s impending departure left Town fans wondering how they were going to fill the void left by the big man.
Yes, last term he failed to repeat his heroics of the 2014-15 season, during which he scored 27 goals, but his all-round play and presence in attack as a bruising targetman was often a decent outlet for the Blues.
Pitman is a slightly smaller player, both in height and build, but he soon made his presence felt and had the bit between his teeth from the off.
The former Bournemouth man, returning from a thigh injury, won his early headers, chased lost causes like a man possessed and produced some clever interplay at times with Freddie Sears, Grant Ward and Kevin Bru.
It was Pitman who fashioned the first half-chance of the game, breaking away down the right wing and playing a dangerous ball across the six-yard box towards Sears.
The striker, without a goal in 31 league and cup games, failed to get a proper connection on the ball though and while Preston defender Bailey Wright did likewise, he managed to recover eventually and clear the ball.
Smith then made an important clearance as Preston looked to attack, before the Lilywhites were hit by the departure of their own talisman, striker Jermaine Beckford, who went off with a hamstring problem.
His replacement, Jordan Hugill, had been on the pitch barely a minute when the home side took the lead.
Town won a free kick on the right-hand side, around 35 yards from goal.
Bru stood over the ball and whipped in a dangerous centre that was cleared only as far as the edge of the 18-yard box by Greg Cunningham.
Unfortunately for the visitors, there lurking was Grant Ward and he took a touch before hitting a sweet half volley that flew through a crowd, wrong-footing Anders Lindegaard in the away goal, the ball nestling in the goalkeeper’s left-hand corner.
The goal was similar to Ward’s third goal in the 4-2 victory over Barnsley but came from his right boot rather than his left this time.
The goal rounded off a strong start for Town and Ward tried to add to it a minute later, making a darting run down the right channel, only to get the ball stuck under his feet, Tommy Spurr eventually conceding a corner.
Beckford’s earlier injury was one of a number of pauses during a stop-start first half and Town failed to build up a head of steam.
The hosts did create the next chance, however, and again, Pitman was involved.
This time, with his back to goal on the halfway line, he spun quickly and found Sears with a superb reverse ball.
The former Colchester striker ran on to the inch-perfect pass from the left-hand side and bore down on goal but was denied as Lindegaard tipped the striker’s left-foot shot over the bar.
Lindegaard made another, easier stop moments later to collect Christophe Berra’s header from a corner, Town trying to force the issue with Pitman at the centre of most of their good work.
Preston had offered little up to that point but almost fashioned an equaliser on 29 minutes out of nothing.
Chris Humphrey found Callum Robinson on the left-hand corner of the box and after the striker gained a yard of space with a neat turn against Luke Chambers, the ex-Aston Villa man unleashed a powerful right-foot effort that was tipped over the bar by Bartosz Bialkowski.
The goalkeeper was in the wars moments later as he took a knock in the face from Hugill as he went to collect a right-wing corner.
After a short stoppage, Bialkowski was back on his feet and showed no ill-effects after treatment, the former Notts County stopper again denying Robinson shortly before the break, this time diving low to his left to collect the forward’s curling effort.
The visitors almost paid for their profligacy just before the break, Jonathon Douglas bursting into the box and latching on to a flick from Sears before dallying at the vital moment, allowing Tom Clarke to get in front of him and clear the danger.
The hosts began brightly enough in the second period as Pitman looked to continue his good work from the first half. Once again, after a neat interchange with Sears, he played an intelligent pass through to the frontman, who was just beaten to the ball by the onrushing Lindegaard.
That was the last the crowd were to see of the duo’s link-up play as the visitors sacrificed Spurr for an extra striker in Eoin Doyle and tried to force the issue themselves.
Immediately, they began to have more possession but they still failed to create much in the way of goalscoring chances, Smith and Berra handling the physicality of Doyle and Hugill with ease.
The nearest they came was when Humphrey weaved his way into the box on the hour, but his goalbound shot was blocked by Berra, the ball then ricocheting off the Preston man before going out for a goalkick.
Town never seemed in much danger, while not threatening much themselves and Pitman was often isolated up front in the second half.
Doyle could have made it 1-1 towards the end, only to make a hash of finishing a long Humphrey throw into the box. Ward almost had the final say for Town but, with fatigue setting in, the forward hesitated and Lindegaard slid out to smother the ball at his feet.