Bialkowski and Gerken have been a constant pairing for five years... but is change afoot between the sticks for Town?
- Credit: Archant
Bartosz Bialkowski and Dean Gerken have been constants for Ipswich Town for more than five years. ANDY WARREN looks at what the future holds in the Blues’ goalkeeping department.
It’s more than five years since an Ipswich Town team sheet was released without the name of either Bartosz Bialkowski or Dean Gerken.
For the last 253 games, since Scott Loach started the 0-0 draw with Blackpool in February 2014 due to Gerken’s neck injury, while Michael Crowe sat on the bench, the two stoppers have offered supreme continuity between the sticks.
It’s worth noting that in the five seasons prior to Gerken’s arrival in 2013, the Blues used 10 different goalkeepers.
Under the tutelage of long-time coach Malcolm Webster, who retired last summer, Darren Smith and now Jimmy Walker, the pair have trained together, pushed each other, have been there to cover for one another, have vied for the starting jersey and have become good friends.
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Former boss Mick McCarthy used to say that there was nothing between his two goalkeepers and maintained that confidence in Gerken even after he became the forgotten man amid Bialkowski’s surge to become an Ipswich icon.
There has probably been nothing between them this season, either, but both have struggled and have endured difficult moments during the campaign, leading to the pair each being dropped on two occasions.
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Game time may have been split, with Bialkowski starting 29 games and Gerken 18, but still you knew that it would be one of two men named in goal when the teams were released at 2pm.
But could that be about to change?
The Blues have decisions to make in the goalkeeping department this summer and it seems unlikely the club will be willing or able to carry two senior goalkeepers of Bialkowski and Gerken’s stature in the third tier.
Manager Paul Lambert has kept his cards close to his chest when discussing the goalkeeping situation recently. ‘That will become clear’ has been the message.
But as time goes on it’s looking more and more likely the goalkeeping partnership will be broken up.
The most pressing questions surround Gerken.
The former Bristol City and Colchester man’s contract is up in just a few weeks and it’s looking increasingly unlikely the club will take up their option to extend it by a further 12 months.
Given Bialkowski will start this weekend against Leeds, the 2-0 loss at Sheffield United could well prove to be Gerken’s 113th and final Ipswich appearance.
Then there are the inevitable questions regarding Bialkowski – a fan-favourite, three-time player-of-the-year and a goalkeeper once widely-regarded as the Championship’s best.
Can the club afford to keep him in League One, even when the bumper deal he signed last summer is significantly cut following relegation? While he has always insisted he and his family are settled in Ipswich and plan to remain living here once his football career is over, would the Pole want to stay and play in the third tier, given he was at the World Cup less than a year ago?
There’s sure to be some interest in the 31-year-old but one thing’s for sure, there won’t be clubs queuing up to pay the £3million offered by Birmingham last summer.
Whether it’s Bialkowski, Gerken, or a new face between the sticks (the Blues have already been linked with Livingston’s Liam Kelly) on the opening day of next season remains to be seen, as does whether Lambert has seen enough to be comfortable carrying young Harry Wright as his second goalkeeper, if one or both do depart.
The 20-year-old, who most will know by now is the son of former Town stopper Richard, has been a mainstay of Town’s Under 23s this season and has also impressed during a brief loan spell with Chelmsford.
He’s trained regularly with the Ipswich first-team goalkeepers and has been part of matchday squads consistently this season, warming up with Bialkowski, Gerken and coach Walker before games.
He made the senior bench for the first time at Bristol City in March, but he could be a regular on it next season.
Wright, who has previously spent time with Manchester City, is perhaps a little under sized but is an excellent shot-stopper and a good communicator.
He was the player to emerge with the most credit from the 23s’ play-off loss to Birmingham on Tuesday night, pulling off a string of impressive second-half saves to keep the score down. One reaction stop, as he threw himself to his right to push a close-range shot round the post, prompted the watching Lambert and assistant Stuart Taylor to turn to goalkeeping coach Walker to acknowledge his young charge’s effort.
His most eye-catching attribute, though, is his ability with his feet. Much like his father, a veteran of more than 350 Ipswich games over three spells, his distribution is superb.
He can play the ball out from the back and is more comfortable in doing so than either of the Blues’ two current senior goalkeepers, while he is also capable of quickly throwing the ball to team-mates to set them on the attack. That’s another trait inherited from his father, who looked to have already decided where he was going to throw the ball before he’d even caught it.
The young Wright featured for the Ipswich first-team in pre-season under former boss Paul Hurst, who was impressed with what he saw to the extent that he was happy to publicly state his confidence in Wright to be his third-choice between the sticks.
It may just be that a year on, with decisions to be made in the goalkeeping department at Portman Road, he’s about to move one place up that pecking order.