Cook's magic recipe, star gazing and keeping up a record - Town boss prepares for Portman Road bow
- Credit: Pagepix
New Ipswich Town boss Paul Cook takes charge of his first game at Portman Road when Lincoln City visit this evening. Andy Warren takes a look ahead to the contest.
Stars in reach?
It’s going to be a tall order for the Blues to make the top two from here but, as new boss Paul Cook rightly said in his introductory press conference last week, you have ‘aim for the stars’.
The gap is currently 12 points to Hull and Peterborough, who are level at the top of the standings, with Town holding three games in hand on the Tigers and one on a Posh side who have recorded the double over the Blues already this season.
Tonight’s opponents are one of five clubs between Cook’s eighth-placed side and the automatic places, of which only a trip to Portsmouth remains on Ipswich’s schedule following this evening’s match.
Win tonight and Town are seven behind the Imps with a game in hand, lose and the gap is 13. Tonight’s contest could have a real impact on whether those stars are within reach for Town.
It's a big night elsewhere in League One, too, with Peterborough and Hull facing off in a battle of the top two and Portsmouth (6th) hosting Sunderland (5th).
Once again, this an occasion lacking so much due to supporters’ absence from stadiums. The atmosphere would have been electric under the Portman Road lights.
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You could certainly argue Cook will have learnt more about his new team in defeat on Saturday than he could have done had the winning run continued.
Three points would have been welcome, of course, but Cook acknowledged in his pre-match interview yesterday that the Blues had maybe ‘hiccupped’ their way through recent games before simply running out of steam.
It’s clear the new boss wants more from his full-backs, wants a higher defensive line, more intensity in midfield, front-foot football and a much-increased goal threat. Cook also spoke of wanting partnerships to develop on the pitch, finding a magic formula and cultivating an identity.
Reading between the lines, Cook resisted change at Priestfield on the back of some good form but, having stated the display in the 3-1 loss simply wasn’t good enough, you certainly feel he’s learnt some important lessons about his side.
Changes could well be coming.
Cook hinted yesterday that one player could jump from outside his matchday 18 on Saturday to the bench or even the starting XI for this evening’s game.
Alan Judge could be that man, having been given leave from the club following a family bereavement, with the Irishman ‘making noises’ about wanting to get straight back involved after returning to the club.
The Town boss stressed yesterday that the playmaker would be given as long as he needed, but the 32-year-old had been in good form and he was missed at the weekend.
The wide areas are perhaps the most-likely to get attention, with Judge, Jack Lankester, Luke Thomas and Gwion Edwards candidates to potentially replace Keanan Bennetts or Josh Harrop.
We know Cook wants dynamic play from his full-backs and Luke Matheson certainly offers that. If the Wolves loanee does come into the reckoning, the door could be open for captain Luke Chambers to make the much-discussed move back into the centre of defence.
Flynn Downes will be hopeful of starting, having come into the game at the weekend at a time when the midfield duo of Teddy Bishop and Andre Dozzell were struggling to cope with the Gills' physical approach.
Cole Skuse has made good progress during ‘some vigorous training sessions’ but won’t be involved this evening.
Young and hungry
The Imps have surpassed all expectation this season to have been in the thick of the promotion race throughout the campaign, despite essentially assembling an entire new team last summer.
They are a side packed with young and hungry players, notably Dutch defender Lewis Monstma, who arrived as an unknown in the summer and is already said to be attracting interest from higher up the pyramid.
January signing Cohen Bramall, who arrived from Colchester, has started well and midfield duo Conor McGrandles and Tayo Edun, formerly of Ipswich, provide creativity.
But it’s their wide forwards who really catch the eye. Morgan Rogers, on loan from Manchester City, is a player Ipswich looked at in January while Brennan Johnson already has a Portman Road hat-trick to his name, having netted three for Nottingham Forest’s Under 23s. He is, of course, the son of former Town favourite David Johnson.
Both have technical ability in abundance, can dribble, cut in from wide and know their way to goal. Johnson has eight this season, Rogers four since arriving in January, and both netted in the 3-0 victory over Crewe at the weekend.
They generally play either side of a more physical attacker, either Tom Hopper or Callum Morton, though Johnson has at times dropped deeper into a more central role.
Town will need to be on their toes as it was Johnson who, with the game drifting towards a draw, tempted Toto Nsiala into giving away the penalty which decided the game between the two at Sincil Bank earlier this season.
The man who scored it, along with 14 other Lincoln goals this season, Jorge Grant, is out injured.
Of the eight managers who have taken charge of the Blues in the 21st century, only one has lost their first home match in charge.
That man was Jim Magilton, whose Town side took the lead against Crystal Palace in August 2006, only for the Eagles to come from behind and win 2-1 on an afternoon where the Northern Irishman’s team put in an encouraging display. To add insult to injury, Magilton’s former team-mate, James Scowcroft, scored the Palace winner.
George Burley (4-1 v Leicester in January 1995), Roy Keane (2-1 v Coventry in May 2009), Paul Jewell (3-2 v Doncaster in January 2011) and Mick McCarthy (2-1 v Burnley in November 2012) all recorded victories on their Portman Road bows. There were draws for Paul Hurst and Paul Lambert against Blackburn (2-2) and Preston (1-1) respectively.
The most pressurised of home starts goes to Joe Royle, though, who had the added concern of needing to defend Town’s proud unbeaten home record in Europe during his first match in charge of the club in 2002. Thankfully, though, he kept the record intact by beating Slovan Liberec 1-0, extending an impressive streak to 31 matches.
That’s not a record Cook will be needing to worry about any time soon, but a victory over the Imps will represent a decent start on the road to brighter days.