The big day, new faces, expectations and tributes - Ipswich Town's new era dawns against Morecambe
- Credit: PA
Ipswich Town begin their League One season in front of more than 20,000 fans when Morecambe visit this afternoon. Andy Warren looks ahead to the game.
The moment we’ve been waiting for
Here we go, then. The day so many have waited 17 months for has finally arrived.
Football was functional during the toughest days of the pandemic because it had to be. The wheel had to keep turning to keep the game alive. But the soul was missing – anyone who was lucky enough to attend a game behind-closed doors could see it. Those watching behind laptop screens certainly felt it to.
But now, hopefully, we are out the other end. Football is back.
And with it comes the return of pre-match routines. Lunch and drinks with friends at the pub, the stroll to the ground, the smell of burger vans and the clicking of turnstiles. All of that before the first glimpse of the luscious green pitch and the sprinklers throwing water high into the air.
The Portman Road turnstiles will click around 20,000 times this afternoon and, though there have been bigger crowds at Portman Road during Town’s ever-increasing drop into League One, I have absolutely no doubt this will be the loudest.
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There are a few changes of course, with proof of negative tests, vaccinations and masks, but the game hasn’t changed, even if the Ipswich Town squad has beyond recognition.
Anything is possible on the opening day and optimism is certainly high this time around, with Paul Cook’s hard reset of the Ipswich squad leading to a raft of new signings.
Matchday is about three points, and that haul would do very nicely this afternoon of course. But today feels like so much more.
It’s just a shame Town’s new owners, hamstrung by the complexities of ever-changing Covid travel rules, will not be here to witness it.
But they’ll be watching thousands of miles away, on what is truly the start of a new era.
A new team
There are 11 new faces at Ipswich Town this summer and there’s a real chance 10 of them will make their debuts this afternoon.
George Edmundson’s injury issues mean he’ll be absent and also means the back seven in this Ipswich side probably picks itself.
Vaclav Hladky will start in goal, Kane Vincent-Young at right-back, Matt Penney on the left and then Toto Nsiala and Luke Woolfenden in the middle.
Lee Evans and Rekeem Harper will be in the centre of midfield and Wes Burns will surely start wide on the right as perhaps the eighth nailed-on member of the side. But that’s where the certainties stop.
Joe Pigott will almost certainly be in the starting XI but it remains to be seen as it’s as the lone central striker or as part of a pairing, with Macauley Bonne and James Norwood battling for a spot there.
But, if Cook opts against that, it’s likely Scott Fraser and Conor Chaplin will fill the other two positions, at No.10 and wide on the left. Which way round those two are deployed remains to be seen. Armando Dobra will be hoping to have his say here, too, while Louie Barry, signed yesterday from Aston Villa, could also make the bench and will be hopeful of getting on.
We’ll find out at 2pm.
The big crowd inside Portman Road will arrive with real expectations this afternoon.
And Cook is happy to shoulder that – he knows he has a side capable of being firmly in the mix this season.
But he also knows it won’t be easy and that, following the decisions he made to tear his quad up and build it again, there will be growing pains.
Last weekend’s friendly loss to Millwall highlighted the fact Town need to improve in many areas, while Cook has also rightly highlighted just how strong the division is this season. There are at least 10 clubs who will think they have genuine promotion hopes and plenty more hopeful of threatening the top six.
Morecambe are unlikely to be one of those sides. They’re big aim is surely to survive. But Cook has been preparing us for the visits of teams like this in recent weeks by repeatedly stating how clubs will come to Portman Road and make it difficult. In this scenario, Cook says, he will likely need to call on multiple strikers from the bench.
Today is about a homecoming for Ipswich fans but it’s a big deal for Morecambe, too, as they celebrate promotion to the third tier for the first time in their history.
It’s been a summer of change at the Lancashire club, too, with promotion-winning manager Derek Adams exiting for Bradford, with Stephen Robinson replacing him. They bring two former Ipswich midfielders back to Suffolk this weekend, in the form of Toumani Diagouraga and Shane McLoughlin, too.
The Shrimps have lost their star man, with Carlos Mendes Gomes heading to Luton, meaning replacements have been required. One of those new men, solid League One striker Jon Obika, is already out for months with an injury.
Cook described Morecambe as being ‘extremely dangerous’ heading into this game. Hopefully they don’t spoil the party.
Remembering a legend
Portman Road will pay tribute to a legend this afternoon.
Paul Mariner, one of Sir Bobby Robson’s heroes from 1978 and 1981, passed away last month following a battle with a brain tumour, with a minute’s applause held ahead of Town’s pre-season friendly at Dartford later that day.
But the club always planned more and Mariner’s memory will be honoured this afternoon, with members of his family present and a minute’s applause ahead of kick-off. There will be tributes from former team-mates as well as a collection for the Brain Tumour Charity.
It would be fitting, then, if Town’s new No.9, Joe Pigott could honour Mariner’s memory with a goal on the pitch he graced so often in Ipswich blue.
Just quick point of order – we're back to the standard three substitutes per team and a seven-man bench, having moved up to five during last season as sides continued to deal with the impact of the pandemic.