Launchpads, tough calls, a touchline battle and big support as Town head to Gillingham
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Ipswich Town play their first game of 2022 when they travel to Gillingham this afternoon. Andy Warren looks ahead to the contest.
Back in the game
Welcome to 2022, Ipswich Town.
The Blues are in action for the first time this year at Gillingham this afternoon, where Kieran McKenna’s side are looking to build on the 1-0 victory over Wycombe they achieved in the new manager’s first game.
Building real momentum is the only way Ipswich are going to fight their way back into the promotion race during the first five months of 2022, with McKenna’s side now sitting 11 points off the play-offs in 11th.
There are still 22 games remaining this season, but you have to feel they need to begin the push sooner rather than later.
A game with Gillingham, who have won just once in 17 matches and are 22nd in the table, is a good place to start. Then there are games with Bolton (17th, Jan 15), Accrington (10th, Jan 22) and AFC Wimbledon (18th, Jan 25) to come.
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It could be a real launchpad.
It’s one game at a time, though, with the first coming this afternoon at Priestfield.
The game was supposed to be on Boxing Day, of course, with the original fixture postponed because of a Covid outbreak in the Kent side’s squad.
Gillingham have their senior players back now and, from the recent battles with Steve Evans’ side, we all know what to expect.
They’re physical, combative, spiky and in-your-face. They play to the strengths of big striker Vadaine Oliver, meaning Town’s defenders will need to rise to the challenge once again, having dealt with the aerial threat of Wycombe well last time out.
"Gillingham are an opponent that aren't too dissimilar to Wycombe in terms of style,” McKenna said, having watched their draw with MK Dons recently.
"They're a strong team physically and they're effective on set pieces and winning the second ball. They will put us under pressure and try to put balls into the box.
“Against Wycombe we stood up well to that type of threat, and the clean sheet was a big factor as it gave us the foundation to go on and win the game.
“If we're as solid, organised and resolute as we were in that game, and with the same level of determination, then we give ourselves a good chance.
“The challenge is to hit those levels that we did against Wycombe in the parts of the game that we played well, and try to maintain that for longer.
“We need to be mentally, physically and tactically prepared for what they offer, and then we'll try to show our quality.”
McKenna will have experienced a lot during his 13-year coaching career, which has seen him work his way up through the Premier League academy system to work with Cristiano Ronaldo on a daily basis at Manchester United.
But he’s probably not experienced anything quite like The Steve Evans Experience.
The verbal onslaught the Scot throws at officials, both sets of players and opposition coaches throughout the 90 minutes is incredibly intense. And it’s all helped by attack dog assistant Paul Raynor, who fills in any gaps Evans leaves in proceedings.
McKenna was asked about the prospect of facing Evans on the touchline this weekend but answered with a straight bat. He and No.2 Martyn Pert seems too cool in character to be sucked into such highly-charged touchline games.
“Obviously, Steve is a very experienced coach and has a really good record with a lot of experience and wins under his belt, and has managed a lot of games,” McKenna said.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him and his teams and we know it’s going to be a big challenge. We know the type of game they will want to make it and they are very good at it and very effective at how they play it.
“Obviously they’re having a challenging moment in terms of wins, so they are going to be fighting with everything they’ve got for a result and we need to make sure we’re doing the same.
McKenna deployed a 3-4-3 system in his first game but has regularly stressed just how adaptable he, his players and their approach to games will need to be going forward.
So, while there are few reasons to change things from a solid showing against Wycombe, it’s not impossible we see a different look from the Town boss this afternoon.
But all signs are pointing to a similar side to the one which beat the Chairboys, with Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson likely continuing as a back three and James Norwood and Sone Aluko once again deployed in support of Macauley Bonne.
One change is likely, though, with Christian Walton available again after his positive Covid test. The man who Town are trying to sign permanently could return between the sticks in place of Vaclav Hladky.
McKenna has a strong squad to pick from, with only long-term injury victims Hayden Coulson and Jon Nolan not available to the Northern Irishman.
The Town boss has acknowledged picking his bench will be difficult this weekend, with Kyle Edwards, Bersant Celina, Rekeem Harper, Kane Vincent-Young, Cameron Burgess and Idris El Mizouni all missing from the matchday squad against Wycombe.
All of them will be hopeful of returning to the bench at least this weekend, but simple maths will tell you that’s not possible.
Tom Carroll, Conor Chaplin and Joe Pigott were used from the bench in McKenna’s first game, with Tomas Holy, Scott Fraser, Toto Nsiala and Kayden Jackson the unused substitutes.
Some interesting decisions need to be made.
Wet, wet, wet
As they have been so often this season, Town will be cheered on by a packed-out away end this afternoon.
More than 2,000 fans will pack onto the scaffolded Brian Moore Stand, with the seats in no way protected from the elements. Those elements look set to provide plenty of rain this afternoon, but that won’t bother Town’s hardy away support as they cheer on McKenna’s side on the road for the first time.
“Everyone has spoken to me about how good the away support is,” the Town boss said. “I’ve experienced it at Portman Road now across two games, seeing it live and how noisy they are and how much they get behind the team.
“I know the situation all year, the travelling numbers have been fantastic, even when the team hasn’t been doing well they’ve stayed behind the players and stayed with the club.
“I can only thank them for that in terms of myself as a manager of the club but also on behalf of the players. I know it’s appreciated, the players have spoken to me on that personally and I know that they value that.
“The fact that there are so many travelling down to Gillingham is great, we’re looking forward to that and hopefully it will give us that extra boost that we need and will give the players the confidence and the backing and the energy that we’ll need to compete in what’s going to be a very difficult game.”