North Stander: 'We're a bit like a boxer with a glass jaw'
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It hasn’t taken Paul Cook long to work out the fatal flaw with this Ipswich Town squad - and it’s the biggest problem the new manager has to resolve.
Cook summed it up perfectly after the Portsmouth defeat. “Mentally we are not as strong as we should be.” There it is, in ten words - the reason we lose games which should be comfortable wins.
We saw it again at Pompey. For the vast majority of the first half, we were by far the better team. James Norwood scored a nice goal, and the home side didn’t lay a glove on us. So far, so good.
But then, just before half-time, we conceded a soft goal, and the course of the whole game changed. After that, our team disappeared into its shell. We offered absolutely nothing going forward, and allowed Portsmouth to dominate.
Once the home team scored their second goal, the ref (our old friend Alan Young) might as well have blown his whistle there and then. It was game over. We were never, ever going to come back.
We’re a bit like a boxer with a glass jaw. Absolutely fine and dominating the fight, but as soon as our opponent lands one punch, we’re down on the canvas with no chance of beating the count.
Player for player, I maintain that pure talent-wise, we have one of the best squads in this division. But football isn’t just about talent. You also need mental strength, and the ability to overcome the inevitable setbacks. You need the belief and confidence which all good teams possess. It’s painfully clear that we are very short of both.
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It seems as though we’re almost waiting for something to go wrong, and then when it does, all the players freeze, thinking “here we go again.” You don’t win many games with that mentality.
So, can Cook change that? Long-term, of course he can. But it might take a big clear-out this summer before the transformation is possible. Cook knows we need stronger characters in his squad, more leaders, players who respond in the right way when things go wrong.
So far as this season goes, this weakness might well be our undoing. Cook is a really good manager, but he can’t work miracles. We might need to be patient and accept a third season in this dreadful division.
Being very blunt, there must be a lot of worried players at Ipswich Town. So many of them are out of contract at the end of the season, and I suspect that a lot of them will be saying their goodbyes. After the last three seasons, it’s difficult to make a compelling case to keep many of them.
For those released, finding a new club won’t be easy. Clubs in the lower division are desperately short of funds and will be keeping their squads small, and cheap.
So, many of our squad are playing for their futures, and possibly their careers. You would think that would provide the ultimate motivation, but it doesn’t seem to be working that way.
I think it will be time to say goodbye and thank you to Luke Chambers. He’s been a fine servant to the club, and a good character to have around the place. But at 35, his time has come.
There is talk of him playing the rest of the season at centre-half, and he moved there towards the end of the game against Pompey. Maybe that will happen, but it’s hardly the future, is it?
One very bright spot on another deeply disappointing afternoon was the surprise appearance from the bench of Kane Vincent-Young. After well over a year of injury after injury, it was terrific to see him back on the pitch.
Many of us had begun to fear that his career might be over and, judging from how emotional he looked as he waited to go on, those kind of grim thoughts have been with him as well during the long, lonely period he’s been out. If he can get anywhere near the blistering form he showed when he arrived from Colchester, then he can make a huge difference.
Welcome back, Kane. We’ve really missed you!
So, only 11 games to go. The run-in looks less than terrifying. We should be challenging for a place in the top six. But for that to happen, we need Paul Cook to transfer some of his ebullient, cheery, confident personality into the shrinking violets he manages. Good luck, Paul!