Familiar faces galore, 'Chequebook FC' and the start of something big? - Town head to Portsmouth

Paul Cook takes his Ipswich Town side to former club Portsmouth tonight

Paul Cook takes his Ipswich Town side to former club Portsmouth tonight - Credit: Steve Waller

Ipswich Town are in League One action this evening when the Blues head to Fratton Park to take on Portsmouth. Andy Warren looks ahead to the game.

Here we go 

It feels like this game heralds the start of a new phase of Ipswich Town’s season. 

There’s 13 League One games between now and the end of 2021, with that run including two meetings against each of Sunderland and Wycombe, a visit to current leaders Plymouth, a battle with old foes Rotherham and the small matter of Paul Cook’s return to Leam Richardson’s Wigan. 

Fleetwood, a side on a run of just one loss in 10, visit Portman Road on Saturday, but first up is a trip to Fratton Park to face a club Cook knows all-too-well from his time in charge of Portsmouth. 

The Town players huddle at Cambridge.

The Town players huddle at Cambridge. - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

Danny Cowley’s side are in a sticky patch of their own, which has seen them win just one of their last 11 matches, slipping down the table after firing out the blocks in August with three wins to start the campaign. The latest loss saw them go down 4-1 to Rotherham. 

But this is a team which beat Sunderland 4-0 recently and, no doubt about it, will provide a thorough examination for an Ipswich side who haven’t had things all their own way of late. 

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Town’s first dozen games have yielded just three wins, with Lincoln in 13th the highest side to be conquered, while matches against all-four newly-promoted sides have yielded just two points. Town took the lead in three of those games - at Cheltenham, at home to Bolton and at Cambridge on Saturday – with those dropped points the reason Cook’s men currently sit in the bottom half of the table. 

They’ll need better in the coming weeks but, if you look on the bright side, the best way to climb league tables and close gaps is to beat the sides above you. 

Ipswich have the chance to do that between now and the new year, starting tonight at Fratton Park. 

Portsmouth manager Paul Cook celebrates after the final whistle during the Sky Bet League Two match

Portsmouth manager Paul Cook celebrates after securing the League Two title for Portsmouth - Credit: PA

Cook’s return 

“I’m fully focused on Ipswich Town,” was Cook’s response, when asked about his return to former club Portsmouth ahead of this game. 

He continued: “My time at Portsmouth has now passed and they have their own issues, which are for Danny and Nicky Cowley to sort out. 

“I just focus on preparing a team for our next game because we all want to climb this league. That won’t happen in a game or two, you need the consistency. 

“Going back to Portsmouth is just the next game of the campaign. Does it hold much for me? No, not particularly because I just want to win the game.” 

Portsmouth's Conor Chaplin celebrates with the fans after the Sky Bet League Two match at Meadow Lan

Conor Chaplin is a former Portsmouth player - Credit: PA

This is the second time Cook has taken an Ipswich side to Fratton Park, of course, with last season’s game ending in a 2-1 loss as Ipswich, you guessed it, let a lead slip as they fell to defeat.  

Tonight’s game is a completely different affair, though, played out in front of a big Portsmouth crowd instead of empty stands.  

It will be interesting to see the reception Cook gets at a club he won the League Two title for, before departing for Wigan, immediately after his side lifted the trophy. 

Selection section 

It’s hard to predict Cook teams at the moment, with the Town boss giving little away in the lead up to games. 

“We’ll just keep our cards close to our chest,” Cook said ahead of this match. 

“For our team selections we want to keep things as private as we can.” 

Bersant Celina after the defeat at Accrington Stanley.

Will Bersant Celina return to the side for tonight's game? - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

That means we don’t know whether Lee Evans is back in contention, after missing Saturday’s game as he welcomed a new addition to the family, or whether Joe Pigott will be in the squad after sadly losing his father over the weekend. 

We also don’t know if either Christian Walton or Hayden Coulson have sufficiently recovered from their injuries to return to the side. If they have, Cook must surely be tempted to bring both men into the starting XI. 

Then there’s the conundrum of the attacking three behind Macauley Bonne.  

Wes Burns looks likely to return, having dropped to the bench at Cambridge, while Conor Chaplin has come closer than anyone this season to making the No.10 position his own. He’ll surely continue there against his former club, where he came through the youth system and went on to play more than 100 games. 

Lee Evans celebrates after scoring Towns fifth.

Lee Evans missed Saturday's draw at Cambridge but could return tonight - Credit: stephenwaller.com

Assuming both of those start, that then leaves the left side to consider. Cook has incumbent Scott Fraser, Saturday’s two-goal man Sone Aluko (who played on the right at Cambridge) and then the exciting duo of Bersant Celina and Kyle Edwards to factor in.  

Options galore.  

Intrigue central 

As well as Cook and Chaplin returning to Portsmouth, there are plenty of others facing teams with which they have history. Some of it very recent. 

Gary Roberts, Town’s first-team coach, was a Portsmouth player under Cook, while John Keeley also coached the Pompey goalkeepers prior to his move to Suffolk this summer.  

Ryan Tunnicliffe, an Ipswich loanee during 2013/14, is a Portsmouth regular after joining in the summer, while Ellis Harrison, a one-season Town player in 2018/19, is working his way back following injury. He could be on the bench. 

Portsmouth's Michael Jacobs during the Papa John's Trophy Southern Group B match at Fratton Park, Po

Portsmouth's Michael Jacobs nearly joined Ipswich Town in the summer - Credit: PA

Ipswich tried to steal midfielder Joe Morrell from under the noses of Pompey in the summer, before he ultimately maintained his commitment to the Cowleys and moved from Luton. Michael Jacobs was at Town’s Playford Road base and was ready to sign a contract before Town pulled the plug on the deal at the last minute. They moved for Kyle Edwards instead. 

Jacobs, a former Cook player at Wigan, hasn’t been involved regularly for Portsmouth this season and will likely be on the bench against the club he had agreed to join.  

‘Chequebook FC’ 

Those moves for Morrell and Jacobs were just part of a summer which saw Ipswich and Portsmouth rub up against each other in the transfer market, with Town linked with moves for Gavin Bazunu and Mahlon Romeo before they ultimately ended up at Fratton Park. They weren’t serious Ipswich targets, despite the reports. 

But that did lead to Portsmouth fans branding Ipswich ‘Chequebook FC’ at one stage, during what was a short-lived but reasonably intense period of jousting between the two sets of supporters. 

Paul Cook talks to Mike Ashton, Ian Craney and Michael O'Leary after the draw at Cambridge United.

Paul Cook talks to chief executive Mark Ashton (centre), coach Ian Craney (left) and chairman Michael O'Leary (right) after the draw at Cambridge United. - Credit: Pagepix Ltd

Town CEO Mark Ashton has regularly distanced himself and the club from any notion of ‘big spending’, highlighting the fact so many players (and their salaries) were moved on this summer, while decent transfer fees were achieved for the likes of Flynn Downes and Andre Dozzell. 

“Paul and I had a chuckle about it the other day after someone showed us,” Ashton said at a fan forum earlier in the season, when asked about the ‘Chequebook FC’ nickname. 

“I talked about player trading earlier. We’ve had a couple of players that have gone out and we think we’ve taken good value in the current market for them and we’re protected moving forward, not just including percentage of a sell-on, that includes additional payments on games, appearances, etc. We’re happy with the deals that we’ve done. 

“People forget that we’ve sold as well as bought and we have moved out one helluva lot of salary because we have a set of salary protocols that we must adhere to. We do that, so we’ve had to move out to move in.

“Probably moving some of the players out has been as challenging as bringing some of them in. 

“All we’re going to do is focus on us. Ipswich Town is the priority. Let’s just focus on what we do, let’s control what we can do. It makes me chuckle because if people are talking about us like that, we might be concerning one or two.” 

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