It's looking grim for play-off hopes

LESS than a week ago Ipswich Town supporters, after being elated by the fight-back against Sheffield United, must have felt that a place among the Division One play-off contenders was there for the taking.

LESS than a week ago Ipswich Town supporters, after being elated by the fight-back against Sheffield United, must have felt that a place among the Division One play-off contenders was there for the taking, writes Tony Garnett.

Since then the club has endured the bleakest week in its history. It went into Company Voluntary Administration on Monday, crashed to defeat against Wolves on Wednesday and then dropped two more points to bogey side Grimsby on Saturday.

One point out of six at Portman Road from matches Ipswich were expected to win underlines the unpredictability and cruelty of football. Why Joe Royle's players should have found it so tough against the battling journeymen from Humberside is open to debate.

A return to the Premiership through the play-offs is the escape route that Ipswich need so desperately to lift them out of their present financial nightmare.

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Already their chances are fading. The big concern is that anything but victory in Sunday's East Anglian Derby at Norwich would be another bitter blow so far as promotion hopes are concerned. It would also hurt the pride of Blues' fans who are prepared to forgive most things so long as the Canaries are not chirruping.

Several points were evident on Saturday as Ipswich resorted to a long-ball game which played into Grimsby's hands. It made defenders like Georges Santos and young Simon Ford look far more accomplished than Grimsby's defensive record suggests that they really are.

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In a season of massive problems the usually immaculate pitch at Portman Road has started to crumble. This made the team's natural passing style more difficult, but that was little excuse for abandoning it to such a great extent.

The biggest worry is the goalkeeping position. Andy Marshall was dropped because of inconsistent form. One had to feel sorry for young James Pullen who was thrown in at the deep end and floundered. He was unconvincing for Grimsby's opening goal in the eighth minute and dived over the ball for their second in the 24th minute.

There was press box speculation as to whether Marshall would appear for the second half. In the event Pullen played the full 90 minutes but he had precious little opportunity to redeem himself while Grimsby were concentrating on blanket defence.

Royle cannot bring in a goalkeeper on loan while the club is in administration so he is left to choose between Marshall, with the daunting prospect of a return to Carrow Road, and Pullen whose confidence will have taken a battering.

The Ipswich defence was suspect. John McGreal was less than fully match-fit while the absence through suspension of the swashbuckling Hermann Hreidarsson has turned out to be a bigger blow than many anticipated.

There will be no Hreidarsson at Norwich either, all because he raised his arm trying to shake off an opponent at Bradford. Many feel that FIFA have meddled with the laws of the game far too much but, for better or worse, they must be applied.

Matt Holland, the skipper who has had the experience of playing for a club in administration while at Bournemouth, recalled that it united the players at Dean Court. There was little evidence of a Churchillian spirit on Saturday. Perhaps the suggestion that a further percentage of their wages should be deferred has not gone down too well.

Let's hope the players are building up for a supreme effort at Carrow Road to kick-start a vital part of the season that seems in real danger of falling flat.

Tactically Ipswich wasted the massive talent of Darren Ambrose by using him wide on the left. He can be so much more dangerous dropping into the hole in a central position behind the strikers. This would leave space to include Martijn Reuser on the left wing to utilise flair rather than graft.

Ambrose and Darren Bent never saw enough of the ball which must have been a great relief to the Grimsby defence who would surely have been vulnerable against the slick passing game of which Ipswich are capable.

Grimsby recognised the potential threat of Jim Magilton before the interval and did their utmost to close him down. Royle was right to feel exasperated, but it's never easy to lift the spirits of a side that has conceded two soft goals early on.

In the eighth minute Richard Hughes fired a free-kick from the right low into the Ipswich six-yard box. Pullen stayed on his line. Defenders seemed mesmerised which left Grimsby's 37-year-old player-manager Paul Groves to force the ball a foot or so over the line before Thomas Gaardsoe could slide in to clear.

This setback was soon forgotten four minutes later when Marcus Bent latched onto a great pass from Wilnis down the right. His cross, about shoulder height, was headed home by the diving Darren Bent at the near post. It was a superb goal, but Town fans had to live on that memory until two minutes from the end.

In the 24th minute Ipswich conceded an even softer goal. Michael Boulding, once one of England's leading tennis players, accelerated past Gaardsoe and then tried a shot from the edge of the penalty area. The ball deflected off McGreal which took the pace off it. Pullen dived over the ball which found its way into the net. It was all so embarrassing.

Six minutes later the busy Stacy Coldicott failed to shoot when well placed from a cross by John Oster, the talented Grimsby playmaker who has returned from Sunderland for a second spell on loan.

A couple of shots from Ambrose were no real problem for Danny Coyne, a goalkeeper of the quality Ipswich need at the present time.

The second half saw a tigerish Grimsby defence soak up pressure although Ipswich should have scored in the 58th minute. Richard Naylor, introduced at the interval, headed agonisingly wide of the far post from close range. Marcus Bent had found Darren Bent who crossed well. Ambrose drew two players away from the far post leaving Naylor with a perfect opening.

Home fans called for Reuser, always a favourite because he can produce the unexpected. The Dutchman appeared late on the scene but still had a part to play in the face-saving late equaliser.

Chris Makin's persistence earned a corner on the left. Reuser's delivery was good and led to total confusion in the Grimsby goalmouth.

Naylor headed against the bar, Gaardsoe was denied by the post but Darren Bent, his first shot blocked, fired a second salvo low into the net for his 15th goal of the season.

Success in the next two away games at Norwich and Wolverhampton is now of paramount importance if Ipswich are not to lose touch with the group of play-off contenders.

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