Merry Christmas...I hope

LIKE George Michael, we can all lament making an emotional commitment last Christmas, only to find it thrown back in our face.If Town beat Wigan on Tuesday, skipping over them to the top of the table in the process, then the emotions of Ipswich fans on Christmas Day will be in stark contrast to those felt a year ago.

LIKE George Michael, we can all lament making an emotional commitment last Christmas, only to find it thrown back in our face.

If Town beat Wigan on Tuesday, skipping over them to the top of the table in the process, then the emotions of Ipswich fans on Christmas Day will be in stark contrast to those felt a year ago.

Twas the Sunday before Christmas, 2003, and all throughout Suffolk not a thing was stirring, except Leon McKenzie at the far post (twice) to ruin our derby day, send Norwich to the top of the table and make the turkey taste extremely bitter.

A fortunate and unexpected win at West Ham on Boxing Day raised the spirits, but then Palace went on the rampage in the second half at Portman Road, and we were back to square one. After an impressive run of wins in the autumn, our automatic promotion hopes came down with the decorations.


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The contrast between then and now is such that I keep having the same conversation with fellow Town fans, the one where you marvel at how the current points tally is so much better than in previous years. If we can finish this season as we have the last two, then there's every reason to think we'll still be smiling in May.

There's no need to caution Ipswich fans against complacency, we've learned the hard way that however rosy things are in the garden, dark clouds can speed overhead quickly.

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We're the team that finished fifth in the Premiership, spent a small fortune then got relegated. We're the team that swapped automatic promotion places for the lottery of the play-offs - twice. We know this game has a nasty habit of tripping you up.

But rather than cower in fear of hidden demons, I'd rather look at realistic concerns, and there are three of those.

One is the size of the squad. The addition of Darren Currie has boosted the midfield, but if we were to get a proper injury crisis, like the ones which have struck down several Premiership clubs this season, then we would struggle.

The second is the opposition. It's taken the big guns of this division a while to get started, but now they've lumbered into life the likes of West Ham and Sunderland are not in the distance anymore, they're filling our rear view mirror. It seems a more competitive division this time around, and Reading, in particular, seem more capable of mounting an automatic challenge.

The third fly in our ointment is Wigan. Bursting with goals and attacking intent, if it doesn't work (and currently it's working a dream) they can go out in January and fix it with some of their owner's dosh. The only thing I can see slowing them up is the state of their pitch and the lack of any decent home support.

They destroyed us at Portman Road last season, and looked a good bet to sneak up on Norwich and West Brom if they kept up their form, but it tailed off inexplicably, and I can only assume sharing their turf with the rugby league boys, and looking round at all those empty seats had a negative effect.

But aside from all these causes for furrowed brows, the future is bright. The team is playing with a refreshing spirit and organisation, the goal threat is, if anything, more potent than before, and we even keep the odd clean sheet.

On top of that, Royle has hit a rich seam with transfers this season. Kevin Horlock has been a rock in the midfield, Jason De Vos an inspiration at the back, and on the early evidence, Currie will be a valuable addition.

And finally, the fans now believe in the team. After struggling to get crowds in excess of 23,000 despite the fact the home form was, and is, excellent, the numbers are going up as people come to watch a winning side.

Take a stroll round the upstairs of the stadium shop this week, and you'll see fans booking their places to see West Ham, Stoke, even Bolton. The feelgood factor has returned.

And it's very timely. Last Christmas the only thought was of hibernation and waking up once the crowing had stopped north of the Waveney. Beat Wigan on Tuesday, and we'll be the ones toasting the festive season.

Have a Blue Christmas, in the nicest possible sense.

steve.mellen@eadt.co.uk1

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