Stuart Watson’s big kick-off verdict: Cynicism is deep-rooted, but there are reasons for cautious optimism
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Ipswich Town start their 2020/21 League One campaign with a televised home match against Wigan Athletic tomorrow lunchtime (12pm). Chief football writer STUART WATSON gives his thoughts on the season ahead.
League One, take two. The pressure is on.
Key injuries, big refereeing decisions, a ‘target on the backs’ and a Covid curtailed campaign – none of that excused finishing in 11th below, with respect, the likes of Wycombe, Fleetwood, Doncaster and Gillingham.
And there will be no excuses this season either.
Ipswich should be better equipped than most at this level to deal with the fall-out of a global pandemic.
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Owner Marcus Evans, for all his faults, is plugging a huge financial black hole. And, recognising just how big a juncture this is, he has become more hands-on than ever.
With divisional rivals stripped back to the bone and undergoing complete rebuilds, Town have some stability and the strength in depth to cope with what will be a constant rollercoaster of Saturday-Tuesday action.
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Behind-closed-doors football could well be a blessing for a team that struggled with the weight of expectation last season. And the salary cap restrictions won’t truly bite for another year or two yet either.
Realistically, it should be a case of eight or nine teams into six at the top end of the table.
For me, it’s between Sunderland, Peterborough, Hull, Oxford, Charlton, Portsmouth, Fleetwood and Ipswich for those play-offs spots, plus allowing for another surprise package like Wycombe (keep an eye on Blackpool).
Of those mentioned, Hull lost a hell of a lot of games from January onwards, Charlton have off-field drama, while Oxford and Portsmouth have seen star centre-backs exit in Rob Dickie and Christian Burgess respectively.
Sunderland and Portsmouth are further into their League One journeys and will be feeling just as much pressure. The pragmatic Phil Parkinson appears to have slowly won over Black Cats fans, but Kenny Jackett goes into the campaign with much to prove in the eyes of the Pompey faithful.
Peterborough look a team on the up, but it remains to be seen whether Jonson Clarke-Harris can adequately fill the Ivan Toney 26-goal void.
So, once again, opportunity knocks. Ipswich, without doubt, should be in the mix. The question is, have lessons been learnt?
All Lambert’s talk about tactical and selection consistency suggests that’s the case. Some of the football played in a dynamic 4-3-3 system over recent weeks has been a joy to watch.
Kane Vincent-Young, James Norwood, Jack Lankester, Freddie Sears, Andre Dozzell and Teddy Bishop could all be like proverbial new signings if fully fit and firing. Those six players started just 43 league games between last season. Norwood accounts for more than half of them and he was only semi-fit for most of them.
The senior trio of Emyr Huws, Jon Nolan and Alan Judge can all hopefully kick on too.
And what of the actual new signings? Time will tell if David Cornell makes the No.1 spot his own, Stephen Ward looks like he’ll help Luke Chambers share the leadership load, while Oli Hawkins will provide a much-needed physical option up top.
That’s not even mentioning wantaway midfield star Flynn Downes and rapid front man Kayden Jackson.
When you reel off that list of players, it’s hard not to feel just a little excited and cautiously optimistic.
Cynicism is understandably deep-rooted in the Ipswich fanbase though. There have been too many false dawns now for anyone to be getting carried away by last weekend’s very impressive dismantling of Bristol Rovers in the Carabao Cup.
Lambert’s ‘tough love’ approach with his squad could prove a masterstroke or it could badly backfire. The sentiment that standards needed to be raised can’t be argued with, but how close to the knuckle that man management technique is going only those on the inside will know.
One thing is for sure, it’s good to have football back. Six months was too long to ruminate on the bitter disappointment of 2019/20. It’s a relief to finally be moving on.
At the start of last season, all everyone wanted was to shake off the losing culture that came with relegation. The all-consuming pursuit of wins probably saw Town take their eye off the ball in terms of developing something that was future proof.
This time around, I’d rather Ipswich put more stock in performances than points early on. Be brave, trust the process and let’s see where it takes them.
One final note. Football without fans is certainly surreal and also a little bit hollow, but it’s better than nothing. I’m hoping your absence at stadiums has acted as timely reminder to all those in the game never to take you all for granted.
Stay safe everyone. Just as Town can’t afford to get complacent, neither can you. Fingers crossed iFollow behaves itself and that, whenever Portman Road throws its doors open again, they’ll be plenty to shout about.
Until then, I hope you enjoy our coverage.