Stuart Watson’s Sunday Verdict – A post-mortem of Ipswich Town’s disastrous 2018/19 campaign after relegation is confirmed with four games left
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Ipswich Town’s relegation to League One was confirmed yesterday following a 1-1 home draw with Birmingham City. STUART WATSON looks back on a miserable campaign and ahead to life in the third-tier.
THE LONG SLEEPWALK
As Paul Lambert has so perceptively observed, Ipswich Town had been ‘sleepwalking’ towards their current predicament for some time.
Owner Marcus Evans threw money at the club in the first few years which followed his late 2007 takeover and saw much of it wasted by Roy Keane and Paul Jewell. He reined in his spending at a time when rivals began to increasingly splash the cash.
Town’s budget was bottom end of the division for most of Mick McCarthy’s tenure. The Yorkshireman regularly turned water into wine, but it came at a price. A reliance on short-term signings and ultra-pragmatic football saw excitement and hope slowly dissipate.
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Mick felt unloved and unappreciated. Mick became increasingly obstinate and combative. Sadly, a once strong relationship soured beyond the point of no return.
With attendances on the slide and apathy at an all-time high, Evans decided to take away McCarthy’s expertly applied torniquet and attempt surgery on the slow bleed.
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Step forwards Paul Hurst. Spirited away from Shrewsbury Town just days after their League One Play-Off Final defeat to Rotherham, the appointment of a young, up-and-coming English boss was warmly welcomed by a large portion of the Blues’ fan base.
He lasted just 149 days in the job.
Too much was changed too soon. McCarthy’s mid-table squad needed evolution not revolution. That is Hurst’s sad legacy.
To be fair to him, several loans and contracts expired before his arrival leaving a pretty threadbare squad. Then key men Adam Webster, Martyn Waghorn and Joe Garner all expressed a strong desire to leave.
It created the perfect storm.
Recruiting 12 players in one window and getting them to quickly gel was always going to be a huge ask. Basing that recruitment strategy almost exclusively around players with little or no Championship experience was, with the power of hindsight, suicide in this most unforgiving of leagues.
It was vital the senior players were kept on board. Going from McCarthy and Terry Connor’s man-management approach of public protection and trusting players to know their own bodies, to Hurst and Chris Doig’s blunt claims about reputation counting for nothing and a militant approach to fitness training did little to ensure that was the case.
Evans had plenty of time to prepare for life post McCarthy, yet somehow the Blues ended up frantically chasing their tail catch-up heading into a crucial crossroads campaign. Waghorn’s sale was far too protracted. Everything else subsequently felt rushed.
Had Town got off to a good start then the new man’s methods may have got buy-in from the players.
The Blues battered Rotherham in game two but somehow lost 1-0 to a last minute goal. The course of history might also have been altered had Trevoh Chloabah’s penalty not hit a digger behind the goal in the EFL Cup shoot-out loss at Exeter. If Norwich had been put to bed at Portman Road at the start of September that too could have lit the blue touch paper.
Instead, the longer the wait for a win went on the more it became a psychological block.
A 3-2 win at Swansea gave Hurst a stay of execution. The limp 2-0 home loss to Hull after the subsequent international break made him a dead man walking. Evans reluctantly pulled the trigger in the wake of a 2-0 defeat at Leeds.
LIMITED NEW MANAGER BOUNCE
And so Town turn to Paul Lambert, one of their bitter rivals’ most successful ever managers.
His language and actions of inclusivity, giving players cuddles not kicks and focussing on football not fitness quickly won the hearts and minds of fans and players alike.
An early win or two might have kick-started some powerful momentum. Instead, leads were squandered against Preston, Reading and – most gut-wrenchingly of all – Bristol City.
Off-field things felt different, like a cloud had been lifted. On the pitch it remained a familiar tale as the underlying deficiencies continued under new management.
FORMULA OF FAILURE
To be this far adrift at the foot of the table and have rarely lost heavily is a strange thing.
Only three of the 23 defeats have come by a three-goal margin (Millwall, QPR and Norwich away). Then again, so many of the 2-0 losses – 11 of them in total – have ultimately been pretty comfortable.
Play well in patches, don’t take chances and concede soft goals. That’s been the formula for failure.
Sixteen shots and 12 corners at Rotherham; lose 1-0 in the last minute. Played against 10-man Bolton for almost an hour at home and still draw 0-0. The sea parting for Gwion Edwards when Town were 1-0 up at home to Norwich but the killer touch lacking.
Not able to beat makeshift Preston keeper Paul Gallagher in Lambert’s first game, not putting Reading to bed in a dominant first half at The Madejski a week later, Jon Nolan and Luke Chambers spurning great chances in the 2-1 home defeat to Reading, Collin Quaner hitting the post at Brentford last Wednesday at 0-0... We could be here all day.
That puts extra pressure on the defence. Too often they’ve crumbled under that pressure.
Both goalkeepers have been out of form. The previously imperious Bartosz Bialkowski has twice been dropped post World Cup. That’s highlighted how many cracks he previously covered. Dean Gerken, usually an able understudy, has also had moments to forget (own goal versus QPR).
Early in the season it was set-pieces which were the Achilles heel. Either side of Christmas four penalties were conceded in the space of five league games. The failure to stop crosses soon became a theme, as did a lack of game management late in matches.
So often Town have shot themselves in the foot. Bart’s calamitous mix-up with Jonas Knudsen against Stoke instantly springs to mind. Then there’s Jordan Spence’s powderpuff attempt to stop Hull’s Jackson Irvine, Nolan passing straight to a QPR player on Boxing Day, Callum Elder’s bad day at Blackburn, Toto Nsiala’s mistake on halfway late against Reading, Flynn Downes’ slip at Brentford... Again, we could be here all day.
Town have led for a total of 464 minutes across their 42 league games this season (12% of game time). They’ve trailed for 1,557 minutes (41% of game time).
A mammoth 22 points have been squandered from 14 winning positions. To put that into context, Bolton have the next worst record on that front with nine points dropped.
The home games against Bristol City and Millwall will forever haunt the Blues. Twice they led against the Robins in Lambert’s third game at the helm but somehow managed to turn three points into zero. On New Year’s Day they played some delightful football against the Lions but again conceded three times after the break.
That was the brutal jab and hook combo which left the punch drunk Blues ultimately unable to get up off the canvas.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Lambert had to try and change something to alter Town’s perilous path when the January transfer window came along.
Seven signings arrived early in the New Year, seven players with relative pedigree, but also seven players available for a reason. All were desperately short of being match conditioned.
Slowly but surely we began to see many of the new boys getting up to speed. Slowly but surely we began to see Lambert’s risk-taking style of play become ingrained. Slowly but surely we saw several of Hurst’s lower league recruits find their feet in the Championship.
Those predictable 2-0 defeats turned into a string of 1-1 draws. There were spirited comebacks against Derby, Stoke, West Brom and Bristol City. Again against Birmingham yesterday.
It was, however, sadly all too little too late. Time was always against Town.
Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in this most miserable of seasons.
The injuries – both in terms of who, when and how long for – have been ridiculous. Jon Walters, Freddie Sears, Grant Ward, Will Keane, Cole Skuse, Jack Lankester, Matthew Pennington... all have been major blows at vital moments.
That’s been made all the more galling by the fact that Adam Webster and David McGoldrick, so often in the treatment room at Portman Road, have been fit and firing for Bristol City and Sheffield United respectively.
It doesn’t feel like refereeing decisions have evened themselves out either. Toto Nsiala’s red card at Sheffield Wednesday was baffling in the extreme. The less said about Keith Stroud the better.
Deflections, there’ve been a few. Two at Derby, another at West Brom.
All of the above has not helped. That’s not the reason Town are heading for League One though. You make your own luck in this game. The bottom line is they just have not been good enough.
THE SHAME, THE HOPE, THE DREAM...
This is the lowest point in the history of Ipswich Town Football Club. A proud 62-year run in as a mainstay in English football’s top two tiers has come to an end.
It stings to see outsiders lining up to take pot-shots at a club that was once everyone’s favourite second team.
This is not something to be underplayed. This famous old club should never have reached this stage. It’s shameful. The man at the top, Evans, has made far, far too many mistakes along the way.
He’s fortunate that McCarthy and Lambert, in different ways, have taken the heat off him.
So where does the current feelgood factor in the stands and hope of brighter times ahead come from?
The return of some entertainment value. Win, draw or lose, the Blues have been a lot easier on the eye since Lambert’s arrival. It would have been easy for him to have launched an all-out rescue mission rather than a rebuild one. However, if this bold style of play properly comes good it could be spectacular.
The fact that Lambert guided Norwich from the third-tier to mid-table in the Premier League. He’s a man desperate to build something of substance again following short stints at Blackburn, Wolves and Stoke.
The feeling that one step backwards may be just what is needed to ultimately take two forwards. It’s hard to truly develop when you’re constantly treading water. Back in the shallow end it’s easier to work on things from scratch.
There are certainly plenty of youngsters ready for the nursery pool. Six academy graduates – Josh Emmanuel, Myles Kenlock, Andre Dozzell, Flynn Downes, Idris El Mizouni and Tristan Nydam – featured against Brentford last week. Jack Lankester, Ben Morris and Ben Folami are to come back from injury. Luke Woolfenden is to return from loan at Swindon. Others are coming through beneath them.
A core of experience is in place to guide them. Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse remain. Signing Alan Judge, a player destined for the Premier League not so long ago, is a major coup.
But the biggest thing of all? Everyone is united. Clubs usually go down fractured and fighting. Ipswich have got beyond the anger and apathy stage of their decline. The reconnection and reboot is well under way. These extended preparations could be vital.
That’s not to say it will be easy.
Town have got a horrible losing habit to shake. The stink of relegation can take a long time to clear.
They will have a target on their backs and there are some street wise footballers in the third-tier. The Blues have been on the end of enough cup defeats to lower league teams in recent years to know that.
The novelty factor of a ‘League One tour’ will undoubtedly have a limit. There are as many cautionary tales as there are success stories when it comes to clubs of Town’s stature dropping down to such depths.
Yes, the current mood of acceptance and anticipation could easily dissipate. Lambert could quickly turn from the Messiah into a very naughty boy in the space of months. He’s been around long enough to know that.
For now though, we trust, we hope and we dream.
We trust in Lambert’s talk of the club going in a different direction and that, with plenty of time to prepare, he’ll get things right this summer.
We hope that Evans will get season ticket prices right this week, continue to back his manager (as he has done with the signing of Judge) and step up to the plate in his more hands-on role as owner. It shouldn’t have taken this long for that to happen.
And we dream of a promotion 20 years on from that day at Wembley in 2000. Who knows? It could happen that way again.