Put your shirt on Town bid for promotion
Ipswich Town 2 Derby County 1IF this thriller had been the second game into the season on a balmy summer's afternoon instead of the penultimate home game on a sunny April day, then Town fans would have a campaign to look forward to with great hope.
By Derek Davis
Ipswich Town 2 Derby County 1
IF this thriller had been the second game into the season on a balmy summer's afternoon instead of the penultimate home game on a sunny April day, then Town fans would have a campaign to look forward to with great hope.
Instead, the buzzing Blues supporters will today still be talking about a cracking performance in the best game of a long season, and wonder what might have been if the team had been able to do that more often over the past eight months.
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Ipswich have now beaten all of the top-three Championship sides at home this season, with two of them certain to go into the Premiership next season.
If they can double Norwich on Sunday, and finish off with their fourth straight home win when Cardiff visit on the final day, then they will go into the summer break on a high and planning a realistic promotion challenge.
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They provided the best possible advert for season ticket sales against second-placed Derby.
This was football entertainment at its best, undoubtedly the most exciting game at Portman Road all season in match that had everything - two cracking goals before a late penalty from supersub Danny Haynes won the game for Ipswich, straight red cards for Alex Bruce and Stephen Bywater, 10 yellow cards, Derby boss Billy Davies sent to the stands and near misses galore.
Bywater was interviewed by police in the presence of Davies after the match for his reaction to the dismissal when stewards and team-mates had to intervene as he and Bruce clashed again on the way to the tunnel.
With a potential £40m riding on the result for Derby, tensions were riding high enough before Bruce and Bywater went head-to-head, like rams do, and referee Iain Williamson decided there was enough in it to dismiss both players.
Davies went on the pitch to voice his opinion and, for the third time this season, was sent to the stand, and for the second time by Williamson, who also dismissed him against Southend.
But the drama of the red cards should not overshadow what was already a good game, played to the backdrop of a fabulous audience that appreciated the fast-flowing, open, attacking football from both sides. Even before the double sending- off that threatened to ruin a cracking encounter but couldn't, Ipswich were a match for a side that were chasing a club record 13th away victory in a season and sitting pretty in an automatic top-two promotion place.
The Rams had gone ahead to a wonder goal, which was sandwiched by two agonisingly close efforts from the magical feet of Francis Jeffers and a disallowed header from Steve Howard.
Derby looked on course when a Bywater goal-kick evaded the initial jumpers and bounced up for Howard, who nodded it across for Oakley to hit with a thunderous right-foot volley from 30 yards to beat stand-in keeper Shane Supple.
After the reshuffling, following the sendings off, the game took a little while to get back into the thrilling rhythm and, when it did, it was Ipswich who looked the classier side.
Back-up keeper Lee Grant was a fully capable deputy in goal, with Craig Fagan and Gary Roberts sacrificed for their respective sides as Dan Harding went on at right-back with Fabian Wilnis once more stepping into the centre-half breech.
George O'Callaghan went on for Owen Garvan at half-time and it is perhaps typical of this Town team that Roberts was almost in tears at being taken off, but showed his commitment to the team by sticking with the subs to watch the game, rather than throw a strop that has happened in the past from others.
And such is Garvan's fighting spirit and determination to play that he had to be ordered to come off, even though he could hardly walk with a dead leg.
Such spirit and team ethic is another indication of what manager Jim Magilton is forging at Portman Road.
Coupled with the character of a side determined to get better every day, along with the added quality of players such as Francis Jeffers and Jon Walters, it was Ipswich who looked more like promotion chasers than jittery Derby - and they had 16-goal Alan Lee waiting in the wings.
So, a game that they could so easily have slipped away from them in the past ended up being won because they refused to be beaten by a side ready to kick and hack away and keeping hold of what they had instead of trying to be more positive.
After clipping the crossbar and and forcing a couple of good saves, Jeffers got the goal he richly deserved when got behind the defence to pounce on a Wilnis pass and slotted through the legs of Grant.
Two minutes from time, former Town loanee McEveley pushed Haynes in full flight and the substitute grabbed the ball to tuck away the penalty, even though Grant guessed the right way.
It was the teenager's seventh goal of the season, all after coming off the bench. Norwich be warned.
In a way, the season can't end too quickly for Town because they can't wait to get started again in August and, at this rate, they will be carried along on a wave of deserved optimism and belief.
Danny Haynes' winning goal on Saturday was the ninth penalty awarded to Ipswich this season, more than any other Championship team.