Que sera, sera – This is an Ipswich Town team to be proud of

Sky Bet Championship
Ipswich Town v Fulham - Portman Road, Ipswich - 9 August 2014
Ipswich Town

Sky Bet Championship Ipswich Town v Fulham - Portman Road, Ipswich - 9 August 2014 Ipswich Town players form a huddle at the start of the match - Credit: Ashley Pickering

Ipswich Town take on Norwich City in the first leg of a Championship play-off semi-final today. STUART WATSON – who has covered the Blues home and away throughout Mick McCarthy’s reign – reflects on a memorable season.

It’s been said by many and often, but – at this juncture – it’s worth reiterating. Whatever happens over the coming eight days, this is an Ipswich Town team to be proud of.

Being the regional football reporter in a one-club county can be challenging when the going’s not good. No-one wants to talk to you about it and no-one wants to read about it. There’s been a lot of that over the last decade.

The past and present is like night and day though. Covering the team home and away this season has been a genuine privilege.

Very early on it became apparent that Mick McCarthy puts personality and character at the very top of his list of attributes when signing players and that’s shown – both on and off the field.

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There’s an intangible feel to it around the training ground on a daily basis. There’s not one single player that I dread interviewing.

For me, the memorable moments this season have been the ones that epitomise the spirit in the camp.

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The way the substitutes and supporters celebrated wildly when the last-gaps winners went in at Charlton and Watford summed up perfectly the complete unity throughout the club. I can still picture those scenes; Stephen Hunt jumping for joy when his brother Noel found the back of the net at The Valley, an injured Kevin Bru sprinting from bench to corner flag after Richard Chaplow’s dramatic goal at Vicarage Road.

The way 5ft 5in midfielder Jay Tabb climbed majestically, leaving two defenders in a heap, to power home a header against Middlesbrough was a shining example of just what this group is all about.

The joy inside Portman Road when Cole Skuse ended his three-year goal drought in spectacular fashion against Cardiff was evidence of just how much respect and love this team has garnered.

Nine months ago you sensed that supporters had reservations about whether the club could progress again following another summer of limited spending in the transfer market. I too shared those concerns.

Functional rather than fancy, the Blues’ slow start to the campaign left many very much still unconvinced. Transfer speculation surrounding talismanic striker David McGoldrick had many feeling pretty pessimistic.

The big turning point came at Derby County on August 30.

Athletic Tyrone Mings, left, turned on the after burners that day and never looked back. His improvement curve has been as rapid and steep as any in recent memory.

That day also saw the emergence of talented teenage midfielder Teddy Bishop and the first signs that Kevin Bru, a complete unknown when he first arrived, was a real find.

The long-ball, physical stereotypes persisted, of course, but those who watched the team week-in, week-out knew that Ipswich – for all their organisation, hard work and aerial threat – could play a bit too.

It was the back-to-back home wins against Wolves and Watford in November when it became apparent that something special was coming together.

A rip-roaring finish to 2014 elevated Town into the top two and yet still they somehow seemed to fly under the national radar

A flat start to the New Year, including televised disappointments against league rivals Derby and Premier League outfit Southampton in the FA Cup, added weight to the argument that the team had punched above its weight and would quietly fade away.

Those that know anything about McCarthy should have known better.

Throughout the ups and downs, the Yorkshireman’s level-headed, consistent approach has rubbed off on his players.

Whenever the chips have been down, Town have dug deep. Not once have they been comprehensively outplayed. Not once have set-backs been for want of trying.

So here we are. For weeks everyone on both sides of the Suffolk-Norfolk border has semi-joked that an East Anglian derby play-off match-up was written in the stars. And now it’s a reality.

This whole campaign has had a feeling of fate about it.

There’s the return of the orange away kit which has been associated with success in the past and the fact that it was Southampton in the FA Cup third round (the case when the Blues won promotion to the top-flight in 1961 and 2000).

The last time Aston Villa made an FA Cup Final was also in 2000. With a potential day out at Wembley on the cards, it’s worth pointing out that Town’s record in London this season reads played six, won six.

Could 13 – the number of successive seasons Town have been in the Championship – prove to be a lucky number?

Ipswich may have lost their last four matches against Norwich but, as the saying goes, he who laughs last, laughs longest.

There is a core of experienced players mixed with some exciting young talent, while the academy is producing again.

Whatever happens over the coming few days and weeks, fans can hold their heads high. Ipswich Town Football Club is – finally – moving in the right direction again.

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