Stuart Watson's Sunday Verdict: Psychological switch rather than ability upgrade is Town's biggest battle
PUBLISHED: 13:58 28 April 2019 | UPDATED: 13:59 28 April 2019
Already-relegated Ipswich Town were comprehensively beaten 2-0 at Sheffield United yesterday. STUART WATSON has his final say on the action.
Ipswich Town really could have done with a line being drawn under this emotional rollercoaster of a season after relegation was confirmed with that 1-1 home draw against Birmingham City.
Anxiety, anger, agony, then acceptance. Then came enjoyment and excitement during a string of much-improved displays. That led to anticipation and those defiant shows of support and celebration on the terraces.
That's when it would have been ideal for everybody – staff, players, fans – to go away, lick their wounds and keep some emerging positives at the forefront of their minds.
The problem is that there were still four games to play. And four tough ones at that.
Pulverised at Preston, swatted aside by Swansea and then carved up by the Blades. There's still Leeds to go. Make it stop. Please. Just make it stop.
A gap in class has been hugely exacerbated by a gulf in motivation. So much of this game is what goes on between the ears. It's about confidence, momentum and having something tangible to fight for.
Town have none of the above.
Recent talk of playing for pride and rewarding fans undoubtedly came from the heart. It's human nature, however, that you lose an edge. Just a few percent makes the world of difference. That all happens in the sub-conscious.
Sheffield United, meanwhile, could smell promotion. It was within touching distance. This was a well-oiled, in-form, motivated machine against an injury-ridden, experimental outfit that looks both physically and mentally spent.
No-one should be surprised at the comprehensive nature of the humbling on national television.
It means that emotions have gone full circle for Town fans. We're back to anxiety again.
'That was embarrassing'. 'None of this lot are good enough'. 'We could go down again'. Those were a few of the phrases being thrown around on social media in the aftermath.
It's understandable. Those words came from a place of hurt. They might just be a slight over-reaction though.
Yes, Town have gone backwards in recent weeks. Paul Lambert has chopped and changed. Things have looked increasingly muddled. The 'this is an extended pre-season now' narrative has lost a bit of its sheen. Instead, it's become a long, painful limp towards the finish line.
There are, as previously outlined, genuine mitigating factors for that though.
It's important not to forget about that uplifting period between February and March. Comeback draws against Derby, Stoke, West Brom and Bristol City. Going further back there was a home draw against Sheffield United at Portman Road too.
With respect, they won't be facing teams of that standard in the third-tier.
No-one should underestimate the task ahead. But there should also be a recognition that in the not too recent past Town have played well in testing circumstances.
Hold your nerve. The team will need that feeling of belief behind them.
Quality-wise, this squad is good enough to compete at the top end of League One. Many of them have already proved that.
The biggest challenge is changing the mindset. Winning games has become a psychological block. Losing is a horrible habit to break. This campaign has left so many scars. We all have a role to play in the rehab.
A fresh voice or three, players who do not carry the baggage of this crushing disappointment, will help. You have to repeatedly damage a muscle, push it to a point of failure, to promote its growth after all. No pain, no gain.
Pre-season results rarely matter. This year, more than ever, they really will do. A limp loss at Braintree last July set the tone. This time, Town need to convince themselves – just as much as the fans – that they can win again.
Sheffield United act as both inspiration and a cautionary tale. They spent six years in League One. Yearly promotion pushes will have been fun and frustrating in equal measure. Patience will have been tested in the extreme.
And now, following two promotions in three years, they have an identity, homegrown heroes and are back in the Premier League.
It hopefully won't take Town as long to get the ball rolling.