Strong Town pass a tough test

IPSWICH Town's players came through a stiff examination at the Priestfield Stadium on Saturday, writes Tony Garnett. Their test came in three parts and their strength of character shone through.

IPSWICH Town's players came through a stiff examination at the Priestfield Stadium on Saturday, writes Tony Garnett. Their test came in three parts and their strength of character shone through.

Firstly they showed they could operate successfully without their inspirational captain Matt Holland who was away on international duty for the Republic of Ireland in Georgia. Tommy Miller took Holland's midfield role. He placed his name on the scoresheet and gave an all-action performance, although it is doubtful Holland would have been booked for dissent after kicking the ball away, as Miller was.

It was the first league match that Holland had missed since being signed from Bournemouth in the summer of 1997, a run of 253 consecutive appearances in league and Premiership games.

Secondly Ipswich refused to allow a crumbling sanded playing surface, the worst they have experienced this season, to prevent them from persevering with their passing football. Jim Magilton, wearing the captain's armband, set the example.

Thirdly the Town players never allowed the club's massive problems to weigh them down. Obviously they must be as concerned as everyone else about the future, but they never let it show. Just two defeats in 20 matches have kept Ipswich's play-off hopes alive. But for being held to recent home draws by opponents fighting desperately to avoid the drop, Town would have been comfortably in the top six by now.

Even if Holland is among the players to leave Portman Road to lighten the wage bill, Ipswich still look to have a competitive squad who can make a genuine promotion challenge next season, even if they miss out this time around.

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Town started with a sweeper system at Gillingham until Thomas Gaardsoe went off with a groin strain after 14 minutes. A change of formation saw Martijn Reuser appear on the left-wing with Matt Richards dropping to left-back. Reuser led the Gills a merry dance and was twice robbed by the woodwork.

Who would have thought, a couple of months ago, that Richard Naylor and Chris Makin would form a commanding central defensive partnership? Yet both adapted brilliantly and allowed the experienced home strike force of Rod Wallace and Tommy Johnson very little scope.

The first serious action came after 12 minutes when Miller was pushed in the back by Nyron Nosworthy. Referee Crick ignored what looked to be a clear-cut penalty appeal.

After 21 minutes Miller was fouled 30 yards from goal in the inside-left channel. Magilton ran over the ball on a dummy run leaving Reuser to curl a free-kick which Vince Bartram touched on to the bar. Naylor headed wide from the resultant corner from Magilton.

Then Gillingham took the lead in the 28th minute. A powerful header from Chris Hope, from a left-wing corner from Simon Osborn, was instinctively saved at full length by Andy Marshall. Paul Smith was first to anticipate the rebound. He fired into the net from 10 yards.

This was a crucial time for Ipswich whose heads could easily have dropped but Joe Royle's men have developed a strong backbone and were on terms four minutes later.

Miller collected a pass from Reuser on the left of the penalty area and put in an innocuous low-angled shot. Pablo Counago, a bundle of energy, ran across the keeper obscuring his vision so that the ball bobbled its way just inside the far post.

Counago never got a touch. It was Miller's eighth goal of the season but the Spaniard's contribution towards it was immense. Ipswich were level at the interval but should really have been ahead. Gillingham, admittedly short of key players through injury and international call-ups, had a lively spell early in the second-half when Marshall made a smart save from Paul Shaw after a slick move involving David Perpetuini and Wallace.

Then Shaw cracked a sizzling long shot against the bar which served as a wake-up call for the Town who responded immediately. Reuser supplied the cross and Counago, having his brightest match for months, tricked the home defence with clever footwork in the penalty area to make room for a shot well out of Bartram's reach. If the Town management team had doubts about Reuser, who only started on the bench, they may now start to realise why so many Ipswich supporters have taken the Dutchman to their hearts. Reuser was so unlucky when he picked up a cross from Matt Richards, one of many, and cracked his shot against the bar.

Richards is progressing fast. He showed great awareness midway through the first half when Gillingham tried to take a quick free-kick. The referee pulled them back, but Richards was alive to the situation and cut out the danger. The referee might well have allowed Gillingham the advantage had they found the Ipswich net.

Marcus Bent had a point to prove when he took over from Darren Bent in the 68th minute. It took him 10 minutes to find the net for the second match in succession. He scored with a deadly accurate, low, right-foot shot out of Bartram's reach after good work by Richards and Miller.

Marcus Bent was close to being in the starting line-up but it's all a question of blend. Counago has certainly developed a good understanding with Darren Bent and while he has often seemed subdued when starting alongside Marcus Bent.

The match ended with Town fans anticipating an exciting final half dozen matches. There are two targets. Firstly to win a play-off place and then the more parochial matter of keeping ahead of Norwich City, who are trailing only on goal difference.

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