Stuart Watson’s Sunday Verdict: Lambert’s not been perfect, but who is? Here’s here to stay – so let’s back him
PUBLISHED: 14:56 05 January 2020 | UPDATED: 17:00 05 January 2020
Ipswich Town have now gone 12 games without a win following yesterday’s EFL Trophy defeat at League Two side Exeter City. STUART WATSON gives his thoughts at the end of a week which saw manager Paul Lambert sign a new five-year deal.
A line of men, as men do, stood at the urinals with their eyes fixed forwards. One eventually let out a sad, strung out, exasperated sigh. After a pregnant pause, anther proclaimed, both to no-one and everyone, 'yeah, but they're our club though, aren't they?' Perhaps he was simply trying to convince himself.
A fellow patient queuer, shuffling slowly and silently towards the front, turned, caught my eye and nodded grimly in agreement at the exchange just overheard.
This was at half-time of yesterday's EFL Trophy exit at Exeter. If the first half stoppage-time suckerpunch had sparked such soul-searching, then goodness knows what sort of conversations were happening after the killer last-gasp goal.
There were officially 420 Town fans in Devon (though it seemed more). Those who were heading back to Suffolk had five hours of contemplation - one for every year of Paul Lambert's new deal (more on that later).
Lambert didn't do the post-match interviews, his assistant Stuart Taylor did. That was pre-planned, a fresh voice to be heard, as has been the case for the EFL Trophy throughout this campaign, but nevertheless it was a decision that further irked supporters when emotions were high.
What Taylor subsequently said further fuelled the flames. He balked at the suggestion it was an Exeter 'B team' (it was), implored positivity, asked everyone to look at the 'bigger picture' and suggested the stats indicate everything 'we're fine'.
Now isn't really the time to be using stats to argue the glass is half full. Town have won one game in 15. For context, Paul Hurst was sacked off the back of an identical run. For context, only two clubs in the top four tiers - Wigan (22nd in Championship) and Southend (23rd in League One) - can equal Town's lack of victories over the last 15 matches.
The bigger picture? Get promoted or risk being stuck in the third-tier for a prolonged spell. That's the long and short of it.
You could argue that there would be a positive way for Ipswich to just miss out - to end the campaign looking like a style of play was becoming established and developing young players were set to stick around and for the core of a side. The problem is we're seeing little evidence of the former at the moment and aren't exactly being convinced the latter will happen either.
Back in early October, Fleetwood boss Joey Barton prophetically pondered whether Town's hand-holding team celebrations (which not everyone looked entirely comfortable doing) were built on solid foundations. Many of us scoffed and suggested the Blues still had a gear to go up. Deep down, the unconvincing nature of performances left nagging doubts that there was a chance the tractor wheels could come off.
The most disappointing thing about this downturn in form is that it feels more than a little self-inflicted. Having done the hard part of shaking off a losing habit, calling off games and constantly shuffling the pack disrupted momentum.
That said, all this can't be blamed on Lambert. To focus entirely on him gets the players off the hook. Yesterday's loss wasn't down to systems or rotation. That Town team should have been beating an Exeter side full of veteran fringe players and inexperienced youngsters.
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The players all embraced talk of them being the best squad in the division back in the summer and didn't shy away from declaring title ambitions. You sensed back then, going into the opener at Burton, the fear of failure and weight of the badge was driving them on. They need to get that fear back. Perhaps, as many of them have alluded to, a bit of relief and complacency set in after that winning start. Perhaps those hand-holding celebrations, though designed with the very best intentions of further strengthening the unity between turf and terrace, did no-one any favours.
So why on earth has Marcus Evans rushed to hand out a five-year contract to Lambert, the longest he's ever given a manager, at this juncture?
Think back. The 'will he, won't he stay' saga at the end of Mick McCarthy's reign was horribly draining. It brought the worst out in everyone with so much uncertainty hanging in the air. Perhaps Evans was keen to prevent that festering again? He's learnt a lesson from a lack of decisive action back then.
Decisive action was taken with Hurst, so why not go down that route again now? Because it goes against Evans' belief, just as David Sheepshanks and John Cobbold before him, that managers need time.
Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse are likely perplexed. They've had to wait until the very last minute to get contract extensions in the past and now they see their boss being handed a new long-term deal when he still had 18 months to go on the last one. Perhaps that's the point: It's a message to the players, just as much as the fans, that this man, their boss, is here to stay. Looking back, player power definitely sped up Hurst's exit.
I recalled this week an interview I did with passionate club stalwart Pat Godbold back in 2011. The former long-serving managers' secretary, who is very much a part of the fabric of the club, was appalled by calls for Paul Jewell's head at that time. She recalled: "Mr John (Cobbold) always said that a manager needs at least two years to find his feet.
"Look what happened to Mr R (Sir Bobby Robson). I can remember when we played Manchester United in 1971 - George Best practically beat us on his own that day in a 3-1 home defeat and the fans were chanting 'Robson out! Robson out! The next day he was called in and feared the worst, but Mr John apologised for the behaviour of the fans offered him a contract extension.
"George Burley didn't have the best of starts either after coming in at a difficult time, but he turned it around too."
Ipswich, as the man at the urinal said, is 'our club'. And Lambert is the manager. Has he been perfect? No. But who is? He's developed a genuine affection for the club and, up until recently, reinvigorated a previously apathetic fan base. This is a man who is not focused on self-preservation, but instead genuinely keen to improve the crumbling foundations and leave a legacy. There's a lot to be said for that.
Here's here to stay, so we may as well get behind him. One day, hopefully, we'll look back on this winter of discontent with a sense of perspective. Maybe I'm just trying to convince myself.
As I sit here and write this I'm looking out to a piece of land opposite my house. It's been designated as an area for Christmas trees to be dumped in order to get recycled. That sad festive graveyard indicates the party is over. It's back to reality, back into the old routine. The same can be said for Ipswich.
Their version of 'Chrimbo limbo' was that odd period of six cup games in the space of 33 days. It befuddled everyone, but that's gone now. Now's the time to knuckle down to New Year's resolutions.
Town are out of all three cups. Talk of '60+ games' can stop. All the eggs are in the League One promotion basket.
Going out the EFL Trophy could yet prove to be a blessing in disguise (though it doesn't feel like that right now), Teddy Bishop and Freddie Sears are back and there's still a long way to go.
Up next: Accrington at home on Saturday followed quickly by the rearranged Oxford trip next Tuesday - those two are the form sides in the division. Nobody said it was easy. No-one ever said it would be this hard.
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