Stuart Watson’s Sunday Verdict: The true mark of progress? Town fans no longer comfortably numb following a year of Lambert
- Credit: PA
Today is the first anniversary of Paul Lambert taking charge of Ipswich Town. STUART WATSON gives his thoughts on the progress made in that time.
Take yourself back a year to the day when Ipswich Town succumbed, rather meekly, to a 3-0 defeat at Millwall in front of watching new boss Paul Lambert.
Now imagine two versions of the next 12 months were put on the table.
An all-out scrap for safety ends with a great escape followed by the continuation of Championship Groundhog Day.
Or the current scenario: Relegation, a reduction of loanees, the development of homegrown players, that winning feeling returning and the long-term apathy which had gripped the club being blown away.
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I know what I'd have taken.
You might say that progress could still have been made had Town stayed up. I'm not so sure. Not true progress, anyway.
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Lambert, reluctantly, would have had to bring in a swathe of borrowed players because that would have been the only viable financial model. A team that fans would have struggled to truly connect with would again be left battling the odds.
You might argue that Ipswich haven't made true progress under Lambert as it is. I'd respectfully disagree.
There is still a hell of a lot of work still to be done, Lambert himself recognises that, but so much has been achieved.
The events of this last week, in a strange way, highlights that. I don't see back-to-back defeats to Accrington Stanley and Rotherham, followed by a solid if not spectacular win against a struggling Southend side, as demonstration of how far a once great club has fallen, rather an example of how far it has come over the last 12 months.
The disappointment and frustration which followed those set-backs was a reminder that there is an expectation to win games now. Every single game. Before there was simply a growing acceptance of flat display and dropped points. No more is the pain comfortably numb.
'We've not been that good' and 'this last week shows how much this team would struggle in the Championship' are comments I've read and heard a lot in recent days. Both statements are probably true, but they are moot points. Town aren't in the Championship, they are in League One.
Could this team mix it in the Championship right now? Possibly not. But if the learning curve continues like this for another seven months then would the core of this squad, boosted by some shrewd additions, be ready for the second-tier? I think so.
If you can't compete financially at that level you need momentum. And momentum was, realistically, never going to be gathered the longer the club stagnated in the Championship.
Another year in the second-tier could have spoiled the legacies of ageing duo Luke Chambers of Cole Skuse, it could have destroyed the confidence of Paul Hurst's lower league signings and stunted the development of homegrown talent.
The reset button had to be hit a level down. Hurst's disastrous spell at the helm only sped up something that, ultimately, was probably inevitable. I think Lambert, who seemed to just 'get' the club's death by a thousand cuts decline from the day he walked through the door, always planned for that.
Bold from him to embrace a long-term vision given his previous three jobs all lasted less than a year. Bold from Marcus Evans to back that vision. And brilliant of the fans to fully get on board.
Would Luke Woolfenden and Flynn Downes be blossoming in front our eyes if Town weren't in League One? Kayden Jackson and Jon Nolan look more than capable of being decent Championship players but probably needed a season like this to convince everyone, themselves included probably, that is the case.
This season could also be ideal to get Emyr Huws' fitness and confidence levels back up again. We might, as the weeks and months go on, start to see him becoming the natural successor to Skuse.
Has the style of football improved that much? Do Town have an identity on the field under Lambert? Do they have a preferred formation? It would be hard to label them a possession based, counter-attacking or direct side.
Lambert would argue that his brand of football is more about the bigger principles though; it's about setting up to win, taking risks and playing with crowd-pleasing intensity. Isn't that really what we all wanted?
He's said it so many times that the words have probably lost their impact somewhat, but Lambert is right when he says his biggest achievement of the last 12 months has been reconnecting the supporters with the club.
Crowds up by thousands, in demand away tickets switching hands for inflated prices and shirt sales through the roof. The older generation re-engaged and the younger generation re-enthused. The club still has good blokes and now they are trying to play good football. None of that should be underestimated amidst the micro-analysis of each performance.
The manager's goal and the supporter's wishes are aligned again at last. Together, stronger. Lambert's right, that can be a powerful thing.
The cynicism built up over several years of stagnation has not been completely banished, it will take more than a good 14-game start to do that, but it's been significantly chipped away at.
Now Lambert must continue with the hammer and chisel to really turn these solid foundations he is building into a work of art.