Stuart Watson’s Sunday Verdict: First there was acceptance... Now anticipation over-powers anxiety for Ipswich Town fans
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Rock-bottom Ipswich Town drew 1-1 at promotion-chasing West Brom yesterday. STUART WATSON gives his take on an enjoyable afternoon at The Hawthorns.
Saturday. 4.50pm. Two sets of fans facing up to a new reality.
The Hawthorns had half-emptied come the final whistle. The West Brom fans who stayed, booed.
Outplayed by the team bottom of the table; still no home win in 2019; chances of automatic promotion slipping away.
Manager Darren Moore did his press conference and, remarkably, was sacked an hour later.
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Following eight successive seasons in the Premier League, the Baggies are now looking at the lottery of the play-offs.
All afternoon, even after the home side’s early goal, you could feel anxiety in the air. Anxiety in the stands, anxiety on the pitch and anxiety, quite clearly, in the directors’ box.
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This for a club that is fourth. For a club that has scored the fifth most goals across the top five tiers of English football. For a man who has won three Manager of the Month awards during his nine in charge.
Compare and contrast.
Ipswich Town fans, all 1,246 of them, had sung from the first to the last whistle.
They stayed to serenade Paul Lambert and his players. They stayed long after everyone else had departed to carry on the sing-song too.
This for a team that was effectively relegated at the start of March.
This for a manager who has won just two of his 22 games in charge.
And boy did they deserve it.
Town should have been the team that crumbled after conceding an early goal to a horrible deflection. Instead they made West Brom crumble with a bold and brave brand of football that belied their position in the table.
Teddy Bishop scared the life out of the defenders with his driving runs, Alan Judge always seemed to be within 10 yards of a team mate wanting the ball, no matter where on the pitch, while goalscorer Jon Nolan produced a midfield master class.
You could go through them all.
Town could have lost this game. They could easily have won it too. That’s not the point. The point is you left the ground with a big smile on your face and counting down the days until the next one.
Following 17 successive seasons in the Championship, and 62 years in the top two tiers of English football, the Blues are heading for League One.
It was called Division Three South the last time they played at that level. Harold Macmillan had just started his first term as Prime Minister. Elvis Presley was reaching the peak of his powers.
But instead of anxiety at what’s next, there is an acceptance and excited anticipation.
That could quickly dissipate. We all know that. But right now, there are signs that the tanker is slowly turning. The green shoots of recovery are beginning to show.
This transitional season was always going to be tough. No-one thought it would be this tough. But from pain comes strength.
Lambert has used the word ‘cleanse’ when talking about what’s required this summer. By definition that means ‘ridding yourself of something toxic or unhealthy’.
Mick McCarthy had to ‘cleanse’ in that way when he first arrived. His legacy is that the Blues dressing room is full of good men who genuinely care.
Lambert’s ‘cleanse’ will be more about the type of transfer rather than the type of personality.
It’s about moving on from the reliance on loans and youth-blocking squad fillers, something that played its part in the gradual disconnect with fans.
You don’t want your star man to be borrowed every year. Those aren’t the players young supporters rush out to get on the back of a shirt.
Paul Hurst’s legacy will always, sadly, be that he was the one that set the wheels in motion for this relegation. In time, I hope history will afford him more sympathy.
He was the man who filled big shoes and inherited a threadbare squad. He was the man who tried to carry out the remit of freshening up a club that had stagnated. He was the man who failed in that mission, but who ultimately left behind players who went on to play a key role in the regeneration.
Nolan is coming good. We’ve seen enough to suggest that Ellis Harrison and Kayden Jackson could do the same given a similar run of games.
Five of Saturday’s starting XI - Nolan, Bishop, Myles Kenlock, Cole Skuse and Gwion Edwards – will definitely be here next season. In addition, possibly Bartosz Bialkowski, if Town don’t cash in; probably Luke Chambers, given the noises being made about his contract; and hopefully – keep everything crossed - Judge, with those talks underway.
Augment them with Dean Gerken, Josh Emmanuel, Luke Woolfenden, Janoi Donacien, Toto Nsiala, Flynn Downes, Andre Dozzell, Tristan Nydam, Danny Rowe, Jackson, Harrison, Jack Lankester, Ben Folami, Ben Morris, possibly Simon Dawkins.
That’s not even mentioning Freddie Sears and Emyr Huws to come back from injury. Or several highly-thought of first year pros hoping they can make the breakthrough.
The core of a squad is there. A few from that list may depart – either permanently or on loan – and a few new faces will arrive. It should be more like four or five new additions rather than the 12 we had last summer. One of them may well end up being Will Keane, already in the building.
The ‘cleanse’ has already started with the purification of play. Town’s fans are already feeling much better for that.
With 10 games left, Lambert and co’s job is to ensure that anticipation continues to override anxiety heading into the great unknown.