Ian Milne is a bit of a soft target these days. His comment this week that is was ‘regrettable’ that we had to increase season ticket prices was as amusing as it was unnecessary. We weren’t quite sure what was being regretted but my sense was that it was the tidal wave of anger which the move invited, an anger which has understandably now spread to the traditionally patient fan base.
Still, today’s game would hopefully be a distraction. Heading from Bath up to the M4 you drive across a plateau for a couple of miles. It is often shrouded in fog or low cloud in wet weather and today was no exception, a nasty squally interlude on our journey after a nasty, squally week at the club. Today’s game was not going to be a stroll in the spring sunshine and navigating needed care.
Cardiff is a friendly club to visit. When I arrived on the concourse and realised there were no programmes on sale inside the stadium, I was directed by a fellow Blue to another steward who nipped out and purchased two for me. The stadium was half-full and the mood among Town fans was one of end-of-season reflection, the football a welcome distraction from our wider problems.
One the game kicked-off, Cardiff the more purposeful side. We had our usual three centre-backs with Knudsen and Spence out wide. It was apparent that City were going to test our right side, mainly due to having three natural left-footers in Junior Hoilett and Kadeem Harris backed up at left-back by the creative Joe Bennett.
Their first foray gave an indication as to how the game would play out when hesitant covering by Spence and McGoldrick allowed a cross which Kenneth Zohore flicked over the bar. We broke cover with a superb early counter-attack which Grant Ward was not able to finish, although it looked like a Bart-quality save from Cardiff’s Allan McGregor.
The regular formation of 20 outfield players in a postage stamp awaiting a goal-kick in the wind and rain should tell you much about the game. The fact that one long-range Aron Gunnarsson throw went behind the goal-line and Bart’s subsequent goal-kick went straight into touch will also tell you much about the quality of the football. It was quite imperfect but nonetheless quite entertaining.
Cardiff also set about getting into our faces, spoiling our play and working free kicks and set pieces out of the referee. Bristol City fans were indignant about it earlier in the season but you have to admire the hutzpah of Neil Warnock’s game management. There’s no point getting cross about it as his teams will never change their nature.
We started to grow into the game after 15 minutes although our attacking moves lacked the energy, tempo and conviction of the Bluebirds’ forays. Our opening goal owed as much to Tom Lawrence’s excellent set-piece delivery as it did to the accuracy of Chambers’s header. “We’ve got our equaliser in nice an early”, quipped a fellow Blue. If only. That was to be the high point.
“Swing low, sweet chariot.” A little hubris was allowed but the Bluebirds were now roused and Bart did well to keep out Harris and Zohore efforts. When City’s equaliser fell, it came from a free cross by the tidy Jazz Richards, a towering header by set-piece danger Sean Morrison and a lightning reflex finish by Zohore. Three Cardiff players were doing what they do best and we had simply let them.
City now had their tails up as the first half reached its conclusion. Zohore nearly added a second moments after they levelled and shortly after this Gunnarsson fed Hoilett whose shot hit the post with Bart beaten. Cardiff’s growing alertness contrasted with our lethargy and we were relieved to hear the half-time whistle.
The consensus at the interval was that it was an entertaining albeit poor quality first half. The awful conditions didn’t help with the blustery rain refusing to let up. The shape of the team was good and the Cardiff goal came from the habit of switching off which had blighted so many games this season.
“Pitman for Smith.” Resuming our seats after the break, it was apparent that Mick had come up with a different diagnosis and changed our shape to 4-4-2. This was to prove a catastrophic alteration and one which went a long way to handing Cardiff victory.
Two of our three creative players, Ward and Lawrence were now forced wide and Lawrence became a peripheral figure having been at the heart of our creative play before the break. We were now left with two central holding midfielders and no central midfield threat.
Toumani had been able to break forward to good effect to link with the creative players in a three-man midfield with Skuse sitting, but he became more withdrawn and this allowed Gunnarsson and Whittingham time and space to create in the centre with Ward also no longer there to disrupt them.
Things were worse at the back. Two of Berra, Chambers and Smith had been able to double up on Zohore in the first half when he was receiving clearances to hold up, but now he was able to isolate a centre-back. Whoever was covering at right back was also isolated and would have a tough job being one-on-one with Harris. Each of these consequences specifically cost us a second half goal.
Things were little better up front. With the supply chain fragmented to the wings and the long ball, Pitman and McGoldrick had little to work with. The sight of the giant Sol Bamba effortlessly shielding the ball out of play behind the goal line from a ball into the channels became a recurring second half theme.
You could instantly anticipate the problems the formation-switch would create, but the second Cardiff goal was still a surprise given the speed and ease with which it came. Five minutes into the second half, a City goal-kick, a clever flick-on and Zohore was through to score unmarked. If your defenders are habitually switching off it’s probably not a great idea to remove one of them.
The hosts were now looking to kill us off and their inevitable third goal came soon after. The spiky and combative Harris worked his way down our right side to the by-line and slid the ball back to Joe Bennett who had time pick his spot. Bennett is a classy left-back and needed no second invitation although by now we were becoming ragged.
With an hour gone the game was effectively over and lost but a fellow Blue spotted a telling contrast in the behaviour of both sets of players in an injury break shortly after the Bluebirds’ third goal. The Cardiff men were all over with Warnock, getting fluids and instructions whereas our lot were all standing around, isolated, hands on hips and with hardly a word being spoken among them.
“The early leavers are on their way.” The final quarter of the game passed with little incident. Any lingering excitement or interest ebbed away as Cardiff were happy to play out the game. We were now as faltering in our attacks as we had been hesitant in our defending. McGoldrick’s weary trudge on being subbed off was not the urgent sprint of a losing player whose team were chasing a goal.
“Another Ipswich long ball into the channels.” The nippiness and alertness of Cardiff’s players was a sharp contrast with our play. City were more likely to add a fourth goal as yet more catastrophic defending allowed Hoilett an absolute gift of a free shot with seven minutes left. We had a late tepid penalty appeal for a handball but the game drifted to a soporific conclusion.
“Oh dear, oh dear”, “It was all half-hearted.” The mood was a flat as you could imagine heading out of the stadium after the full-time whistle. There was a nervous check on how other results went on mobile phones, something I never thought we would return to under Mick. The damage could have been a lot worse but our display was so poor in that second half that relegation cannot be excluded.
It was unfair to reference Ian Milne at the start of this report as it wasn’t him who allowed Zohore off the leash to score today. Nevertheless, it was abundantly clear even to an untrained eye who was watching today that events off the field are having an effect on it. This was a very distracted Town performance and the contrast with Cardiff’s industry, energy and enthusiasm was palpable.
Any neutral watching our display would place money on Mick leaving this summer no matter what the official line might be. A professional football dressing room is a work environment with people looking out for themselves and Cardiff showed us up as a group of players with their collective minds elsewhere. That this happened after the post-Derby heart-to-heart is all the more alarming.
“Ipswich fans need to be ‘realistic’ about Marcus Evans’s budget.” This was my other favourite Ian Milne sidewinder this week and it all drives back to what Steve M described as a “sense of drift” a few months ago. Milne’s was quite an insulting remark as it implied that we had ideas above our station. If an owner is not ambitious for his club, it’s hardly a surprise if it rubs off on the pitch.
We are not militant supporters. We are a patient lot and one of our number said before the game that many of us would be happy with a few 3-0 or 4-0 wins between now and the end of May. We are sick of being taken for granted, of paying sky-high prices to support an under-funded squad and being fobbed off with gimmicks and a five-point plan more suited to Colchester or Southend.
Heading across the Severn Bridge this morning I hoped that today would offer a welcome diversion from the weeks’ events but if anything, it brought them to the surface even more. I always go back to Mr John and his comment about the key relationship at any club being between the owner and the manager and at the moment there are glaring issues with both.
Mick needs to go back to the drawing board and not just look at formations. He needs to look at our style of play and above all else the calibre and motivation of individual players. The time has also come for him to be ruthless.
As for Marcus? Well, he will do what he wants and I’m not sure our all being up in arms will change anything. All we can do is point out what is going wrong and hope we’re not blamed too much for doing so. We are also becoming accustomed to the meanings of ‘realistic’ and ‘regrettable’ as the club sees them. If today’s display is anything to go by they will increasingly become all too familiar.
Early February is a favourite time of the year for me. When I lock my bookshop up at 5.30pm every evening and glance skyward, I can see faint traces of dark blue starting to replace the black of the previous three months and with each passing evening the darkness recedes with gathering pace.
Heading up the M5 this morning, the bitter wind and the snow dusting the hills outside Birmingham suggested that full-blown spring was still some weeks away. It was a proper two-scarf day, as the cheerful West Midlands Constable standing beside the programme-seller’s kiosk noted, and certainly not a day for the faint-hearted.
Nor indeed was Villa Park a stadium for the faint-hearted footballer. Only the most churlish visiting supporter would not concede that this is an impressive stadium, retaining its history and character and keeping its soul. A proper football ground and one which would test the mettle of whatever XI Mick chose to put out.
When the line-ups were confirmed it was comforting to see that there was no Mile Jedinak to anchor the Villa defence, while the absence of Cole Skuse would give us a chance to see what a midfield of Toumani, Huws and Ward might achieve. It was interesting to note that Skuse’s absence was viewed more as an opportunity than a risk in pre-match conversations.
The game set off at a frantic pace and there was a predictable early West Midland storm to negotiate. Villa had not won since Boxing Day and there was a sense of wounded pride as they set up a series of chances which reminded us once again why Bart is such a brilliant goalkeeper.
The hosts were nervous and McGoldrick took advantage of one tentative Alan Hutton pass to set up a decent counter-attack. This was to establish an important pattern to the game, for as often as we were put on the back foot we never stopped looking for opportunities to take the game to Villa.
Josh Emmanuel had an outstanding game. We could gain a sense of his playing style when he cleverly used his physicality to deny the peppery Villa left wing-back Neil Taylor a good early chance. He looks to be clever footballer. All through the game, his strength and clever positioning were used as a bulwark to deny opponents space rather than as a wrecking ball lunging into challenges.
Midway through the first-half Villa won a freekick for a somewhat theatrical dive by the ever-alert Scott Hogan. There was a comical melee in the box before the kick was delivered, the highlight being Berra’s attempt to literally remove an opponent’s shirt. When the silliness subsided, they caught us out, pulling the ball back to Birkir ‘Thor’ Bjarnason who cracked a decent shot against the crossbar.
I was worried when we lost Steven Taylor as he had been a stabilising focus in the defence as well as being an absolute unit. Myles Kenlock played at left wing-back in the rejigged defence and, as with Josh, I was so impressed with the progress he has made. Calm and unflustered, he will become ‘Mr Reliability’ with experience and he was comfortable pushing forward when we attacked on his side.
Villa were careless throughout the game with the limited opportunities they had. Hogan could have given Bart more of a problem with one decent chance he had after half-an-hour, but Jonathan Kodjia was either over-elaborate or tepid on the few occasions he had sight of goal. One acrobatic effort soon after Hogan’s was as risible as it was ineffective.
“You’re not famous anymore!” As the first half drew to a close the sense among our fans was that we were properly in this game. Villa may have had some quality players on parade but much of their play was disjointed. In truth, both teams were still feeling their way and I was hoping that we might have tested their flaky keeper Sam Johnstone a bit more.
Villa also had a knack of taking small bites out of our players, snippy challenges designed to disrupt and sting rather than injure. This escalated before the break when Tommy Elphick flung an arm into Berra and poleaxed the Scot in their penalty area. The Villa back line was robust, albeit fair all afternoon but this was the one time the referee could have intervened.
The first half fizzled out with a whimper and our concerns over the half-time concourse discussion were around what would be a makeshift back line and a lack of bench options. That said, everyone was delighted with a first 45 which was full of positive intent and which saw us taking the game to Villa at every opportunity.
The second half began with the most unlikely back line of Spence, Chambers and Knudsen flanked by Josh and Myles on each wing. It may have been because they had no burden of expectation or it may have been because there was a blend of mobility, technique and Chambers’ experience, but it worked. The defence rode their luck at times but played with personality and comfort on the ball.
Spence was impressive. His positioning and reading of the game were excellent and his mobility and technique were assets in transitioning into attack. He was also good at negotiating his way out of tight spaces. The contrast with the more physical and less technical Berra was palpable, the Scot at one point in the first half drilling a ball full-speed at McGoldrick who was stationed on the wing.
Knudsen was similarly comfortable to the left of Chambers using his mobility to read the danger while also getting in the faces of the opposition. Like Knudsen, Chambers was also in his natural role, and in his element directing operations at the heart of the back five and typically slicing clear one very dangerous cross just after the hour mark. He was at his confident best and it was great to see.
Diagouraga is an ungainly player in his playing style but he was effective, chiefly in offering a forward dimension to our midfield play. In contrast to Skuse he would bring the ball out and draw opponents on to him to create space for a simple pass. Other players need to see this and cover for him when he pushes forward from his post but this greatly enhanced the fluidity of our general play.
Grant Ward was out of his shell today and it was quickly evident that both Diagouraga and Emyr Huws are jigsaw pieces that have added a geometry to his play. The contrast in his movement and involvement with the Lincoln fiasco was as night and day. He could barely get the ball on that grim night, but he always had options to link play and he was constantly making himself available.
The second half started scrappily and this actually suited us. The ball was toing and froing in hallmark Championship style and we were starting to dominate play and create chances. McGoldrick at times was balletic evading Villa challenges, pirouetting out of danger and instinctively changing his centre of gravity to throw opponents off balance and link with Lawrence, Ward and Huws.
“I’m not sure what happened but I’m certain it was a penalty to us.” One Huws corner in this good spell caused a proper old-school goalmouth scramble in their box. You could sense the home crowd getting nervous. Although Lawrence did not find the net his presence distracted Villa players, his link-up play with McGoldrick was instinctive and he worried their fans when bearing down on goal.
Villa still posed a threat as the game drifted into the final quarter but their lack of confidence was betrayed by a habit of appealing for set-pieces instead of going for goal. The referee was wise to this and seemed to get the big calls right, although I have never seen an official be so ridiculously precise when directing the location at which thrown-ins should be taken.
With 10 minutes to go, I was expecting another Villa onslaught to match the one we had hurdled in the first 10 minutes, but then it happened. From a Bart clearance, Lawrence appeared to have been taken out by Elphick on the left of midfield but the ball broke to McGoldrick. He drove into the box and played an exquisite cross for Huws to crash the ball home from the edge of the six-yard box.
Pandemonium. Chaos. Watford. Scenes. The reaction to the goal was as telling as the goal itself. We were collectively giving a season which has mocked us a kick in the nuts. We are bloody good, we know we are and how f***ing dare this season happen to us. It was a f*** you to Derby, to Lincoln and to months of frustration and, by the way, this was as much from the men on the pitch as everyone enjoying the mayhem in the away end.
It was fitting that Emyr Huws rifled home the winner. This was a team with a point to prove and, of all the players on the pitch, here was someone refusing point-blank to let his career fizzle out. His hunger was evident and he was invariably in the thick of the action. The ovation he was given when leaving the field late in the game was not just for his goal.
“One-nil to the Tractor Boys!” The stunned silence from the home fans around the stadium was deafening and this added to the sharpness of our perfectly chorused tune. Villa won a series of set pieces but Bart had done most of his work in the first 10 minutes of the game and a few routine saves was as much as they could bring from him.
“How good is that!” The final whistle was preceded by a game of head-tennis and a limp Kodjia shot, which summed up the game well. This was a win born out of character, determination and self-belief and it had much of the never-say-die DNA of our pulsating draw at Bournemouth a few years ago.
Getting back to my car at 5.20pm, I glanced up at the sky and noticed its pale grey colour as we snatched a couple more minutes back from winter. We are still in the valley of darkness fixture-wise with a nasty trip to Sussex on Tuesday, but today gave reason to hope that this transitional winter of a season just may be coming to a close. We can look forward with some degree of optimism.
Today’s brilliant performance does not give Marcus licence to say that all is tickety-boo. There has been a paradigm shift this season and lottery tickets to remain competitive in the division have gone up in price. It does however give Mick food for thought if he wants to build a new second Town team out of the ashes of the side that reached the play-offs and which in many ways finally died today.
The beauty of today’s display was that it was something different, something new and something to build on. A new cohort of players and a new philosophy and style of play, a young confident side and the death of the sterile football which has driven so many fans away. I hope it’s not just wishful thinking, but spring definitely appears to be on the horizon.
I thought it might be helpful to gather recent feedback and comments from followers of our newest loan signing’s former clubs in order to paint a picture of how he is perceived. Diagouraga played for six years at Brentford, amassing over 200 appearances before switching to Elland Road last January.
“It’s no great surprise, but Diagouraga joins Ipswich on loan until the end of the season”, “He was well down the pecking order”, “He was surplus to requirements and Monk that decision to take him out of the squad with no ambiguity”, “I have reservations about him and think he is a squad player only. Brentford improved without him last season.”
From Leeds fans' comments, it seems that Diagouraga [Dave] was brought in by then-manager Steve Evans to perform a traditional holding role shielding the back four and breaking up play. Several said that Evans’s successor Garry Monk preferred a player like Liam Bridcutt who they felt would contribute more from a footballing perspective.
“Diagoraga is not the answer. Brentford didn't want him, he's not good enough for Leeds.” He was hammered by Whites and effectively discarded by Monk after an anonymous performance in a 3-0 August defeat at QPR.
“It looks like the Leeds disease has consumed him, second to every tackle it seemed and offered no protection to the back four. He played 15 yards further back than what was needed”, “His efforts with the ball were terrible. He needs to just win it and give it to those who can play.”
“Diagouraga offers very little other than he will try his best”, “He's not a terrible player but he does not do a lot, and that’s not a sudden view based on [the QPR game] yesterday. I didn't think he was great last season. I'm sick of seeing us play an anonymous third midfielder to be honest - it certainly doesn't make us any more solid.”
All that said, Leeds fans do wish him well. “Good lad, I hope he does well except against us. He looked like a poor man's Toure to me but I suspect it's not just form that put him out of the reckoning with Garry Monk. We didn't see that much of him but I always thought he had the makings of a good signing.”
“Toumani was a fantastic player for Brentford FC over many a season. A lot of fans only came around to this, when we started our fantastic run in the Championship”, “He was a powerfully built player with presence who opposition players seemed to stand off from. His attitude during his time with us was spot on.”
He is held in high regard by the majority of Bees, although several felt that he had only one stand-out season when they reached the Championship play-offs. Some also thought that his form declined in the immediate weeks before last year’s move to Yorkshire.
“It is easy to look back and scapegoat a player without any goal scoring record to speak of but he was an excellent breaker up of play, good ball control, good passer and beautiful, yet gangly player to watch. He stood out because of his size and it would have been very easy for a lazy fan to pigeonhole him as rubbish, but I would disagree.”
“Our current defensive midfielders are better footballers but smaller in statue so they do not have the same presence although more consistent with the ball. His best days were with us”, “He's not the 'brick s***house' type but he wasn't easily shoved off the ball, in my memory. An unusual, surprising, committed and entertaining player. Good memories. Good man.”
“Toums had a terrific attitude and worked incredibly hard to make himself possibly our best player for the last year or more of his time here. I was lucky enough to see him in a training session in the Uwe Rosler days and I can tell you that he stood out as being by far the most intensive trainer there. He was busting a gut throughout. That summed him up for me. he was ready to die for the cause whilst he was here.”
“He was a good player for us. He had spells of really good games and sometimes absolute blinders. He did have poor games and he did go missing at times but over his spell with us there was more good than bad and he showed he was good enough to play Championship football.
“Yes, his last couple of games he clearly wasn't putting in 100% but at least he didn't refuse to play or say his head wasn't in the right place (even though it probably wasn't). Add to all that he was a genuinely nice guy, very humble almost shy and very unlike a lot of footballers today”, “He’s going to Ipswich on loan according to Twitter”, “Lucky Ipswich”, “He will more than likely replace Douglas.”
I watched tonight's game with MrsHfromB and my Italian (Napoli supporting) mate Vince. I have been obstinately loyal to Mick partly with the Irish connection and also after he built such a great first team which had our play-off run.
I have optimistically tried to see this as a transitional season as Mick builds a second team but getting feedback from people less intensely involved our world is no bad thing. Vince had seen our Bristol City defeat early in Mick's reign and was confident from his Italian perspective that Mick would straighten us out at the time.
Midway through the first half Vince picked up on the lack of intensity from our players. More worrying, he highlighted the futility of playing the ball out on the deck when there was such wide space between the back three and midfield three. This allowed Lincoln to use the gaps to exploit turnovers in possession in our half.
A combination of our lacklustre play and dysfunctional formation allowed Lincoln to control the game. There were two men on every Town player in possession but Vince constantly highlighted our ineffective midfield putting our defence under pressure and leaving the strikers isolated, 'Every Ipswich player is playing on their own while Lincoln are more coordinated.'
As the game wore on, we were the non-league side hoping that Lawrence might come up with something whereas Rhead (in Vince's words, 'My good God, no Italian side would even look at him' - let's just put it down to their different philosophy) ran the show for Lincoln and gave our defence a night to forget.
'They have no personality, mate, he has got to go' were Vince's words as we said our goodbyes. He felt that Mick had taken the team as far as he could and we were out of ideas. The pattern of the game was against us but this was because we had no balance as a side, in complete contrast to Lincoln.
Mrs HfromB puts up with hours of drivel from me rabbiting on about the team but her insights are always brief and often lethal. "It felt like Mick didn't believe in the team he put out. He was like a kind uncle and there was no desire or energy from the Ipswich players. It was as if some of them were going through the motions and didn't want to be there."
You will forgive me desperately wanting Mick to succeed and having stuck with him but tonight hurts. I will spare everyone the tirade but suffice to say that I want footy to be a source of happiness and it just feels nothing like that right now.