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Why Staying in the Promotion Race Will Be More Difficult Than Getting There in the First Place
Written by Pickersblue22 on Tuesday, 3rd Feb 2015 22:43

2:50 pm Boxing Day 2014 - Brentford 2-4 Ipswich Town. Town top of the league. Friday 27th [i]Daily Telegraph[/i] headline ‘Ipswich savour rare taste of high life’. So rare that Town topped the table for the first time in ten years. Albeit for about two hours.

The feelings of superiority and huge satisfaction after putting four goals past a dangerous Brentford are not things Ipswich Town fans have experienced recently. We have been on a journey since relegation from the Premier League in 2002, a journey almost completely made up of lows.

Failed play-off campaigns under Joe Royle have been followed by consistent underachievement, so much so that 15th in the Championship became an almost acceptable position in the table.

Mention the words ‘Keane’ and ‘Jewell’, and the mind is filled with thoughts of huge, yet wasted transfer fees, academy talent going down the drain, and home crowds of 16,000 as a result of uninspiring, ugly football.

No-one could be blamed for questioning Mick McCarthy, a manager who, ten years previously, had been a penalty shoot-out away from a World Cup quarter-final with Ireland, when he took on the role of rescuing the sinking ship that was Ipswich Town.

All this makes Mick’s achievements so far even more impressive. When he took over in November 2012, Town were bottom after 13 games and one win. Ending the season in 14th position was a fantastic effort, but was only one place above the previous season, under Paul Jewell.

Last season, however, the majority of fans were desperate to forget the embarrassments of the previous season, and so the subsequent praise heaped on Mick McCarthy for the brilliant job he had done was somewhat misguided.

I personally do not think that getting Town from 24th to 14th in the table was a very difficult job for Mick. In fact, I think a lot of managers would have been capable of similar results. The group of players he inherited was too good to be bottom of table; all they needed was a shot of confidence, and some toughening up.

As Mick said at the end of the season when asked what was the key to our rise up the table, ‘I won a game’. The 1-0 win at Birmingham in Mick’s first game in charge would have made the world of difference to the confidence of the players. Mick was highly praised for the job he did in that first season, and rightly so, but it wasn’t as impressive as was made out at the time.

Finishing ninth last season was another step in the right direction, despite the failure to draw in bigger crowds to Portman Road. Mick worked wonders in the transfer market despite a lack of cash, examples being making David McGoldrick’s loan move permanent, and capturing the outstanding Christophe Berra.

Just being in the play-off picture for the vast majority of the season was enough after so many seasons being out of the frame. McGoldrick’s knee injury in February was the moment that might have cost Town a real push at breaking into the promotion race.

Being tough to beat was what last season was all about, but there was an over-reliance on McGoldrick to provide all the guile and creativity, and we tended to struggle to take points off the teams near the top.

Indeed, Town did not take a single point off any of Leicester, Burnley or QPR. At the start of this season, the talk was whether we could continue our progress and have a genuine shot at the top six. What has followed has been way beyond expectations.

After the failed transfer dealings of Keane and Jewell, Marcus Evans has been extremely reluctant to grant Mick any funds for transfers. No-one can blame him for that. Mick hasn’t sulked about it, and has done a great job in the free-transfer and loan markets.

Rare fees were paid for Tyrone Mings, £10,000, and, more recently, £100,000 on Freddie Sears. The team that got us in and around the top two cost £10,000. That is absolutely remarkable, almost miraculous. It is for this that Mick deserves massive, massive credit, not for getting us off the bottom of the table.

Town’s success this season has been getting the ball up to Daryl Murphy as quickly as possible, and telling him to wreak havoc in opposition defences. Murphy has been more confident than anyone has ever seen him before.

He is a different player to before with the ball at his feet, with a rocket of a shot, especially on his left foot. He is not blessed with great pace, but his strength and power mean that he is a match for any centre-back in the Championship. He is also fantastic in the air, as his second goal at Forest and his effort at Bournemouth show.

Murphy has been without doubt the most important part of our game plan this season. McGoldrick has not fired on all cylinders, but the goal-scoring burden has been taken off him by Murphy. The emergence of players such as Mings and Bishop has been brilliant, but take them out of our team, and we would not suffer as much as if Murphy were removed.

Apart from these four players mentioned, the rest of the squad is made up of good Championship players, some excellent such as Berra, Smith, and Bru. Sheer effort and intensity from the majority of the squad, with moments of brilliance from our better players, are why we find ourselves where we are. We do not play good football, but there are few teams in the country who graft and give more than Town. After all, you cannot argue with results and league position.

The question is whether what has got us to the position we are in now will be enough to keep us there for the rest of the season. Had I written this a month ago, the answer would have been yes. To go on a run of one defeat in 21 games is impressive in any league, but is phenomenal in the Championship, where every single game is tough.

But since then, a run of one win in six has slightly dampened hopes of finishing in the top two. The attendance at Saturday’s game vs Wigan was 19,155, was the first sub-20,000 crowd at home since 4th November, perhaps a sign that heads are just starting to drop.

When Mick won the Championship with Wolves in 2008/09, his side went on a run of one win in 11 games from 10th January to 28th February. They only lost once more after that. A year later West Brom ended the season second after a run of 12 games unbeaten.

In 2011, Norwich clinched promotion with a run of one defeat in 16 games. In 2012, Reading won 15 of their last 19 games to win the league. Last season, Leicester lost one of their last 27 games. The best teams finish well - when it matters most. Are Town capable of similar? And, more importantly, are they more capable that the teams around them?

The relative lack of transfer movement in January suggests that Mick trusts the squad that has performed so well so far to continue in the same way for the rest of the season. Who can blame him for having faith in this group of players after such an impressive season so far?

However, you cannot help noticing the statistics in the previous paragraph. The best teams tend to be the ones that finish the strongest. We had arguably the best first half of the season in the league, but that is not what wins promotion.

Like last season, the FA Cup did not come at a good time for Town. Yes, it was good to test ourselves against Premier League opposition in Southampton, but actually the games added to our already tough schedule, and took our eye off the main goal.

Mick has improved our options up front- McGoldrick, Murphy, N Hunt and Sears certainly reads a lot better than McGoldrick, Murphy, Sammon and Bajner, but an injury to Murphy could totally derail our promotion push. As shown in Saturday’s game against Wigan, no Murphy means that our game-plan of knocking the ball long is almost redundant, as we have no height in attack apart from the Irishman.

He is by far our more important player, and a similar player must be brought in to cover should anything happen to him. It would be wrong to expect Murphy to continue his fabulous form for the rest of the season - he will have a period when the goals fade, and someone else must step up and contribute.

As far as our promotion rivals are concerned, Bournemouth are doing similar to us in sticking with the same group of players, despite making five bids for Birmingham’s Demarai Gray. The goals may dry up for the Cherries, and they may struggle to continue their excellent form. But they are a fantastic footballing team, and deserve to be top.

Derby must be favourites to win the league after loaning Tom Ince and Jesse Lingard on deadline day, from Hull and Manchester United respectively. They have an abundance of attacking options with Darren Bent also signed, and the best midfield in the division.

I expect the Rams to take one of the top two spots. The balance in the squad is excellent and they play very good football, whilst being capable of digging in and winning ugly, as they did at Portman Road on 10th January.

Middlesbrough are a team where you cannot name their star player. They are not individuals. They are an strong, solid team, with an outstanding defensive record. They are another team that play good football, but this does not compromise their ability to grind out results, such as their 1-0 win at Brentford on Saturday, when they did not play well.

Their success is built on solidity at the back and good football in front. Their only January signing has been Adam Forshaw from Wigan, but their squad is not thin, and it will take a lot to shift them from their current position.

Watford are full of goals, but always look vulnerable at the back. They are very unpredictable, but on their day, will cut anyone to shreds. Brentford are the surprise package, but they have a lot of good players, and are another good footballing team. They might not have enough to push for the top two, but are a very tough match for anyone.

Norwich have the best squad in the league, apart from possibly Derby, but just cannot find any momentum. They should be aiming to finish in the top two, and I fancy them to finish very strongly, once Alex Neil settles in as manager. Wolves look like the only other team capable of getting in there at the moment, if they can keep Bakary Sako fit for the rest of the season.

I would argue that every one of these teams play better football than Ipswich, and the majority have more strength in depth in their squads. Strength in depth is very important in terms of continuing momentum, especially at this stage of the season, when you need players to step in and perform straightaway when required.

At the same time, team spirit is vital, and Mick clearly does not want to disrupt the squad too much, as it is clear the camaraderie in our group is fantastic. You cannot blame Mick for wanting to keep the same players, but we do look slightly thin, with only 22 players in the squad.

Another striker is required, as well as a forward-thinking midfielder. Mick has stated his intention to delve into the loan market, which is positive. What is needed more than anything else, is a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, and so on.

As the season goes on, teams will start to work us out, indeed current form would suggest that has already started to happen. Promotion comes from being smart and streetwise. We have to be able to adapt to situations. The pressure will gradually ramp up, and that is where we will need to find something else, something different.

Producing moments of quality to win games is what is needed at this stage of this season. Winning games under pressure is what it is all about, not good performances. We have not played under real pressure yet this season, but it will come and we must be ready.

Teams below us will raise their games when we play them, and we must adjust and be prepared. We need quick, sharp decision-making, improvisation, cool heads. These last 18 games as we go into February will be different to the rest of the season. It will be more difficult to pick up results as the pressure turns up on all the teams in the league. This is make-or-break time.

Can we do it? We have got to fourth with 18 games left. The first thing is to get back into form, and get into a winning habit. Hopefully the injection of quality from the loan market will come, and make a difference. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Let’s strap ourselves in. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.

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SuffolkBlueSam added 09:42 - Feb 4
Excellently written. I agree with everything you've covered in this piece. I'm just wondering if the lack of signings is more to do with the clubs wage structure, rather than ME unwillingness to give MM the funds needed to 'buy' players. With the likes of Taylor on 10k - maybe there are clauses in certain players contracts which would make the acquisition or new blood more financially challenging.
Also we've seen with the likes of Sharpe that players are reluctant to come in and play second fiddle.
I think we could see a renaissance of earlier form in the next few weeks though. With Watford Vs Brentford and Boro Vs Derby. Bournmouth have a few banana skin games, also. I think 7 points from the next three and we'd be back in the top 2. Any thoughts?

bluefeast added 11:17 - Feb 4
Great article ,really good . My view is that we will fall away. 46 games is a real grind , its alot easier if your any one of the top 8 sides apart from us. The other 7 spend their 90 mins with the ball. We spend a huge amount of time tracking ,running ,closing etc etc ,ie without the ball ,its exhausting and it shows. Our players look battered. I think we will finish 8th ,and that will show the lack of additions in the january window to be the biggest mistake we could possibly make.

bellazzurri79 added 11:25 - Feb 4
Good article. Bournemouth play Derby next week I believe and that is a huge game not only for them but for town.

Unfortunately I agree with your estimations on Derby and middlesbro - they will be the top two in this league, but it's about how we can stay in the play off race

Pickersblue22 added 13:02 - Feb 4
To SuffolkBlueSam - thank you for good feedback, appreciate it. Agree that FFP is always in back of MM's mind, and will hinder us from buying players. Next five games all look very winnable, and it is vital we get back the momentum we had at Christmas, especially with the trip to Norwich on the horizon. Bournemouth v Derby could have a huge effect on all teams' destinations.

rickw added 15:12 - Feb 4
I agree recently we haven't been playing good football, but before Christmas the 433 we were using I found was very entertaining football.
OK we still didn't pass it like Bournemouth do, but it seemed we would pass it when we could, but if defenders were under pressure then they'd hit it long to Murphy.
Since we've gone back to 442 the defence have had less options in midfield and relied more on the long ball to Murphy - even when he wasn't playing!!!!

RegencyBlue added 21:18 - Feb 4
We need a good February because our March fixtures are tough!

Personally I've always thought a 'blip' in our results was inevitable. and January has certainly seen our momentum stall. Having said that we have been lucky in so far as we are still within touching distance of a top two spot.

There isn't much more leeway though. If results don't pick up soon we will leave ourselves a mountain to climb and could struggle to finish in the top six.

gorse added 03:11 - Feb 15
Late to the party, but agree with the post & SuffolkBlueSam. The Sharp thing shows how hard it would be to get a replacement even remotely close to Murph -- unless we can get someone great from a bloated Prem squad on loan, and then the wages would probably hurt.

We'd be fools not to play to our strength(s), but, I'd like to see us play without a target man, or at least *try* and play. IMO the Plan B we lack is not what we'd do without Murph, but what we'd do without a target man. The Plan B I would love to see us have is "goals from midfield", like Boro, Bournemouth, etc.
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