I thought I would have a gander at Derby's Rams Talk forum tonight to see what the mood was like ahead of Sunday, etc. It's fair to say they have gone just a little bit Ipswich on the web design front for the weekend...
“Fulham are a Saturday afternoon team. There is always a feeling of animated recreation rather than solid professionalism about the scene, so that girls playing on tennis courts near the ground… appear almost part of the game itself. And there is the feeling of the past, with rows and rows of Victorian houses from which old men stare through stained glass eyes of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.”
John Moynihan’s classic ‘The Soccer Syndrome’ was penned in 1966 and was a book ahead of its time. Written in a series of pithy chapters reflecting on the game in the decades after the Second World War, Moynihan alters his gaze from players to supporters to the wider game, but he really hits his stride dissecting individual clubs and gives the reader full value when he turns to Fulham.
“Since the War I have seen Fulham transfer from a side of humourless efficiency watched by humourless, patriotic spectators, who were always cynical of the music hall comedians of Stamford Bridge, to a side of happy, sometimes comic triers watched by garrulous actors who detest the thorough efficiency of the now highly organized Stamford Bridge set up.”
Although Moynihan was a Chelsea supporter he had a keen awareness of the psychological make up of a close rival. His portrait of a club with Tommy Trinder in the stands and Johnny Haynes on the pitch echoed Mr John’s Corinthian values, where a good day out would never be blighted by the outcome of the game. Walking up to the ground today, you could see where he was coming from.
Stolling through the adjacent public gardens and Thames path in blissfully warm sunshine it felt more like a day-trip to the Wimbledon Lawn-Tennis Championships. The birdsong was interrupted by the passing S.S. Ipswich Town flotilla with a disjointed cacophony of “Blue Army!” chants. As one pedestrian observed, “There are a load of noisy sods on that second boat as well!”
This was a soft day that could lull you into a false sense of security. To beat this lot and their quick technical players, we needed cold raw Aston Villa away type weather or more ideally a tempest. Craven Cottage looked good bathed in sunshine. There’s a touch of Portman Road about the ground which carries a sense of history while remaining proportionate for the club and the surroundings.
When the line-ups were announced, there was little to query although Jokanovic had shown his ruthless side in jettisoning keeper David Button and defender Tim Ream, and recalling the distinctive Chris Martin up front. I worried that our 3-5-2 may struggle against a team which relies on wingers and overlapping full-backs but we also had their dangerous three-man central midfield to deal with.
Once the game kicked off, it was instantly clear that Fulham weren’t hanging around and that this was not going to be a cagey chess game. Forward they came, especially down our left flank where Sone Aluko and Ryan Fredericks were combining cleverly and linking up with Stefan Johansen and chief orchestrator Tom Cairney in midfield. Left-winger Floyd Ayite was popping up everywhere.
Fulham also relied on a high-pressing game and a very high back line, compressing our midfield and forcing David McGoldrick into the centre-circle where his lack of pace made him less threatening. While this style of play was risky it was also instantly clear that this Fulham team enjoy doing risky.
The cut-and-thrust football was yielding Fulham chances through their clever passing and interplay while we were capitalising on errors. Early chances for Ayite and Johansen were counterbalanced by McGoldrick fluffing a gifted ball from Cottagers’ keeper Marcus Bettinelli. The hosts were building their rhythm with their passing game and their overlapping full-backs were helping forge openings.
There was a chorus of booing for Chris Martin when the teams had been announced and not just from the Suffolk contingent. An early through ball from Fredericks reached Martin but he miscontrolled it out of play at the edge of the six-yard box. His stomach happily broke his fall and prevented any serious injury. His tussles with Berra all day were an old-school throwback in a technical game.
The opening goal was no surprise. It had been coming, not on the balance of pressure but on the sharpness and alertness of the hosts. Another cross, this time from Ayite, and Bart saved smartly from Martin but Ayite was quickest to react. A series of half-chances followed for both sides, inevitably created by Fulham’s clever interplay (for them) and their neurotic defending (for us).
“How easy was that?” Fulham’s second goal was far more problematic. An innocuous throw in on our right and some short passes saw Fulham’s quieter Scott Malone ghost in and knife the ball past Bart into his far corner. We had not picked up the runner and switched off at the back yet again.
“Give him the budget and he will get you promoted.” The away crowd had been vocal for the first half hour and fully behind the team but the second goal heralded a change. The Portman Road fans have been unhappy for months but hearing the away fans starting to become negative was new.
“Norwich are winning 5-0.” While our friends up the road were typically flattering to deceive, we were flattering nobody. Fulham were now controlling the tempo of the game, varying it in the warm sunshine along a slow-slow-quick-quick-slow rhythm to conserve energy and catch us out. They were happy to fire long goal-kicks downfield for wingers to sprint on to and win set-pieces.
There was no argument about the half-time score. We were losing the game in midfield and there was little we could do about it. Maybe having Skuse out there would have disrupted the prowling Johansen or the Fulham conductor-in-chief Tom Cairney but their central trio were trumping ours.
The most telling recurring pattern kept happening in midfield. Fulham pressed and killed space with a high defensive line when we were in possession. They would invariably isolate our midfield ball carrier in a one-versus-two battle before dispossessing him and working the ball quickly to one of their wingers of full-backs bombing forward. It was clever, pre-planned and difficult to stop.
The switch to a 4-4-2 at the interval was an attempt to add some attacking balance by introducing Tom Lawrence while stifling Fulham’s threat down the wings. Yet another formation switch which begged the question as to why Mick doesn’t know his best set-up having worked with this squad for four years. Jokanovic in contrast had a style of play up and running with a squad rebuilt last summer.
Away we went for the second half and once again the game was being played in the same hysterical pattern. Sears nearly found the net straight after the break and while Fulham were getting chances at the other end, McGoldrick in particular was fashioning chances which we just could not finish.
After Bettinelli made one excellent save, the inevitable happened when Fulham broke and scored a third. It was a simple counter attack which left Johansen with time and space in the box to compose himself and fire home past Bart. 3-0, Game over. "Marcus Evans, get out of our club", “We want McCarthy out.”
“We want our Ipswich back.” The supporter standing beside me wondered just how many of our second half chances might have been taken had we bought a natural finisher in the January window. We had been wasteful in front of goal and it had bitten us. The wider mood was turning toxic with chants being aimed at Mick and Evans in equal measure and all a sharp contrast to the first half-hour.
“Fulham were actually better than this at Portman Road.” My companion said that they were playing far riskier football in the sunshine than they had over Christmas. There is a flawed beauty to the type of football Fulham play, delightful going forward but leaving wide open spaces and passing recklessly into the bargain. I fear they may be unable to string three good play-off games together in May.
There was no streetwise closing the game out as Fulham kept on attacking and leaving gaps in their hunt for a fourth goal, but by now most of the away end were occupied with letting the owner and the manager know what they thought of them and the season. Berra’s consolation goal in stoppage time was followed by Chris Martin skewing a shot wide and the game was mercifully concluded.
It is tempting to dabble in a little Kremlinology when interpreting post-match players’ interactions with the crowd. They all came over and applauded us but many of us would have given good money to work out what Chambers and McGoldrick were thinking as they stood and clapped us. Mick went straight to the tunnel without glancing over. It is safe to say he probably heard what was been sung.
Just after I left the stadium and walking in the flow of people towards Putney Bridge, a fellow Blue turned to me and said “I’m worried that the club are going to slaughter us for protesting during the game but it’s not wrong our protesting, is it? The football is awful, there’s every chance we could go down next season and there’s no way I can see it changing. What else can we do?”
He had been in a small knot of boisterous supporters at the front of the away end who were vocally protesting and encouraging others to join in. The truth, of course, is that he is right. The Town crowd warmly applauded every chance the players created, even in the second half when we were taking the game to Fulham, but the difference in calibre between the sides was just too obvious.
If you look back in recent years there are two ways of dropping into League One. You may not be big enough to survive (Yeovil, Milton Keynes, Peterborough) but incompetent ownership in whatever guise lies behind a majority of recent relegations (Blackpool, Bolton, Charlton, Pompey, Coventry, etc.) and it’s happening again this year with Forest and Blackburn currently fighting for their lives.
An owner is far more likely to relegate a football club than a manager. It nearly happened to us in 2013 and if the club don’t wake up it could well happen next season. There has been a paradigm shift in the Championship due to the new money being pumped in to the Premier League and our current investment level simply won’t cut it in this new world. This is not wishful thinking, it is reality.
The thing that struck me was how a fellow Blue was seeking affirmation for having voiced his fears during the game. It takes so little to make us happy as a band of supporters. We haven’t had success for a generation but we know what this club is capable of achieving. It’s such a pity that the people wielding control of the club either can’t recognise it or lack the ambition to try and make it happen.
I was travelling on the train back to Bath from Paddington and a large number of Bath Rugby supporters boarded at Reading. When I saw half-a-dozen middle-aged alickadoos wearing Henley-style blazers with Black, Blue and White stripes I burst out laughing. I am so grateful to love football and support such a down to earth club. We may lose our tempers but at least we keep our dignity.
I haven't been feeling all that well in recent months, getting migraines regularly coupled with feeling incredibly tired and letting things get to me. I started getting chest pains last week on top of this so it was time to see the GP.
I know how busy GP's are these days so my surgery has a Practitioner Nurse who can diagnose so along I toddled on Tuesday to see what they could find. She took my blood pressure, entered some data on the computer and then took it again and in hindsight I should have twigged that the first reading was being double-checked.
It transpired that my blood pressure was 184/110 and it was only when I went home and googled these numbers that I realised how bad these are. The American Heart Association defines this reading as a Hypertensive Crisis and all the associated symptoms listed were all too familiar.
They put me on medication and got me back in the next afternoon for an ECG. The nurse took another reading and after only two tablets it was down to 154/94. She said that High Blood Pressure is known as the silent killer but that it is also one of the most utterly treatable conditions.
I am just sharing this to say to everyone to keep an eye on this. I am in my mid-fifties and my Dad's high blood pressure went undiagnosed. This led to a series of mini-strokes when he was 57 and he pegged out with a cardiac arrest when he was 62. The symptoms aren't always obvious and can creep up on you but it can be quickly worked on.
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.
I have had a look at Rovers’ message boards this morning to assess the mood as they had little to say about us or their game in the build-up during the week…
“This is a big game for us, arguably just as big for Ipswich”, “Ipswich are genuinely one of the most dreadful teams to watch in this division. We are what we are. This match is going to be a mockery of football. A 1-1 draw and nobody wins, especially the fans”, “I can see us getting at least a point.”
“Coyle and the lads are on a roll. An early Rovers' goal will see Ipswich heads drop and the home fans turn”, “Usually I would be happy with a draw but with all the bottom teams playing each other the gap gets wider and with both our and Ipswich’s current form I think a win is essential.”
They don’t run a prediction league, but the vast majority would be happy with a point to keep their unbeaten mini-run going at what is widely seen as a bogey ground. “If we come back with a point I'll be more than happy as Portman Road is a ground that we don't usually do particularly well at.”
“We really need at least a point and a point I would be very pleased with”, “Portman Road is not one of our happier hunting grounds and rarely see us come away with much. However, the last three games have seen us look tighter at the back and I'm hopeful of seeing us pick up a point.”
“I'm just hoping the win over Newcastle last time out isn't followed by the sequence of defeats similar to previous victory over the Geordies. I'd take a point.”
“This is one of our least favourite of least favourite Championship grounds. Wins at Old Trafford and the Emirates come around more often than they do down there.”
“This is very much a bogey ground. I've been down there about five or six times and never seen a win. Some absolute dross witnessed there in recent seasons particularly on a couple of miserable midweek trips.”
Only one Town player has been mentioned, albeit briefly: “Tom Lawrence (a loan signing in Bowyer days) is now on loan there. He blew hot and cold for us but is in form at the moment. You know who's going to get a goal.”
“I think McCarthy will be gone shortly. A poor result tomorrow might see him gone. Ipswich fans don't like his boring game-plan and tactics”, “I would love to swap dour, straight talking Mick McCarthy for odious cretin Coyle”,
Rovers briefly discussed Mick’s season here during the week but they have warmed to the theme since then. “Imagine Mick McCarthy with our squad of a few years ago."
“Big Mick over-achieved a bit at first with nothing but shirt buttons and raised the expectation levels. He would probably do that here if he walked in tomorrow and what we wouldn't give for just one decent season.”
“Rightly or wrongly McCarthy has been getting a lot of stick down there this season for results and performances. A poor result tomorrow could see him get even more aggro off the home fans whilst a comfortable win will lift the gloom.
“He has kept them well clear of trouble every season and will do so again despite having no money to spend and presumably one of the lowest wage bills in the league. Notice to some - look what can be achieved at a club with tiny budget and modest crowds but with a proper setup and a good manager that is trusted to get on with doing the job.”
“A section of Ipswich fans have had it in for McCarthy from the off but he's just one of those kind of managers whose style is often hard to take but most tolerate it when it's doing the job. He's just run out of steam now they all have a shelf life especially when there is no money to keep freshening things up.
“They want to be careful what they wish for though if they are still penniless as hard as it might be to watch that pragmatic style is what keeps poor teams out of danger.”
“Once Mick goes, they are most likely @#/?. Their squad is awful. They keep selling their best players and are given barely anything to reinvest (sound familiar?).
“Right now they're basically us, but with a decent manager. Terrible squad, no money, mountains of debt owed to the owner (who is nowhere to be seen), an unpopular manager and fans who are beginning to walk away rather than waste their lives watching turgid, boring football.”
Here's Clive Whittingham's preview piece on this morning's Loft for Words front page. Not a lot to say about us, but he is in characteristically fine form and turns his gaze on Hoops' habit of either deifying or vilifying players in a knee-jerk manner...
Looking around more widely, Rangers' forums have been quiet and they have had little to say about the game. One prediction thread has 48% going for a home win and 29% forecasting a draw and these are pretty pessimistic numbers for a home team.
From their optimists: "Ipswich are just as poor as us, a massive game and chance to get back to back wins. I think the win against Wolves would of lifted everyone enormously", "We need to go into this game with a bit of self belief after beating Wolves", "Ipswich was game I thought would be the change in fortunes and sticking with that. Two wins on the trot."
From their pessimists: "If Idrissa Sylla plays, we will score, but either way I think we will lose this one. A draw at best", "Hope I'm wrong but can see the extra days rest benefitting Ipswich. 1-2."
“It’s all a question of expectations, mate, what is it that you want from your season?” My Italian friend Vince has our followed the fortunes closely since accompanying me four years ago to Ashton Gate. It was that game when Lee Martin missed a couple of sitters and Jon Stead’s last-gasp winner left us all frustrated on a gloomy January afternoon. Vince was reassuring that day despite the loss.
Italians see everything with a tactical eye and Vince has always held Mick in high regard. Looking in as an outsider this season, he has been perplexed by the growing antipathy among many fans and his question, asked last Tuesday, hit the nail on the head for me. Before answering any question about Mick or the club’s future, we need to first understand what we are trying to achieve this year.
Arriving at the Brew House (our pub) before the game, the mood before the game was both strange and convivial. Ian Milne and Liz Edwards came along informally to our pre-match drinks (my non-Ipswich friends are always amazed by Ian’s willingness to do this) and the warm smiles and friendly handshakes were a testimony to the friendships which have been kindled since the South West Supporters Club was set up. It was good to be with friends.
When it came to discussion ahead of the actual game, conversations were more hesitant. There was little consensus and it felt that it was a question of which Town side pitched up. This has been a stop-start season and we could have the Hillsborough or Forest version today. Some fans have taken entrenched positions but many are also less certain about what the correct diagnosis might be.
This was a game which could go either way, but heading to the ground I was nervous. The omens were not great. We were up against a team on a losing run but with a good home record and I was less than happy with Mick’s decision to announce the team early. This was less to do with allowing City to plan in detail and more to do with how it might galvanise a side whose confidence was low.
The Ashton Gate rebuild is now complete and while the new stand looks impressive, the banks of empty seats in their upper tier looked less so. After an impeccably observed minutes’ silence for the Chapecoense tragedy it was time to assess just how much homework City boss Lee Johnson had done as the formations took shape and he had certainly got his prep in on time.
Johnson’s starting XI (above) matched our 4-4-2 but bringing back black-sheep Adam Matthews in at right-back for the suspect Mark Little and Scott Golbourne in for the suspended Joe Bryan at left-back meant that he had specialist full-backs in to replace wing-backs learning a new role.
This was vital, because his next trick of starting Lee Tomlin on the left wing and Luke Freeman on the right meant that the side instantly added much-needed creativity and width. Both players can be very destructive given time and space which they would get out wide. They could also operate more freely having specialist full-backs alongside them who were confident in their duties.
The central duo of Marlon Pack and Korey Smith was designed to counter Skuse and Douglas while adding the extra energy which the rested Gary O’Neil had lacked in recent defeats while Tammy Abraham was to be supported by the muscle and experience of 37-year-old Aaron Wilbraham.
This is not a peon of praise for Johnson but more a basic analysis of a manager putting a series of fixes in place to arrest a slide. Johnson might have been more circumspect had he been unsure about our formation, but the Robins had a well-worked plan knowing what they were up against.
And so to the game, and for the first 30 minutes it looked exactly what it was, two evenly match mid-table sides giving as good as they got and by and large cancelling each other out. Wilbraham could have been sent off for a cowardly lunge on Christoph Berra, a cheap hit which made home fans irate over a sense that our defender was somehow contriving to be injured.
While Bristol were trying to isolate Freeman and Tomlin on our respective full-backs, we were trying to do the same for Tom Lawrence up against Matthews on our left with David McGoldrick vigilant to take advantage of any ensuing weakness in the Robins defence. We were growing in confidence as the half progressed when everything came juddering to a halt.
Robins were seething last week after Reading blagged a penalty to open the scoring at the Madejski. They may well feel that referee Stuart Attwell evened things up when pausing before fatally pointing to the spot after Bart brushed against Abraham in our penalty area with the ball out of range and rolling harmlessly away.
I have struggled to stay objective where penalties are concerned this season. It looked soft but Town fans were more evenly split in the half-time inquest. Bart also didn’t need to give the referee the decision to make and most certainly not given our luck with the wretched things in this campaign.
So 1-0 to Bristol, a team like us who had been playing competently and waiting to see if they could catch a break. Having now caught a huge one, their tails were up and they had something to defend. The tide had turned and there was now more risk of a second City goal.
City had not forgotten last year’s success from corner kicks and Berra could well have been penalised when he allowed a tussle with the alpine Aden Flint to escalate into a bad-tempered tango. They had a cantankerous battle in a game which occasionally became fractious and antagonistic.
Although the hosts had the wind in their sales after the penalty, they were happy to play out a half which had been evenly fought but which mirrored so much of our season. Our general play had been quite decent but we were impotent to respond once the vital break went against us.
The half-time break galvanised us. The game in the early period of the second half became quite scrappy and open. This may have allowed City a few openings but it suited us and it gave us spaces and opportunities to hit them in turn. McGoldrick was so unlucky to see his shot flash across goal, glancing against the post and to safety after a well-worked move down our right.
While our general play was solid, we weren’t testing Fielding in the Bristol goal enough barring that one chance. Douglas and Skuse were regulating midfield well and we weren’t being dominated but our work in the final third was becoming prosaic. We took wrong options or hesitated around whether to pass, shoot or run.
Although Lawrence seemed to have the measure of his full-back, ghosting past him at one point in the first half, he became less of a threat as the game progressed. That said, he was much less ragged than Knudsen who blazed one ball impossibly towards the stand above the corner-flag when put through on goal.
I had been worried about Luke Freeman before the game but Bristol City fans popping into my shop were all saying, “No, he has no end product. He is good at creating space but he can’t assist or score. He’s less of a problem than Tomlin.” Well, Luke ‘never scores or assists’ Freeman gave me something to throw back at the doubting Robins when he smashed an unstoppable shot home out of nowhere.
Minutes earlier, I had remarked to my friend that the new-built ground had a feel of Birmingham’s St. Andrew’s, albeit slightly larger. The home crowd mirrored the Birmingham faithful, largely quiet until they had a goal to cheer. Now Freeman’s goal was reminiscent of last season’s 3-0 defeat at Birmingham, a game in which goals rained in from all angles.
A third Bristol goal by now was more likely than a Town fightback. They were rejuvenated and they smelled blood. We were trying to take the game to them but far too often moves would descend into polite inter-passing with insufficient movement to feed off, or we would hesitate to play the final ball and the move would end with yet another offside flag. It seemed that we were out of ideas.
Two moves summed up our creative play, one involving McGoldrick and Williams - now operating as playmakers - passing slowly with pedestrian movement around them only for the move to end with Knudsen failing to control the ball. The second was a series of crosses being comfortably met by the towering Aden Flint, completely unimpeded when heading the danger away in his own area.
They epitomised our problem. We are an efficient and well-organised side but we lack the extra spark of creativity or ingenuity to wrest the initiative back when we need to re-establish a foothold in a game. Only once in our second-half meanderings was Frank Fielding really tested in the Robins’ goal. We lack the ability to hurt teams, especially when we need to.
The game petered out with a series of valedictory Bristol substitutions and a flaky penalty shout for a challenge of Jonny Williams. One Freeman’s shot crashed home there was only going to be one winner and the amusing refrain of ‘Drink up thee cider’ crackled over the PA system as we filed out of the ground.
Walking back to the car, I bumped into one of my Bristol City-supporting bookshop customers who was sporting an impish grin. “Did you think it was a penalty? (he did)” His immediate question betrayed the doubt which must have crossed many Robins’ minds when it was given. Diplomatically he praised Skuse - “He ran the midfield in the second half” – but he was felt their win was merited.
And in truth it was. A Town fan asked me at 2-0 down, “so what do you think Harry, Mick in or Mick out?” I hate this question, because it conflates a series of nuanced issues into a binary option and the truth for me is that it is too soon to ask it. A good friend said before the game that he felt that this genie was let out of the bottle after the Huddersfield defeat and it is not likely to go away any time soon.
“It’s all a question of expectations, mate, what is it that you want from your season?” Coming back to Vince’s question it is firstly important to remember that not everything is wrong with the team. However, and with equal weight, we all know the areas which need time and resources from both the owner and management. The damage caused by the late departure of Murphy is a blow from which we are still reeling.
With promotion or relegation unlikely, I would use our time this season to dismantle and rebuild our attack to get back that cutting edge, especially when the breaks fall against us as they did today. It would be the catalyst to propel us up the table again and it would bring some much needed joy to our play. Easier said than done I know but given where we are, if we can make visible strides here between now and May, then that will do for me.