Monday 5th March
Tomorrow will be my first away game of 2018 and fourth of the season, as we head up to Hillsborough to face a struggling Sheffield Wednesday side. Listening to the Blue Monday preview pod on the way into work, I’m reminded of the frustrating 2-2 draw in the return fixture at Portman Road in November. We should have won comfortably, but two defensive lapses cost us and Nuhiu’s last-minute equaliser was tough to take. Our season has changed significantly since then – at that time we were just outside the play-offs, playing 4-2-3-1 and scoring goals for fun but struggling to keep clean sheets.
Since then, Mick McCarthy has reverted to type and while the three-man defence looks reliable and solid, the goals have dried up at the other end. The team has gently been sliding down the table and another mid-table finish looks inevitable, however February was a strong month and Wednesday’s miserable form gives cause for optimism tomorrow evening. My last five away games have ended in defeat, this appears to be a great opportunity to end that run.
Tuesday 6th March
I booked the afternoon off work so I could head up to Sheffield early, meeting up with my brother who is studying at Hallam before heading to the ground. Regardless of form or the opposition, I always feel more of a buzz before an away match – as an experience it’s nearly always more fun than home games, and having only attended about a dozen away games the novelty is yet to wear off.
Having munched through a massive plate of food at Red’s True Barbecue, we joined the 400 or so Ipswich fans in the upper tier of the West Stand. I had visited Hillsborough last year and instantly liked it – it’s a proper football ground, and I imagine would be an intimidating place for away sides if it was anywhere near full. The staff are also the friendliest I’ve come across at a football ground, and being told by the stewards that we could sit wherever we liked showed a level of common sense that is sadly lacking at many other grounds.
The first half was not a classic, to say the least, the only highlight being Bart making a ridiculous save with his face. I had naively hoped that we might try to grab control of the game early on but we were happy to sit back and play on the break, and with the midfield three sitting so deep Waghorn was left isolated. The combination of Hyam, Skuse and Connolly is too one-dimensional and offers little going forward, though in the main we didn’t even attempt to play through midfield. Carayol was lively in a free role between the aforementioned trio and Waghorn, until he pulled up injured and was replaced by Freddie Sears. I’ve been critical of Sears over the past 18 months; his work rate has never been in doubt but the end product hasn’t been there. Having said that, at Wednesday he did a great job for the team. He played in a more advanced position than Carayol and his pace stretched the game out, giving the midfield a chance to move up the field and support the front two.
Sears was pivotal in the opening goal, harassing Loovens into giving away the ball in the left back area and standing up a cross to the far post, which Callum Connolly intelligently nodded across for Waghorn to tap home for his first goal in several months. This kicked Wednesday into life and Lucas Joao took advantage of some mediocre defending to equalise quarter of an hour later.
At this point it looked like the game could go either way. The quality of the match was poor, with the ball kicked skywards more than it was on the floor, and the feeling was that one moment of quality would be enough to snatch a win. With eight minutes remaining, we won a free kick not far from the byline to the right of the box. Most players would cross from this position but Waghorn is both left-footed and not afraid to have a go from unusual positions. He whips the free kick over the keeper and into the far corner. Cue bedlam in the away end and a mass exodus from the home end. We held on relatively comfortably to record successive away wins for the first time since August.
Wednesday had lost four on the bounce before Tuesday, and it was easy to see why. I know they are suffering from a lot of injuries, but there was no discernible game plan and Jordan Rhodes looked hopelessly off the pace, to the extent that he was hauled off at half-time. They should have enough to stay up but the end of the season can’t come soon enough for them, they really are a shadow of the side that has made the play-offs in the last two seasons. The fanbase is clearly exasperated – the sarcastic chanting of “We’re on our way to Wembley” after the equaliser spoke volumes.
Wednesday 7th March
Staying in Sheffield overnight gave me time to reflect on what I’d seen the previous evening. The football had not been entertaining or high quality, but we had come away with the three points. If this is the sort of football we’re churning out every other week at Portman Road, I can see why attendances are dropping quickly. The ends will always justify the means for Mick McCarthy, but with the team stuck in mid-table for the last two seasons it’s understandable that many regular match-goers are getting bored.
Despite my grumbles about the style of football, it was still a worthwhile trip – the atmosphere at the back of the stand was lively and can you really complain too much about an away win? At least we had regained our defensive solidity – Cameron Carter-Vickers in particular is a class defender and we should look to get him back next season if at all possible. We’re now seven points off the play-offs with a game in hand, so the season isn’t quite over yet…
Friday 9th March
I’m back in London, and attention is switching to Saturday’s game against the other Sheffield side. I was at the earlier fixture at Bramall Lane, when United were flying high, and they thoroughly deserved their 1-0 win. In the early part of the season they were in the top two but have fallen away badly and now sit outside the play-offs. They are a well-drilled side, with everyone understanding their role in a 3-5-2 formation, but it appears that teams have worked them out and they haven’t been able to adjust. From our perspective, a win is needed to kickstart a late play-off push, which means ending a three match goalless streak at home.
In other news, Bartosz Bialkowski has been called up to the Poland squad for the first time. This is thoroughly deserved given his form over the last three seasons, and if he were a few years younger I’m certain he would be playing Premier League football by now. I dread to think where we would have finished last season without him… hopefully he will impress and give himself a chance of going to the World Cup.
Saturday 10th March
Oh dear. As has happened countless times before, Ipswich have ruthlessly stamped out any lingering optimism I felt about the remainder of the season. Here are the key points from today’s game:
- Today’s result was the third 0-0 in the last seven home league matches.
- Ipswich have failed to score in the last four home league matches, stretching back to 13th January. They have also only scored two goals in the last eight home matches in all competitions.
- Jordan Spence was brought on in the 46th minute and hauled off again in the 79th minute. I think everyone has realised he is a below-average Championship defender, and definitely not suited to a wing-back role.
- Ipswich are now nine points off sixth, with a game in hand.
We lined up in a 3-5-2 again but with four changes to the starting line-up – Kenlock, Iorfa, Gleeson and Celina all came into the side. The match started brightly and the crowd were very much behind the team, but it gently descended into the drudgery with which we’re all too familiar. We only had two shots on target to United’s three, which probably tells you all you need to know about this game. Can’t wait for the highlights…
Sunday 11th March
I wasn’t at yesterday’s match – living in London means getting a season ticket is a non-starter – so I’ve been scouring the Twitterverse and TWTD for some opinions on yesterday’s game. Nothing that I’ve read has surprised me, it was clear from the line-up that McCarthy was taking his familiar safety-first approach. Since our 2-0 win over Reading on 16th December our home form in all competitions is: played eight, won one, drawn three, lost four, scored two, and conceded five. For context, in our previous four home matches, we had scored eleven and conceded four, picking up ten points in the process. Attendances have noticeably dipped and with season tickets going on sale soon, this run has come at the worst possible time for the club.
Mick McCarthy appeared to be happy with a point after the game and defended his approach when questioned, which will no doubt further frustrate many fans. As has happened in previous seasons, the team appears to be regressing and is playing more conservatively as the campaign wears on. There is no chance of us getting relegated so why not give it a go, especially against a side that has been struggling for form in the last few months? I’ll be taking a more in-depth look at home performances in the McCarthy era over the next few days, so stay tuned for that…
McCarthy was also very complimentary of the support afterwards, a noticeable change in tone from earlier in the season. This combined with Ian Milne stating that news on the manager’s future and season tickets will come together ‘in the next couple of weeks’ suggests to me that McCarthy will sign a new deal shortly. It’s hard to see how the club can prevent a further drop in sales after last year’s catastrophe, but maybe Evans and Milne will spring a surprise?