October 2, 2012 by seancole1875
There is only so much time that can be spent treading water before you begin to slip beneath the surface. This is the situation that Ipswich Town, the Championship’s longest serving club, find themselves in following a poor start to their tenth successive season at this level. Like Preston before them, the previous holders of that dubious honour, after years of aiming for the playoffs, Ipswich seem likely to leave the division in a rather different direction to the one they intended.
Ipswich’s eventful spell in the Premiership, which included a fifth place finish and qualification for the UEFA Cup, ended ignominiously on May 10th 2002 with a 5-0 final day hammering by Liverpool. A decade on, and despite undergoing a change in ownership and cycling through several managers, Ipswich are beginning to brace themselves for another relegation battle. Successive defeats to Wolves and Charlton left them without a home win in the league, while a 1-1 draw with Barnsley on Saturday has done little to alleviate the pressure on Paul Jewell ahead of a tough October.
Currently in 23rd place, and with the worst goal difference in the division, this poor start is far from a statistical aberration. The Tractor Boys flirted with the bottom three for much of last season before an upsurge in form during Spring steered them to safety, and their previous three league finishes, 15th, 13th and 15th respectively, are suggestive of a club stagnating. Although they have flown under the radar somewhat since the departure of the more newsworthy Roy Keane, who glutted the squad with a raft of expensive yet mediocre signings, Jewell’s introduction has failed to arrest this steady decline.
Most troublingly, approaching the end of his second year in charge, the manager is still to resolve longstanding problems in defence. When fans were crying out for natural full backs last summer, after seeing Damien Delaney and Carlos Edwards amongst others, unsuccessfully fill in, creaking central defenders Ivar Ingimarsson and Ibrahima Sonko arrived instead. The issue wasn’t rectified during this transfer window either, and the effects were particularly evident as a free-flowing Blackpool hit them for six at Bloomfield Road, Thomas Ince and Gary Taylor-Fletcher repeatedly taking advantage of shortcomings out wide.
To some extent they have been the architects of their own downfall, a lack of defensive options exacerbated by the decision to let Delaney join Crystal Palace on deadline day without a readymade replacement. While a loan deal for Danny Higgibotham was finally agreed to provide a temporary fix, the Stoke man making his full debut at Oakwell, more significant surgery is needed to bring order to an unbalanced side.
In the main Jewell’s transfer dealings, like those of Keane before him, have emphasised experience, Jimmy Bullard and Lee Bowyer also swelling the ranks of over thirties last season. While old heads have arrived, young prospects have left. The source of much frustration amongst supporters has been watching Jordan Rhodes prosper away from Portman Road in the knowledge that Roy Keane felt the erratic Tamas Priskin to be a better bet up front. Even though the sale of Connor Wickham was rather more expected, given his lack of first team action at Sunderland one is entitled to wonder if the teenager wouldn’t have been better served by staying put.
Upon buying the club for £12 million in 2007, Marcus Evans took on its debts and prioritised promotion. When Jim Magilton failed to deliver he was unceremoniously ditched in favour of a more high profile manager, yet the days of striving for the top six under their former captain seem little more than a distant dream for the Ipswich faithful. One thing the elusive Evans has not been shy about in the past is deciding when change is needed at the top; his patience will have been sorely tested by taking just six points from eight games.
Many are unconvinced that keeping faith with Jewell will bring rewards but the former Wigan boss remains defiant. He recently questioned what the club’s expectations should rightfully be in a division filled with former Premier League sides. Ipswich, like many others in an incredibly competitive Championship, Derby, Leeds and Nottingham Forest chief among them, occupy positions not commensurate with their past status. Some undoubtedly see their ‘natural level’ as being above slumming it in the second tier.
For now this is the best that can be hoped for as Evans scales back his spending, a now injured Paul Taylor the only addition to command a significant transfer fee. Rather perversely, others have made a virtue of dropping down a division. Southampton, Charlton, and even neighbours Norwich benefited immeasurably from a spell of rehabilitation in League One, clearing out costly remnants of days past, lowering lofty expectations and finding a bright young manager to take them forward. Could this be the route back for an increasingly rudderless Ipswich?