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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/11/02, 3pm
Ipswich Town
28 Weeks Later
By Matt Rowson

I've had this great idea for a film. Get this, right... Ipswich Town comes off its bike (or tractor if you prefer to pander to stereotypes), gets badly knocked up and winds up in hospital. Wakes up 28 weeks later and finds that the world is not as it remembered it. Stumbles dizzily into the open air and finds everything pretty much deserted, tumbleweed blowing across the road, no people, no media spotlight, no condescending write-ups, not even Garth Crooks.

Before they know it, they're being hounded down by deranged zombies, a wild look in their eyes and blood snorting from their noses and mouths. Gillingham's midfield is a fearsome thing at the best of times, let alone when you're used to the more genteel approach of the Premiership.

Dazed and disorientated Ipswich struggle to survive, knocked from one catastrophe to another. Denial sets in, a belief that this can't be happening, a certainty, despite all evidence to the contrary, that everything will be okay ("We can still make automatic promotion"). Chris Ecclestone as George Burley, Ricky Tomlinson as Joe Royle, Mark Venus as all the zombies (we can speed the film up to create the illusion of running), it's a sure-fire winner...

Quite how the film ends, I'm not too sure yet. The whole thing is so improbable that a plausible conclusion, a tidy pulling together of loose strands is difficult to come up with. I'm sure I wasn't alone in expecting the Town to dominate the Division this season, even amongst onlookers outside of Suffolk. They've never looked like doing so; the clean sheet at Sheffield United, albeit suggesting a new resolve, was the first since early September, and an injury-hit forward line has struggled for goals all season with what should have been key players underperforming. Eighteen goals have been scored in sixteen league games... six of those in an increasingly incongruous-looking win over Leicester.

Under-pressure Andy Marshall is likely to be in goal on Sunday. With Keith Branagan having recently been forced to retire, James Pullen has been promoted to full-time deputy and made his debut in the Worthington Cup win over Middlesbrough. An unofficial web-poll revealed a considerable majority favouring the youngster retaining his place over Marshall, who will always have to bear the extra burden of having arrived at Ipswich from Carrow Road. Matteo Sereni, an expensive recruit on Richard Wright's departure, is on-loan at Brescia and not expected to return.

Joe Royle has opted for a 3-5-2 system; Dane Thomas Gaards°e impressed at the centre of the three at the weekend and was flanked by John McGreal, recently recovered from a calf problem, and the experienced Venus. Hermann Hreidarsson, filling in wholeheartedly at left wing-back despite his questionable distribution, can also fill in in the centre. Wayne Brown has started about half of Town's games but is currently out of favour. Which seems a bit of a shame.

Chris Makin is at right wing-back despite being perhaps more suited to a conventional right-back role; Fabian Wilnis is a more attacking alternative - but expect most of the attacks to come down the left.

The midfield trio is likely to comprise Matt Holland, Jim Magilton and Jamie Clapham. Holland, such a talismanic figure during Ipswich's Premiership spell, has been off colour this season and has possibly suffered through the lack of a summer break. Magilton, now retired from the Northern Ireland team, is conserving energy further this week by sitting out Town's trip to the Czech Republic in the UEFA Cup with fellow veteran Mark Venus. Clapham, having been in and out of the team during the two Premiership seasons, is the only player to start every game so far.

Darren Ambrose has probably been Town's one bright spark of the season so far, although continuous rumours linking the goalscoring midfielder with a January move, most recently to Newcastle, are probably less helpful. Finidi George is a continuing source of frustration, but is generally good for a twenty minute cameo. Jermaine Wright, Tommy Miller and youngster Ian Westlake provide further options, but Martijn Reuser is out with cartilage problems and Ulrich Le Pen is another who has not settled in Suffolk, now on loan at Strasbourg.

Up front, injuries to Marcus Bent (groin) and Richard Naylor (knee) limit Royle's options. Alun Armstrong has been playing but, as ever, is only half fit (a hamstring this time). Pablo Cou˝ago is back from suspension in time for Sunday, but both he and Darren Bent are relatively young, and a bit of experience in the forward line would be useful. Royle seems to be in little doubt regarding the attributes his forward line is missing, with Sunderland target man Kevin Kyle and Bradford lump Ashley Ward two players linked with loan moves this week.

Having achieved great things in their debut Premiership season, Ipswich didn't expect to struggle last term. Everybody said they were too good to go down. And was wrong. General consensus had them as too good for Division One this term. And was wrong. Joe Royle rivals Howard Wilkinson as the most unpopular managerial appointment of the season thus far, so Ipswich have some obstacles to overcome before they start picking up any momentum. One suspects that, with two games against the Tractor Boys within the next month, our appearance in the script is timed helpfully early enough to avoid being incorporated in any (relatively) happy ending.