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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 20/03/04, 12.00pm
Ipswich Town
Nitzer Ebb, Jimmy Greaves and Teresa Gorman
By Matt Rowson

Essex is vile.

There is surely no more depressing sight on this earth than Chelmsford bus station, observed from the northbound railway platform. Grey, grimy, joyless. Evil. This is the bus station that once put up its Christmas decor, pitiful, bedraggled tinsel with dirty, lifeless fairy lights, in the middle of October.

Basildon. Ilford. Romford. Grays. Bloody Hell. This is the county that gave us Nitzer Ebb. Jimmy Greaves lives here. The jokes... furry dice, white stilettos, Ford Capris... never have truer words been spoken in jest. The A12, dullest road in the world. The people of this county once elected Teresa Gorman to help run the country. Darren Day. Noel Edmunds. Lee Evans (the one on the telly...). Jamie Oliver. Dominic Ludden. Surely innoculations should be a prerequisite.

Conscious that many people harbour resentment at the town or area where they spent their adolescence, I've half-expected my attitude to thaw over time, but not a bit of it. My parents' house is an exception... you can kind of shut the doors and windows and forget where you are. Nonetheless, living in Essex has generally held few attractions.

Until now. And however briefly. But a twelve'o'clock kick-off in Ipswich is a much more viable prospect from Chelmsford than it is from Watford. It's taken more than twenty years, but I've finally found a point to Essex.

Ipswich briefly offered inspiration to Nationwide league clubs by suggesting that the chasm to the Premiership could be breached, that whatever obstacles to competition the top-flight clubs offered would never be enough. Their fifth-place finish in 2001, however, was followed by relegation in 2002 and the inevitable associated financial complications. George Burley was replaced by Joe Royle, an appointment that was always going to come with baggage for the new man. Any manager that replaces someone successful, or someone who has experienced some success, will have to cope with "well, the last bloke wouldn't have done that" whenever things take a down turn, although presumably any Tractor Boys who've seen Derby play recently won't be playing that card too quickly.

This season has seen Ipswich hovering around on the edge of the play-offs - which in a division of this standard means farting around inconsistently - whilst scowling grumpily at the top of the table. They are the leading scorers in the division, but only the Franchise have conceded more goals... and are currently in the middle of an injury crisis which saw only one of the five subs named at Walsall on Tuesday able to boast a league start for the side.

Former Luton stopper Kelvin Davis will be in goal for Ipswich... he kept goal on Tuesday despite suffering from a stomach bug. With Andy Marshall on loan and doing well at Millwall, Lewis Price and the fabulously named Shane Supple are Davis' cover.

Injuries have hit particularly hard at the back; on Tuesday night the on-loan Matt Elliott was the only fully fit central defender. Elliott should make his home debut on Saturday... his experience helped steady Town's defence, but he was never the quickest on the turn in his youth, let alone at the age of thirty-five. He was partnered on Tuesday by some-time striker Richard Naylor, playing with a broken toe, following injuries to Drissa Diallo (head) and Georges Santos (broken nose) both sustained during the recent home defeat to Millwall. Santos is the more likely to be available at the weekend, although some Town fans might not see this as a good thing.

With John McGreal, reputedly the best defender at the club, and young Irishman Gerard Nash both out with knee injuries, seventeen year old Aidan Collins and eighteen year old Scott Mitchell were on the bench on Tuesday.

The full back positions look set to be filled by the enthusiastic but fallible Fabian Wilnis and Matt Richards, another teenager who has his chance as a result of Chris Makin being out with a hip injury since August.

Ipswich's four-man midfield looks should comprise the talented but lightweight Jermaine Wright, regular goalscorer Tommy Miller, veteran Jim Magilton and season's find Ian Westlake. Martijn Reuser damaged knee ligaments against Millwall rendering cyclical class-versus-graft debates obsolete for the time being; Chris Bart-Williams has also been out with a back injury (again) although he's now back in training.

Up front, Tuesday night's hat-trick will have done Darren Bent's confidence no harm; he was partnered for the first time by seventeen year-old Dean Bowditch, who Joe Royle had been reluctant to pitch in for a full ninety minutes up to now. Shefki Kuqi, a scorer at Vicarage Road earlier in the season, is off form and on the bench, whilst another misfiring striker, Pablo Couñago, is out with a hamstring injury. Alun Armstrong is also back at Ipswich, although one wouldn't blame him for setting up base at Watford Gap for the time being such has been the frequency with which he's moved backward and forward from loan spells at Bradford that have, in any case, been rendered largely irrelevant by injury. Marcus Bent is still, nominally, an Ipswich player but has spent the season on loan at Leicester.

One would hope that Tuesday night's momentum on and off the pitch will carry us some way into Saturday lunchtime's game... Ipswich certainly seem to have a soft underbelly, and H and Fitz looked up for anything on the evidence of the Derby encounter. We've already seen in the last month how quickly moods and nerves can change at the foot of the table, and can't afford to ease off the gas... nor will Ipswich, involved in a race for the play-offs that's almost as congested itself (Coventry???), be taking the game lightly.

See you there. And remember, keep those windows shut tight on the way up the A12....