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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 20/03/04
Ipswich Town
Been here before
By Matt Rowson

This was never going to be easy, let's be clear about that from the off. We haven't won here for donkey's years, and a ropey defensive record notwithstanding Ipswich aren't the sort of side you can visit in the expectation of full points.

The conditions were always going to play a part... a ferociously strong wind that had tried its damndest to bully us off the A12 rattled through the Cobbold Stand which formed a wind tunnel along the side of the pitch. Portman Road is one of the grounds where away supporters are shoved up into a corner like an afterthought rather than behind a goal... you kind of feel that we ought to respond in kind by bolting some pokey plastic stools to the remnants of the North East terrace and shove Ipswich and their ilk in there with our best wishes when they come down, filling the Rookery with noisy kids. Or maybe just leaving it empty...

Anyway. Those of use who'd arrived early quickly assumed position to the right of the allocated block; at least here we were pitch-side of the goalline (unlike the seats awaiting those who had mocked our early arrival time over the mobile), although we quickly discovered that this was at the cost of acting as a windbreak to the rest of the away support as gusts snarled along the stand.

We started okay. For a few minutes, anyway... Helguson locking horns with McGreal (for the first time) and being awarded a free kick (for the last time) as Watford moved quite comfortably with a five-man midfield designed to stifle our hosts' passing.

The tentatively bright start was brief, however...briefer even than at Bradford. And again it wasn't as if we weren't warned... some sloppy defending by Mayo on the left (not for the last time) let in Bent, who dragged his shot across the face of goal and wide of Pidgeley's right hand post.

And then, the moment that was to define, and effectively dictate, the rest of the game. From Pidgeley's goal kick, the ball came back at us down Ipswich's left. Dyche, under a little pressure on the corner of the penalty area, played a ball back to his keeper... the big defender wasn't blameless himself here, as he inexplicably put Pidgeley under pressure by sending the ball towards goal rather than towards the outside of it, and onto Pidgeley's weaker foot. But there's no excusing what happened next, Lenny wasn't under that much pressure... and yet the ball flicked up off his standing right foot, span over his ghastly air-kick and presented Dean Bowditch, chasing scraps, with the first senior goal of his career. He won't score an easier one.

The on-loan keeper's form has been nervous of late, prompting murmurings about his place in the team which may have been louder but for the level of protection that he often hasn't been enjoying. But here, he fell apart completely... we were fortunate that Elliott's far-post header was right at him, but a later speculative cross-cum-shot from the left had him in all sorts, unable to decide whether to block or catch and in the end palming the ball wide for a corner to derision from the Town support behind him.

One cause for optimism in this period was Jerel Ifil, on several occasions recently the focus of any catastrophe but here looking positive and focused and taking responsibility. When he does so he looks a fine defender... almost as if when he's committed himself to making a challenge or winning possession he bloody wins it and if you want to argue about that he'll see you outside later...

Nonetheless on twenty-five minutes it was two. A fine move from Ipswich this time, but we contributed to our own downfall here also... Mayo was caught upfield, Dyche pulled left to briefly interrupt Bowditch's raking ball to Bent and when Bent recovered possession Bowditch beat Ifil, the lone defender in the box, to the cross to finish expertly before being flattened.

We'd been here before.

The four-five-one formation in which we'd lined up clearly wasn't helping matters. Disrupting opposition possession is fine in principle, but not if you're going to offer them free shots from two yards anyway... meanwhile, we were struggling to make headway. The one confrontation on the pitch in which the Watford player was clearly winning the scrap was wide on the right, where Fitzgerald had the beating of Richards. His bullish recovering tackle inside the Ipswich half was a clarion call, answered by the away support who made a bit of a racket leading up to the break. Fitzgerald was then instrumental in releasing Baird down the right... his vicious low cross evaded Elliott narrowly, the lunging Helguson even more narrowly and the inside of the far post more narrowly still. Evidence of life. Come on!.

Baird had a solid debut, and whilst it's easy to argue against changing a winning team (particularly with the benefit of hindsight), it's indisputable that Baird is a much better defensive option than any other we have at right back, at least with the current injury situation. Being critical, it would be nice if he looked where he was passing the ball before he did so, occasionally he played his teammates into minor difficulties through an apparent lack of awareness, but he was bullish in the tackle and never shied from attacking responsibility. A good signing... one just hopes that the dead leg sustained in snapping the door shut on one Ipswich attack down the left midway through the first half doesn't come back to haunt him.

Our tails were up, the prospect of getting ourselves back in the game briefly suggested itself. A ball forward was flicked on by Ardley's header releasing Helguson but the wind took it away from him and he couldn't get a clean contact, putting the ball wide before colliding with the onrushing keeper. It looked inoccuous, but he stayed down to much concern... losing to Ipswich we can afford, losing H again we cannot.

The goal came just before the break, and though a little untidy it was expertly taken. Ardley and Devlin worked a short corner routine just below us to a few jeers from those who would presumably have preferred another cross onto Matt Elliott's head. Ardley's neat backheel released Devlin to cross left-footed, Helguson cushioned down and Fitzgerald made light of close attention to turn and snap a shot past the helpless Davis. He's still got lots to work on, but he doesn't half do other things well.

I forgot the lucky chocolate at half time, despite having taken the precaution of buying a Yorkie earlier, for which I can only apologise. Again, we started brightly enough and enjoyed fair possession for the first fifteen minutes of the half without really threatening... two long-range drives from Hyde, both too close to Kelvin Davis, were as good as we had to show. We had switched to 4-4-2 shortly before Fitzgerald's goal and looked altogether more comfortable in this vein, with Ardley initially wide on the right and Devlin on the left, Fitz being pushed up with H.

The third goal killed it though, and again it was a gift. Kelvin Davis' drop kick had the wind behind it, enabling it to drop on the edge of the Watford area. Ifil and Pidgeley both hesitated as the ball fell towards the edge of the box, discouraging Pidgeley's advance, and then caught on the air allowing Bowditch to nip in and complete his hat-trick. No blame to attach to Ifil here, Pidgeley had to deal with this with his hands or his feet and failed to do so.

Game over, effectively. We huffed and puffed for a bit longer, but the players had lost heart. In particular, evidence was provided in defence of Lewington's much-questioned argument that 4-3-3 kind of suits the players at his disposal. Paul Devlin, one of our few reliable weapons throughout the season, barely touched the ball in attacking positions in the second half, too often picking up possession in his own half without the pace to beat his man or the range of passing to do much other than lay off. Not his most effective afternoon.

What embers there were were quickly stamped out by referee Mr. Robinson, who seemed intent on pulling up each Watford challenge whilst similarly robust Ipswich aggression was allowed to pass... Heidar Helguson, whose exasperation can be excused after hurtling after not an awful lot of service for much of the game, was bizarrely penalised for one non-challenge and allowed his frustration to boil over, Robinson delighting in brandishing a yellow card. The linesman in front of us was equally incompetent, if in a more even-handed way... twice being too far off the pace to flag Darren Bent offside, another time flagging his perfectly timed run from (very) deep.

The catcalls, drowned out against Derby, returned in small numbers but without much intelligent input - "Make the right decision, Lewington", an accidentally revealing summary of our current, in many cases unsolvable, problems. There was at least some consensus amongst those complaining that Lee Cook was a better option than Neal Ardley... Cook went on a couple of squirrelly but unproductive runs in the course of his twenty-odd minutes. By the time Webber came on for a tiring Fitzgerald there was very little movement in the team at all, least of all from Heidar who had long since got fed up of taking a battering for little reward, meaning that Webber's rather fruitless energy looked all the more remarkable.

There was one more goal... we gave the ball away again and Jermaine Wright had far too much time to line up a fine, low left-foot shot from outside the area.

As mentioned many hours ago, this was never going to be easy... and this isn't the sort of fixture that has to be a win if we're to retain our First Division status. Nonetheless, it's slightly galling that so much of this defeat, on a day in which several of our immediate rivals made up ground, resulted directly from our own mistakes requiring mere competence from Ipswich to tidy up. Too much more of this and we really are relying on the rubbishness of other sides. Which, as has been mentioned before, is not a bet at prohibitive odds, but not a safety net we want to be testing too firmly.