In some ways, being a football fan is a bit like being a really pushy parent.
The underperforming football club becomes akin to the child who constantly fails to live up to their parents’ standards. You spend most of your time moaning about how it isn’t good enough and how much money you throw after it year after year, only for it to disappoint you time and time again. Yet the truth is, you only do it because you love it so damn much.
The trouble at our beloved Ipswich Town in recent years is that they have adopted a habit of appointing men to babysit the club who, in managerial terms, are barely out of nappies themselves. Roy Keane’s ill-fated 20 months in charge demonstrated how much the former Manchester United captain has yet to learn having arrived at Portman Road with just two-and-a-half seasons of management under his belt. And whilst his predecessor Jim Magilton may have fared rather better over his three years, one could not escape the fact that he had taken the reins at Town without any prior experience of managing a club at all.
However, the latest ‘babysitter’ – if it isn’t too insulting an analogy – could be about to change everything at Portman Road.
In appointing Paul Jewell back in January, chairman Marcus Evans and chief executive Simon Clegg may at last have found someone who knows how to deal with the troubled yet arguably gifted child that is Ipswich Town. With their tenure in the second tier closing on a decade, the Blues are second only to Coventry City as the Championship’s oldest residents, but as they look to mark their tenth anniversary in the division by climbing out of it, they now have a manager who has done it all before – twice.
Whether Jewell can conjure up the same formula at Town as he did at Bradford City and Wigan Athletic remains to be seen, but the early signs are promising. Taking over a club that just been hammered 7-0 by Chelsea and were languishing in 19th back in January, the 46-year-old admitted that the task of steering Town clear of relegation looked monumental as they stumbled to a 2-1 defeat at Millwall.
If it were a monumental task however, Jewell’s achievements thereafter were therefore nothing short of miraculous. In the three months that followed, Ipswich won 9 of their 17 league matches – including a record-equalling 6-0 away win at Doncaster – and moved up into the top half of the table, prompting the optimists to consider whether the Blues were onto a last-gasp playoff push. A certain forgettable Thursday evening at Portman Road put paid to that dream, but for it to have even been under consideration spoke volumes about the direction the club had taken since Jewell took over.
Little wonder then that the usual pre-season optimism has a bit of a kick to it this summer; having demonstrated his ability to pick up the pieces, just how much could PJ achieve without the legacy of his predecessor weighing him and his team down?
It’s safe to say that the ambition has certainly been there in the transfer market. From a man whose first few signings as manager included Jimmy Bullard and Kieron Dyer, one would expect no less. Indeed, having gained the opportunity to start building his own team over the summer, Jewell’s usage of free agents has shown the astute approach to transfer dealings befitting of a boss with his experience, and where both Keane and Magilton were accused of throwing good money after bad, Jewell has hardly been throwing the money around at all.
Bold was the statement of intent from the new boss in making Cardiff City’s Michael Chopra his first signing of the summer. In hoping to succeed this year where Keane failed last season, Jewell managed to snap up the No. 1 transfer target that had eluded his forerunner, and with 58 goals in his 147 Championship appearances for the Bluebirds, Chopra looks a bargain at just £1.5 million. Much will be expected of him, but as top scorer in pre-season with four goals, he could finally be the 20-goal-a-season man the Blues have needed for many years.
Even so, Town must not become reliant on Chopra alone to swing from mid-table mediocrity to a playoff push this year. Whilst he looks to be the ace in Jewell’s pack, the 27-year-old suffered with injury problems last season and at present, the prospect of losing him for any great duration of the coming campaign would be a bit of a nightmare. Even if he does hit the heights for Town, he must not be alone in doing so; as Watford demonstrated with Danny Graham last season, having the league’s top goalscorer does not guarantee you anything.
Also of great interest is another ex-Bluebird, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. The 20-year-old from Arsenal is another impressive acquisition by Jewell and could well lineup alongside his former Cardiff team-mate Chopra in the Town attack should the Blues boss favour 4-4-2 over 4-5-1.
However, the challenge will be whether Ipswich can get ‘JET’ to fly. Much like ex-Manchester United midfielder Lee Martin, Emmanuel-Thomas is a product of one of the top footballing academies in the country but has spent most of his formative footballing years on loan at other clubs without truly demonstrating his full potential. Testimony from fans of his former employers suggest that the Portman Road faithful may have to endure their fair share of frustration with the lad – as they did with Martin – before they are to see him flourish, particularly if he is not played in his favoured position behind the frontman. As such, it may be best to consider the £1.5 million spent on JET as a longer term investment.
Lee Bowyer is another arrival who has caught the eye. Whilst opinions on his past will be mixed, the former Leeds United midfielder comes to Portman Road with experience unrivalled within the Town squad, and as shown against Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend, he may well have a few goals in his locker too. Fan polls suggest that Bowyer would be a popular choice for captain in the coming campaign, but even if he is not chosen, the 34-year-old is still highly likely to be a leader on the pitch.
There is plenty to be said for the rest of Jewell’s signings too. In full-back Aaron Cresswell, the Town manager has picked up one of the budding stars of League One, and though he could take time to settle at Championship level, his pre-season performances and dead ball skills offer plenty of promise. Veteran centre-back Ivar Ingimarsson may prove a rock in the Town defence provided he can stay fit, whilst on-loan Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale looks a shrewd signing – albeit a risky one given the presence of a 24 hour recall clause and the likelihood of Marton Fulop moving on.
Perhaps the player faced with the biggest challenge to prove himself is frontman Nathan Ellington. The top scorer in the Championship under Jewell at Wigan Athletic in 2004/05, Ellington has never since hit anything like the same tally in his subsequent spells at West Bromwich Albion, Watford, Derby or Preston North End. There will be doubts over whether he has what it takes to rediscover that spark, but the 29-year-old seems genuinely motivated by working with Jewell and will surely be eager to convince supporters that he is not merely making up the numbers in the Town strikeforce.
Other arrivals could well follow before the season begins, with Blackburn Rovers midfielder Keith Andrews hotly tipped to be the next in the door at the time of writing. There needs to be though; for all their promise and potential after a very productive summer, there is still the nagging doubt that once again, Ipswich aren’t quite ready.
Try as he might to improve his squad, Jewell will almost inevitably be down on numbers. Owing much to the contract chaos left in the wake of Keane’s departure, Town ended up losing a staggering 12 out-of-contract players this summer, not to mention the loss of loanees Jimmy Bullard and Darren O’Dea as well as subsequent releases of Luciano Civelli and Conor Hourihane. Perhaps it is just as well that the one profitable sale the club have made – the £8.1 million transfer of teenage starlet Connor Wickham to Sunderland – has filled what may otherwise have been a financial black hole. But further names – particularly Fulop and Shane O’Connor – could also disappear from the Blues’ squad list before the end of August.
With so many departures, the task of replacing the biggest losses was always going to be a challenge, and one that many are not convinced the Blues have yet overcome. Though Lee Bowyer may be considered a good swap for ex-captain David Norris, the gap left by the influential Bullard remains vacant, and it is difficult to say whether Ingimarsson is truly a like-for-like replacement for Gareth McAuley. Indeed, the defence and the centre of midfield probably remain the major areas of contention for Ipswich fans over whether the current squad is really sufficient to kickoff a promotion campaign on Saturday.
For what it’s worth, pre-season certainly seemed to suggest that there is still work to be done. After a perfect record of two wins out of two in their opening tour of Holland, the Blues’ ‘first team’ subsequently failed to win any of their friendlies on English soil, with draws against Cambridge United and Southend United as well as an abandoned stalemate at Colchester United before Saturday’s defeat to Premier League Wolves. Unlucky as that loss was and meaningless as those matches may have been, one would still have taken more comfort in being familiar with the taste of victory before tucking into a meaty league campaign.
What lies around the corner is anyone’s guess, but two possibilities seem to loom large. The first: that an experienced manager at the helm sees Town emulate last season’s champions QPR in rising from mid-table to take the division by storm. Given the competition in the Championship this year with the likes of newly-relegated West Ham United and Sven-Goran Eriksson’s big-spending Leicester City however, any such meteoric rise looks even less feasible than it did this time last year.
What is rather more likely is that Jewell’s men take time to click. With the starting XI at Bristol City this Saturday almost certain to contain at least five new faces if not more, the new Blues could easily begin the campaign looking rather disjointed and unsettled. Bearing in mind the oft-repeated truth that there are no easy games in the modern day second tier, the trip to Ashton Gate may not end up looking like the launching of a rocket ride to the top flight, and a slow start is always a distinct possibility. If the footballing gods have any mercy, Town’s followers will not have to endure the same kind of agony as they did through the 14 games without a win at the start of Keane’s first full season in charge in 2009/10. But whilst it is something the Blues will hope to put behind them, it is also something the supporters would do well to remember. After all, expectation and ambition have a nasty habit of breeding impatience.
Just for the moment however, maybe realism should be allowed to fall on deaf ears. If there is any time of year that every football fan can dream, it is now, and Ipswich Town fans potentially have greater cause to dream this summer than they have had for many a year.
Though he may not be a miracle worker, hope is alive that where other fell, Jewell’s boys will rise.
By Darren Campbell
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For a round-up of all Town’s pre-season matches and summer signings, check out our 2011/12 Preview In Brief.
What are your thoughts ahead of the start of the new season on Saturday? Do you think Ipswich Town are ready for the new campaign? What have you made of our signings, and our pre-season matches? And can we finally achieve promotion this year?
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Ipswich Season Preview 2011/12: Where Others Fell
In some ways, being a football fan is a bit like being a really pushy parent.