Date: 5th January 2011 at 11:14pm
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So the Christmas decorations are down and the world returns to the tedium of normality as 2011 makes its entrance armed with dreams and resolutions-a-plenty. In footballing terms, the new calendar year marks the halfway point of the season; the problem for Ipswich Town is that now, they could be halfway down a road to nowhere.

It hasn’t been like that all season though – things seemed to start off so well, and it looked at one stage like we might just have a promotion campaign on our hands. To remind you of that happy time, here’s Part I of our look back at the first half of the 2010/11 season for Ipswich Town.

January to July 2010 – Setting The Scene

2009/2010 had been a season to forget for Ipswich. Promise of a new era under Roy Keane, Simon Clegg and Marcus Evans quickly crumbled as the team spent most of the campaign trying to recover from a start that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. After taking 15 matches to register their first win, the dream was over before it had even started. With Keane having safely navigated the team back to a 15th place finish however, most were satisfied to write it off as a bad year and condemn it to the dustbin of history.

Summer 2010 rolled around and avoiding a repeat was a must for Keane and his players. Plenty went but not many came as the club waved goodbye to the likes of Richard Wright, David Wright, Alex Bruce and Owen Garvan amongst others. Rumours began to fly of a quarrel between Keane and his superiors after the boss saw potential deals for his chosen targets collapse; Shaun Derry for one, now at table-topping QPR, as well as the much-talked about pursuit of Cardiff striker Michael Chopra. Not that anyone was particularly surprised when that one came to nothing.

All was not lost though – new faces started to peek their way round the door, starting with 19-year-old Sunderland midfielder Conor Hourihane. He was followed by 34-year-old left-back Mark Kennedy, before goalkeeper Brian Murphy was quickly usurped as the club’s No. 1 when Marton Fulop strolled in from the Stadium of Light. None were exactly the type to blow the pants off of any Blues supporters, but at least there were a few newbies around to breathe some new life into the team as the eve of the Championship season approached…

August 2010 – Summer Sunshine

First up was Middlesbrough away; a daunting prospect. Gordon Strachan’s team were promotion and title favourites following the Scottish invasion at the Riverside, and things looked to be going as anticipated when wastefulness from the Ipswich attack was punished by Scott McDonald giving the hosts the lead against the run of play. Half-time on Teesside had the whiff of deja vu about it, but obviously Ipswich hadn’t read the script. Luck flashed a rare smile Town’s way when Tommy Smith saw his long-range punt take a favourable deflection before the much-maligned Tamas Priskin turned the game on its head within 5 minutes. Jon Stead then walloped some gloss onto the scoreline as the Blues came away with an astonishing 3-1 victory; something few would have dared to imagine before the first ball was kicked. A win – and at the first time of asking too. Who’d have thought it?

It didn’t stop there either. The customary embarrassing extra-time exit in the Carling Cup First Round didn’t materialise thanks to David Norris getting his scoring boots on with a brace for a 3-2 win at Exeter City. Norris subsequently replaced Jon Walters as captain and after a cheeky flick of his heel broke the deadlock late on at home to newly-relegated Burnley the following weekend, it was only the head of Clarke Carlisle in injury time that denied the Blues two wins out of two in the Championship.

The appropriately named Andros Townsend had jinked his way into Town for his debut in that match against Burnley, and the week that followed saw more movement both in and out. Defender Darren O’Dea arrived on loan from Celtic before the club waved a less-than-happy farewell to Jon Walters. Arguaby the star of Jim Magilton’s team over the years as one of the top goalscorers and most influential playmakers, Walters did not take kindly to being ousted as captain, and with his relationship with Keane in tatters, Jonny finally made that long-awaited move to Stoke City for a whopping £3.2 million.

Walters might have kicked up a storm off the pitch, but it was a kick on the pitch that was to grab attention in the Blues’ next match at Crystal Palace. Townsend’s absurd challenge on Palace keeper Julian Speroni momentarily turned Selhurst Park into the set of the Karate Kid and the Tottenham teenager subsequently saw red. Thankfully though that did not stop the Blues mustering up their second away win of the season, midfield duo Grant Leadbitter and Carlos Edwards turning goalscorers for the day to seal the points despite a late consolation for the hosts from the dreadlocks of Neil Danns.

Keane was pleased with the start his team had made to the campaign but was juggling with a growing number of injuries and absentees. A collection of crocked players had combined with an untimely international break to rob the Blues’ boss of much of his squad. With Walters gone, options up front were starting to diminish; even more so when Steady subsequently switched to Bristol City despite regularly featuring in the Blues’ opening matches. That generated a bit of extra cash though, and that was immediately ploughed into Keane’s biggest signing of the summer when ex-Swansea star striker Jason Scotland swept into Portman Road with the promise of goals.

Things were looking good on the pitch too. Despite plenty of absentees in the Town team, noble Norris continued to lead by example the following Tuesday as he hauled his fellow men into the third round of the Carling Cup with an extra-time winner to break the surprising silence at Crewe Alexandra. That was followed by the visit of Bristol City and the return of Stead, who looked less than comfortable facing his old side. That was nothing compared to how uncomfortable Robins’ famous (or infamous) goalkeeper David James looked that afternoon however. The calamity-prone glovesman gifted Priskin his second goal of the season before giving Scotland a helping hand to score on his league debut as Town wrapped up another win – one which put them with the elite of the early pace-setters, sitting proudly in third place level on points with QPR and Cardiff. ‘Joint-top’ and a berth in the Carling Cup 3rd Round; surely nobody could have even dreamt it would be possible.

September 2010 – A Tough Act To Follow

Such were Town’s feats in August that some fans were actually disgruntled that Keane was pipped to the August Manager of the Month award by Neil Warnock, despite his QPR side having suffered a shock first round exit in the Carling Cup. Still, Warnock was welcome to it – at least that meant that Roy would be clean of the dreaded ‘Manager of the Month Curse’. Or so we thought.

In truth, things worked out in the opposite fashion. Ipswich ground out a dull goalless draw at bottom-placed Portsmouth in their first match of September just three days before still-top-of-the-table QPR arrived at Portman Road and burst the Blues’ bubble. In form Jamie Mackie netted a first half brace and Heidar Helguson struck from the spot to hand Town their first defeat of the season. Well, it had to come at some point, right?

Despite the heavy home defeat, losing to the supposed best team in the league was no disgrace, and confidence was still high. Never was that demonstrated better than the next match at Portman Road against 2nd-placed Cardiff. That could have been equally as tough, but rather than submit, Town bounced back. A bizarre own goal by Adam Matthews got the ball rolling before Scotland finished well for his second Town goal. It could easily have been more too – teenage striker Connor Wickham, making his much-anticipated first start of the campaign after being sidelined with injury, was at his explosive best throughout and was desperately unlucky not to net at least once in that match. Admittedly the Bluebirds were missing some key players – not least Town target Chopra – but they still had enough out there for Ipswich to consider this a very fine victory.

More good news followed. In the Carling Cup, a tricky-looking Third Round tie awaited at in-form Championship rivals Millwall, who hadn’t lost at home in nearly a year until being surprisingly thrashed by Watford a couple of days prior to this meeting. Goals from Priskin and Gareth McAuley gave Town the lead at the break for the first time in any match so far this season, and despite a second-half strike from Steve Morison, they held on for a very respectable win to progress to Round 4. That was followed by another new signing, Tottenham midfielder Jake Livermore joining his White Hart Lane team-mate Townsend on loan.

Back in the Championship, Town had remained unbeaten away from home so far this season and kept up that proud record at Scunthorpe. Despite a fairly underwhelming performance and conceding from David Mirfin in the first half, the Blues still managed to come back for a point thanks to Jaime Peters striking his first goal of the campaign. Ipswich slipped to 4th, but that was hardly of any concern having enjoyed their best start to a season since the year they finished third in 2004/05. A repeat on the cards, perhaps?

Sadly however, the record couldn’t stretch any further. A visit to Reading followed and even though they had plenty of chances to win the game, the Blues were unable to punch through. Cue a goal in the dying minutes at the Madejski Stadium from Simon Church which shattered Town’s unbeaten away record and dropped them out of the top six for the first time. Adding to the disappointment, young Luke Hyam – who had been one of the discoveries of the season up to that point – got himself sent off.

Nevertheless, there was still no suggestion that the wheels of Town’s promotion charge were even becoming remotely loose. Ipswich weren’t looking quite so good in September but August was always going to be a tough act to follow. Besides, it was still early days, and 15 points from 9 games was about as good as anyone could have asked for at the start of the season. Ipswich were back in the mix at the top, and Keane finally seemed to be getting it right. Even with some below-par performances, the points were coming in and the first two months of the campaign had been an utter delight compared to last season. There was however some concern brewing, largely due to a lack of goals – even with the signing of former Swansea hot-shot Scotland, the goals had somewhat dried up in September with just 3 goals in 5 league games.

No need for alarm bells though… right?

By Darren Campbell

Make sure you don’t miss Part II of ‘The Halfway Point – Town’s Story So Far’ – coming soon right here on Vital Ipswich.

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