Fight, Passion, Desire: Ipswich Town 0-1 Lincoln City

Credit Graham Burrell

Two weeks ago, I recall crossed words with a City supporter who said we showed no fight or passion at Bolton, a Premier League team when we were relegated out of the Football League. I disagreed – I thought there were signs of a good, organised performance in Lancashire, with nothing to show for it.

Last week, I recall walking away from a 0-0 draw with a team who have been Premier League in the last 15 years, disappointed that nothing much had happened. We’d grabbed a clean sheet and a draw, but it felt flat. This week, another team who have played Premier League football this century were the opponent, a team with a European trophy in their cabinet, and we did exactly the same as we have the last two weekends. This time, it worked brilliantly.

This time, instead of gifting a couple of soft goals, we stayed resolute (and boy, did we stay resolute). This time, instead of staying solid but not getting the goal we needed, we nicked the opener and had something to clasp onto, something to defend. The last two matches both had elements of the plan working, but yesterday, it worked perfectly.

Let’s make no mistake here; Ipswich Town are a huge club. I had that questioned when I put it on social media, but they had 27,000 home supporters yesterday. They’ve won a European trophy and an FA Cup and are only in the Third Tier for the first time since the fifties. Sure, we beat them in the FA Cup a few years ago, and it’s memorable not because they’re crap but because they were a massive scalp for us at the time. Why? Because they have a lot of respect in the football world. I suppose it helps that I hate Norwich (ex-girlfriend, long story), so I’ve always had a fondness for them until they came into our division.

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The last time we won at their place was 11th September 1954, when my Dad wasn’t even two years old. That’s the size of yesterday’s win for us. Also, this isn’t the Ipswich of a couple of years ago, the ones we beat 5-3 at the Bank – this is a club on the up with an exciting manager and some players capable of holding their own in the upper echelons of the Championship. I’m laying it on thick because the result isn’t just us beating a team we’ve done well against in the past. It isn’t us facing a hastily-assembled Paul Cook team with all the gear and no idea. This is a team who will be top two come May, a team who (in fairness) looked every bit as good as we thought they were going to be.

Remember last season, when we won at Wigan, and I was enthused about how good they were and how I thought they’d go up? Ipswich are better. We didn’t go to Portman Road and outplay them, there were no shocks in terms of the balance of play, the danger of the opposition or the threat they posed. Everything was as expected, and that makes the win even better for us because it all fell within the game plan.

The team was exactly as I thought (another 11 on Fan Hub), with a back three of Jackson, O’Connor and Poole. That’s a fearsome backline, with bite, aerial ability and real desire. TJ Eyoma and Sean Roughan sat on the flanks, with Matty Virtue and Max Sanders doing the midfield graft. Up top, in the continued mysterious absence of Tom Hopper, it was House, Diamond and Danny Mandroiu. Last week, that team failed to serve up any real excitement but also never looked like conceding. This week….. well, this week was very different.

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When you go with a back five effectively, the intention will always be to stop goals first and foremost and hope to nick something. Prior to kick-off, I said to Chris we needed to keep it tight for the first 20 minutes, and if it was still 0-0 at that point, we’d be in decent shape. That’s exactly what happened. In fact, given the second half we endured, the first was relatively tame – up until our goal, I thought it had been fairly even. Not in terms of possession, but our game plan was working well. The back three didn’t have a huge amount to do, as Sanders and Virtue did what was needed to stop anything too serious. It left Ipswich looking a little toothless, and that gave us the confidence to hit them on the break, on occasion.

It’s not like we created anything clear-cut either, but there was an air of the Charlton game about proceedings. Of course, Ipswich are much better than Charlton, and we had to work ten times as hard to maintain the status quo, but some huge performances in the first half were overshadowed in the second. I mention him every week, but Roughan plays with the composure of a 27-year-old (obviously, not when he’s on throws), and I thought he was outstanding in the first half. Matty Virtue is another, grafting so hard in the middle that he should be paid double time because he definitely did two shifts at the same time. Sanders as well; another of those players who couldn’t get a look in last season who has risen to the occasion like bread in the oven. You know me, I liked Michael Appleton, and I won’t be a hypocrite and say otherwise, but I do wonder if he looks at how we’re doing and wonders if maybe, just maybe, he missed a trick with those two. If he doesn’t, he should.

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When the goal came, it came from a set piece. The Wyscout stats aren’t out yet, so I can’t tell you about how many goals we score from set pieces compared to everyone else, but dare I say the answer is likely to be ‘not very many’ (that’s the sort of stat I know some prefer). It’s fair to say we’ve had very little joy from those moments in the past, but recently we have looked a bit more dangerous. I lamented a short corner a few moments before, groaning as we looked to try the method that didn’t work last season. A couple of seconds later, it was pumped into the mixer, and we got our goal.

Credit to Paudie O’Connor, a player who almost netted for us against Bolton from a set piece. After the ball seemed to be dead, his back header kept the moment alive, and Ben House was on hand like a proper fox in the box to nod home. I’ve seen some criticism of the Ipswich defence, and I can understand that from their point of view, but the goal wasn’t a defensive error as such. It reminded me a little of the goal at Burnley in the FA Cup, a header across the goal, albeit a little unconventional in this instance, and a player taking real advantage. Cue jubilant celebrations and a belief that now we might have a game on our hands.

Our goal sparked them into life, and that can be seen by the attacking chart I’ve included here. Up until our goal, Ipswich had been a bit quiet, but from 24 minutes onwards, I can only say it was virtually one-way traffic.

I don’t even feel like saying this is a poor reflection on us. Usually, when a team utterly dominates a game as they did, you’d question what the opposition were doing, but our game plan was always to let them have the ball in the middle third and pick us apart. In fairness, they didn’t just bang their heads against the same wall either – they tried a bit of everything.
In the remaining 20 minutes of the first half, it was just about upping the tempo, attempting to pick us off, and despite having the lion’s share of the ball, I didn’t feel we were exposed during that period. There was the free kick that Rushworth stopped, but by half time, the clear-cut chances stats was 0-1 in our favour. We’d had one clear-cut chance and scored, and for all their dominance in terms of having the ball, they hadn’t created anything quite as open.
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It was a bit surreal, in all honesty because so many fans had felt we’d get beaten. Nick proctor had a few quid on an Imps win, but I saw others thinking it was going to be a massacre. I felt with three at the back we might have a chance, but even with my unusual optimism, I didn’t actually think we’d be 1-0 up going into the break. It is a reflection on this division that I felt so subdued about our chances – here’s a real split this season between perhaps six big teams and the rest of us. The budgets are not comparable, and Ipswich Town’s squad is Championship ready, as are perhaps four or five squads at this level. The rest of us have to do what we can in games like these, and concentrate then on beating those around us.
Still, it felt oddly comfortable as the half time whistle went. Both Chris and I felt more of the same would be enough for three points, a blunt Ipswich without a real focal point to their attack would do just nicely.