Opinion: The Wombles of Wimbledon & The Return of the King…

Our new columnist, Matthew Francis, takes a look at the latest going ons at Portman Road in a regular feature for TOTT.

Dear, oh dear!

Two weeks ago, following Town’s astute 1-0 triumph over Lincoln City, there were chants of ‘we are top of the league.’ Now, following a run of three straight defeats against promotion rivals, Town find themselves out of the play-offs and looking like a side on the decline. While Portsmouth, Sunderland, Rotherham and Peterborough continue to build momentum, Town linger in a state of flux; looking more like roadkill than a sports car.

Jekyll And Hyde

“That was a real Jekyll and Hyde performance.” I can’t be the only Football Manager player who tires of giving this team talk following a 2-1 defeat at home after dominating in the first half. In a cruel twist of reality, it appears that Town have become the personification of this statement.

Expectation was low heading to the Stadium of Light, with nightmares of Sam Szmodics and Ivan Toney swirling in the mind. However, it appeared the Town side who had dominated Accrington and Lincoln had decided to show up, with chances aplenty for Norwood, Keane, Kenlock and Nolan in the first-half. Surely the breakthrough was coming… Yes, it was… For Sunderland in the 81st minute, following a second half display from Paul Lambert’s side that, at best, can be described as appalling.

The Sunderland game brought the biggest question of Town’s season to a head: why can’t we play well for 90 minutes? Cast your minds back to Coventry away, where Town should have led by a couple of goals at the interval, only to come away from St. Andrews with a point and a few sore knees. Even at the start, when Town were flying high and winning games, they still failed to put in a convincing display for the full 90. Inconsistencies have become Town’s biggest flaw and it ultimately leads to questioning the mentality of the manager, and his players.

Are they all losers? I mean that in the least playground bully way possible, but rather with a concern of how failure at Portman Road is accepted and expected, rather than challenged. Take one look at the change in discourse from Lambert following the defeat at Sunderland; even Lee O’Neil changes direction more than a compass in a storm. Last season’s acceptance of relegation was perplexing, with many fans, including myself, confined to the realisation that Lambert’s job was re-building the club in League One, not keeping it afloat in the Championship.

The club has been on the decline for almost 15 years, with dreams of the Premier League long gone. Under the reign of Marcus Evans, we have all become accustomed to accepting failure; we accept it, because it’s all we’ve known in recent times. 

The Jekyll and Hyde show at Sunderland was a 90-minute representation of not just Town’s shortcomings this season, but also the past few years. We hope, we believe… Then reality crashes in.

Return of the King

Whether it’s a PR stunt, or a genuine attempt to keep up the positive re-connection with the community, Terry Butcher’s return to Portman Road is a small flame in a smouldering fire. It was announced that Butcher would return to the club in a ‘bespoke’ role that permitted him to work with the academy, as well as potentially working with Town’s first-team defenders.

Butcher is, unquestionably, one of the finest players to wear Ipswich blue and his return to club represents more than just a re-working of the current backroom model. It is hoped that he will inspire the next generation of Town players, however, I believe his role as a leader could be more vital to the first team dressing room.

Love him or hate him, Paul Lambert sulks… A lot. His comments following the 0-0 draw with Gillingham were just shy of embarrassing, especially as he knew that a shiny 5-year contract was on the table. Combine his sulking with an abysmal win percentage over his past four jobs and you have a man that, in my opinion, cannot inspire a group of players. He may have tactical nous and a Champions League medal somewhere in the loft, but he’s not an inspirational leader. That’s where Butch comes in. As a former England captain, making over 250 appearances for Town, Butcher has more leadership qualities than blood on his England shirt. During this lull, his words of wisdom and guidance could rejuvenate some players whose heads have fallen lower than Town in the form table.

The Wombles of Wimbledon

I’ve seen some poor games in my time, but this could take the biscuit. As the rain fell and the wind swirled, Town looked like a team full of strangers; bereft of ideas, unsure of their roles and drastically low on confidence. The best chance of the game fell to Norwood, who once again failed to convert in a one-on-one situation. I’m not usually one to single out individuals, but Norwood’s pre-match Instagram complaint about travelling early surmised the issues with this squad; they simply don’t look like they want to play.

AFC Wimbledon were a desperately low calibre side, but they did their job, which is more than can be said for Lambert and his team. Effectively, we set up with five centre-halves across a back five, with 3 pivot midfielders, none of which have the creative spark or mind to aid the strikers in their current drought. Admittedly, I was impressed with one element of the game: it’s a unique skill, likely specialised to Ipswich Town Football Club, to be able to dominate possession for the entire 90 minutes, yet still look the side more likely to concede. Freddie Sears’ cameo as a shoe-horned left-wing-back was the cherry on top of a disastrous cake; this one leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

Where do we go from here? I can’t help but feel that Lambert has lost the dressing room, with the only thing special about Town’s performance being their overtly dis-interested body language. The lack of a clear, settled system has been Town’s ultimate Achilles’ heel, with some players resorting to McCarthyism’s, (hit and hope), in a desperate attempt to make something happen. The mid-season tinkering has proven to be a woeful mistake on the part of Lambert. Yes, the players must do their jobs and perform at the highest level, regardless of the system, but Lambert has clearly thrown them off the scent of something good; they now look like a side more interested in getting home than helping this club win football matches.

The Only Way Is Up?

Pessimism may be my closest friend, but I am hopeful of a turn in form. Compared to the rest of the promotion chasers, Town have a favourable run in, with 9 of the remaining 13 games being played at Portman Road. It may not be the fortress we had hoped, but the backing from the stands could prove the difference between success and failure. I fondly remember the 2-1 victory against Nottingham Forest in 2015; I’m convinced the only reason Freddie Sears’ deflected effort found the net was because the north stand wanted it to.

The first of the 9 Portman Road cup finals comes this Saturday, against Burton. The Brewers currently sit comfortably in the middle of the table, unlikely to force a promotion push. Scott Fraser and Lucas Akins are the ones to watch for Nigel Clough’s side, who won’t fear a trip to Portman Road, considering they had the better of the second half against the Tractor Boys at the beginning of the season.

That sunny August afternoon at the Pirelli seems a world away from the windswept woes in Wimbledon. We’ve seen how quickly a table can change in two weeks, here’s hoping Town can string together some important wins and build some momentum, as we enter the business end of this rollercoaster season.

Prediction: Town 1-0 Burton