Eye Witness Assessment: Ipswich Town
Mick McCarthy appears to have been motivated by a key guiding principle in assembling an Ipswich Town side ready to challenge for the play-offs in 2013-14.
For there are a number of players with something to prove; men who, had we gazed into a crystal ball half a decade ago, we might have expected to make greater progress – Luke Chambers, solid as granite when Nottingham Forest last reached the post-season; teammate Paul Anderson, snaking up and down the flanks of both Tier 2 and 3 for both Swansea and the Tricky Trees; David McGoldrick reaping hay through the middle at the point of Southampton’s attack; Cole Skuse, the fulcrum around which Gary Johnson’s Bristol City sides revolved; and Christophe Berra helping Wolverhampton Wanderers to a Premier League place and a successful fight or two against relegation.
None of the above have seen their careers stall irrevocably – rather, their fate has been a moderate backsliding or a perhaps temporary stalling – but it’s a set of names that were once challenging to be named in any given season’s ‘best of’ whereas now they have been entrusted with confirming the promise of Ipswich’s late 2012-13 form as well as the manager’s judgement in still believing in them.
You get the sense that McCarthy would like to prove a lot of people wrong – not least when it comes to consideration of his own abilities. The people who replaced him at Wolves look rather silly now and the Portman Road club managed good enough results on a point by point basis post-Paul Jewell’s exit to have reached the play-offs had the trend encompassed a whole campaign.
Scott Loach is another with a career to turn round – and it’s poignant that two days ago, he found himself staring down the Madejski Stadium pitch at Alex McCarthy – the latest pretender to be Joe Hart’s number two. Caught out by the deflection that carried Danny Guthrie’s screamer into the net and which sealed the win for Reading, he looked to have put some of the problems of last season and some of his last year at Watford behind him. There is no reason to believe that Ipswich can’t achieve highly with Loach between the sticks.
Chambers led the line ahead of him, with Berra surprisingly left on the bench. Faced with a lone diddy man of an attack of Adam Le Fondre, he coped comfortably and on this evidence, seemed very much back to his best. Having made in excess of 40 appearances in each of the past three seasons, Town can count on one of the most accomplished centre halves in the division – and one who Forest were perhaps silly to let go.
Alongside, Tommy Smith, so impressive in that 1-1 draw with Italy in the South African World Cup, also looks to be developing very nicely indeed. Last year was his most successful yet for the Tractor Boys and his calmness is a real boon alongside the more directly aggressive Chambers – thinking about it a little more, it may be difficult for Berra to break in after all.
Although young, the centre half pairing that took the field at the Mad Stad is a relatively experienced one. Not so the full backs. Tyrone Mings and Elliott Hewitt are both of the tall, angular variety – the kind one would expect to get their heads on a cross to the back post and provide supplementary support in combatting an aerial bombardment.
With less than 10 appearances between them for Ipswich before Saturday, it was a bold decision from McCarthy to pick both – especially given Reading’s vaunted strength and pace on the wings, but for the first half at least, both did well. Mings negated any appreciable threat from Hal Robson-Kanu and the former Macclesfield man Hewitt coped easily with Garath McCleary.
The situation evolved differently after the break though – forced to chase the game after Reading had fortunately equalised before half time and then gone ahead, the counter attacking thrust of the Berkshire side could have led to more goals. Still, as debut appearances of the season go, both can take encouragement.
Another of the club’s young guns, Luke Hyam was selected alongside Skuse in central midfield. It’s a key season for the local boy having seen his chances come sporadically in recent times – but McCarthy turned to him increasingly last year and his performance on Saturday was more than competent, recycling the ball effectively and for thirty five minutes of the first half at least, gaining the upper hand over Royals’ central duo Guthrie and Jem Karacan. Hyam could play a lot of games this year.
Wide in midfield saw Jay Tabb, a barn door avoider during his time in hoops, almost inevitably open the scoring after some miserable defending from Reading’s lumbering central defensive duo of Alex Pearce and Sean Morrison. Playing wide left doesn’t perhaps represent the best use of Tabb’s talents, but he applied himself as well as you expect from this consummate professional. On the opposite flank, Carlos Edwards was perhaps the most reticent I have seen him.
Which leaves an assessment of the forward line – unfortunately very disappointing on the day. Without wishing to be cruel, Daryl Murphy has never really impressed me and 18 goals in 90 games for the club indicates why. McGoldrick, however, is a mercurial customer and having seen him display much brilliance in a Coventry shirt last year, I was intrigued to see how he might do here.
A judgement based on one game would be improper of course but he was anonymous indeed (one rasping effort apart) and although the skill and ability is not in question, what goes on between the ears is what McCarthy needs to attend to. He also looks heavier than he did in his Southampton days and as something approaching a marquee signing for Ipswich, much will be expected. I for one was relieved that Paul Taylor, a player who has always frightened the wits out of me, was consigned to the bench before coming on late, along with another man with the ability to hurt teams in Anderson.
One of the most tiresome narratives of the pre-season and one partly peddled by ourselves of course, is the notion of that most undefinable characteristics – quality. However, as difficult to pin down as it is, it’s hard to look at Ipswich’s current roster and believe that they can truly match what the best in the division have to offer. If they are to, the cluster of players whose careers have perhaps slid down a notch or two need to dig deep and rediscover some of the old magic.