Ipswich Town's clown prince and cartoon villain gunning for Cardiff City
Sometimes it’s easier to write about your club when events on the pitch have taken a turn for the worse. It can be quite cathartic to really lay into the layabouts at fault for the side’s lowly league position. It takes a skilful writer to glean the same level of comedy from an in-form outfit. Like Ipswich fan Gavin Barber, for example.
Clearly, I haven’t been paying attention. When Michael Chopra signed for Ipswich I had no idea that he was such a bête noire for supporters of other clubs. But there we were, on the first day of the season, hearing him booed and goaded by the Bristol City fans at Ashton Gate, with a bitterness that seemed to go beyond the fact that he was an ex-Cardiff player. Shortly afterwards, a Leicester fan tweeted me to ask if Ipswich fans hated Chopra even though he played for our club, adding, perhaps superfluously, “because I would”.
Where did all this anger come from? Chopra might not exactly be a Mister Fun-Packed Charisma Wacky Antics Laugh-A-Minute Great Banter Top Lad And We Always Love To Have Him On The Soccer AM Sofa sort of a player, but he always struck me as someone who went about his business – on the pitch, anyway – in a fairly inoffensive way. It seems however that there is something about the chunky Geordie that sets opposing fans into some kind of swivel-eyed, Melanie Phillips-style rage, shaking their fists and lobbing verbal grenades at Chopra as he darts about the penalty areas of English football’s second tier.
I exaggerate, perhaps, but Town’s summer signing is currently making the right kind of impression at Portman Road. Chopra has only scored in two of his ten games so far (though he’s scored twice in each of the games when he has found the net) but that belies an increasingly confident and well-rounded contribution to an improving side. Since being given a partner up front (the new-model Jason Scotland, who last season was well-rounded in a different and more literal way, but who has returned this year looking like the “after” picture in a Weight Watchers ad), Chopra has begun to show his worth to an appreciative crowd, making intelligent runs and showing some deft touches. He has it in him to be the first proper centre-forward seen at Ipswich since the days of Darren Bent: someone who can mix it up physically, be a menace to defenders, and score a decent number of goals too.
On Saturday Chopra returns to one of his old clubs, Cardiff City, whose supporters still seem well-disposed towards him. Bluebirds fan Nathan Walker predicts a response of “rapturous applause” before and after the game, adding that Chopra a was “great player for us… one of the best in my time watching”. A fair few people will no doubt be betting on Chopra to get a goal against his former team-mates, but when Town visited Cardiff last season it was the spindly legs of Jimmy Bullard which caused problems for the home side. Then on loan to Ipswich from Hull, Bullard scored twice to dent Cardiff’s promotion hopes. The fact that those improbably slender pins are once again gracing the Town midfield, and this time belonging to a permanent member of the squad, is probably the single biggest cause for optimism at Portman Road just now.
It’s not just because of the feelgood factor (though that helps). The facts – which I’m grateful to Twitter stat machine @Seanie_S for bringing to my attention – are extraordinary. Since Paul Jewell took over at Ipswich, his league record without Bullard in the team is P10 W2 D1 L7. His league record with Bullard playing is P16 W9 D3 L4. Averaged out over the course of a season, the without-Bullard side would notch up a barely-worth-mentioning 32 points and be programming next season’s sat-nav for Yeovil and Stevenage. The team with Bullard in it would be racing towards the Premier League with 86 points.
Which isn’t necessarily to say that the mere presence of Bullard’s flowing locks will see Paul Jewell’s side barging Southampton out of the way to claim the title, but the stark contrast between the two sets of statistics illustrates the difference that Bullard makes to the Ipswich midfield. Quite simply, he wants the ball all the time and he uses it intelligently. When Town shipped seven goals at Peterborough back in August, the cries from supporters for new centre-halves and a proper holding midfield player could probably be heard across the water in Holland.
The new centre-halves have duly arrived, but what Jewell recognised about that particular shambles above all else was that his side needed to be better at keeping possession: their erstwhile instinct to treat the ball as though it was carrying a nasty strain of the Ebola virus was what was causing the (admittedly limited) defenders to be so horribly exposed. Bullard’s arrival, together with some tactical switches, has at last meant that some effort is required of opposing teams to win the ball, rather than just having to stand around and wait for one of Town’s midfielders to give it to them.
But anyway, back to the feelgood factor that’s just persuaded the club shop to start stocking Bullard wigs (I am not making this up). It shouldn’t be underestimated. For a few years now, one thing sadly lacking from the Ipswich side has been any evident sense of enjoyment amongst the players: they’ve huffed and puffed like Tory backbenchers trying to get to a free buffet, but have rarely had the chance (or inclination, perhaps) to play with the sort of verve and panache that gets the supporters caught up in the exuberance of it all.
Jimmy changes that. A side being driven forward by someone who takes such evident joy from the simple pleasure of pass-and-move, pass-and-move, pass-and-move is one that the Portman Road crowd – particularly those sections of the ground who still seem vaguely contemptuous of any Town side without Muhren and Thijssen in it – can much more willingly and vociferously get behind. The team isn’t perfect by any means, but the occasional mistake can be much more easily forgiven if it’s made in the course of trying to play some decent passing football.
There’s a slight risk that the Bullard cult may become an unthinking cliché, or overshadow the efforts of the team as a whole. Hey, there’s Jimmy doing a slightly irreverent post-match interview! Hey, there’s Jimmy playing rock-paper-scissors to decide who takes a free-kick! Hey, there’s a YouTube clip of Jimmy dancing on the bar of a nightclub! All of these things that Town fans regard as endearing would probably be seen by fans of Bullard’s former club Hull as evidence of his fecklessness. One man’s cheeky chappie is another man’s greedy bastard, or something like that.
I’ve no idea what went so badly wrong between Bullard and Hull (and I think most Town fans are happier not knowing), but what he and Chopra both appear to be benefiting from at Town is being treated like grown-ups: trusted by their manager to do their jobs for the team in the way they like to do them best. It’s still early days, but there’s an increasing sense of trust in Jewell too: and that, given that the events of London Road are still fresh enough in the memory to cause full-on screaming-like-a-banshee-and-sitting-bolt-upright night terrors, is an achievement in itself.