With Pete Sixsmith once again missing the action (and the chance to appear on MOTD2), Malcolm Dawson takes the positives from our match against Wigan.
The journey to the Stadium of Light from my base in the Midlands had a familiar air about it. I have lost count of the number of times fellow exiles and myself have made the trip with the feeling that here was another crucial game. Three points essential.
There have been seasons when we have been pushing for promotion and even two when we harboured hopes of European qualification, but more often it has been the threat of relegation that has been the dark cloud tracking our progress north, emphasising the importance of the win.
Yesterday was no exception. Fortunately, I had missed Monday’s game. I hadn’t been impressed when I watched our game at the Britannia and had no desire to find a pub with ESPN. Reading Sixer’s summing up I was happy to have made the right choice.
I tracked the deadline day transfers on the internet on Monday and was, to say the least, perturbed by what I was seeing. Healy, Nosworthy and Murphy all out on loan and no-one in. Whilst Healy hasn’t ever seemed to feature in the manager’s plans and Nyron and Murph may not be Premiership quality our squad seemed thin without them. So there was some relief when Hutton and later Benjani were unveiled.
Discussion turned to whether these two would have any impact on our form and what our best defence would be when everyone was fit. An interesting, but maybe fatuous, statistic in the paper revealed that we have averaged 1.5 points per game when Anton Ferdinand has played and only 0.5 when he hasn’t. Certainly, his absences have coincided with our slump in form but I would suggest that Cattermole and Richardson’s injuries have been more crucial to our performances. In those distant days at the beginning of the season, we had a midfield four of Malbranque, Cana, Cattermole and Richardson who not only broke up play, but seemed comfortable in possession. The rejuvenated Reid and Jordan Henderson haven’t let us down as individuals but as a unit, the ability to retain the ball and use it creatively seems to have disappeared.
And so to the match. Wigan turned out in their luminous orange away kit, making them look like a convention of stewards’ supervisors and the away end was as deserted as an Alan Shearer book signing in Hendon. More police than away fans, but to be fair, the 300 or so who had turned up made themselves heard and supported their team well.
Wigan kicked off and we almost got the perfect start as Darren Bent harried the defence, robbed them of the ball then disappointingly ran out room before he could get a shot off. But a positive start augured well. It was about now that Murphy scored for Ipswich.
Not long afterwards, a pass from Hutton found Bent again who forced a save out of Kirkland. Two chances in the first ten minutes. Can’t remember that happening for a while. We were on top in that opening period but Cana, normally the most combative of midfielders, allowed himself to get caught in possession and Diame, nipping in from behind to nick the ball, made short work of charging into the box and blasting the ball past Gordon.
Then the nerves crept in and the ability to string more than three consecutive passes together disappeared, as it has done so often in the past few months. We were lucky not to go two behind when a near post corner flashed in front of goal and an overhead kick was scrambled away by Gordon, who may be getting back to his best form. I don’t like to hear the crowd boo the players off but there was understandable frustration at half time after another poor performance.
Thankfully, the second half was better. More commitment and industry made for an entertaining, if not high quality game. Too many stray passes, and aimless punts up field, but at least the Lads were putting the effort in. Kenwyne was having his best game for a while, winning the ball in the air and putting himself about. He had been unlucky in the first half, when a strong run and shot was deflected onto the wrong side of the far post.
Darren Bent burst through and beat Kirkland early on in the half, but it looked a mile offside from my seat. Television replays seemed to suggest it was more marginal than I’d thought. Hutton seems to give us more attacking quality than Bardsley and was getting forward to support Jordan Henderson. A good chance went begging when fine work down the right wing gave Henderson the chance to put in an excellent cross to Turner, whose glancing header needed just a couple more inches of deflection to find the net.
Fortunately for us, the Wigan forwards missed a couple of chances to put the game out of reach, but a defeat would have been unjust. There was no faulting the players’ effort, even if the technical side of their play was lacking. The equaliser was deserved. Hutton and Henderson combined again and a carbon copy of his earlier cross found the Trinidadian, who showed Turner how it should be done.
Whilst a draw was a fair result we nearly snatched it in time added on. A good shot from Bent was goal-bound but hit the legs of Jones, lying prone on the ground, and that was it. On this form relegation still remains a real possibility. Certainly we look more like a bottom half team than a top six side, but the effort shown gives me some cause for optimism. Henderson’s injury is another blow but if we can get anywhere near to putting out full strength sides we’ll be OK.
My Tuesday work pattern means I shan’t get to Portsmouth on Tuesday. But if the team can repeat and maintain the work rate they showed in the second half, three points could be there for the taking.