Are Ipswich Town’s stalled engines finally ready to fire?

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Mick McCarthy Ipswich TownIt is only four years since Norwich City were ignominiously slipping out of the Championship and into League One.  Thirteen positions and 20 points ahead of the Canaries in that 2008/2009 season lay their fierce East Anglian rivals, Ipswich Town.

As the ‘Tractor Boys’ ended a seventh straight campaign of fruitless toiling in their attempt to regain the Premier League status which the club last enjoyed in 2002, there was a good degree of succour to be had for Town’s frustrated support from Norwich’s alarming fall.

Now, with Ipswich’s twelfth consecutive Championship season underway, the respective fortunes of the Blues and their adversaries from Carrow Road have taken a dramatic turn.

Under the astute leadership of Paul Lambert, Norwich made the quickest possible journey back up to the top-flight – in the process, completing successive promotions by emphasising the East Anglian power shift.  When Lambert’s side finished the 2010/2011 Championship term in 2nd place, they held a 22 point advantage over an Ipswich team which was sliding dangerously towards mediocrity.

Now, the Portman Road faithful must look on enviously while Norwich are quietly establishing themselves in the Premier League.  Indeed, sights at Carrow Road might be tentatively trained upwards this year after a summer of significant and perceptive trading.

For now, the bitter antagonism between Ipswich and Norwich is of a purely – unless an F.A. Cup draw dictates otherwise – off-field nature.  The sole aim for Mick McCarthy during his first full campaign in the Town hot-seat is to seal one of the three precious promotion spots on offer in the severely competitive Championship.

Eyes in Suffolk, although admittedly looking from a lower level, can finally gaze in the same direction as those in Norfolk.  That is how it used to be and, for a number of football traditionalists, how it should be.

Prior to the thrilling play-off breakthrough of 2000, when the Blues beat Barnsley 4-2 in a joyous Wembley final, George Burley’s side had suffered consecutive semi-final defeats in the season ending promotion deciders against Sheffield United, Charlton Athletic, and Bolton Wanderers – the team who they beat at the same stage the following year.

Relegated two years on, the Tractor Boys missed out on a top-six spot by a single place on their Championship return, before being subjected to more play-off semi-final heartbreak in each of the next two campaigns, both times at the hands of West Ham United.

And then?  Then, an amalgam of eight long years which all mash together to form one long repeated story of listlessness, under-achievement, and managerial instability.  The highest league berth attained in that time was 8th in 2008.  There have been five bottom-half finishes, three of those seeing Ipswich Town occupying the inglorious hinterland of 15th spot.

Various personalities have been recruited to the manager’s chair in an effort to, at least, initially push the Blues back into the band of clubs jostling for position among the top ten.

The avuncular Joe Royle led Ipswich to the two play-off encounters against West Ham.  When Royle left in 2006, popular player, Jim Magilton, received the call to arms.

The Northern Irishman could do no better than manage a near run at the top six in one of his three years at the helm.  Magilton’s 2009 departure preceded the fiery reign of Roy Keane.   Keane had left his first managerial post at Sunderland under something of a cloud.  It was, though, the Manchester United great’s swift impact on Wearside which made his appointment an attractive, and well-received, move at Portman Road.

Keane’s first act at Sunderland was to transform a team, which had opened their 2006/2007 campaign with four defeats, into title winners.  Any hope of a repeat in Suffolk soon dispersed.  A horrific start to the Irishman’s first term in charge saw his side endure a run of fourteen league fixtures until 31st October without earning a single three-point haul.

Supporter unrest hit its peak during that barren period, with Keane’s player recruitment policy, which was high on individuals he had worked with at the Stadium of Light, attracting most scorn.

It is another hitherto incumbent of the Sunderland dugout that is now inspiring fresh hope among a fervently loyal fan-base – home attendances averaged above 20,000 even during that darkest of years under Keane, and peaked at 21,988 during the last campaign as the faintest whiff of optimism returned.

When Paul Jewell was dismissed in October of last year after his hapless spell in charge, Ipswich had travelled back in time.  Jewell had overseen a start to the season every bit as turgid as that in 2009 under the man he had replaced twenty months earlier.

Ipswich’s opening twelve league matches had yielded just one victory, and featured 7 defeats.  For good measure, under the caretaker tutelage of Chris Hutchings, the Tractor Boys then surrendered another 3 points in a lamentable home reverse against fellow strugglers, Sheffield Wednesday.

There was an element of ‘new manager bounce’ in McCarthy’s winning 2 of his opening three games.  Simultaneously attached to that feat was a sobering reminder of the sinking ship the Yorkshireman had taken responsibility of.  Those triumphs against Birmingham City and Burnley were sandwiched by a 5-0 thumping at Crystal Palace, and then followed by the haemorrhaging of 6 goals, with none scored in return, in a game at Leicester City.

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