Friday, 15 May 2020

Is regionalisation the answer to helping clubs in League One and Two survive Coronavirus?

Plans are afoot for deciding how and when football will return to our lives and one of the options allegedly being considered is regionalisation of League One and Two.

We find ourselves living a strange ‘new normal’ at the moment, where the Coronavirus is touching everything in our lives, including football.

We have no idea when or how the beautiful game will return, and I have even less idea of when I will be seeing my friends again.

There has been lots of speculation, suggestions range from cramming the remaining season into 56 days, to playing the matches behind closed doors or, of course, cancelling it all together.

Whatever happens, this situation is expected to take its financial toll on many clubs, and for some it may mean they cannot survive into next season.

As a result, a proposal has been put forward that we consider introducing a North and South divide to the leagues below the Championship: an idea which fills me with a fear.

Recently, I was asked to share my thoughts on this with the East Anglian Daily Times, but it's such a lengthy discussion I have decided to share a little more detail below.

If the proposed changes were to take place it would make it much harder for me to attend games, the football supporting life I know and love might never return.

For those who don’t know, I moved from East Anglia to Yorkshire just over ten years ago and, though I struggle to make home games these days, I regularly attend away games – especially those in the north.

I understand the arguments put forward to support making these changes to the league, but here are my main arguments against it:

Not all fans live locally to their club

When the cup draw allotted us Manchester United away back in 2015, I finally got to see The Blues play at the famed Old Trafford for the first time in my life.

Though I was born in Ipswich, I grew up down the road in Cambridge. At secondary school, I was one of only three Ipswich fans in a sea of ‘Manchester United fans’.

So it was a game I could not miss and I was proud to hear the Town fans in fine voice, singing: ‘We support our local club’ to a packed stadium of United fans.

But the truth is, these days there are a great number of us who do not, in fact, support our local club.

In general, people are far more transient, many do not stay in their birth town for their whole life. 

Perhaps because of their job, perhaps for university, perhaps – like me – they meet someone and settle down elsewhere.

In the suburbs of Leeds, where I live, there’s an army of Ipswich fans who travel to away games. 

Even more so across Yorkshire and the whole of the north, we even have our own branch of the ITFC supporters club.

Conversely, there is some incredible support for the team from the south-west of the country in Bristol, Devon and even Cornwall.

And it’s not just Town, there are fans from every club in the country based up here in West Yorkshire, including Cambridge United.

One of those is a friend of mine, Chris Vessey, who I met at the Wetherspoons pub at Leeds train station on my way home from a northern away day.

He and his friend had just been to see the Amber Army play and it was great for me to meet a fellow East Anglian living in Leeds.

Given the fact the Amber Army have been reported as supporting the proposed regional changes and that Cambridge have experience of how the north/south divide can affect a club in East Anglia, I asked for his thoughts on this debate:

‘I couldn’t be more against it,’ he told me. ‘Whilst I can see the pros (e.g. initially higher attendances from more local fixtures), the cons heavily outweigh them.’

‘The beauty of following your team home and away in the lower leagues is those far-flung Tuesday night games at places like Carlisle and Exeter that you hold like a badge of honour.’

Chris points out this is the case for most clubs:

‘For instance, Carlisle have a 200 strong supporters club in London, hence why their away support down South is so good - why deprive them of 'local' games at Leyton Orient and Stevenage to name just two?’

Reducing this league to a regional one would have a huge impact on those of us who live a long way away and I’ve heard several of my northern Blues friends say they would no longer go to games if this were to happen.

It makes no sense

Supporters argue that making these changes would reduce travel costs for the clubs: teams would not only pay less for travel, but for accommodation and so on.

But, let’s be honest, wherever Town are playing, are they really going to depend on East Anglia’s oh-so-reliable dual carriageways to get them to games on time?

Would you want to leave Ipswich in the morning and travel up the A14 for a game at 3pm and risk getting stuck in one of the many stretches of roadworks?

Surely, it is more likely that clubs would want to stay overnight before a game to allow themselves to prepare properly.

What’s more, it’s probable that in a southern league we would have to travel to places like Plymouth and Exeter (which are over 300 miles away).

As lovely as it would be to head to the south coast for a day out, it is further away from Ipswich than Fleetwood (around 280 miles away), the club at the centre of this debate.

Cambridge United fan Chris agrees:

‘There are logistical problems, particularly for Cambridge, we have flitted between the North and South in both the League Cup draws and EFL trophy in recent years.’

‘In the National League North you have an imbalance in geography: Hereford, Gloucester, Leamington and Brackley are all in the north split – and those teams are as northern as jellied eels!’

Another example is Gateshead, who currently play in the National League North and have to travel to Hereford and Gloucester for their away games.

There is no way you could set the league up that doesn’t leave someone still having to travel a long way for games. It simply wouldn’t work.

It’s a step back

Did you know that back in 1957, back when there was a north/south divide in football’s Third Division, Ipswich Town won the league and were promoted? (Thanks to my Dad for the history lesson on that one!)

The following year, the regional divide was removed and the football league moved closer to the structure that we know today.

As much as I would love to re-live us winning a league, I’m not sure a return to the 50’s is really what football needs.

For one thing, only the champions from each region was promoted, there was no play off competition at all.

Play-off competitions aren’t universally popular, but without them you have the potential for one team to run away with the title early on and the rest of the league having nothing left to play for.

Let’s say this problem is countered and they do decide to run a play-off competition, perhaps with one additional team from each region going up, that would logically mean four clubs must be relegated from the Championship.

But what if those four clubs come from the same region? You’re going to end up with a situation where clubs have to move from one region to another each year, something that has happened with Coventry in the past, as well as Cambridge as Chris explained.   

It’s not clear who supports the proposal

It does appear that this is simply speculation from some sections of our media, research shows there doesn’t seem to be any official support for the suggestion.

Fleetwood chairman Andy Pilley has been widely credited with pushing the idea during an interview with the BBC, but even he has clarified on Twitter that he didn’t actually suggest this is the right way to go.

What he did say is that all options should be considered, which is understandable and sensible – I just hope the idea is vetoed swiftly.

Conversely, Gillingham boss Steve Evans has added his vote to the ‘for’ column, claiming: ‘I have said privately for many years that if you did it north and south there would be more interest.’

Frankly, anything Steve Evans agrees with goes down as a bad idea in my book.

It’s not solving the main problem in football

I understand that football is a business and huge changes are going to need to be made after social distancing restrictions have been lifted if it is to survive this challenging time.

But I can’t help feeling this is sticking a plaster over the matter and hoping the actual problems in football will magically go away.

For a long time now, finances in football have been cause for concern and wide debate, most clubs run at a loss and many in the lower leagues are facing going out of business altogether.

The gap between the Premier League and the Championship is vast. Likewise, as we have seen this year, there is a huge gulf in quality between the Championship and League One.

Wouldn’t adding regional leagues simply make that divide even bigger? Even harder to overcome?

The Football League is already top-heavy when it comes to finances, this season alone we’ve seen Bury and Bolton face extinction in an extraordinary situation which included a Wanderers team of youth players pitted against our newly relegated team of Championship stalwarts.

In his interview with the BBC, Andy Pilley raised exactly this point, suggesting that better control on player’s wages is what is really needed to help clubs become more sustainable.

To my mind, the regional league ignores the core problem in football at the moment and will only lead to more problems down the road.

The suggested changes to the league would change the face of football forever, and not in a good way. I for one will be hoping it never happens.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Has gut-wrenching injury time at Blackpool ended hopes of Ipswich getting promoted?

During the train ride home from Lancashire late on Saturday evening, I had something of a revelation. It came in the form of a group of Accrington Stanley fans, who boarded the train inexplicably cheerily from their goalless draw at Bolton Wanderers.

We got chatting and I was telling them how awful I think League One is and how gutted I am that we are more than likely going to spend another year in this division.

One of them said to me, ‘You’re not good enough to go up though, are you?’

‘Yes, we are,’ I responded.

We were unbeaten until October, we were only relegated last year, we’ve got the biggest squad in the league… blah, blah, blah.

None of it was enough to convince them, and rightly so.

The hard truth is, we might think this is a terrible league (and the lack of quality in both games and officials certainly lends itself to that argument), but that - sadly - is our level now.

Gone are the days where people hear ‘Ipswich Town’ and think of Sir Bobby Robson and our glory days, Mattie Holland and our stint in the Premier League, or even Mick McCarthy and his budget heroes of 2015.

Instead, they wonder what on earth has happened at Portman Road... and that fall from grace makes my stomach churn.

Pleading for those Accrington fans to ‘just look at our history, because we’re a big club’, was laughable – those years don’t matter anymore. 

We’re going to have to earn our place in the hearts of neutral football fans again, by somehow getting out of this hole we’ve dug.

A game plenty of neutral fans will have loved watching

We spent the first ten minutes trying to work out what formation Lambert had gone for and I think we settled on 3-5-2, but I do wonder how difficult it must be for the players being asked to play different roles so frequently.

Despite this, the first half was a competent performance. 

Blackpool barely tested us because, in my opinion, the defence was solid. I was impressed with how calm Woolfie and Chambers remained and it gave me some level of confidence we could pull out a result.

The trouble is, we weren’t testing their defence either and, as I saw someone on Twitter quip, we should perhaps have brought along a deckchair for their keeper.

Sears and Keane, though working very, very hard, were not producing any real chances of note and, though the Blackpool goal came against the run of play, it felt inevitable when we weren’t taking advantage of the possession we had at the other end of the field.

The second half was far better, perhaps Freddie’s goal instilled a bit of confidence, but we suddenly looked like a team outclassing their opposition, as we should. 

Judge was a handful, and we were constantly pushing forward. Youngster Tyreece Simpson came on and made himself known, he's one to watch I'm sure.

But, again, aside from a couple of infuriating near misses that had us all throwing our hands in the air - there was no end product in that final third.

After several heart-in-mouth moments, we were faced with 30 seconds that I will never forget:

The ball fell to Freddie and he broke away to find himself in a one-on-one with the keeper.

This was it… the fairytale moment for the striker who had just been through a massive injury. He was about to claim the winner for his first full game back in the side.

I felt everyone hold their breath at the same time.

When he finally took his shot, after what felt like an hour of waiting, it was nothing short of heartbreaking to see the ball parried away.

And worse, sent into play for the home team to slot in the back of our own net at the other end.

It was a cruel ending, but we deserved to lose from the simple fact that we couldn’t score.

Lowering the bar… again

Coming into this season, I definitely had a feeling of quiet confidence. This, finally, was going to be a year we could enjoy. 

I fully expected us to go up as champions and I wasn’t being intentionally arrogant – I just really couldn’t see things going any other way.

We had the biggest squad in the league, as Joey Barton moaned earlier in the season, we had a squad of experienced Championship and League One teams. 

And, come on, we’re Ipswich – we love the Championship, so it was surely not going to be long before we made a return to it.

But we were warned; this is a tough league and our team had been badly damaged from the recent years of bad management.

We should have been better prepared for the challenge that lay ahead of us. We should have invested in January. We should have bought a striker. We should have waited before we started singing about winning the league.

I could discuss for hours who I think is to blame for our current predicament and I’ll save the full details for another blog.

But, the short version is that the bear minimum I expected of Lambert this year was promotion and he doesn’t look likely to deliver on that. If he doesn't, I believe he has to go.

For me, the season is near enough over for us. My biggest fear is that the crisis of confidence we’ve been having from the days of Mick McCarthy is still rearing its ugly head.

If we do make it to the play-offs we need to be in a far better frame of mind: we need to be mentally at our best and we need to believe that we can win them.

I don’t think anyone at Ipswich, on or off the pitch, can honestly say they think that right now.

I’ll hold on to the vague hope that we will, of course, because that’s just what you do when you’re a football fan, but I can’t see that happening.

What I can see happening is another rocky year for us Tractor Boys and Girls.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Ipswich Town must respond quickly and positively after defeat at Accrington Stanley

A lot has happened since Ipswich Town travelled to Accrington Stanley for an FA Cup match back in January… 

I've been through nine months of pregnancy and given birth to my second baby, England have won the cricket World Cup, while Theresa May and Boris Johnson have had their Brexit deals rejected by parliament countless times. 

But you’d be forgiven for thinking not a lot has changed for Ipswich Town: despite them sitting pretty at the top of League One, they still have the capacity to disappoint with a truly dire performance – just as they did back at the beginning of the year.  

That is, of course, extremely harsh, given this was their first defeat of the season. But this weekend was my first game since May and I’m feeling a little disappointed after being very excited about returning to watch this high-flying side.

What follows here is not intended to be an analytical blog on the pros and cons of our performance at the Wham stadium, but more my experience of the game as a long-suffering, long-distance supporter of The Blues.

An unexpected line-up

We began the day with news that Lambert had made big changes to the side, a move which was forced - to some extent - by the fact we’ll be playing three games in a week and Norwood, Wilson, Vincent-Young and Downes were all unavailable.

By all accounts, the four have been some of our strongest players, Vincent-Young in particular has attracted rave reviews. So, it’s little wonder this team felt somewhat second strength, but it was an opportunity for some new players to make the step up.

Dozzell, sadly, didn’t do that in my opinion. I’d forgotten he was playing until he made a tackle somewhere in the second half and he was as ineffectual this weekend as he was during our previous game against Stanley.

This was a scrappy game, so perhaps not particularly suited to him, but as our new side develops under Lambert with the goal of heading straight back to the Championship – he’s going to have to prove himself able to adapt to these kinds of games which will be plentiful in League One.

Meanwhile, Jackson and Judge were selected to play up front, but from what I could see that actually meant Kayden was a lone forward with Judge playing slightly behind him. I cannot stand it when we play one up-front!

With Keane on the bench it seemed a shame to play this formation. It's possible Lambert has opted to rest Keane ahead of our next match, but I’d have liked to see him at least play 45 minutes to give Jackson more support. 

Meanwhile, our defence clearly missed the solid Wilson – Nsiala was slow and lost and frankly not up to the standard of a promotion-chasing side. He may well have a big willy, as the song alleges, but he’s too much of a liability for me.

On a side note, it was interesting that back in January he stood out as our one decent player… he was quite the opposite on Sunday and perhaps that’s a reassuring sign of how far the team has come since then.

Stanley’s first goal was reminiscent of the many we conceded last year

From Accrington’s point of view, the first goal was a beaut – to me, it looked like a lovely cross into the area and a great header from Bishop. But, there were far too many opportunities for our defence to clear the ball, which they didn’t.

Edwards and Garbutt should have done better while the ball was on the wing and Bishop was largely unmarked as he headed it home. I was brutally reminded of the many awful goals we conceded last season, the defence was left helpless as the ball hit the net.

For me, the penalty was harsh on Nsiala, I felt at the time it was a case of ‘6 of one and half a dozen of the other’. It was the last in a long line of decision which went against us, in my totally biased opinion it seemed the referee was punishing us for being the ‘bigger’ side.

My opinion hasn’t changed since watching the goals back, but I know it’s a decision that’s since been debated at length by Town fans and not all agree with me. Blue Monday’s Rich provided a great summary of the tackle on this week’s episode which I was happy to be a part of.

Things could have been different

Having been at the right end of the ground to see the best bits of action from the first half – their two goals were the only two bits of action from the first half – we were also perfectly 
positioned to see the main point of interest from the second half.

A great cross from Garbutt created Town’s best chance to score: sailing over the top of Jackson and Nolan, before their keeper punched it into the path of Woolfenden. His shot was cleared, but not – from our point of view – before it had crossed the line.

Sadly, the referee did not agree, and the away fans stood on the terrace were left bemoaning what really should have been a chance to celebrate on this dull day. In my opinion, Woolfenden should have taken away all doubt and just thrown himself at the ball to take it over the line.

Shortly afterwards, a kerfuffle in front of the seated away fans led to the referee waving a red card at the Accrington player Sykes… 'Here we go', thought I. 'A chance to turn things around with their team down to ten men.'

But it wasn’t to be. The next thing we know, Town substitute Dobra is sulking across the pitch, comforted by Jackson and shrugging his shoulders as if to say, ‘what did I do, Miss?’ Well, lad, you pushed someone in the head so you’ve kind of got to go!

And with that my dwindling hopes that we might get something from our trip completely disappeared.

The unbeaten run is over – and I’m kind of glad

It's been an enjoyable start to the season and I don’t think anyone would have guessed we’d be undefeated in the league for as long as this. But, I’m relieved the pressure of that unbeaten run is now over.

Rather than worrying about how long we can keep that up, we can go back to focusing on one game at a time. We remain top of the league and probably the best side in the third tier.

But, if we intend to stay there we must do better from now. Sky’s commentators summed up our afternoon perfectly: ‘Ipswich Town are getting Sunday schooled.’ That’s pretty embarrassing.

I’m not the type of fan who will get carried away after one win, or panic after one defeat. But with three games in quick succession, this week could quickly become a disappointing turning point in our season if we don’t respond quickly and correctly against Rotherham.

I’m taking comfort in the fact we weren’t as dire on Sunday as we were back in January – but I’m not going to be booking my train tickets for May’s open-top bus tour just yet. This league lacks quality, but so do we sometimes and we’ve got to earn our place back in the Championship.

The most important thing now is moving on and recovering. We need to pick ourselves up and regain control, regain that winning mentality. Do you think we can do that? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter - I'm @TractorGirlAmy8

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The League One Tour starts here... but which away games absolutely must be on your list?

Is there a greater day of the year than fixture list release day? 

At 9 am on Thursday 20th June, my next 12 months are decided, I’ll know what I’m doing on each weekend and friends and family can once again start booking in plans with me.

Never mind the fact my second son is due to arrive at the end of August… my whole life will revolve around the dates and locations that are released by the EFL. The baby can fit around those, right?

So, what game will you be looking for first?

I imagine Southend away is going to be a popular one for Town fans, a local derby of sorts and a new ground for many, and there are plenty of others that will provide a few ‘ticks’ for us on our trip around the 92 (potentially 14 in my case).

For me, the early games will be important. By the start of the season I will be 8 months pregnant and I am at weddings for the first two games – so some nice southern away days or home games that I wouldn't be able to get to anyway would be nice. 

My other half went to Uni in Portsmouth, so we’d love that one to fall on a school holiday when he will be off work. Then the final home game of the season I’m hoping will be the date for my hen do, so praying for that to be a good date too! 

If you’ve worked out the dates and are wondering which away days to go to, I’ve spoken to some Ipswich fans and asked them to recommend their favourites from the choices we have now we’re in League One.

Back in January, I had a preview of the third tier during our trip to Accrington Stanley.

I have to say, the day out was far more enjoyable than the match. There is an away fans pub literally a stone’s throw from the ground, and after the game we were welcomed into the club bar to enjoy their £1 a pint offer which they run every time they win.

The Wham Stadium has an open terrace and seated area for the away fans, I opted for the terrace – thinking it might be marginally warmer standing up and chanting than sitting down for the game. I’m hoping the return visit this season will bring us a little more joy.

@HargraveGas is not a fan of AFC Wimbledon:

Wimbledon is a game I often go to and then wonder why. It’s a horrible ground for away fans, particularly when there is a good number of you. You can’t see the pitch (this picture makes it look better than it is!), but there is a nice, friendly area outside to eat and drink before the kick-off. 

Blackpool is one I’ve been to a few times and it’s sure to be one Town fans are looking out for:

It’s amazing to think they were not long ago in the Premier League, the ground is definitely one of the better ones we’ll go to this year – but it’s no Old Trafford. Last time I went, the toilets were portaloos and it is so windy you wonder how the ball is staying on the ground.

As a day trip, though, it’s hard to beat. Obviously the ideal one for a weekender, with pubs and clubs a-plenty and loads of cheap places to stay. It was in Blackpool where I first met a group of Town fans that were to become my good friends for many years after!

Assuming Bolton are able to make it through the summer, the Macron Stadium (or whatever it is called nowadays) is one I’ll definitely be hoping to go to. It’s only an hour from me and I actually really like the modern ground.

With the excellent following earlier this year over 1,000), this was one of the more enjoyable away trips of the year, despite us already being all but relegated. There isn’t usually so many people who make the journey up for this on, which can make it quite quiet.

We always park at the Beehive Pub, it’s free and a good place to grab food and drinks. The walk to the ground feels like it lasts forever, but it’s actually only about fifteen minutes and if you’re going by train, the station is over the road. 

@itmanSW75 has lots of experience of going to Bristol Rovers:

The first thing to note about a trip to Bristol Rovers is that you're not visiting the Red Side of the City. Parking around the ground is fairly abundant and trains run frequently from London to Bristol.

There is no alcohol available to away fans inside the ground, but the Annexe Inn and the Sportsman is recommended, and there are lots of other choices nearby. 

The Memorial Stadium itself is a strange mixture of stands. Ipswich fans will find themselves in a small, uncovered corner of the East Stand and the new South Stand which has a feel of temporary seating. So, if we're placed there on a cold November evening, you're definitely going to want to be in the south end!  

Blue Monday regular @IpsRich often shares stories about Burton Albion because it's one of the closest games to his home:

Burton Albion is a great away trip. As a Midlander, its a short hop up the road for me, so scores big convenience points!

I’ve always found Burton a welcoming place. The locals will strike up a conversation if they spot the blue of an ITFC shirt, and are very knowledgable and passionate about their club. They’re aware of their stature too though; Derby is very close by, and Leicester and Nottingham are also adjacent.

The away end is a terrace behind the goal and some seating to the side. Do yourself a favour, relive the good old days by standing (legitimately) behind the goal. A visit to Burton in the 2019/20 season will also mark only our third away visit to the Brewers in our entire history. 

The lovely @hunimonster is an away days specialist. But, as a Midlands based Town fan, Coventry is actually her 'home' game:

I was born and still live just a couple of miles down the road from Coventry. 

I remember my first away game and tightly gripping my Dad's hand on the way to Highfield Road. I don't remember the score but I will always remember the noise and the atmosphere.

Since then, the Ricoh has been the first taste my children have had of the away end and the magnificent support us Ipswich fans bring. 

Portman Road will always be 'home', but I know no matter where Coventry City play in the seasons to come, I feel I'm always among friends when we visit the Sky Blues.

@Tom_Morken has these tips for anyone travelling to Fleetwood Town:

There’s no train station at Fleetwood and not much to see in the area around Highbury Stadium. So, you’re better off spending the pre-match in Blackpool and then hopping on the tram to Stanley Road which is about a 35-minute journey and only a few minutes’ walk from the ground. 

Get a day travelcard on the tram (was around £5 when I visited last October).

Meanwhile, @DaveTractor is a fan of Gillingham.

The trip there includes a cracking pub and chip shop to visit. Gillingham is a desert for decent pubs, but all away supporters stop at the Wetherspoons at Rochester.

Lincoln City holds some bad memories for Town fans, @ChrisTalbot has these tips to make it a little more successful this season (off the pitch at least): 

Sincil Bank is about a 15-minute walk from Lincoln Central Railway Station and the away fans are seated in the Stacey West Stand. There is a Fanzone on matchdays behind the South Park Stand and there is also a Wetherspoons on the High Street on the way to the ground.

@hargravegas adds: I have mixed memories of Lincoln – some absolutely cracking games, the city itself is quite lovely (in parts), but they sometimes need a police presence. I’ve been there when it’s kicked off, not good!

I’ve not been to Peterborough United for a while, it’s another that holds very bad memories.

Our last league trip there was the absolutely disastrous 7:1 defeat, when Tommy Smith was sent off – within 30 seconds of entering the pitch, if memory serves – followed by Lee Martin who never really found form after that.

When we visited for a friendly game more recently, I did enjoy the pre-match pub. It was a barge on the edge of the river, had a lovely atmosphere and I’m sure they had Aspall’s on tap too. 

A good cider makes a good away day, I reckon.

@hargravegas added a quick review of Rochdale:

Rochdale is well worth a trip: old fashioned, really friendly, quite homely I would say and nice pies!

Rotherham is one of my favourite away days and this is one I’ll be praying doesn’t clash with anything.

The Bridge Inn was rumoured to not be taking away fans last season, although we were welcomed there afterwards and the bar man was quite confused about why we hadn’t been in before.

The pub is opposite the train station and a short walk from the ground. It’s not massive, but plenty big enough for the away fans we usually take to this game, and they serve pies and other food before the game – winner.

We haven’t had many amazing away days in recent years thanks to Mick 'the draw specialist' McCarthy, but Rotherham was one in 2016: a hat trick from Daryl Murphy (oh how we miss him) taking us to a 5:2 win and a lot of post-match partying… I didn’t actually make it home after that one!

@AnglianDriver has clear memories of Shewsbury Town from years gone by:

I actually saw Town at the old Gay Meadow ground in the 80’s in the UEFA Cup winning season when Burley broke his leg, and then we lost 2-1 in the FA Cup in 1984 (I think).

Shrewsbury moved to a modern, out-of-town stadium a few years ago, it has a large car park at the front (it sits back from the main road next to a Lidl Shop!). It’s a bit like Colchester United’s ground in design and capacity and there is a pub close to the ground call the Wild Pig and a retail park offering things like McDonald’s.

The town centre is about 2-3 miles away, where there are lots of nice pubs and bars. Shrewsbury itself is a fairly affluent place with a decent nightlife and some nice, historical architecture.

@Hargravegas also gave us his thoughts on Southend United:

I love Southend and I’m not sure why, it might be because they still have two Wimpy’s in town! 

I tend to park in the street, somewhere around the school and there’s nice fish and chips near the ground too. The only negative thing that I would say is that it always takes longer than you think it will to get there.  

I’d been looking forward to Sunderland when we played them two years ago.

Before the game I hadn’t expected we’d be seeing them relegated so soon (nor for us to follow them down the year after). My friends all stayed in Newcastle for the weekend and I joined them for breakfast at a Greene King pub near the station (always a fail-safe option).

We popped to St James’ Park to pay our respects at the Sir Bobby Robson statue, before jumping on the Metro to Sunderland. We found a pub there which was packed with ITFC fans. A lovely atmosphere but, to be honest, I regretted not staying in Newcastle for another pint.

Fair warning, as you’ll see in my video, the stairs to the away stand are both the highlight and the worst part of the trip… it’s a long way up, but they have little messages at each level to make you smile through the climb.

Let me know which game you’re looking forward to most!

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

'To say Webster's been a success would be a massive understatement': Bristol City vs Ipswich Town match preview from The Exiled Robin

The games fall thick and fast for Ipswich Town this week: following a fantastic draw at West Brom on Saturday, today they're on their travels again to Bristol City.

So, continuing my series of interviews with opposition fans, I've spoken to Bristol City fan Paul who runs the excellent Exiled Robin blog:

To start, tell us about your blog:

I always wanted to be a sports journalist, but ultimately pursued other paths at university. 

So, I started writing a number of years ago when Twitter was first starting to be used by football fans as a means to connect with each other and to share content. 

I saw what others were doing, including the likes of Ian King, The Two Unfortunates, and David Bevan, The 72, and decided I could do that for Bristol City. No one else was, so it seemed to make sense.

And how long have you been supporting Bristol City?

All my life! I was born when we were in the old First Division, but by the time I got to my first game we'd been relegated three seasons in a row and were bottom of Division 4 and had been close to folding. The only way was up, I guess! 

I started going regularly when I was 9 or 10 and held a season-ticket for many years. In recent years, with a young family and now living on the other side of Cardiff, I tend to 'only get to around 13-15 home games a season.

Now the kids are 9 and 6, they're both properly getting into it, so perhaps a family season ticket is on the cards soon.

As an outsider, it seems to me that Bristol have had an excellent season. How are you feeling about it? 

Yes, it's been better than most expected.

Having lost our three best players in the summer (Joe Bryan, Aden Flint and 20+ goal man Bobby Reid), I think most would have been happy with a steady, mid-table campaign, and that's very much where we were heading at the end of November when we played you at home.

A handful of our fans have even remarked after that game - which was no footballing classic - that they thought we'd both end up going down!

But that was the start of an incredible run which included 9 straight wins and left us where we are now, battling with Frank Lampard's Derby, Pulis' dinosaurs and a string of others for the last of the play-off spots.

More recently, February wasn't very kind to you, with a couple of defeats including a close game with our rivals Norwich...

No, and March hasn't started that well either, so the slide we encountered last year from January is threatening to derail us again. 

The game against Norwich was so good, it was almost enjoyable despite the defeat. We played really well for 50-55 minutes, but they slowly started to take control and - although you won't want to hear this - they've got some cracking footballers going forward who taught us a bit of a lesson in the second half.

You do feel with them thought that they score so many late goals, they can carry on forever, but I suspect if they don't make it to the top 2 it'll be because a team has shut them out a little, they're not great at the back. 

In a bit of a shock transfer for us, our defender Adam Webster made the move to you guys in the summer, leaving our defence somewhat desperate. How has he done for you?

Well, it seems Webster was Lee Johnson's only target when it became clear Flint was heading to Middlesbrough, and he clearly lined up a deal early on. 

To say he's been a success would be a massive understatement, he's been our best player and his ability on the ball has allowed us to change shape and style. The way he steps into midfield has allowed us to play a 4-1-4-1 formation, with five relatively forward-thinking players, as Webster becomes an extra midfielder.

His partnership with Tomas Kalas has been the cornerstone of our success and as a pair, they're as impressive a centre-back partnership as any of us have seen at Ashton Gate. 

I have not a single doubt that Webby will play in the Premier League before too long, and many believe he'll earn international honours.

What are your thoughts on Ipswich Town's season?

Well, from the outside looking in, it looks a shambles. 

I know a couple of Ipswich fans, so get a bit of context, but appointing a new manager to revolutionise what had been a steady decline under Mick McCarthy and then sack him less than three months into te season seems barmy. 

But I guess there must have been valid reasons of what was - or wasn't - happening behind-the-scenes and you'd hope there was more rationale than just poor results with a new coach and team.

Saying that the appointment of Paul Lambert seems inspired. Highly risky, for obvious reasons, and you're still bottom of the league - but I get the impression he's walked in and 'got' the club from the off and is earning credit from fans accordingly. 

As a team that has made the step up from League One, what is your advice for us next season? Do you think we'll be able to come straight back up?

It's often not that easy. Last time we went down, we shed a lot of high-earners in the summer and struggled to adapt for one year, despite the brilliance of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.

Then the following summer, we picked up seven of the other League One club's best players (from the likes of Cheltenham, Stevenage, and Swindon) and gelled them with a handful of young players who hadn't quite made it in the Championship into a record-breaking squad. 

You can't get back up easily with Championship old-stagers in my opinion, there are too many fresh, hungry young footballers down there keen to make an impact on the 'names'.

 Finally, can I have a score prediction, please?

It's more hope than expectation given our last two home performances, but I'll go with a 2:0 win with a goal in each half.

You can follow Paul on Twitter and Facebook.

Thank you so much for taking part, Paul!

Monday, 11 March 2019

Ipswich Town take a point away to play off contenders West Brom, but deserved all three points

Living in Yorkshire, it's not very often I'll head to the Midlands to see Ipswich Town play. But, as I haven't been to West Brom before I felt this trip was one not to miss. 

And I wasn't wrong! From the pre-match pub, which swum with blue and white shirts all munching on delicious curries, to The Hawthorns, a smart ground with an away end packed with singing, happy fans - I loved it. 

I loved the ground, I loved chatting with relaxed Town supporters before the match, I loved the feeling of unity that we seem to have formed, despite the horrendous results we've been forced to sit through since August.

Sadly, the beginning of the game didn't instill quite so much joy. Within five minutes, Jonas Knudsen had conceded a free-kick in the exact same position that lead to his red card and suspension at Wigan just a few weeks ago.

The resulting free-kick was quickly taken and, as West Brom created a sly gap in the wall, it deflected off Knudsen and bounced slowly into the waiting goal. Keeper Bart had been sent the wrong way and, at the time, it felt like this was going to be the start of many goals for the home side.

But from this point on we seemed to take the game by the scruff of the neck. 

We weren't going down without a fight, Town reacted well to their goal with chance after chance of making the score level: 

  • A nice run from Teddy Bishop(one of many), who passed to Alan Judge, who hit the ball into the box where it was easily collected by the keeper 
  • A heel flick from Judge that was just a joy to watch 
  • A shot from Luke Chambers which went over the bar (oh, how I'd have loved him to score after the criticism he received from a section of our fans last week)
  • A cross, again from Judge, crossed the face of the goal, but Jon Nolan was clearly held back and walked away holding his head
  • Bishop took on three West Brom players, neatly skipping around each, before being completely taken out, earning Town their first free-kick of the game
And there was a solid performance at the other end of the pitch too, as Bart had the best game I've seen from him so far this season. One shot tipped over the bar, another saved one-handed, at point-blank range.

Meanwhile, the man West Brom fan Nikki picked out as her 'one to watch' in my match preview, Dwight Gayle, was not endearing himself to Ipswich fans: after he went down injured in front of the away fans, Chambers kicked the ball out of play to allow him to be treated. Only for Gayle to happily jump back up again, cue angry reaction from the away stand.

Shortly before half-time, there was a handball appeal for Town, it was at the other end of the pitch so I can't claim to have had a good look at it - but what I did see was the response from three of our players and that was strong. These decisions never seem to come for us, do they? 

When half-time came I wasn't worried about us being a goal down. The performance from the boys had been so bright, I felt an unusual feeling of hope! 

Following the break, Collin Quaner, who had been decidedly quiet first-half, was replaced by Kayden Jackson. Now, I wasn't impressed by the latter last time I saw Town play at Wigan, but I'm pleased to say he was much better this time around.

The chances on goal just kept coming, with the vast majority continuing to be engineered by Alan Judge who is an absolute joy to watch. Our goal actually came from a James Bree cross, Nolan rose, unmarked, to meet the ball and head it into the net. 

What a feeling! I hadn't seen Town score a goal this season until Keane's equaliser against Stoke last month - but now I've seen 3 in 3 and it feels like Christmas! The away end erupted in an awesome roar, with absolute elation taking hold: this great day out just got even better.

There we were, 1100 fans and 11 men on the pitch, united in pure joy against this horrible season that is trying so hard to drag us down. The moment of elation felt so symbolic, of these people who are trying their best to pull together and make the best of a bad situation, of players and fans who aren't going to let relegation stop them working together for a better future.

And so it went on, chance after chance for Town. Just 3 or 4 months ago, I'd become used to them managing only a handful of shots on target in 90 minutes - and I'd often count myself lucky if they even managed that. Saturday was a new team the one we've been waiting for all year, possibly longer.

More lovely football from Bish who passed onto Judge, but his pass to Jackson went straight to the West Brom keeper. The three of them provided some real moments of quality during the first half until Teddy was subbed, presumably due to having only just returned from injury.

Jackson had a fantastic chance shortly afterward, when a terrible pass to the West Brom keeper Sam Johnstone went awry. He reacted quickly to try to take advantage but the keeper managed to clear. 

He also had a shot set up by Myles Kenlock which he probably could have taken better, but it was good to see him putting himself in positions that could lead to goals. I feel like this is where Kayden will see the most success, he seems to be a bit of a goal poacher.

Nolan, too, had a real chance to put us ahead, as he raced ahead of their defence to just outside the area. But, at the last minute, he appeared to get stage fright and scuffed the shot well wide of the post. 

There were chances at the other end, though it seemed to be far less. One moment, a one-on-one between their number 60 and Chambers really showed the quality of our captain. The man is awesome and I won't hear a bad word said against him!   

The Baggies' lack of ability to regain control of the game was clearly frustrating the home crowd and, by the 85th minute, there were sections booing the team. Shortly afterward, they were leaving their seats in droves - heading for the exits like lines of marching ants.

In a season filled with individual errors - yesterday showed some individual talent. 

Bishop was the highlight of the first half, a young man back to the highs from the early days of his first team career. In him, we have a real asset for the future (although I fear his value may only be experienced in pounds as we're surely likely to need to sell him over the summer?).

Meanwhile, Nolan was by far and away my man of the match overall. I wasn't a fan of his earlier in the season and have been rightly pulled up for it on the TWTD forum. I really felt he wasn't good enough to make the step up to our league, he was of absolutely no use to us at Forest and made too many errors at Accrington.

But on Saturday, he really came into his own. He's got better and better and that's hopefully a good sign for next season - if he can make himself into a decent Championship player in the remaining months of the season, it bodes well for his return to League One, in which he has more experience and may feel more comfortable.

Bart, too, has had a dubious season but was back on form. The man has saved us so many points in the last two seasons, I'd say he was the main reason we weren't dragged too far into the relegation battle last year, and he was well worth the alleged pay rise he received in the summer. There's still time this season to prove his worth some more.

Sadly, I suspect he, like Bishop, is at risk of leaving Portman Road at the end of this season and, to be honest, I think he's too good a keeper to be dropping down to League One. But I'd love to see him end his time with us on a high - he's a class act.

I could honestly pay tribute to every player on that pitch, each one played their part in our draw, but instead, I'll end this section by saying that Alan Judge is quickly healing the gaping wounds in my heart left by the departure of Marty Waghorn. 

He's by far the best player on the pitch every time I see him and I love the quality he has brought to the team. We MUST do whatever it takes to keep him at our club.

We genuinely could have won this game and I felt the performance deserved all three points. 

In my opinion, it's a performance we've been building to for a while. The defeat at Norwich could so easily have caused our heads to drop, but we followed that gutsy display with a shock draw against Derby and a further good performance against Stoke.

The following week, an away defeat to Wigan came despite another determined performance in which the players showed guts and withstood an hour of attacks from the home side with only ten men on the pitch.

True, Reading at home was reportedly not our best game. Perhaps the pressure of the 'must-win' game became too much for a side that has struggled for confidence this season. 

But that's why this weekend's result was unexpected, having not been able to beat a fellow relegation battler on our home turf, it's not entirely unfair to expect defeat against a team currently sat in 4th position. 

Despite Lambert's protests to the contrary, most of us know we're not going to survive this season with our Championship status in-tact. There's no doubt in my mind that League One eagerly awaits our arrival in the not-so-distant future. 

Perhaps that's what made the difference on the pitch. Perhaps, with the pressure off, the players are able to breathe a bit and enjoy playing at their best. We're certainly enjoying watching it much more from the stands.

Perhaps it's simply the case that every manager needs time for his team to click, for them to get to know how to play together and to start to turn those performances round - and that's exactly what this side is doing now.

I wondered after the game how different things might have been had we rid ourselves of 'the Temp' Paul Hurst just a few months earlier - might we have seen this turn in performances early enough in the season to save our skins?

Who knows. 

What I do know is I'm damned proud of the team we are becoming and when this ship goes down, there's a united team of fans, player and manager waiting to bring her straight back up again.