With eight matches in March - most recently three games in just seven days - the season has begun it's tiring close for Ipswich Town. And boy is it beginning to show.
"To play eight games in a month is a punishing schedule... I know people don't want to hear about highly-paid footballers being tired, but both teams have put a lot of effort in and I think the first half was just a flat game." Paul Jewell on TWTD.co.uk
After a sluggish defeat at Watford on Saturday, I was worried how two defeats in a row might affect the squad at this fragile time. With the players so tired and another mediocre midtable finish looming, it was hard to see where we'd find the energy to return to the recent form we've enjoyed. Luckily, Town dug deep to achieve a draw against promotion chasing Middlesbrough.
When we trudged through the snow to Portman Road last month to see the original fixture for this tie, I was feeling that a draw would be a good result. Thanks to the exciting way we played for 37 minutes that day my hopes for last night had risen to the possibility of a win. So, overall, I'm happy with a draw.
But back to the topic in hand: the lethargy appears to be affecting the Town players now and, with the squad this year looking rather depleted, it's hard to know what Jewell can do about it.
Chops has looked tired out since Hull away and, though I fully expect him to be back scoring goals aplenty next season he has worked hard enough to have earnt a rest. But what can Jewell do? Not play him? Who would he replace him with?
He's been honest enough to explain he cannot opt for Scotland unless the striker accepts a new deal. Currently, just two more starts would tie him down to another year of wages we cannot afford. No, Scotland will have to remain a super sub for now: a real shame as the two of them seemed to be performing together well as a partnership.
Next, there's Lee Martin, who seemed to benefit from his first half rest against Hull and has come back to fine form once again. He turned things around that day, and without him against Watford on Saturday we were decidedly less creative with few opportunities on goal. So Jewell cmust continue to play him. I'd prefer to stick with him in the starting line up and allow some fresh legs to replace him once he's run the opposition ragged. Carson preferably, who came on and looked passionate on Saturday. Now's the time for Jewell to allow him to compete for a place in the team next season.
Now to my current top player: Jay Emmanuel Thomas. He's been quiet since Bristol at home and possibly even Brighton away the week before that. Including that game, JET has started eight games in only just over 4 weeks and it is clearly beginning to affect him.
Cast your mind back to the beginning of the season (feels so long ago doesn't it?!): Despite consistently poor performances, Jewell kept explaining JET was simply low on fitness and there was so much more to see from this young lad. Recently, that level of fitness has dropped as a result of the jam packed schedule and so his performances have been directly affected.
Of course, that's not prevented some flashes of brilliance from him: I don't think I'll ever forget when he ran the length of the pitch with the ball dancing at his feet cutting around the Watford defence. Their players and ours alike appeared to step back, not knowing which way he was going next and alowing him to get on with it. If I remember right this little move lead to a very very near miss from Chops. That spark cannot leave the Ipswich Town side, JET is another player Jewell should continue to start and perhaps replace later on in the game for some fresh legs.
I would like a quick word about Tommy Smith (WORLD CUP PLAYER) and Damien Delaney: two players who, by contrast as they appear to still be playing with the same energy they were in our great run of one defeat in ten games. They are, quite clearly, still vulnerable to silly mistakes. But there are less of those now, the game is more controlled on our back line and they are pressing forward quickly at every chance they get. After Chops and Martin were subbed on Saturday, I spotted our two defenders at the top end of the pitch in their place. And not just for the corners!
That doesn't seem like a pair who've stopped trying, that doesn't seem like a team who didn't care they were losing. These boys aren't haven;t packed their bags for the summer holiday yet. They all want to end the season on a high, that's what being a footballer's all about. I was writing an article about a Doncaster Rovers defender who's just returned from a long injury recently and he said to me 'if you don't go out on that pitch wanting to win, then there's something wrong with you and you may as well have stayed home'.
My point is, it's not in a footballer's nature to just give up and stop caring. The recent dip in performances is clearly down to tiredness in my opinion and, once the fixture list has settled down again for the final month of the season I'm sure they'll be keen to return to their best form.
I asked Twitterland what they thought and was pleased to see that, in general, #ITFC fans are happy to have some patience with our tired squad:
@Katie_Lewis11 'Been playing lots of games this month #needabreak'
@Ant_ITFC 'I think the current glut of games has tired them, but after Tuesday night I wonder if they feel there's nothing to play for now.'
@Stevehitfc 'They look jaded due to heavy schedule, but the team will always go out to win every game, top 6 or not'.
@Felstedboy 'You could see Lee Martin looked really exhausted towards the end of the game.'
Hopefully next season Jewell will have more options to be able to rotate the squad, as he's already said he would like to. But, for now, this is our lot and we will make do.
For me it's a simple case of wanting to end the season on a high. I'm not saying I think we'll make it to the play offs - which, byt he way, IS still possible. I'm just saying why not aim for it?
Reach for the stars and you may just land on the moon as our teachers told us when we were young.
In Jewell We Trust, for next year may just be our year. In the meantime, let's enjoy what's left of the season.