Like many neutral observers, I held the expectation that Ipswich Town’s first stint back in the third tier for over 60 years would be confined to a single season.
The highly experienced Paul Lambert was kept in situ, having taken over at Portman Road back in October 2018 from Paul Hurst. Although he ultimately failed to keep the Tractor Boys in the Championship, there were definite signs of improvement under his watch, albeit from a very low starting point.
Additionally, the summer transfer window didn’t see the kind of sweeping changes that are normally associated with a relegation, thanks partly to the time Lambert had to assess the squad, but also a reflection of the talent already there, especially some of the younger prospects like centre back Luke Woolfenden and midfield engine Flynn Downes.
That relative stability was apparent in early results and performances in League One; it took until the twelfth fixture to taste defeat (surprisingly, a 2-0 reverse away at Accrington Stanley), and even then, Lambert’s charges were top of the pile with a game in hand over nearest rivals Wycombe Wanderers, who the Scot famously led to the League Cup semi-final stage early in his adventures ensconced in the dugout.
The defeat in Lancashire was followed by a sticky patch of sorts, yielding only 11 points from the same number of games as the new decade arrived. Goals were becoming more of a premium, and the only occasion they troubled the scoreboard more than twice in that period was the eight-goal thriller with Lincoln City, and nothing at all to show for their efforts.
Even after the disappointment at Sincil Bank, Ipswich were still only four points off the summit, and Lambert didn’t feel the need to dip into the market significantly, only adding Josh Earl to provide competition to fellow loanee Luke Garbutt at left wing-back since the switch in shape following that encounter.
Ipswich have gone from league leaders to outside the play-offs
The next five saw them gain the same points tally in fewer than half the games, and perhaps more importantly, restricting promotion rivals Oxford United and Wycombe to draws whilst on the road.
The purple patch was sufficient to hurtle Lambert’s charges back into first, but it has since been followed up with three extremely costly losses in a row, all of which came at the hands of resurgent opposition equally fancied to escape the division.
Free-scoring Peterborough United showed the Suffolk outfit just how it was done, profiting hugely on several occasions from some very poor goalkeeping from Will Norris; the upshot of the thrashing by their East Anglian rivals has exposed two major issues that the management team need to resolve, especially now they find themselves looking up rather than down in seventh place, outside of the play-offs.
The first task is to make Portman Road something like a fortress again.
Taken in isolation, the home table is sobering reading for everyone associated with the club. Even allowing for the greater proportion of matches on the road, five wins at this point in the campaign in front of their own supporters is not a basis to regain second tier status. The remaining 10 are relatively kind, playing hosts to only three sides challenging at the right end as the run-in looms into view.
Of late, Lambert has set his team up primarily to not lose, and not only has that worked in key games, it’s also stifled what little creativity there appears to have been.
Strikers James Norwood and Kayden Jackson have had successful terms, but no-one is notching with any regularity at all. The highly-rated Andre Dozzell must wonder what he needs to do to break into the XI, and they’re too reliant on set pieces to unlock the opposition.
The changes need not be in formation, but the mentality.
Supporters are starting to resign themselves to at least another year in League One with 15 games to go. Whilst from the outside looking in, that might seem like an over-reaction, the insipid displays, a lack of nous, and moreover, a dearth of goals are heaping the pressure on Lambert and owner Marcus Evans.
The current safety-first approach, even allowing for the usual tightening at the business end of the season, is unlikely to bestow upon Ipswich promotion. He must rediscover why they were so dominant until October before the axe is sharpened up.