Ipswich Town’s playoff hopes near the end after derby defeat


Ipswich Town’s form has been nothing short of staggering.

The Tractor Boys were on an 11-match unbeaten run and hadn’t conceded a single goal in their last six home games. In fact, Kieran McKenna’s side hadn’t lost a single game at Portman Road since the end of November, and the playoffs were well and truly in their sights.

Then along came Cambridge United.

The U’s were, in fact, on a fairly dissimilar run. A 4-2 defeat against Oxford United at the end of February sparked a five-match winless streak that included four losses. Mark Bonner’s side had only picked up a single away win in the league before their 1-0 victory at AFC Wimbledon on 26th March. A week later, Cambridge made it two away wins on the bounce with two clean sheets.

This was a massive surprise, as the bookies had understandably listed Ipswich as the heavy favourites. Aside from their form, the hosts would welcome a hostile crowd of over 26,000 fans to Portman Road, and it was clear that a win was needed in order to keep their playoff dreams alive.

Yet the game didn’t start how many home supporters expected it to. In Cambridge’s last away game against a playoff-chasing opponent, they found themselves 2-0 down after 20 minutes away to Sheffield Wednesday. The U’s went on to lose that game 6-0, and a number of fans had hoped for a similar performance in Suffolk.

Cambridge started fast, with Joe Ironside firing Harvey Knibbs’ flick-on into the back of the net before the offside flag was raised. The U’s continued their pressure, with George Williams forcing a point-blank save from Christian Walton to keep the scores level.

The Tractor Boys posed their own threat, playing with the precision and intensity of a Championship side. Their end product, however, was non-existent, and McKenna’s men were made to pay for their wastefulness just over ten minutes into the second half.

Harvey Knibbs, playing in an unfamiliar attacking midfield position, won a free-kick off a needless foul from Luke Woolfenden. Adam May’s delivery into the box was swung towards the head of Ironside, but Brentford loanee Dominic Thompson got the last touch off the ball as it bobbled past Walton.

This forced McKenna into a double change. Bersant Celina, who had absolutely no luck up against Cambridge right-back Williams, was dropped into a central midfield role alongside Sam Morsy. Sone Aluko, who scored a brace in the reverse fixture, was brought on for Tom Carroll to play behind the two strikers. This included Macauley Bonne, who replaced Conor Chaplin to partner James Norwood in a 3-5-2 formation.

Ipswich’s attack-minded substitutions had little impact, although they found the back of the net in the dying seconds of stoppage time. Aluko was ultimately caught in an offside position, and the goal was ruled out.

Cambridge executed their game plan to perfection.

It would be incredibly harsh to say that the U’s came for a draw, as many fans and Ipswich winger Wes Burns tried to insist after the game. Their set up was resolute, but they continuously threatened to take the lead. Bonner’s side were unlucky not to be ahead going into the half-time break, even if they were the second best team across the 90 minutes.

Similarly, it is impossible to argue that the hosts deserved three points, and once again their poor attacking output has come back to bite them. This time, however, it has ended their hopes of a top six finish.

This surprised many fans, given Bonne’s incredible goalscoring record at the start of the campaign. Flash forward to just a few months later, and the QPR loanee would find himself out of the team entirely. Neither he nor his teammates seem able to have the same impact on games that they would like, which is undoubtedly a crushing blow for how strong Ipswich have been at the back.

Another season in League One feels inevitable and ultimately disastrous for the Blues, who’ve failed to secure a playoff spot in their two full seasons since being relegated from the second tier in 2018/19. Failure to achieve promotion this season would see them face their fourth successive campaign in the third division, a level which they had previously not played at since 1957.

Parallels may be drawn to the situation at Sunderland, a club with much more recent Premier League history that have been trapped in League One since their relegation in 2018. However, the Tractor Boys’ summer spending made them the pre-season title favourites, and falling short of even making the playoffs would be a major blow.

Part of the blame will undoubtedly be accredited to former boss Paul Cook, who was sacked at the start of December. However, it remains to be seen whether the club have the finances to complete another overhaul over the summer transfer window, as they did last year. The sole positive that fans can take is that McKenna seems to be an incredibly talented young manager who can transform their fortunes with a full season in charge.

He was, however, undone by another young manager in Bonner, who’s side are on the verge of securing mathematical safety with six games to spare. This is despite operating on the smallest playing budget in League One, with a squad containing next to no League One experience.

Victory against Wycombe Wanderers on Tuesday night will make it official, although if Morecambe lose to Oxford United and Wimbledon fail to beat Charlton Athletic, the U’s result will have no impact. Even if the Chairboys do leave The Abbey with all three points, it would take a nigh-on impossible turn of events to see to see Cambridge dragged into a relegation battle, especially considering that they host the Shrimps next Saturday.

Bonner doesn’t want his side to be ‘on the beach’, however, and victory at Portman Road proved that. Facing Wycombe will arguably be an even tougher test, with Gareth Ainsworth’s men having won 3-0 in the reverse fixture at Adams Park. While they sit just a place above Ipswich, their five-point advantage coupled with an extra game in hand on the Blues means that they remain in the hunt for a playoff place.

While the U’s want to finish the season strongly, Bonner has confirmed that Tuesday will be the first match where he rotates his side. He added that fans may “see six different teams in the final six games”, possibly allowing the likes of Ben Worman and Jack Lankester to have an extended run in the starting lineup after their bit-part contributions across the campaign.

Finding a balance between a strong team and a rotated team will be the final challenge for Bonner this season, especially with trips to Wigan Athletic and Sunderland on the horizon.

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East Anglian football editor for Prost International.

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