Bent hat-trick puts Town back on track

Darren Bent was the Ipswich Town hero as they made a big statement about their intentions to fight for a Premiership place right to the end of the season.

Darren Bent was the Ipswich Town hero as they made a big statement about their intentions to fight for a Premiership place right to the end of the season.

The 20-year-old led the Walsall defence a merry dance to score a splendid second half hat-trick at the Bescot Stadium last night.

And the visitors were full value for their victory that may not have moved them up the First Division table, but has instilled renewed vigour in the team after a depressing run of four defeats in their previous five games.

Bent scored his first senior hat-trick, and the first for Ipswich since Pablo Counago scored three times in the UEFA Cup victory over Luxembourg part-timers Avenir Beggen in August 2002.

The England Under-21 international took his goal tally to 11 for the season and thrived in partnership with 17-year-old Dean Bowditch, who was making his full first-team debut in the league.

Manager Joe Royle decided that the time was right to blood young Bowditch who had impressed one and all when appearing as a second half substitute in the 3-1 defeat by Millwall at Portman Road last Saturday.

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Shefki Kuqi was left on the substitutes' bench and right from the first whistle Bent and Bowditch showed plenty of youthful industry and endeavour up front.

But a goal did not appear likely in the first half with only a Tommy Miller effort causing home keeper Jimmy Walker any problems with the keeper diving to his right to save well.

But once Bent had opened the scoring, following a typically slick Town move in the 48th minute, there was only likely to be one result.

Walsall began the match just three points above the relegation zone and they were made to look second rate with the experienced Town midfield of Miller, Jim Magilton and Jermaine Wright, assisted by Ian Westlake, running riot in the final 45 minutes.

It was by far the most cohesive and confident display for some while and if Royle can keep this same level going for the remaining nine games then a play-off place could well be secured.

There is no doubt that the presence of Matt Elliott at the heart of the Town defence following his loan signing from Leicester City added considerable strength to the back line.

The 35-year-old Scottish international was rarely ruffled and got his head to a succession of balls that were played into the Town penalty area, with keeper Kelvin Davis having little to do.

It was a shame that a clean sheet was not kept, with Keith Andrews catching Town off guard with a quickly taken free-kick three minutes from the end.

When Royle brought Chris Bart-Williams, Alan Mahon and Kuqi in as loan players last autumn it inspired Town to take off on a run that saw them leap up the table from last place to the top six in next to no time.

Town fans, who had their belief restored after a period of worry, will be hoping that Elliott's acquisition has the same effect.

This was Ipswich's sixth away victory of the season and although they remain in ninth place they are now just three points behind the third placed side.

Wins for Norwich City and West Brom last night strengthened their position as favourites for the automatic promotion places, and some teams around Ipswich have games in hand.

However, it should all be a lot brighter in ten days' time if the Blues can see off the challenges of lowly Watford at home on Saturday and Wimbledon away seven days later.

Elliott, who wore the number six shirt unused since the departure of Mark Venus, was one of three changes with Richard Naylor and Bowditch also coming in to replace the injured Drissa Diallo and Georges Santos.

Seven first team squad members were out injured with Scott Barron gaining a substitutes' place for the first time and being joined by Aidan Collins and Scott Mitchell who are also from the academy with just very brief senior appearances between them.

But they were not required as Royle had no need to change his troops on an evening when it was pleasing to see Wright back to his best, and Miller posing a threat and being denied a second half goal when he struck the bar.

Magilton never wavers a challenge even when the chips are down and the Town skipper showed his colours in a highly fluid Town midfield.

Richard Naylor would not have started if there had been other experienced defenders available, but he showed no signs of suffering any discomfort from a broken toe that needed to be injected with a painkiller before the start.

Ipswich duly completed their second double of the season having accounted for Bradford home and away earlier in the campaign, and on a windy night Town's fans, who were situated in their usual high numbers behind the goal, were able to travel back to Suffolk with much more spring in their step.

Bowditch admitted after Saturday's game that 'it was going to happen soon' for him and he has certainly wasted no time in repaying the faith that his manager has put in him.

He was asked to do a man's job last night in a game that Ipswich simply could not afford to lose. And he came up trumps playing alongside Bent as a new generation of Ipswich players made a mark.

But it was Bent who earned the headlines with his three well-taken goals against a Walsall team that to be fair are no great shakes with just one victory in their last 13 matches.

Ipswich were not particularly buoyant themselves entering the game but by the time they walked off they had completed a sound evening's work and could look forward with optimism to the rest of the season once more.

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