Burley buys do the business for Joe

HOPES are high that 2003 will be far more enjoyable after the curtain came down on a miserable year for Ipswich Town.And the man who led Town to relegation and then a bottom six position in the First Division before being asked to leave, deserves a good slice of the credit.

By Elvin King

HOPES are high that 2003 will be far more enjoyable after the curtain came down on a miserable year for Ipswich Town.

And the man who led Town to relegation and then a bottom six position in the First Division before being asked to leave, deserves a good slice of the credit.

Too many of George Burley's purchases in the final two years of his Portman Road tenure turned out to be expensive failures, but his eye for emerging young talent did not let him down when he persuaded Pablo Counago and Thomas Gaardsoe to put pen to paper in inexpensive deals.

And on recent evidence, Tommy Miller could made it a hat-trick of good Burley signings that can help Joe Royle's side move up the table.

Five league games without a defeat has put more spring into everybody's step and the long hoped for run that could still lift Town within sight of the play-offs appears to be in its initial stages.

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There may be too much ground to make up this term, but there is no doubt in my mind that whatever the financial situation dictates in playing strengths, Royle will lead the club back into the Premiership by 2005 if not 2004.

Spaniard Counago increased his goal tally to 13 with a couple of signature striker's goals – the first a predatory tap-in, the second a magnificent sweep beyond helpless markers before finishing with the flourish of an Owen or a Rooney!

Brilliant is an over-used word in football reviews but an exception can be made for Saturday's game, firstly for the quality of Counago's second goal and then for the skill shown by Andy Marshall to somehow tip over a blockbuster that denied Darren Wrack his hat-trick.

At the time Ipswich were in a precarious position at 2-1, but the brilliance of Marshall's 80th minute save and Counago's 85th minute strike effectively kept the ball rolling on Town's revival.

Walsall, the third side to be doubled by Ipswich this campaign, were a resilient lot. They worked hard to frustrate the home team in the first half and it was not until the allotted three minutes of stoppage time had been played that Richard Naylor's teasing right-wing cross was fumbled by Gavin Ward for Counago to touch over the line.

If only the man, who has taken over from David Johnson and Marcus Stewart as the goal king of Portman Road, could find the net away from home.

Town would then be sailing up the table with the aid of a strong wind in their backs. Perhaps some special tuition on the training ground would help.

It has certainly done wonders for Gaardsoe, another who has benefited so much from the tender care of Royle and his assistants Willie Donachie and Tony Mowbray.

The Danish defender has matured into a class act at the back – and an ace marksman at the front.

Three golden headers in three successive matches is a rare feat and it all follows extra heading training with Mowbray and a special word from Royle at half-time during the Portsmouth game on December 21.

Since then 23-year-old's Gaardsoe's aerial power has earned a point against leaders Pompey, turned a defeat at second-placed Leicester City into a victory and helped see off a tenacious Walsall.

With Counago and Gaardsoe boosting what is basically the same side that finished fifth in the Premiership 19 short months ago, the future now looks much rosier.

Miller, although hindered by knee trouble, has also blossomed in recent weeks and along with two young Darrens – Bent and Ambrose – has a big part to play in the months ahead.

To concede two goals for the second home game running is a worry and life would be much simpler if some clean sheets could be kept along the way.

Once Gaardsoe had netted on the hour, Ipswich played with the belief and confidence that has been lacking for so long. The match looked over and a chorus of '2-0 to the Tractor Boys' was sung with the relish and resonance associated with the 2000/01 campaign.

The introduction of ex-Town player Danny Sonner and the Brazilian Junior – is there really a player from that most

cultured of soccer nations playing for Walsall? – gave the visitors more bite up front and Wrack was on hand to slide home a lifeline after 68 minutes.

But thanks to Marshall and then Counago, Town survived despite Wrack's second goal a minute from time.

Royle decided to keep Ambrose on the bench after his heroics at The Walkers Stadium. With Hermann Hreidarsson playing virtually as an out-and-out left-winger, there are some who suggest Ambrose would be more adept in that role at home.

There is no denying the heart of the big Icelander and his approach typifies the body language that now exudes from the pitch during Town matches.

Matt Holland has fitted into the back three like a duck to water – regularly playing better than he did in midfield – and Chris Makin's conversion from right back has also been a success.

His no-nonsense approach mixes well with the poise of Gaardsoe and the reliability of Holland.

Jamie Clapham and Jim Magilton can be pleased with their energetic midfield displays, and it was an astute pass by Fabian Wilnis that led to Counago's stunning goal.

There is still a problem surrounding who plays best with Counago. Richard Naylor was

preferred on Saturday to Marcus Bent, but Royle is still searching for a front pairing that really clicks.

Sort this out, alleviate Marshall of his brittle moments and it could be all systems go.

The New Year looks much brighter, thanks in part to the signings of a manager who made 2002 so dark.