Confidence returns

THERE have been precious few fireworks for Ipswich Town and their fans since the home victory over Plymouth Argyle on November 5.Just one win - at Sheffield Wednesday on December 17 - lightened the gloom as the Blues slipped down the Championship table.

By Elvin King

THERE have been precious few fireworks for Ipswich Town and their fans since the home victory over Plymouth Argyle on November 5.

Just one win - at Sheffield Wednesday on December 17 - lightened the gloom as the Blues slipped down the Championship table.

New Year's Eve provided a timely bright spot as Ian Westlake's 69th minute goal earned Joe Royle's side three points against Luton Town at Portman Road.

Whether the New Year will see Town build on this result remains to be seen.

But it arrested the slide and there was evidence that the good times ahead predicted by Royle could well materialise.

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Four teenagers were in the starting line-up, and as expected goalkeeper Shane Supple and midfielder Owen Garvan caught the eye with thoroughbred displays.

Danny Haynes may not have the same pedigree to guarantee a long and successful football career but he played his part up with an energetic display up front.

And Dean Bowditch rounded off what has been a wretched year for him with one of his better matches of 2005.

There was a huge cheer from the stands when the 19-year-old's name was announced in the team after the striker - with one Championship goal in 27 outings - had not even been on the bench for the previous two games.

Why the engaging youngster has so many supporters is a puzzle to some within the club.

This is not knocking his application or his ability. But players who find it so difficult to make an impact are more often than not barracked rather than feted.

But this acclaim can only benefit Bowditch, for whom a goal would surely work wonders. He was through in the first half and did everything right only to have his shot stopped by Marlon Beresford.

Boos rang out when Bowditch - lamed by a hip problem - was replaced, and there were definite signs that his luck will soon change.

It was also a day when the Ipswich back four were superb.

While Town have been bemoaning their inability to put the ball into the net, it has largely been overlooked that before kick-off on Saturday they had conceded more goals in their division than everybody apart from Crewe.

So to keep a rare clean sheet was a bonus and Jason De Vos and Richard Naylor formed a strong central barrier while Fabian Wilnis gave one of his vintage displays at right back.

Sito Castro was comfortable at left-back until slowed by an ankle problem that is likely to keep him out of today's match at Stoke.

De Vos was close to being substituted at the interval because of a dead leg, and the acting skipper showed his character to battle on bravely - and play so well.

With Nicky Forster joining the casualties it was thought that Naylor might revert back to his former career as a striker.

But Royle sensibly kept his round pegs in round holes, and ensured that the heart of his defence would not be vulnerable.

Behind the back four, Supple gave surely one of the most accomplished displays an 18-year-old keeper has ever given.

Apart from a few mis-kicks he was as assured as a 35-year-old custodian who has stood the test of time between the sticks.

Bearing in mind that keepers do not mature until their late twenties, Dublin-born Supple has a massive future ahead of him - and one of the reasons to have optimism about the future well-being of Ipswich Town.

The Blues just about edged the game against a Luton side that does not always travel well.

Supple needed to make two exceptional saves in the second half of a contest that kicked-off at 1pm to allow New Year revellers to make the most of their evening.

With his two main strikers ruled out by injury, Royle went the crowd-pleasing route of naming both Bowditch and Haynes in his starting line-up.

Darren Currie provided the pass of the game when his free-kick set Westlake up for the goal, and he started the match up front on the left as Town began with a 4-3-3 formation.

It was not one of Currie's more effective matches, but he made it count when it mattered.

And although every Town fan has not yet accepted Jimmy Juan, the 22-year-old Frenchman has done more than enough to deserve to have started all of the last 13 matches.

He is one of the bonuses of the season, and Matt Richards played his part in midfield with a non-stop display before being exposed a couple of times at left back following Sito's departure.

This brought Westlake on to the pitch, and he looked more like the player of the previous two seasons having made slow but sure progress from a debilitating ankle injury.

He took his goal like a natural marksman as Town found the net for the first time since they won at Wednesday.

Garvan played his part, and there is enough skill on the Ipswich books in midfield to cover for injuries to effective performers like Gavin Williams, who could be back at Stoke and a permanent Ipswich player before long.

There was a real likelihood of a crowd protest against Royle or chairman David Sheepshanks if this result had not gone Town's way.

But the display - from a deleted side - was good enough to knock this on the head.

With no need to sell anyone and funds now available to bring in two or three newcomers - albeit on loan - there is hope that a relegation battle will be avoided.

Today's hunting ground at Stoke is not one of Town's favourites in recent years, but the fire has been re-lit and Town's fans saw out 2005 with a certain degree of confidence.