Could Town's promotion dream be over?

COULD Ipswich's promotion dream already be over for another season?Statistically, at least, that is the very real prospect for fans to consider after the team's indifferent start to the season under new boss Jim Magilton.

By Mel Henderson

COULD Ipswich's promotion dream already be over for another season?

Statistically, at least, that is the very real prospect for fans to consider after the team's indifferent start to the season under new boss Jim Magilton.

With a quarter of the season consigned to the history books, and Town having accumulated just 14 points from a possible 36, it is probably going to take a super-human effort to revive hopes of a top six finish.

That may seem rather harsh an assessment, when they are currently just six points adrift of sixth-placed Plymouth, but it is based on their results so far as well as the fact that they have never collected fewer than 14 points at this stage of any of their last ten seasons at this level.

But while previous campaigns' results may suggest promotion is a pipedream, there is also some solace to be gained from delving into the record books.

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In both the 1996-97 and 1997-98 campaigns they also gathered 14 points from their first dozen fixtures but went on to finish fourth and fifth respectively.

In the former season they finished on the 74-point mark and were overcome in the play-offs by Sheffield United. But in the latter, despite finishing one place lower, they actually accumulated nine points more.

Their modest start to the 1997-98 season actually extended to 15 games and it was only when they signed David Johnson from Bury, and he scored on his debut in a 1-1 draw at Wolves, that Town eventually clicked.

Suddenly, from fearing the season might be over as they managed a mere three wins from their opening 15 fixtures, they embarked on a remarkable run that saw them lose just three times in their next 31.

Sadly, despite a gargantuan effort to turn their season round, Charlton ended Ipswich's promotion dream when they won both legs of the play-off semis by the only goal.

Johnson's goals - 22 in 37 league and cup appearances - were crucial to the revival and wouldn't Magilton love it if he could now get his hands on the £1.1 million that Ipswich forked out then and use it to recruit a proven marksman?

As most supporters will recall, George Burley's teams had several near misses before promotion was secured via the play-offs in 2000.

Interestingly, they took 23 points from their opening 12 games that season and the previous year, 1998-99, when they suffered a third successive play-off KO, the tally was 22.

When they started the 1999-00 season with 23 points from 12 games there was no lack of optimism and although they were pipped for automatic promotion by Manchester City on the last day of the season it was a case of fourth time lucky when they triumphed in the play-offs.

Two seasons in the Premiership and Ipswich were back where they started, anxious to regain top-flight status but unable to make ends meet financially.

It was just ten games into the 2002-2003 season, when a 3-0 defeat at Grimsby left Town with 12 points, that the board decided on a change of manager.

Out went Burley to be replaced by Joe Royle, who steered the team to seventh place against all the odds, since in February 2003 the club dropped the bombshell that it was going into administration.

Even more miraculously, given that Town's precarious financial state led to an exodus of players, Royle secured play-off places in both the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons, when they banked 17 and 24 points respectively from the first 12 games.

Last season, when 15th place represented their worst finish in 40 years, their first dozen league games reaped 17 points.

The writing is on the wall, therefore, that unless there is a fairly quick improvement in form the chances of finishing in the play-off zone will rapidly evaporate.

That, in turn, will inevitably lead to a drop in attendances. Season ticket sales have plunged since last term, which has been reflected in the number of spectators at the seven first team home games played so far.

A crowd of 25,413 watched the opening-day defeat by Crystal Palace and the midweek loss to Preston pulled in just 19,337 fans.

That represents a drop of over 6,000 paying customers - or almost 24 per cent - and to a club counting every penny that is a significant loss of revenue.

Last season's average attendance was 24,252, while it is currently down to 21,617 and unless results improve it is safe to conclude that the figure will continue to fall.

Clearly, there is pressure on manager Magilton and his staff to improve. If the present average of points per game is maintained through to the end of the season it will mean Town finishing with 54, only two fewer than last time out.

Enough to survive in the Championship, perhaps, but way below most people's expectations at the start of the season, although in the new manager's defence how realistic was it to expect any more in the circumstances?

The harsh truth is that Town are caught in a vicious circle of their own making. Like his predecessor, Magilton is operating in a financial straitjacket, starved of the funds required to turn what results suggest is a run-of-the-mill Championship side into one of Premiership potential.

True, the absence of midfield pair Owen Garvan and Gavin Williams has been a cruel blow. Williams was playing well before his injury and is sorely missed, while it is impossible to legislate for the Irish teenager's illness.

The vicious circle effect is kicking in with a vengeance right now - under-strength team, disappointing results, falling attendances, even less money to invest in improving the side etc.

And anyone who has seen Town this season will surely confirm that as long as the team is not reinforced the situation is hardly likely to improve.