Goodbye to the dream - and the stars

THIS Saturday promises to be a sentimental occasion at Portman Road as Ipswich Town fans wave goodbye to many of their heroes.Following defeat at Rotherham – and wins by Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton – hopes of a Premiership place for Joe Royle's side are now slim indeed.

By Elvin King

THIS Saturday promises to be a sentimental occasion at Portman Road as Ipswich Town fans wave goodbye to many of their heroes.

Following defeat at Rotherham – and wins by Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton – hopes of a Premiership place for Joe Royle's side are now slim indeed.

The club's creditors can now expect to pocket no more than a paltry 5p in the pound unless Forest or Reading collapse completely in their final games and Town beat both Wimbledon at home and Derby County away.

Stalwarts like Matt Holland, Jim Magilton and Fabian Wilnis could well be playing their final home match against Wimbledon as Town's precarious financial position leads to a clear-out before they face another season without the gigantic monetary rewards of the Premiership.

In fact, any reasonable offer for any Town player is likely to end in a sale if personal terms can be agreed.

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It could all be so different. Ipswich fans should still be in confident mood about promotion today.

The visitors held all the aces against a bread and butter Rotherham side at a run-down Millmoor that for some reason has been left unaffected by the Taylor Report.

They deserved their interval lead when the home side was taught a football lesson, but then it all went wrong and for the final 35 minutes it was a case of whether Rotherham would score or not.

Andy Marshall made two spectacular saves from ex-Norwich striker Mark Robins and it began to look as though Town would keep successive clean sheets in the First Division for the second time this season.

The only other time – and this is a fateful statistic – was a 0-0 draw at Sheffield United followed by a 2-0 win at Watford. Sandwiched in-between was a Marshall error in the 1-0 UEFA Cup defeat at Sartid of the Czech Republic that saw the hasty loan signing of Paul Gerrard.

But in the 85th minute Marshall's punch of a long throw from Shaun Barker went as far as John Mullin, who sent a ball looping towards the Town goal more in hope than anger.

At first sight the ball appeared to bounce on top of the net, but on closer inspection, and with the aid of a huge roar from relieved Rotherham supporters, it was evident that it was a goal.

Marshall's attempt at running back and punching clear had proved unsuccessful and Rotherham's tails were up.

To such an extent that in the next minute Marshall decided to stay at home for another long Barker throw and former Town defender Chris Swailes headed goalwards.

The keeper made a good save, but could only watch as Robins reacted first to tap the ball over the line and put the play-offs realistically out of the reach of Ipswich.

Referee Brian Curson played a big part in the outcome of a match played on a hard pitch that did Town's footballing style no favours.

He had a perfect view when Matt Holland's shirt was tugged by Guy Branston in the first half and then failed to take decisive action when Barker took down Martijn Reuser in the 55th minute.

Reuser's pace had taken him beyond the number 22 and there was nobody between him and the goal four yards outside the penalty area when he was sent tumbling.

Paul Hurst was level with Barker and there is a possible debate about whether the latter was the last man or not, but nine referees out of ten would have shown a red card.

A rather green Mr Curson raised a rather sheepish yellow – and to add salt to the wound Barker went on to have a big hand – literally – in both home goals.

So Ronnie Moore, a manager who went on TV after George Burley had been dismissed to confirm his delight at being offered the Ipswich job after a cruel hoax phone call, has had the last laugh.

It is being doubled by the likes of Rotherham that has cost Town dear in a campaign where Royle has done his level best to create a happy ending.

The manager will not give up and strive for two more wins, but he cannot be happy with the way his side faded so badly after that Barker incident.

The pitch was bad, but it did not stop Ipswich having complete control of the first period. Marcus Bent and Pablo Counago were a handful in the first half, but both failed to keep up the momentum.

Once Ipswich lost the initiative up front it appeared to affect the rest of the side with passes going astray and Marshall's goal coming under increasing pressure until it caved in.

Rotherham, who had won just one of their previous 11 games, did not name a substitute keeper with Coddenham youngster Jamie Waite warming up Ian Gray before the start.

It was only Gray's second start of the season and he was at fault when Pablo Counago got in front of him to head Town's goal after 31 minutes. Waite, a 17-year-old full Thailand international, now has a three-year contract at Rotherham.

Ipswich were unchanged but had Nabil Abidallah as substitute because Ian Westlake suffered medial knee ligament damage after coming on as substitute against Portsmouth on Good Friday.

It soon became evident that they knew too much for Rotherham, despite the home side being

accustomed to a pitch where rugby union is played every other week.

Town fans filled a stand behind one of the goals – and one of the sad facts about not being promoted is that places like Millmoor will have to be visited again next season.

The visiting support made their presence felt after travelling up the A1 in high spirits. Their journey home was much more subdued with thoughts of the impending departure of a number of players and Rotherham instead of Manchester United to mix with again.

There is every reason to suggest that Royle can carry on his amazing work into 2003/04. And with the aid of a few choice import replacements – loan or on the cheap – next season can still be one to look forward to.

That is if you are not a creditor, but don't let's write off this year quite yet. Could there still be a twist?