Ipswich suffer play-off heartbreak

IT looks like being bye, bye, Bent after Ipswich were sentenced to another season in the Coca-Cola Championship.And it will not be just 19-goal striker Darren Bent who is likely to be leaving Portman Road during the summer.

IT looks like being bye, bye, Bent after Ipswich were sentenced to another season in the Coca-Cola Championship.

And it will not be just 19-goal striker Darren Bent who is likely to be leaving Portman Road during the summer.

Goalkeeper Kelvin Davis and midfield dynamo Ian Westlake are two others who can command fees to ease the Blues' financial concerns after missing out on the riches that go with Premiership football.

And with Tommy Miller, Fabian Wilnis, Drissa Diallo, Jim Magilton, and Pablo Counago's contracts coming to an end - plus an uncertainty about Shefki Kuqi's future now that promotion has not been obtained - there could be just as big an exodus as there was in the last close-season.

Manager Joe Royle has done brilliantly to lead his collection of free transfers, youngsters and those remaining from George Burley's regime to within touching distance of the top flight.

Although the whole of Ipswich will feel sick to the stomach today, now is not the time for recrimination.

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The play-offs proved two games too far as Town ran out of steam. They can have no complaints about last night's result at a packed Portman Road against a West Ham side that showed much more quality.

The Hammers benefited from two multi-million pound strikers - a luxury that Royle can only dream about, having to go cap in hand to the board to find the £250,000 necessary to fund his only purchase - Darren Currie.

Inside information from within Portman Road suggests that next season's players' budget will be trimmed, but not dramatically so, from this year's £5million-plus.

Royle can wheel and deal with the best of them, but if those running out of contract find better offers in similar fashion to Jermaine Wright, Chris Makin and John McGreal last year, he may have to blood some of the club's promising youth team players in 2005/06.

A big cheque for Bent and/or Davis and Westlake may change that scenario, but if not it will be free transfers and players out of contract that will again provide the fresh faces for a new season. Plus, of course, Canadian teen ace Jaime Peters, who is bursting to get started after his arrival at the club.

Ipswich did well on Saturday to come back and draw the first leg of this semi-final and they have done well with their limited resources all season.

However, their limitations were obvious last night. Ipswich were crying out for some fresh impetus as West Ham gained control, but, with respect, there was no one on the bench to provide this.

Bent and Shefki Kuqi have performed splendidly, but they were overshadowed by Marlon Harewood and two-goal Bobby Zamora on a night when the Hammers looked stronger in most departments.

It made the feeling of nausea worse today for Blues fans when they reflected on the fact that Ipswich finished 12 points ahead of West Ham in the Championship table and that this was Town's sixth play-off failure in seven attempts.

Full marks to the Hammers who stopped goal-crazy Town scoring twice at home this season - with QPR the only other side to leave with a clean sheet.

And full marks to Portman Road announcer Rob Chandler for working the fans to create a red-hot atmosphere at kick-off, which was maintained for much of the first period.

West Ham were well briefed and once they had withstood Ipswich's early charge they settled into their game and broke quickly giving Davis plenty of anxious moments.

Currie had the best Ipswich chance after 12 minutes but shot straight at James Walker and it was Currie who went closest to scoring soon afterwards when his swerving 20-yard shot almost deceived the visiting keeper.

Ipswich kept the same side that ended strongly at Upton Park, while West Ham brought in Carl Fletcher to sit in front of the back four at the expense of Shaun Newton.

Town's main tactic was a long ball forward for the willing Bent to chase, but little was seen of Kuqi as an attacking force.

It was highest gate of the season - seven more bodies than for West Ham's New Year's Day visit - and at the interval there was a chance that Ipswich would step up a gear, gain control and make it a night of nights for their supporters.

But it did not happen and it was no great surprise when Zamora scored in the 61st minute.

Matt Richards generally did well, but the youngster is considered more of a midfield player and would not have played if David Unsworth had been available.

Harewood turned Richards easily on the 18-yard line and space opened up for the number ten, who was once on loan to Ipswich from Nottingham Forest, to cross for Zamora to tap in.

A long, hard season was now taking its toll and there was no way back. Zamora's sweetly-taken second goal 11 minutes later confirmed this.

Apart from one corner of the ground occupied by those in claret and blue, the cauldron that was Portman Road had become virtually silent.

The dying embers of a memorable season were easily forgotten and all that remained was Jim Magilton becoming drawn into an argument with a member of the West Ham coaching staff.

Magilton had to be restrained at the end, as did Davis after an altercation with Harewood deep in stoppage time that resulted in the West Ham man being booked.

An unhappy end to what was generally a happy nine months with many more highs than lows.

A Premiership place was not lost last night, but it slipped through the fingers after Town went six points clear in mid-February.

Ipswich sat proudly at the top of the table for more than two months, but were overhauled as the loan signings of Unsworth and James Scowcroft failed to achieve their objective.

Counago's injury denied him a chance to bid Portman Road goodbye and how many others will also be on their way?

Royle worked wonders this season in leading Town to the play-offs. Next year he will have to do even better.