Agony and ecstasy loom as D-day nears

THE business end of the football season is upon us.The agony and the ecstasy of the beautiful game will soon be magnified as the crucial issues of relegation and promotion are decided.

Josh Warwick

THE business end of the football season is upon us.

The agony and the ecstasy of the beautiful game will soon be magnified as the crucial issues of relegation and promotion are decided.

For Ipswich Town, pitch performance between now and May 4 could shape the club's path for years to come.

JOSH WARWICK reports.

WHISPER it quietly, but the 'P' word is quietly echoing through the corridors of Portman Road.

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The ugly defeat to Watford's bully-boys aside, Jim Magilton's team is enjoying a tidy run of form which has made the Championship take note.

As the manager will testify, promotion is still only a pipe dream.

But with 51 points on the board and 13 games left to play, the Blues are well placed to at least make a spring assault on the play-offs.

Over the last five seasons, the average points total required to finish in sixth place has been 74, while the average needed to scrape into the top two, thus achieving the direct route into the top flight, has been 89.

However, this season's Championship has been unusual in that there has been no runaway leader, nor has there been a team marooned at the foot of the table.

Instead, points have been more evenly shared, with the league leadership being switched more frequently than Marcus Bent during a transfer window.

Stoke City, Watford, Bristol City and West Brom have played their own game of pass the parcel in recent weeks, handing around the top spot like a hot potato.

And at the other end, Norwich City, deliciously - as far as Blues fans were concerned - anchored to the bottom of the table before Christmas have climbed to the safety of mid-table over the course of only a dozen matches.

According to former Town ace John Wark, any team able to find a run of form in the season's final quarter could be celebrating come May.

“You can see with some of the teams who were third or fourth bottom earlier in the season, the likes of Crystal Palace and Cardiff, that a run of results can send you up the table,” said the Scotsman, who is this weekend visiting family in Glasgow.

“And Watford, who have lost games at various times, are still up there.”

Wark highlighted the significance of Portsmouth forward David Nugent's potential arrival.

“If we get Nugent I think that will give us a massive chance. He's a top player who could make all the difference - a bit like when George Burley signed Marcus Stewart in 2000.

“There's a lot of confidence in the camp at the moment. I have been watching the boys training and they all seem on a real high.

“Actually finding a way of staying up is the $100million question - but I would rather get there and then worry about that.”

There may only be eight points between the summit and Ipswich Town, but boss Magilton is keeping his feet firmly on the ground.

Not even a particularly kind run-in, which features encounters with only three of the top ten teams, has relaxed the manager's caution.

“I don't go along with us having the easiest run in because you are always only one loss away from a slip in confidence. You need to be 100 per cent spot on in your preparation or you will lose, results have shown that.

“It is going to go to the wire and we have to go in believing we can win every game and we see where that takes us.

“It is not impossible to finish in the top two. If we get on a roll and are winning games, the belief grows. Look at Sunderland who went on an unbelievable run to get promoted last season.”

Of increasing significance is Town's home fixture with Norwich on April 13.

The game is always a fiercely contested encounter, but this year's battle comes as the fourth from last game - and three welcome points could seriously affect Town's final placing.

Are Town good enough to go up? Write to Sports Desk, Evening Star Sport, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail starsport@eveningstar.co.uk. Please include your full name and address.

IPSWICH will be at home on the final day of the season when they entertain Hull City, a club also harbouring ambitions of reaching the Premier League.

With the table shaping up as one of the tightest in recent seasons, there could be some serious last day jitters at Portman Road.

But in years gone by, Town have not always enjoyed the rub of the green at the final hurdle:

Millwall, at Portman Road, 1996:

Town needed three points against lowly Millwall to secure a place in the play-offs. A miserable 0-0 draw followed, the Blues' agony exacerbated by a late James Scowcroft header which thudded against a post. The only consolation was the result condemned the south Londoners to relegation.

Sheffield United, at Portman Road, 1998:

Usually a 4-1 trouncing of the Blades would be met with dancing in the Portman Road aisles. But with Bradford City overcoming Wolves 3-2, Town narrowly missed out on second spot. Obviously, play-off heart-break followed.

Walsall, at Portman Road, 1999:

Lightening couldn't strike twice, could it? For the second year running, Ipswich found themselves in the same position - requiring a last day victory and hoping their nearest rivals would slip up.

Man City had a tricky trip to Blackburn, while Ipswich played host to relegation-bound Walsall. All seemed rosy when Rovers took the lead, shortly before David Johnson put Town ahead. But then City scored four and Ipswich braced themselves for more play-off misery.

Liverpool, at Anfield, 2002:

It was always going to be a long shot, but Ipswich went to Liverpool on the final day of the 2001/02 season still mathematically able to stay up.

Blues fans packed the away end in genuine hope of a miracle while George Burley promised a gallant effort from his men.

Five goals later and the Championship beckoned.

Cardiff, at Portman Road, 2004:

Joe Royle's Ipswich scraped into the top six after a nervy point at home to Cardiff. Wigan Athletic's last-day defeat paved the way for Town to endure more play-off misery, this time at the hands of West Ham.

Did you know?

Average needed for the play-offs: 74 points

Average needed for automatic promotion: 89

The run in:

February 23: Stoke (a)

March 1: Southampton (a)

March 4: Sheffield United (h)

March 8: Cardiff (h)

March 11: Barnsley (a)

March 15: Charlton (h)

March 22: Scunthorpe (a)

March 29: QPR (h)

April 5: Colchester (a)

April 13: Norwich (h)

April 19: Wolves (a)

April 26: Preston (a)

May 4: Hull (h)

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