A day of firsts and the area Town simply must improve as they head to Forest Green
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Ipswich Town head to the New Lawn this afternoon, where they will face Forest Green Rovers for the first time. Andy Warren looks ahead to the game.
Town began the new season with a draw against Bolton last weekend.
There were positives and negatives at Portman Road but, in general, a point against a tough opponent was seen as a positive one.
Today’s challenge is completely different.
This is the first time Ipswich and Forest Green have met, with the two sides’ journeys to this point greatly contrasting.
When Town won the league title in 1962, Rovers were in the Gloucestershire Northern Senior League. When the Blues won the UEFA Cup in 1981, they had reached the ninth tier of English football in the Hellenic League. Rovers were in the eighth division when Ipswich were promoted to and then relegated from the top flight in the early 90s.
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But their acceleration up the pyramid over the last 25 years, culminating in last season’s League Two title triumph, sees the two teams meet as League One equals this afternoon.
Must do better
The first game against Forest Green, the first away game of the season, the first visit to a vegan football club and the first match at the kind of venue Ipswich haven’t always found easy to negotiate in League One.
Last season alone, Town lost games at Burton, Cheltenham, Accrington and Barrow. They needed a late goal to rescue a point at Morecambe and let a two-goal lead slip against Cambridge to draw 2-2. They are all grounds you would say are similar to The New Lawn.
They bring different challenges to the big stages of Portman Road, Hillsborough and Pride Park. The smaller venues are tight, unforgiving and can also be pretty lively.
Forest Green played good football on their way out of the fourth tier under Rob Edwards and look like they will continue to under Ian Burchnall, so Town aren’t going to need to contend with a ‘slug fest’. But they will need to deal with the occasion, in what could arguably be the biggest game in the Gloucestershire club’s history.
Town finished last season on 70 points, 13 shy of a play-off place, and there’s an obvious area for improvement.
Last season’s record against the four promoted teams read P8 W0 D4 L4. Nowhere near good enough for a promotion-chasing team and a record which simply must be better this time around. Significantly better, at that.
That challenge starts today, as Ipswich bid to show they really have improved from the team which fell so short again last season.
Decisions to make
As always, boss Kieran McKenna will have decisions to make, heading into this game.
Much of the focus is on two areas of the pitch – left back and attacking midfield. The rest feels fairly settled.
Leif Davis and Marcus Harness made their debuts last weekend but didn’t have the easiest of afternoons.
Davis, not long back from Leeds’ Australian tour and having no pre-season action with Ipswich, was thrown straight in and found things tough at times. He gave away the penalty for Bolton’s goal and looked, understandably, rusty.
Harness, playing ahead of him on the left side, had bright moments but plenty more where he lost the ball or was crowded out. We know both are good players and have much more to offer, but will they get the chance to continue?
Greg Leigh and Tyreece John-Jules impressed off the bench in their places, giving the Town boss something to think about.
That’s a tough call for McKenna. Naturally, he would want his two ‘money’ signings of the summer to be given the opportunity to settle but, at the same time, will want to put the team most capable of winning on the field at Forest Green.
Leigh’s been solid throughout pre-season and looks comfortable in the team, while John-Jules is a positive spark, keen to make an impression. There’s also Sone Aluko to factor in, here. In a game where both teams want to possess the ball, could the silky veteran be the answer? Quite possibly.
Elsewhere, the back four of Christian Walton, Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson will surely continue, as will right-sider Wes Burns. Dom Ball’s injury absence means Sam Morsy and Lee Evans will almost certainly continue in midfield, with Conor Chaplin and Freddie Ladapo up top.
You can never rule out a surprise on the team-sheet with McKenna, though, and the forward area of the team is most likely to be shaken up.
That could be true from the start of the game and it certainly will be from the bench, where Chaplin has already acknowledged full 90-minute stints will be few and far between.
Whoever’s on the pitch, though, McKenna is comfortable he can find the attacking combinations required due to the versatility of his players.
He said: "We have six players currently at the moment in those three forward positions. Freddie (Ladapo), Kayden (Jackson), Conor (Chaplin), Sone (Aluko), Marcus (Harness) and Tyreece (John-Jules). Amongst others as well but they are probably the most natural fits for those slots.
"They work well together and all fit our style of play. They can be used interchangeably within games and fit the roles very, very well.
"There are different combinations with those guys and different ways we can use them in different games.
"In general, it's a strong front to the team and I'm sure there will be a good amount of goals and performances from them."
For the second time in six months, Ipswich will be coming up against the youngest player ever to represent them.
Connor Wickham joined Forest Green this week and could be involved for the first time this afternoon.
As we know, he’s had real injury problems in recent years but has played a decent amount of football in 2022, including an appearance against the Blues from the bench for MK Dons back in February.
He had little impact on that occasion but, if he does make it onto the field today, we know he will need to be watched.