Joe's men must keep the faith

IF Ipswich Town need evidence that promotion is still possible they only have to look at the upturn in fortunes of Andy Marshall.From misfit to magnificent in the space of ten games, the goalkeeper who spent the first half of the season out to grass is now on the brink of considerable success.

IF Ipswich Town need evidence that promotion is still possible they only have to look at the upturn in fortunes of Andy Marshall.

From misfit to magnificent in the space of ten games, the goalkeeper who spent the first half of the season out to grass is now on the brink of considerable success.

A return to Portman Road was a poignant occasion for Marshall, a footballer who spent his autumn Saturdays shopping with his wife after being considered too accident prone to be part of the Ipswich squad.

He was cast out to graze after a series of 2002/03 blunders proved too much for Blues manager Joe Royle, who brought in Wimbledon's Kelvin Davis as a summer replacement.

Marshall, who never let his disappointment affect his professionalism, must have suffered many lows as Lewis Price sat on the bench as Davis' deputy.

He was picked just twice as substitute while Price recovered from a finger injury, and a loan period to Wolves did not really work out.

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But Marshall showed no flaws on Saturday, and remarkably can now look ahead to an FA Cup quarter-final replay at Tranmere tomorrow and then a possible semi-final date against Sunderland.

His manager Dennis Wise is singing his praises, and it would complete an unbelievable transformation if the ex-Norwich keeper – who received a generally warm welcome from Town fans – played in the Cup final and regained a place in Europe.

Having lost the East Anglian squabble with Norwich City, it was imperative for Ipswich to get back to winning ways.

Not just to erase memories of the painful double inflicted by the table-topping Canaries, but to make a clear statement that the Tractor Boys are a force to be reckoned with.

Sadly, the same defensive faults that have bugged Royle's side for most of the season produced more heartbreak.

Millwall capitalised with two first-half goals inside seven minutes as Ipswich dropped to ninth place in the table.

A virtually unemployed Marshall made most of the headlines, but Town are in free-fall with four defeats in their last five outings, and six at home this campaign.

This latest defeat added considerable weight to the opinion that Royle's assortment of youngsters, 'free' signings and remnants of the Premiership glory days are just not good enough to gain any reward from a far from vintage First Division year.

There is still time, but it is now in short supply. Ten games remain and the majority will have to be won if Sir Elton John's summer concert is not going to be the next Portman Road occasion that will find fans in harmony.

Wins at Walsall tomorrow night and in the high noon encounter with another lowly side Watford on Saturday must be achieved. And the following week's trip to struggling Wimbledon is also a three-point must.

Frustrated at a failure to build on the tremendous autumn run that rocketed Ipswich up from bottom place to top six in next to no time, a fair percentage of fans made their feelings known.

Choruses of 'Joe Royle, sort it out' sprang up on more than one occasion and there were boos after the first two goals and the half-time whistle.

Inspired by the forced arrival of Martijn Reuser and the tactical switch that saw

17-year-old starlet Dean Bowditch take centre stage, Ipswich put a controversial third goal behind them to stage a second half revival.

Darren Bent scored his eighth goal of the season following good play from Bowditch, and Marshall had to make his only major contribution of the game to beat away a stinging volley from the Town substitute.

The fans got right behind the team and the tempo was lifted, but the damage had been done, and Millwall weathered the storm to run out comfortable if not convincing victors.

Can we expect Ipswich to shut up shop? Can a side that has leaked 60 league goals – only Wimbledon have fared worse – find a defensive format that will work in the remaining games?

To be honest, I suspect few of the Town fans who served the club so well in buying recent shares – they had their names printed in Saturday's matchday programme – would have ventured a hefty investment on that outcome before Matt Elliott's signing.

But who knows now? Nasty head injuries suffered by Drissa Diallo and Georges Santos saw both leave proceedings early with blood pouring from wounds.

Both are doubts for the trip to Walsall, and with John McGreal also in the wars, Royle has struck at a defining moment to bring in a man of Elliott's experience.

It may prove to be as timely a capture as Chris Bart-Williams, Alan Mahon and Shefki Kuqi did in the autumn, as eight 'joke' goals have been conceded in the last three games. Midfield players and strikers must also hold their hands up for poor defensive play at dead ball kicks.

And up front the time is right to take a gamble with Bowditch, who showed on Saturday his growing maturity.

He is one for the future, who may have a vital part to play in the present. Kuqi is showing why he was to be found playing in a side relegated from the First Division when Royle resurrected the striker's career with a September signing.

And with Counago injured, Bowditch might just tip the scales Town's way in partnership with Bent at the Bescot Stadium.

There are others in the Town Academy almost ready, and certainly willing and able to follow Bowditch into the senior side, but Town fans may have to brace themselves for more frustration before the good times return – as they will.

But it would be churlish to write off this season yet, particularly with Elliott now on board.

Just three points behind a play-off place still gives much hope, and Royle is a past master at fulfilling lost dreams.

Marshall's upturn in fortunes shows how things can change. Can Town follow suit?

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