Play-off hopes fade for luckless Town

JOE ROYLE, the Ipswich Town manager, will have to decide whether he wants to stay with the club for an extra year to fulfil his dream of managing the Blues in the Premiership.

By Elvin King

JOE ROYLE, the Ipswich Town manager, will have to decide whether he wants to stay with the club for an extra year to fulfil his dream of managing the Blues in the Premiership.

Royle's current contract runs out in the summer of 2007, and after last night's defeat at Preston, it is almost certain that it will be season 2007/8 before Ipswich have any chance of getting back into the top flight.

Royle said before the kick-off at a very wet Deepdale that his side needed at least seven wins to stand a realistic chance of finishing the season in the top six in the Championship.

After their defeat last night, when they were certainly not blessed with any good fortune, Ipswich need to win all eight games remaining to equal the points total achieved by West Ham last season when they finished sixth in the table.

This is highly unlikely and Royle will not give up on this campaign, but realistically he will need another season to get his emerging young side into a successful promotion drive.

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Key defender Richard Naylor was sent off after eleven minutes for what the referee considered to be a professional foul on Brett Ormerod.

And while a dejected Naylor trudged off unable to believe his fate, Ipswich's hopes of picking up a welcome win at Preston disappeared.

The visitors fought bravely for the rest of the game and, thanks to a powerful header from the majestic Jason De Vos, went in at the interval in the lead.

But when Preston, who now go back into a play-off position nine points ahead of Ipswich, pushed three players up front in the second half, Town succumbed and could have been beaten more heavily.

Preston scored three superb goals, two from David Nugent and the third from Patrick Agyemang soon after he came on as a substitute.

Although allowances have to be made for being outnumbered and having their backs to the wall, there were still reasons to question the performances of some of the Ipswich youngsters, who were found wanting when the going got tough.

Ipswich had lost only once in their previous eleven games, although the draw at home to Millwall on Saturday meant that a victory last night was crucial if the rest of the season was to hold any real value.

Royle was able to feel his strongest side this season and for the first time he has used two experienced strikers in tandem since Nicky Forster and Sam Parkin were up front at Coventry last November.

Town were short of Naylor, who was suspended, and De Vos when Preston hammered them 4-0 at Portman Road last August.

And when Naylor was dismissed, Fabian Wilnis moved to central defence with Sito Castro coming on at right back with midfielder Darren Currie being sacrificed.

Naylor will now miss the game on Saturday at Crystal Palace unless Ipswich are lucky with an appeal, which they intend to make with Ormerod appearing to go over all too easily when the Town defender rushed back to challenge when the visitors were undermanned at the back.

Royle left two players up front in an attempt to keep the game going, but when Preston found their way to goal, the home team had their confidence boosted after scoring just once in their previous five games.

Last season, Ipswich drew 1-1 at Deepdale when seven points clear at the top of the table before slipping down in the final three months of the campaign.

This time the pain is even worse and it would take the most optimistic of Blues supporters to hold any hope of any rewards coming out of this campaign.

This game was postponed ten days earlier because of a frozen pitch, when Preston would have been missing three key players, who would have been serving one-match suspensions.

And with only one victory ever at Preston - and that was 40 years ago - the journey to Lancashire has held few bright memories for the Suffolk club.

The play-off dream - however unlikely - has held the season together for some considerable time for the loyal followers of the Tractor Boys. And they turned up in admirable numbers again last night, making a round trip of more than 500 miles to watch their heroes in action.

And it was long journey home, with the depressing wet weather mixing in well with the mood of the occasion for Town fans, on a night when referee Eddie Ilderton did them no favours.

All referees are under great pressure, but this official from Tyne-and-Wear gave a very disappointing performance, not only with the vital sending-off decision, but also a succession of other rulings which seemed strange, and often unfair, to Ipswich in the extreme.

De Vos ended the game in a changed shirt with no name or number on the back, after suffering a head wound just before the interval.

He also had a bandage to stop the blood from seeping out, but it did not stop the Canada international from having an outstanding game in adverse circumstances.

The central defender has played brilliantly for much of the season, but last night he hit new heights and showed the spirit that kept Town in the game in the first period.

De Vos scored with a powerful header from an Owen Garvan free-kick and up front there were occasional signs that Alan Lee and Ricardo Fuller can hit it off as a partnership.

Jimmy Juan suffered a strained groin and had to be replaced and like Naylor, he is unlikely to be able to play at Palace on Saturday.

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