Looking ahead to Good Friday’s game at home to relegated Ipswich Town, it’ll be nice to actually focus on the football after Alex Neil finally put to bed the speculation about him joining West Bromwich Albion by signing a new 3 year contract which is set to keep him at Deepdale until at least the summer of 2022.

As we mentioned in a post from earlier this week, this is the first time a manager has signed a deal for a set period of time as opposed to the usual ‘rolling contract’ that we had been giving out to managers since Graham Westley was appointed back in January 2012. A sign of intent from the club? Perhaps, but only time will tell.

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Friday’s game is certainly going to be an interesting one with Ipswich being relegated from the Championship last weekend following their 1-1 draw with Birmingham so you could say that the shackles will be off somewhat.

Our season is also as good as over but, much like I suspect Ipswich will be, Alex Neil’s men will want to finish the season as strongly as possible heading into next season and take as much momentum into the new season as possible. The game earlier on in the season at Portman Road is one that will stand out in the minds of North End fans for one thing and one thing only Paul Gallagher ending the game in net after Chris Maxwell got sent off after coming flying out of his goal and needlessly bringing down Kayden Jackson and picking up his second yellow of the game.

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Gallagher came on with 20 minutes to go, scored the equaliser direct from a free kick with his first touch of the ball. 2 minutes later, he had a green jersey and a pair of gloves on and he pulled off a great save to deny Ipswich all 3 points after a volley from the edge of the box from Danny Rowe.

Recent Form

In terms of head-to-head, North End haven’t won a game against Ipswich since we returned to this level. We’ve played each other 7 times with 3 draws and Ipswich winning the other 4 games. That’s a run of games somewhat similar to our recent run of form too.

After the so-called ‘week of death’ I think it’s safe to say North End’s play-off hopes certainly died. Without picking up a point in the last four games, we now find ourselves sat 8 points adrift of the top 6 and although it’s not mathematically impossible to make the top 6, it would take a turn in form from the likes of Villa and Bristol City and for us to go on another unbeaten run to the end of the season in order to stand any chance at all. Like I say, not impossible but incredibly unlikely.

Currently, we are on the joint worst losing run of the season with the other 4 game losing streak coming earlier on in the season as part of that awful 10 game winless run we went on that could have seen Alex Neil lose his job if some people were to be believed.

Let’s just hope that we don’t make it 5 defeats on the bounce for the first time this season and the first time in a long time – I looked back to the 2010/11 season and we never lost 5 on the bounce back to that season so, a long time.

Opposition View

This week, we have Richard Woodward, the Preview Show host for the Blue Monday Podcast providing his thoughts on Town’s season to date and some predictions for the game. You can follow Richard on twitter @IpsRich and the Blue Monday Podcast can be found @BlueMondayITFC. So, without further ado, here’s Richard’s take on a disappointing Ipswich Town season.

Where to start with Ipswich Town this season?

Well, you could actually rewind a few seasons to identify the point from which our downward spiral began. For me, the January transfer window of the 2014/15 season is a key sliding doors moment in our recent history.

With the club 2nd in the league as 2014 became 2015, quality additions were needed to give a well-functioning Mick McCarthy side a real shot at promotion. Instead, the owner Marcus Evans funded ‘quantity over quality’ signings, and Town slid down the table, only sneaking a playoff place on the final day (then losing to bitter rivals Norwich to boot).

Despite a solid season the year after, the scene was being set both on and off the pitch for an inexorable drift down the division.

Fast forward to 2018/19 – the perpetual thrifty budgeting of our owner, and more tellingly his lack of any kind of strategy to take the club forward, has come home to roost. Avoidable relegation to the third tier, our first time down there in 62 years, was finally confirmed after our recent 1-1 draw with Birmingham.

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For most outside IP1, the departure of McCarthy prior to the end of his contract seems the single biggest reason for our relegation – this is too simplistic though. Whilst the Yorkshireman arguably had one hand tied behind his back in terms of budget (though a string of Premier League loanees – including Ryan Fraser and Tom Lawrence – would not have come cheap), results and performances had been questionable for some time.

The Portman Road faithful saw only two home wins in the second half of the 2017/18 season, coupled with a dismal run of failing to score in five consecutive home fixtures. During the entirety of McCarthy’s six-year tenure, the club failed to win an FA Cup tie, giving supporters no distraction to the humdrum of uninspiring league football.

To focus solely on McCarthy though neglects the culpability of the owner Evans for his poorly considered and executed succession plan. When Paul Hurst was eventually appointed from Shrewsbury in June, crucial weeks of preparation had been lost. Evans and Hurst then allowed 42 goals from the prior season to depart the club. Hurst also cashed in on defender Adam Webster. This only bankrolled a raft of inexperienced signings from League One and Two, all thrown in at the deep end from day one.

Hurst’s disregard for the strength of the Championship extended to publicly calling out the aptitude of his few remaining experienced squad members, all good honest pros. Polish World Cup squad member and three-time ITFC player of the season Bartosz Bialkowski was the most notable example.

When Paul Lambert was brought in to replace Hurst in late October, the damage was arguably already done. He inherited a squad deficient in experience/confidence thanks to Hurst, and attacking sensibilities thanks to McCarthy. Survival was unlikely without top-quality additions and a good amount of luck. Lambert did what he could to reinforce in January, but cruel injuries and mishaps have blighted our entire campaign.

And yet – in the stands, the Tractor Boys and Girls have remarkably been attending in good voice and numbers, especially of late. For all McCarthy’s footballing nous, he seemingly has little interest in galvanising the supporters and community behind the club. Paul Lambert has been a welcome antidote for his predecessor’s limited empathy for supporters.

Results-wise, the jury is out on Lambert until October/November next season. Only once he’s had the summer to truly mould the team in his own image, should judgement be cast. Supporter expectations will shift accordingly after relegation, but no one will be doubting the challenge ahead of us next season to return at the first time of asking.

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Good on Preston and Alex Neil for how you go about things. Your model sets the benchmark for clubs like Ipswich (prior to this season anyway!) for competing in the Championship against those with the abundance of parachute money or sugar daddies brazenly ignoring FFP year after year.

I assume there will be relief that Alex Neil has committed his future to Preston, with the West Brom rumours having inevitably disrupted things of late.

Trying to predict the outcome for this fixture is going to be tough though. PNE’s recent run of defeats has all but ended your playoffs hopes, and our relegation means we have nothing to play for but pride.

I would, therefore, expect some rotation by Neil given the hectic schedule, injuries and suspensions. It would be just our luck though if Callum Robinson properly gets up and running after his involvement at WBA last week.

Rotation is likely from Paul Lambert too as he experiments with combinations to figure out his League One squad. That said, if fit, loanee Will Keane will likely feature to give us more goal threat.

Expect Town to play a 4-3-3 formation with a good smattering of youth players at full back and midfield. Andre Dozzell (son of 80/90’s ITFC cult hero Jason) is worth a look out for. He’s highly thought of at Portman Road but is yet to truly deliver on his obvious promise.

We either lose 2-0 or draw 1-1 (seriously look it up!), so I’ll be ‘positive’ this week and go for the latter. Frankly though, at this point of the season it could be anything!

Predictions

As far as predictions from a North End point of view, I think this will be a much tougher test than what many fans may think. I suspect there will be a change or two in terms of the starting XI. We saw Josh Ginnelly make his debut for the club at the weekend against West Brom and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a bit more time this weekend, will he start? I don’t think so but the likes of Jayden Stockley and Louis Moult could certainly feature in the XI.

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I am going to nail my colours to the mast though and go with the following in a 4-1-4-1 formation – Rudd; Fisher, Storey, Davies, Earl; Ledson; Nmecha, Browne, Johnson, Robinson; Stockley.

In terms of result, I am going to stay on the safe, possibly boring side of things and say I think this will be a score draw so I’m going with 2-2.

What do you think? Will we stop the rot and pick up all 3 points against the Tractor Boys or will we come unstuck for the 5th game in a row for the first time in yonks? Let us know on our Facebook or Twitter.