21 April ~ “Mustn't grumble. Could be worse” is the type of answer that my Dad's generation of Suffolk people will characteristically give to the question “How are you?” It would be a fair summation of Ipswich Town's season too. Town go into the East Anglian derby sitting exactly in mid-table: mathematically safe from relegation and with no realistic chance of reaching the play-offs. Could be worse: many Town fans would argue that it should be better.
For evidence of their own side's underachievement they'd point 40 miles north and nine places up the league table towards tonight's high-flying opponents, Norwich City. It's easy to forget that Norwich were in League One last season, so effortlessly have they made the transition back to the Championship. Despite a couple of recent wobbles, automatic promotion remains a strong possibility for Paul Lambert's team, a fact which gives a distinct edge to Thursday's clash.
The Ipswich-Norwich rivalry works because it's genuinely reciprocal: each club is the prime focus of the other's resentment. There are no distractions in the way that, say, the Liverpool-Everton derby became overshadowed by Liverpool-Man Utd during the 1990s.
It also works because the two clubs have more in common than the respective sets of supporters would care to admit: each is situated in the middle of a large rural county and the size of the fanbases are comparable (I will note at this point that Norwich's recent attendances have been higher, to save their supporters the trouble of posting it as a comment). Each club has tended to find a natural level somewhere between the top two divisions (at which point I'm contractually obliged to note that only one of the two clubs has a League title, an FA Cup and a UEFA Cup to its name, and it's not the one that Stephen Fry tweets about).
2011-12 will be Ipswich's tenth consecutive season in the second tier of English football; should Preston get relegated next month, Town will become the second longest-serving side in the division. During that time, Norwich have been up to the Premier League, stopped off to resume local rivalry on their way down to League One, and returned again to the Championship. If Ipswich can put a dent in their chances of making another upward move, it will go some way to redeeming what has been a generally frustrating season. Could be worse. Gavin Barber