There’s less at stake in the East Anglian derby than there once was, and discontent is in the air at the end of poor seasons for both clubs, but Ipswich are at least cheered by the prospect of pushing their neighbours closer towards the third tier and by the imminent ousting of an unpopular manager, as Csaba Abrahall witnessed

It can’t have escaped your attention that the BBC recently moved Countryfile to prime-time on Sunday evenings. I’m not sure why, as it seemed the perfect accompaniment to coffee and croissants in its late-morning slot, but I imagine the unavailability of a large section of the agricultural community twice a year proved too detrimental to the viewing figures. The East Anglian derby hasn’t been played on a Saturday for 11 years and the scene at Diss station on this spring Sunday morning, rural-accented supporters in blue and white, green and yellow, heading to football instead of listening to John Craven’s views on otters, has become a common one.

No one here has taken much comfort from the season now nearing its end. Norwich are one of a clutch of clubs with a recent Premier League history cluttering the foot of the Championship. Though their fortunes have improved since Glenn Roeder was replaced by Bryan Gunn – who, it seems, lingered at the club for years, taking on various roles, in the knowledge that he would eventually be offered the manager’s job – relegation remains a serious threat with only three games left.

While Gunn’s popularity, based on an admirable playing career and his indisputable good-blokeness, would survive the drop, Jim Magilton has seen his, established over seven years as a player at Ipswich, dwindle in his first two as a manager before disappearing altogether in this hugely unsatisfactory campaign. It is tempting to think that Ipswich may have found themselves in a similar position to their neighbours but for owner Marcus Evans’s £12 million investment in players but, if anything, the money has had an adverse effect. The prevalent feeling among fans is that Magilton has frittered away the cash, using it largely to stockpile central midfielders who either can’t get in the team or who are asked to play out of position. And while the fruits of the club’s once-vaunted academy have been packed off on loan until their contracts expire, Magilton’s expensive team have stuttered from one incoherent performance to the next. With the play-offs now beyond them, the supporters keenly await the season’s conclusion, and Magilton’s anticipated departure.

But there is still a derby to play, and the derby still matters. Once, not so very long ago when both clubs could hope to win something, it might have been seen merely as a means to a more significant end. But such aspirations are unrealistic now and so, if being the best in the country is no longer attainable, being the best in the region assumes even greater importance.

Norwich’s current predicament provides added tension today, as is evident on my train’s arrival in Ipswich. The Norwich fans are detained by the police, before being marched down towards Portman Road and the welcoming party of Ipswich supporters lined up behind more Suffolk Constabulary overtimers. A helicopter drones constantly overhead. It feels menacing, but there is no call for G20-protest-style baton-wielding here. As the visiting fans are prodded towards the turnstiles, there’s a brief exchange of banter, then everyone chuckles and turns their attention to the game.

While the statues of Sirs Robson and Ramsey outside the ground recall Ipswich’s past successes, the new stands behind each goal carry less welcome symbolism, towering monuments to the club’s hubristic extravagance following fleeting Premier League success at the turn of the century. For once they are full and, unusually for these Sunday lunchtime derbies, Portman Road is vibrant. Pre-match, Ipswich fans debated whether Norwich’s relegation would be desirable, but there is little sign of equivocation on the day, with all apparently eager to see them suffer. The visitors are subdued in comparison, anxiety curbing their enthusiasm.

An edgy opening comprises a prolonged sequence of clearances so wayward that you expect a Health & Safety official to halt the game and insist that the “Beware of flying footballs” signs draped behind the goals during the warm-up be brought back out. It is poor stuff and the sunlight flashes repeatedly off Gunn’s bald pate as he paces nervously on the touchline. But the game is to get much better, and it is Gunn’s team who score first.

With the action in the middle of the park, it comes to the referee’s attention that Ben Thatcher has chosen to foul Lee Croft on the touchline. Thatcher’s murky past sits uneasily with Ipswich’s fans, and this unnecessary foul draws an angry mutter of “classic Thatcher” from the row behind me. It is duly punished, as David Mooney takes advantage of the absence of nearby defenders to direct Sammy Clingan’s free-kick into the net.

Unable to acquire their own Marcus Evans, Norwich have spent the campaign employing other teams’ players to take them into the relegation zone. Fifteen loanees have been used; five are in the line-up today. As Mooney, one of these, celebrates in front of the home fans, I wonder if there is a maximum number of loanees permitted in a season and, having surely exceeded it if so, how many points Norwich should be docked.

The Norwich fans greet Mooney’s goal with the almost-correct chant of “You’re getting sacked in the morning”. There’s a smattering of applause in reply, but this is the only dissent directed at Magilton today, because his team respond with spirit. Ipswich’s own loan player is instrumental in a swift equaliser. Tottenham’s Giovani Dos Santos, who can hardly have envisaged being deemed less useful than Tom Huddlestone when he joined from Barcelona last summer, lays a clever pass from Pablo Couñago into the path of Alan Quinn, who cracks a shot across David Marshall into the far corner.

It is a great goal, instigated by Ivan Campo on the halfway line. Allowing Alan Lee to win the ball in the air, he simply waited to poke it away from him when it hit the ground. Campo is unimaginably slow, arriving so late for tackles that he really should bring with him a letter outlining the reason for his tardiness. Never one to break into a run if he can help it, twice he will surprise Richard Wright by opting to let the ball run through to the keeper rather than expending the energy to shepherd it back himself. Yet somehow he gets away with his nonchalance. His football brain is so far ahead of his opponents that it compensates frequently enough for his legs being miles behind, and he consequently exudes an innate superiority that the other players seem to respect.

Following the equaliser, it becomes clear why Norwich have struggled this season. They are very poor indeed, their defence able to offer only minimal resistance to ­Ipswich’s hardly innovative attacks. Up front, Mooney lacks support as Lee, also on loan, fades after an energetic start. Having begun the season with Ipswich, Lee left abruptly amid rumours of a fallout with the manager, a scenario far from unique under Magilton’s leadership. His choice of loan club has not endeared him to his former fans, but his ineffectual performance appeases them and adds credence to Magilton’s insistence that his exit was due purely to football reasons.

Norwich are even unable to exploit the replacement of the injured Thatcher at left-back by tiny Canadian right-winger Jaime Peters, in what must be the most unlike-for-like substitution in history, because Peters is magnificent, defending sensibly and destroying Jon Otsemobor when venturing forward. He hasn’t played for the first team this season, a fact that, after this performance, does Magilton no favours.

Either side of the interval, Norwich are especially vulnerable, teetering on a precipice, waiting for the inevitable nudge that pushes them over. Ipswich can hardly fail to capitalise, but it is via a contentious penalty that they do so. Kevin Lisbie, played through by Giovani, knocks the ball past Marshall and is sent flying as the two come together, tumbling on much the same spot as he did four years ago when, then on loan at Norwich, he fell under a phantom challenge from Luis Castro Sito, resulting in the latter’s dismissal. Gunn is furious, but there is at least no red card, referee Neil Swarbrick having apparently taken Lisbie’s career into consideration in concluding that it was not a goalscoring opportunity. Giovani’s penalty brushes the inside of the right-hand post and Ipswich are in front.

Norwich’s one chance of rescuing a point is wasted by sub Cody McDonald, who looks every inch the former Dartford player he is as he beats Mooney to a cross and heads horribly over. Ipswich, meanwhile, engineer countless opportunities down the left, but lack the nous to finish them. Norwich captain Gary Doherty almost does it for them, but Marshall’s save is as remarkable as the fact that Doherty is only 29, according to the programme. That can’t be right, can it?

With a minute to go, in another move that bypasses traumatised right-back Otsemobor, Lisbie’s flick finds substitute Jon Stead and he slides the ball under Marshall. The Ipswich fans finally relax enough to put some feeling into the “Going down” chant that has been the day’s default option. Meanwhile, a few people notice that Mr Swarbrick is awarding another penalty at the other end as Quinn climbs over Lee to head the ball away. Clingan tucks it into the corner, but it is plainly too late and the Norwich fans can barely bring themselves to celebrate.

At the final whistle, Magilton enters the pitch and embraces each of his players. There’s even an ovation for him today. But it is to be his last hurrah. Two days later he is dismissed, forced to leave his office plants in the dubious care of Roy Keane. Together with the arrival of former British Olympic Association big cheese Simon Clegg as chief executive, replacing David Sheepshanks as the public face of the club, Keane’s appointment emphasises how much Evans’s involvement has changed Ipswich Town. Investment demands return, and a single objective of promotion at the earliest opportunity, the gradual development of a team no longer an option. Magilton’s remit changed accordingly midway through his tenure and the money, and his inability to use it effectively, was his undoing. The arrival of Keane suggests there will be no return to the club’s traditional methodology any time soon.

Norwich, together with the teams with whom they now share the bottom three places, Charlton and Southampton, provide a warning that Premier League status is not a permanent safeguard against hardship. Just three years after leaving the top flight, their glum supporters appear resigned to relegation to the third division. Kept in after the game, they are forced to watch a bunch of annoying adolescents bouncing around in front of them before discovering that their train home is delayed by an hour. The Diss-bound Ipswich fans playing back goal celebrations on their mobiles are affected, too, but they have derby victory, sweeter than usual due to its implications for Norwich, to cheer them until they get home. Just in time for Countryfile.

From WSC 268 June 2009

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