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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 23/10/04, 3.00pm
Ipswich Town
The art of persistence
By Ian Grant

It's an interesting job, programming. Hey! Come back! Where are you going?

Okay, fair enough. There's a great deal about programming that's spectacularly, mind-bendingly not interesting, and those of us who make a living from such things rarely do much to change that situation. Pink Floyd are rubbish, Star Trek is rubbish, Lord of the Rings is rubbish...and, yes, talking in impenetrable acronyms is rubbish, especially if you do crass and unforgivable things to the English language like pronouncing SQL as "seequul". In short, programming could do with a bit of a makeover.

Still, it's about more than that. Or less than that, in essence. There are lots of different qualities required, and they vary significantly depending on the particular role and purpose; some, however, are completely fundamental and natural, beyond teaching and training. Without them, no amount of mathematical genius will get you anywhere.

Persistence, for a start. So much of the job is about solving problems, and they're generally the kind of problems that nobody else can help with, apart from lending a sympathetic (and uncomprehending) ear. There are, of course, things that can't be fixed, things that are simply impossible. But they're such a small percentage of the whole, when compared to the things that can be fixed with persistence and obstinacy, with a pure, pig-headed refusal to let it lie. Normal people give in; we don't get paid for giving in.

You can be calm and methodical, up to a point. I can do that, up to a point. But there's a point beyond which there's just wilderness, nothing civilised. I'm a horribly impatient person, easily frustrated...and I've thrown so many swearwords at this screen, held my head in my hands so many times, howled in anguish and lost my grip on the final grain of hope, and finally walked away from it all as a lost cause.

And yet, somewhere in a personality that's often rather pessimistic in outlook, there's something that forces me back, returning to an itch that has to be scratched until it goes away. It nags at me, it worms away at my defeatism until it can't be ignored any longer...and it fixes those problems, because it won't accept the alternative. What is it? I don't know. It just is. It's just there. I don't even know if I'm glad, really; it's a blessing and a curse at the same time. But it gets the job done.

You can see where I'm going, I imagine. Persistence was everything here, when there seemed to be nothing much else to cling to. There'll be talk of match-turning substitutions and heroic spirit, sure...but this wasn't a comeback, not as such. Nothing changed. Rather, when it appeared that the cause was utterly hopeless, when we were two-nil down to a team that had gradually and increasingly out-classed us, when the ceaseless pelting rain seemed to sum up the afternoon, we just kept going. We kept our heads up, we kept our minds clear, and we kept going. Basic professionalism or pure faith, depending on whether you're a romantic or not...but whatever, two-nil suddenly became two-two, with fifteen minutes still to play. We'd done nothing differently, really, but that was precisely the point.

It's significant, you hope. Because this hasn't been an easy sequence of matches, and the results reflect that; without a win for six games, we're sinking back into the great wad of clubs that forms the bulk of the Second Division, and we're in real danger of letting the sunny positivity of August and September slip away. For now, though, it's only danger; for now, the performances remain purposeful and resolute, even if some of the confidence and form has been eroded. But it could so easily become a serious, worrying slump, and a couple of key injuries - to Brynjar Gunnarsson on Tuesday night and, potentially, to Neil Cox here - wouldn't exactly help matters. We need that persistence right now, wherever it comes from.

It's been the primary feature of the season so far, really. It's become the manager's mantra, repeated weekly in the Watford Observer and again in the programme, yet rightly so: we've played poorly sometimes, but we've only once or twice allowed our performances to be without basic standards of attitude, commitment, effort. As a consequence, we've established rare consistency at this level. Again, it served us well here, for we were never able to match Ipswich for passing and movement and, most of all, for attacking quality, and yet we somehow managed to avoid defeat. In some ways, the comeback masks the reality: this would've been a good point at any stage of the contest, not just when it seemed beyond us.

That's not a concern, to my mind. For us, this season isn't about the top six, and it doesn't matter if some of those sides turn out to be sharper and quicker and just better than us. We continue to move forward, steadily: Dominic Blizzard, for example, had a more solid, less nervous game here than on Tuesday night, adjusting to a demanding role and the weight of a great deal of responsibility. Our squad is starting to look a little thin, particularly in midfield but elsewhere too: there's been no opportunity to rest Ashley Young, for instance, although it has to be said that this was his most impressive and complete display since his introduction. But the attitude of the players is buying us a bit of time, it's relieving the pressure.

So, Ipswich were the better side. Not massively so, but enough, in the crucial areas. And they didn't win, inexplicably. That's their concern, not ours. For our part, the unexpected result just allows us to concentrate on the positives; positives that would've been there even in defeat, but clouded and obscured by the knowledge that we'd been out-classed. Different criteria for different clubs, really.

(That's a lot of waffle, just to say that Ipswich should be bloody gutted and that we should be thoroughly chuffed.)

We began with a bit of a tinker from Ray Lewington, as Lloyd Doyley returned to the right back slot while James Chambers moved forward to relieve Ashley Young in midfield. An interesting idea, and one with some potential, especially away from home. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to find out much more, as an early injury to Neil Cox, sustained in the process of nearly gifting Ipswich an opening goal after twenty minutes, resulted in a re-shuffle back to a more familiar set-up.

Ipswich, meanwhile, were spectacularly and brazenly The Anti-Burnley, playing three out-and-out strikers from the start in a move that would've confused Steve Cotterill enormously: "What are those three doing up there? Trying to play offside or something?" It was too much for us; too much pace, movement, and quality in the final third for a set of defenders who nonetheless stuck to the task admirably. And a goalkeeper who rescued them when that wasn't quite enough. We created first half chances too, let's not forget...but through no particular fault of our own, Ipswich might've been comfortably out of sight by the interval.

That they weren't was down, in the main, to Richard Lee. There are saves that you expect a goalkeeper to make, even though they're applauded wildly in the stands, and there are saves that a goalkeeper has no right whatsoever to make. He continues to astonish with the latter, and did so again after ten minutes: extended, expansive passing from Ipswich until Counago played in Bent on the right of the box, and the keeper was instantly smacking into his feet to block the finish. Loose ball, scrambles, and the ball ran for Kuqi, in exactly the same spot and a very similar situation from which Hameur Bouazza would later equalise. He struck it well as Lee spread his limbs desperately, and the underside of one of those out-stretched arms deflected the ball from its inevitable path and into the side netting. Extraordinary.

It set the tone. For all that the play often appeared sterile and damp for long, dreary periods, the half was punctuated by moments like this, when the ball would suddenly find its way to the edge of our box, and Ipswich strikers would prowl and swarm and pounce. (Or, in one exception to the rule, dive pathetically for a penalty: you're not in the Premiership yet, Mr Bent.) And half-chances would be whistling towards the bottom corner, rather than scuffed at the keeper as at the other end, and demanding yet more outstanding work from Richard Lee. As we found out in the top flight ourselves, the difference is small and massive at the same time.

We could blame ourselves only once, when Neil Cox's indecision and eventual mis-kick in dealing with an innocuous through-ball let in Kuqi. He rounded Richard Lee, but was driven too wide and thus allowed the keeper to get back to pull off a sharp parry, before Gavin Mahon piled in to put the rebound behind. Otherwise, it was the poise and elegance of Bent at the fore, requiring three increasingly fine saves as the half progressed. The last of these was again astonishing, the slightest of fingertips as Bent's low, curling shot from the eighteen yard line whipped into the bottom corner. That touch sent the ball onto the inside of the post, then back into the danger area, and Lee was onto his feet instantly to block Counago with his legs at close range. Only a forty-five minute clean sheet, and yet a remarkable achievement.

We did have our moments, though. Throughout, our attacking efforts were just that: efforts rather than anything more refined. We looked like a decent, workmanlike team, but we very obviously lacked that touch of quality that'd turn a hopeful final pass into something more deadly, or an optimistic shot into something more threatening. We were Keith Millen rather than Colin Foster, if you know what I mean. One moment summed it up, perhaps: when a long ball over top found Neal Ardley and Heidar Helguson breaking through the offside trap, the former claiming possession from the latter to burst clear on goal. But his touch was just a little too heavy, creating a tight angle for a shot, and Plan B - pulling the ball across the face of goal towards Danny Webber at the far post - was no more successful. Our opponents weren't letting those situations slip away.

Of course, we weren't easily discouraged. We're not, any longer. This would prove useful in time. Danny Webber was denied by a vital block when Sean Dyche's lofted free kick somehow found him loitering in the six yard box, and he was unfortunate to instinctively lift the ball over the bar when it came back to him. A minute later, Ashley Young's bounding run was ended by a solid challenge, but Dominic Blizzard fought for possession, and Young helped it on into Neal Ardley's path. He beat an opponent inside the penalty area and, after we'd done all of the hard stuff, struck a left-footed shot into Price's chest. These were precious opportunities, hard to come by...and easily lost.

The second half continued in the same vein, except with goals. This is hardly piercing analysis, I know, but it's true nevertheless: this wasn't a game that changed very much over its duration, retaining its central and unmissable themes of blue-shirted threat and yellow-shirted belligerence. The former was realised first, even though we re-started with some purpose...and it was a surprisingly simple goal too, just a long punt from Price that bounced through for Westlake to speed past Lloyd Doyley to the edge of the area, before slipping a devastatingly precise finish into the bottom corner. Basic and direct, sure...but there was no mistaking the quality of the final touch.

As if to emphasise the point, there were further attempts, both fielded by Richard Lee, from the marauding Bent in the subsequent minutes. It certainly wasn't one-way traffic - indeed, we mustered a sustained storm of corners and crosses around the sixty minute mark that more than suggested the possibility of an equaliser - but that threat was always hanging over us, as we huffed and puffed towards the Ipswich goal. Fifteen minutes on, it was realised: Bent's break down the right and a lay-off to Westlake, who drew a foul challenge from Gavin Mahon in the process of returning the ball to its source. The striker relieved the referee of the decision by burying it in the far corner from twenty yards, a lethal and perfect finish to the contest as well as opening.

We already had two substitutes ready on the touchline, and much will probably be made of those changes. But while Hameur Bouazza added edgy unpredictability and Bruce Dyer offered a more composed, conventional presence, neither made a massive difference to the pattern of the game. When the second goal went in, and even before, it was difficult to see how we were going to score and very difficult to see how we were going to stop Ipswich from finding further goals. That remained the case. We just retained faith in what we were doing, even though it promised little. And that faith paid us back more immediately than we could've possibly imagined.

Not creating anything from open play? Try set pieces, then. We're not the tallest side, especially with Neil Cox absent, but that doesn't matter if we can get Neal Ardley to float a corner under the crossbar and Heidar Helguson to steam in and stuff a header into the net from a couple of yards. Two-one. And if you get a chance, just try a shot, especially when it's chucking it down with rain...even if it's from about seventy yards, as with Neal Ardley's thumping drive from a short free kick that induced a handling error from Price and provided Hameur Bouazza with a poached equaliser, lifted into an open goal to disbelieving joy from the Rookery.

We've not come back from two goals down to claim anything from a match since turning over Bristol City in the League Cup under Luca Vialli in September 2001. More to the point, we've become very used to watching the clock drag through the remaining minutes of another home defeat: from twenty minutes left, and hope remaining for a turn-around victory; ten minutes left, and still enough time for a draw; five minutes left, and desperate optimism; injury time, and one last urgent cry of support. Forlorn, and exactly what we'd expected here. And yet, even while we were contemplating that damp, miserable coda, we'd already brought the scores level by virtue of sheer persistence. It was unreal, bizarre.

And, ridiculously, it left more than fifteen minutes for the match to be decided. So we could've won it, I suppose...except that Ipswich, courtesy of a ripping drive from Bent that flew narrowly wide, came rather closer. And besides, we hadn't yet finished admiring our new-found draw. Because it's an absolutely terrific result, this, in terms of morale and confidence and everything that really matters at this stage of the season. It's not a win, obviously, and we weren't good enough to win. But, by the same token, we weren't weak enough to lose either, even when that seemed like a complete certainty.

Beaten. Well beaten, in fact. Too blinkered to take any notice, though. Round these parts, that's what standing ovations are for.