Blues fans could scarcely have felt better leaving St. Andrew’s on 23 January 2016.
Gary Rowett had just masterminded consecutive 3-0 victories over Derby County at Pride Park and Ipswich Town at the home of football. We were just two goals off a play-off position and had just witnessed precision personified in the form of Jon Toral and Maikel Kieftenbeld wonder strikes.
We’ve never quite reached the same levels since.
Blues hosted a winless Ipswich Town in game 10 of the 2018/19 campaign on 29 September 2018. In the 32 months in between that 3-0 victory and yesterday, Blues have recorded back-to-back wins on just six occasions.
Two of those came under Rowett prior to his sacking. Two came under Steve Cotterill against admittedly four of the worst sides I’ve seen at Championship level. The other two came in the battle for survival under Harry Redknapp and Garry Monk.
Far too often in the last couple of years, we’ve witnessed an admirable display in the face of adversity only to see the belief and confidence of last week’s team ripped apart during the next 90 minutes.
Fulham followed by Sheffield Wednesday. The Dingles followed by Leeds United. Bristol City followed by Bolton. Sheffield Wednesday followed by Hull City. Cardiff City followed by Millwall. Nottingham Forest followed by Middlesbrough.
So often we pull together to earn victory only to let the good-feeling slip away all too easily.
Under Zola, Redknapp and Cotterill, it felt as if the slightest moment of misfortune would send the team back to square one, completely devoid of optimism and confidence. You could visibly see the players knocked off their stride.
Making judgement at the back end of last season under Monk was difficult. We were scrapping for survival, scrapping for every point and the fans and players simply responded to new management, banking on him being the saviour.
This season has been more taxing with wins sparse yet performances have remained positive. And not in the Gianfranco Zola style of performing well and losing. Blues aren’t losing, we just aren’t winning.
Last week, we finally did. We produced the unthinkable by knocking Leeds United off their perch as the only unbeaten side in the Championship.
Naturally, the expectation grew ahead of Ipswich Town’s visit to St.Andrews. Ipswich were winless. Pointless on the road. They had scored just once away from home. A second win of the season seemed the obvious outcome, such is the trust in Garry Monk and a lot of these players.
But Blues fans know the drill and the first half of this encounter was often a painful watch.
Monk kept faith with the squad that won at Leeds United and the players set about doing the right things immediately, three minutes had gone when a game of penalty box pinball ensued. Michael Morrison, Che Adams and Harlee Dean were all snuffed out before Gary Gardner hit the post from 25 yards.
Unfortunately, that was about as good as it got in the first half hour. Despite being in the ascendancy, Blues were creating very little as Ipswich began to win the individual battles in their own half. After Grant Ward and Gwion Edwards failed to test Lee Camp, Blues fell behind thanks to a clinical Jon Nolan finish.
The goal woke Blues up a little bit but chances remained few and far between, Gardner striking wide from the edge of the area, Lukas Jutkiewicz nodding on Harlee Dean’s initial header just wide of the post and Jonas Knudsen somehow clearing Michael Morrison’s goalbound header off the line.
Then on 41 minutes, Matthew Pennington put the visitors 2-0 up. A rare Ipswich move led to a corner which found the defender unmarked on the penalty spot. Far too easy.
Amidst the moans and groans from the stands, the reaction of the Blues players was notable. Every single one of them ran back to the halfway line, plonking the ball on the spot and getting ready to go. When the half-time whistle blew, every single player wearing blue and white ran into the dressing room.
The increase in intensity was notable within seconds of the second half, helped by the introduction of Maikel Kieftenbeld who had replaced the bandage-wearing Gary Gardner.
After Jon Nolan’s free-kick whizzed past Lee Camp’s post, the Dutchman helped set-up the response, prodding a loose ball into the path of Jota who had clearly been given more license to roam. He turned and drove through the heart of the Ipswich midfield before finding Jutkiewicz running off the shoulder of Luke Chambers. His first touch set up a confident finish and Blues were back in the game.
Blues continued on the front and the introduction of Connor Mahoney, who replaced Charlie Lakin, added quality to a more energetic Blues side. The number 7’s impact was almost instantaneous, his flick finding Adams who cut inside of Chambers and forced a strong save from Dean Gerken. He then beat two players on the right-hand side and his cross found Jutkiewicz whose header bounced off the top of the bar.
Four minutes after the youngster’s arrival onto the field, Blues were level. Jota’s free-kick wasn’t dealt with by Gerken. Pennington headed against Dean into the path of Jutkiewicz who was denied by Chambers. Dean tried his luck again, denied by Chalobah only for the ball to land at the feet of Jutkiewicz who scored his second of the game, firing into the top corner from close range.
It didn’t stop there. Mahoney beat two men on the right-hand side and almost caught Gerken out at his near post. Dean headed off target, Jota couldn’t test the Ipswich keeper, Mahoney saw an effort blocked before placing the ball inches wide of Gerken’s far post after good work from Jacques Maghoma.
Maghoma wasn’t at his gliding best but his impact was enough to scare Matthew Pennington who was sent off for blocking the Congolese international’s run towards goal.
Time was running out but Blues continued to probe. Mahoney and Maghoma saw shots blocked by desperate Ipswich defending. Neither Jutkiewicz or Dean could find the target. At the other end, Freddie Sears provided a scare.
Then in the 93rd minute came the chance. The chance. The one every side in the ascendancy gets when their tails are up coming into the final seconds of the game. Mahoney’s driven cross was controlled by Che Adams in the area. He held off his marker and cleanly fired on target only for Gerken to spread his body bravely and make the block. The near-perfect chance for consecutive victories gone.
There’s no question that this was two points dropped but so often in the past we have seen Blues sides drop their heads and stop playing when the going gets tough. Monk has brought back the character and determination missing for so long in that dressing room and the leaders stepped up.
A poor first half cost us but Blues fans left buoyant at the site of a second half that offered the qualities we associate ourselves with. A similar showing to that second half away at Brentford on Tuesday could see Harlee Dean, Maxime Colin and Jota depart West London with a wry smile on their faces.
Not the overall result we hoped for but a show of defiance that could serve well in the long run.
Now if we can just start turning these draws into victories…