For centuries the ghost of Christmas past has been haunting the Christmas present; and at Portman Road the festive spectre was at it again. Fifty three years ago to the day, late December back in 1963, Fulham humiliated Ipswich at Craven Cottage. The score was an unbelievable ten goals to one. That remains the deepest ditch the Tractor Boys have ever driven into. But the events of Boxing Day 2016 have left Mick McCarthy too, in the boggiest of mires.
For it could have been 10-1, again. This was advertised as a Championship game but it was played by two teams who, on current form, are leagues apart. Fulham were magnificent. From their goal keeper Button at the back – standing tall in emergency yellow but never pressed – to the truculent centre forward Chris Martin (whose every touch was booed as a former Canary) they outplayed Ipswich in every department. Ipswich lined up 4-3-3 against a fluid, 4-5-1 Fulham. Yet from perhaps 15 minutes in it was clear that, whatever formation Ipswich had played, their destiny was to be ripped apart. A bright moment flickered for the home team after 11 minutes when a diagonal ball was flashed across the outer edge of the Fulham box. Lawrence stepped purposefully towards it, disguising his true intention of letting the ball run to Douglas, just behind him. Unfortunately the football was fooled too. Douglas – so often and sometimes unfairly criticised by Ipswich fans for a lack of pace – had arrived a second too early. The ball ran harmlessly behind him. That flicker was perhaps the closest Ipswich came to a goal in the first half. Indeed they did not have a goal attempt, of any sort, until a wayward banana of a shot bent far beyond the Fulham left post, from Jonas Knudsen in the 63rd minute.
Fulham meanwhile were thwarted only by an extraordinary Berra challenge from yards behind the Fulham player in possession, deep into the Ipswich penalty area in the 17th minute. A fraction of misjudgement and it would have been a clear penalty. Fourteen minutes later and after further long spells of threatening Fulham possession, Bialkowski made an instinctive save from Martin: with his shin, or was it his ankle?
A few minutes after that the same two players were involved in Fulham’s richly deserved first goal. Starting a rare Ipswich attacking break, centre half Webster shimmied, winger-like past two Fulham midfielders – and as a result Skuse raked a pass thirty yards directly back to the opposition. Within seconds Skuse was back on the edge of the ‘D’ of the Ipswich penalty area, in desperation fouling Johansen. A wall of blue shirts stacked themselves in front of the Martin free kick: then crumbled the moment he hit it. It dipped with force but from no more than shoulder height, through rather than over the wall.
For the second home game running Bialkowski was embarrassed by the opening goal: yet in truth it was barely his fault, and far less than Fulham deserved. Aluko and Ayite, elegant and nimble wide attackers, had frequently sliced through or round Ipswich in both midfield and the penalty area. Ipswich’s only goal threat came during first half injury time when a powerful header had to be diverted behind by Button’s fist for a corner; though its originator had been the man playing centre half in front of him, rather than an Ipswich attacker. Moments later a vocal minority of Ipswich’s second largest crowd of the season were booing off their own players; a judgement with which most of the others could barely disagree, even if they had decided not to voice it.
In decisive desperation McCarthy made two half time substitutions, pulling off the old and young heads of Pitman and Dozzell, to be replaced with the Nottingham boyhood friends of Best and McGoldrick. Fulham substituted nobody. Why should they? They had been dominant and despite a brief McGoldrick-inspired rally in the first 10 minutes of the second half, that dominance strengthened as the half progressed. Ayite several times and Madl could have scored, Martin did score (but it was disallowed) and in the 76th minute, Bialkowski made another amazing safe with his lower left arm, somehow deflecting a powerful ball wide. But it was judgement delayed and not averted; he could do nothing to stop Sigardsson soaring above the punch drunk Ipswich defence from the consequent corner and nodding the ball into the net. It was Fulham’s most simply constructed chance of their numerous second half efforts. Further attempts were saved by Bialkowski from Cairney – the magnificent Fulham captain around whom so much flowed in midfield – and the incredibly annoying (to his opponents) Chris Russell.
Ipswich, meanwhile, managed only three goal attempts in the whole game. None of them were on target. Playing at home against a team who started the day a mere five points ahead of them, they could muster a meagre 39% possession. It was a miserable performance from Mick McCarthy’s team, prompting an equally miserable response from their fans. Throughout the game (I registered the first boo only 12 minutes in, directed at Douglas) anti-McCarthy, anti-Evans and despairing critical songs could clearly be heard. After months of very poor football significant sections of the Ipswich crowd have perhaps understandably become poisonous towards the current regime; and to the shame of this writer, even against some of their own players. It is a situation that simply cannot continue.
Evans and McCarthy need either to go their separate ways, agree to sign some new players or jointly, decide to do something radically different with the current and theoretically, capable squad. 3-5-2, 4-5-1, 4-2-4? Almost anything seems preferable to the current humiliations. Mick McCarthy is too proud and too good a man and Ipswich is too proud and too good a club, for such rancour to be sustainable.
Fulham meanwhile, bolstered by the millions of both Shahid Khan and the Premiership parachute payments, look a real prospect for a promotion run. Good luck to them: theirs was always attractive and just occasionally, beautiful football.
Match review by Grant Bage