WITH fantastical talk of record-breaking runs now consigned to today’s chip paper, a sense of realism has been brought to the Reebok after this sobering defeat.
Unbeaten run now over, Dougie Freedman says he knows a lot more about his team after they froze in the plummeting temperatures on Winter Hill, gifting Ipswich Town an early Christmas present in their impressive renaissance under Mick McCarthy.
In the light of a negative result, the manager’s team selection, formation and choice of substitutes inevitably became the choice topic of conversation over the weekend. But just as he should not have been dubbed the Messiah after playing Blackburn off the park at Ewood on Wednesday night, nor should he be branded a naughty boy after this, the first blot on his copybook.
Freedman had become the first post-war manager to avoid defeat in his first six games and once that statistic had been flagged up, it perhaps became inevitable the run would come to an abrupt end.
It should not have done. Mark Davies got his side off to a stormer with a stinging 25-yard effort just five minutes in, and Wanderers looked in the early stages as if they were finally going to string together back-to-back wins against an Ipswich side not averse to conceding goals on their travels.
Somehow the early promise ebbed away, allowing McCarthy’s gritty Tractor Boys to haul their way back into the game with a DJ Campbell penalty 20 minutes before the end and a late winner from substitute Michael Chopra that magnified the moans and groans on the terraces at the final whistle.
It had not been a happy camp in the second half as Wanderers toiled to make Freedman’s passing game work in a 4-4-2 formation that was just as much of a surprise as the appearance of Marcos Alonso as one of three changes to the team from the Blackburn game.
Stephen Warnock was nowhere to be seen, the latest casualty of a rotation system that Freedman hinted after the final whistle was built on statistics and the law of diminishing returns after three matches inside seven days.
Chung-Yong Lee and Jacob Butterfield also gave way for the returning Mark Davies, playing out on the left, and David Ngog, who partnered Kevin Davies up front, with minimal success.
There are certain things Wanderers fans will have to get used to, and one can only hope that results like this are not one of them.
No longer will the line-up be predictable. Unlike his predecessor Owen Coyle, Freedman can most certainly not be accused of having favourites.
And the style of play, all hustle and bustle under the previous two managers at least, has also slowed down to a more patient and technical blend.
It isn’t quite Tiki-Taka – this is the Championship after all – but it seems that the simple option of hitting Kevin Davies with the long ball and then building from there is going the same way as Depeche Mode celebration music and Martin Petrov’s snood.
It will take time to bed in but that is one thing Freedman does not have on his side.
Victory would have put the Whites five points off the play-offs with approaching half the season played. And that looked on the cards after a bright opening at the Reebok.
Mark Davies warmed the cockles on a bitterly cold day with his early strike, exchanging passes with Jay Spearing before hitting a dipping right-footed shot that looped over Stephen Henderson and into the net.
The lead should then have been doubled when Keith Andrews – Wanderers’ best player on the day – won the ball and played in Ngog on the left. The Frenchman picked out Kevin Davies with a low ball but with Chris Eagles possibly in his eyeline, the skipper skewed a good chance wide.
Alonso, playing his first game under Freedman, then forced Tommy Smith into a panicky clearance in front of goal after volleying Eagles’ floated free kick at the far post.
It needed a second goal. Wanderers always need a second goal. But Ipswich slowly got themselves back into it.
Adam Bogdan pushed away a neat free kick from Lee Martin, followed up by Carlos Edwards who blasted over from a tight angle.
McCarthy would have been happy to still be in touch at the break, but even more so when Kevin Davies saw two efforts saved by Henderson within 10 minutes of the restart.
The on-loan West Ham keeper got down well to block a snap volley from Mark Davies’ cross, then scrambled clear a header from the captain when Eagles had chipped the ball into the six- yard box. The fluency almost immediately disappeared, replaced by edgy, cautious play around the penalty box and a crowd baying for more penetration.
Just as sure as eggs is eggs, Ipswich found a way back into it.
Sub Daryl Murphy turned Zat Knight on the edge of the box and drew a lunging tackle from Tyrone Mears, whose facial expression said it all as referee Michael Naylor pointed to the well-worn Reebok penalty spot. A yellow card means he misses Saturday’s trip to Huddersfield and a chance to make amends.
Campbell snuck his penalty past Bogdan but Wanderers could not find another gear. Chung-Yong, Benik Afobe and Butterfield were thrown on in an effort to get things going again but the men they replaced – Kevin Davies, Eagles and Andrews – were missed once they were withdrawn.
What would have been another frustrating draw turned into something worse when Wanderers failed to properly clear a corner and Bradley Orr’s volley came through a crowd before bouncing up off Bogdan and being tucked away by sub Chopra.
Freedman’s first defeat could have been heavier. Bogdan denied Chopra a few seconds later on the break and Orr stabbed a shot inches wide after another quick counter in stoppage time.
And so the Whites boss makes his way back to the drawing board at Euxton where, given his approach during his first month in charge, he will methodically break down what went wrong in minute detail to his players using every tool at his disposal.
No ranting, no raving, chest beating or tea-cup throwing – the post-mortem will be done with a level head, and that should apply across the board.