By Stuart Hellingsworth
From the afternoon of 9 May 2015 and a few days after the reactions I read and heard from Norwich fans following our 1-1 draw in the first leg of the play-offs were;
“They were celebrating as though they beat us.”
“Anyone would have thought they’d won”
“It was a draw, but they reacted like it was so much more.”
That’s because it did mean so much more than a draw.
At the time of writing, in all competitions, we have met 97 times. Ipswich leading with 40 wins to Norwich’s 39, with 18 draws.
I’ve been fortunate enough to witness some fine Ipswich wins at both Portman Road and Carrow Road. It’s a great feeling beating your rival and something fans of both teams know well.
I’ve seen victories we’ve deserved and one or two where we’ve gotten a bit lucky. There have been the dull draws and the interesting draws, again home and away. Sadly, I’ve experienced the defeats too. These have all come at Portman Road. Disappointed is the best you can feel after such a loss. To describe the feeling of losing as devastating would be overegging it… except for one.
Four games in a row saw the honours going to Norfolk in recent times. That run is in itself some achievement and only once has either of us done this before. But while the four in a row rankles, it pales in comparison to one particular game.
The 5-1 loss hurt more, far more than any other game. The 4-1 a few months earlier was annoying; partly because of the scoreline and partly because of Grant Holt’s behaviour. The home defeat left scars. Losing by four to your rivals in your own backyard hurts big. And while I can moan about theatrics from the 4-1 loss and how things ‘might have been different’, I cannot for the April 2011 derby.
Rarely have I have witnessed such a chasm between the two sides. Annoyingly, yours was among the best performances I have seen from any Championship side and I’ve seen a lot over the last 14 years.
Your confidence, organisation and commitment was met with the opposite from us. It was one of the worst performances I’ve witnessed from my team. It had been clear from kick-off one team was approaching it with guile and swagger to the other’s reluctance and nervousness. With heads dropping quickly from our starting XI once we had fallen behind.
So many of our players went missing. Few wanted the ball and when they did receive it, the fear was evident. There were a few exceptions, but on the whole, the team in blue shamed Ipswich. Paul Lambert’s side did Norwich proud. You deservedly went up as we again missed out on the play-offs.
It was then a wait of over 3 years before the next encounter between us. 3 years for that stinging loss to stay in our system. During that time, we flirted with relegation before Mick McCarthy arrived and began to work miracles. Slowly but surely, he made us hard to beat and put a halt to the numerous thrashings we were receiving (you weren’t the only ones).
So it was with great trepidation we approached the next game in August 2014. We knew we were an improved team from the last meeting. You had your Premier League stars, but arrived at Portman Road in patchy form. The 90 minutes were dull, painful and full of nervousness. Aside from the start, we were quiet in the stands. Uneasy in fact. You won 1-0 in a game that was an advert for not watching football.
Many of us had mixed feelings at full time. Disappointed to lose and we had not performed as well as we usually did under Mick, but also one of relief; we had not been butchered. Finally, the last game between us was far less of an embarrassment. However, the disappointment was still felt, as we’d not given a true account of ourselves.
March 2015 saw the return fixture with a further loss. Disappointingly, Mick named a lacklustre midfield bereft of dangerous players. While a more enjoyable game to watch (that’s not saying much), it was a further defeat for us, this time by two. It came at a time when our form was on the wane, having played so well during autumn and much of winter.
Not only had your winning streak now stretched to four games, but again we had not played to our potential. I felt frustrated that again in the derby we had played below par. If only we had met a few months earlier. But that’s football, tough luck.
And then came that first leg in the play-offs. Finally, we put in a long overdue good performance. We had played better that season, but it was much improved on the season’s previous meetings. Mick had named a competitive team including threatening players. It was a true match with little to separate the two teams. We were not losing the majority of the individual battles on the pitch. And importantly, we did not lose. Some of it was not pretty, but it was competitive and fierce.
All of the good things missing from the previous fixtures returned and most of the less desirable were absent. It felt so good. Some sense of pride returned. The contrast between Jewell’s team that disgracefully lost 5-1 to Mick’s who had drawn, could not have been more evident. Pride, effort and passion.
Yeah I know you won the next match. But it did not remove that feeling from the previous leg. If anything, a bit more pride was added. The better team won and went on to deservedly win promotion at Wembley. I was disappointed you went up. Less because of jealously, more because I was itching for a rematch. The chasm between us so painfully evident in 2011 was no more. I felt a further two games the following season would see us gain our first victory against you since 2009.
I fear you now return stronger, while I am uncertain about us now.
Yes that 5-1 scar will remain, but it rests easier now thanks to that game. Just as I know some Norwich fans reading this will have been among your following at Portman Road when we won 5-0. A great time for us, not so you.
Of course this was long ago and some reading would not have been born then (doesn’t that make you feel old?). But football moves on and whereas you soon had better derby results to ease that pain and soothe those scars, our wait was much longer.
That’s why we celebrated “like it was so much more than a draw.”