Winter came to visit us at the end of last week, and the out-stretching of his boney fingers was more like that of the Grim Reaper than of Jack Frost, knocking out game after game of the last weekend of matches prior to Christmas. As the day progressed, it soon became clear that very few would escape his wrath. Even a couple of the matches that managed to start didn’t reach completion and, somewhere in London, television executives were panicking. Chelsea and Manchester United’s weekend showdown and the Black Country derby between Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion, a duo of Sunday fixtures that would have been more than worth avoiding the horrors of Christmas shopping for, both fell foul of the weather.
One might have forgiven Ipswich Town for hiring a clutch of snow machines, placing them carefully upon the roofs of the stands at Portman Road and gesturing to the visiting broadcasters that there was no way on earth that this match could take place. Ipswich’s recent form has been dismal – six successive defeats that has seen them slide down the Championship table – which has been accompanied by a soundtrack of a succession of press conferences from manager Roy Keane that have given the impression of him almost trying to goad the directors of the club into trying to sack him. A free Saturday evening in front of an open fire with a glass of egg nog might have appealed to many but on this occasion, however, appearances were deceptive and, for all the meteorlogical pyrotechnics on display, the match goes ahead.
With this decision, we are, visually at least, transported back to the early 1980s. The pitch is a brilliant white, in spite of having been brushed clean of snow before a ball was kicked, some blue paint is brought out to mark out the lines, and the luminous yellow ball soon becomes next to invisible against the wintry conditions. It takes six minutes for Ipswich to take the lead, a looping ball into the penalty is cushioned back by Rory Fallon for David Norris to drive the ball past the on-loan Leicester goalkeeper Chris Kirkland and into the bottom corner of the goal. It’s a harsh goal on Leicester, on account of the conditions making the ball being all but camouflaged and so therefore so difficult to defend against, and the yellow ball is soon replaced with an orange one.
Is the pitch, however, unplayable? Referee Stuart Atwell seems to think not and there are sound reasons to believe that this isn’t necessarily solely being played out for the sole benefit of Sky Sports 2. When snow falls suddenly (as it has done in the hour before kick-off), it has an insulating effect upon the pitch underneath it, making it less likely to freeze than it might otherwise be. This, combined with the hot air balloon that had been over the pitch until earlier this afternoon, means that the pitch is playable. Slippery, yes, but arguably no more so than if it had been raining all afternoon. Leicester don’t adapt as well to the conditions as Ipswich, though, and this proves to be the deciding factor between the two teams.
By half-time, the destination of the result is all wrapped up, although Leicester have a chance to level when Darius Vassell’s header thuds out of the Ipswich post. The second goal comes after twenty-seven minutes, as Rory Fallon – again – lays the ball off to the player that has arguably adjusted his game to the conditions more successfully than anyone else on the pitch, Jason Scotland, and his low shot across goal comfortably beats Kirkland. Possibly sensing that this is the moment to end their appalling run, Ipswich continue to push forward and, four minutes from half-time, they add a third when Shane O’Connor capitalises on a mistake by Leicester’s Yuki Abe and pulls the ball back for Scotland to slide the ball into the roof of the net from close range.
With this match being refereed by Stuart Atwell, however, there was no way that the evening couldn’t pass without some degree of controversy. Just before an hour has been played, Atwell decides to call a halt to the match. Roy Keane, eyes bulging and temples throbbing, becomes involved in what might be realistically described as a “frank exchange of views” on the sidelines. The players are taken from the pitch and the brushes come out again. After a further quarter of an hour, with yet more snow having been cleared from the pitch, the game is back on again, but Leicester supporters are entitled to ask the question of whether Atwell was going to abandon the match until faced with a furious former Republic of Ireland and Manchester United international demanding answers.
After the match, Sven Goran Eriksson is predictably furious. “You go skiing on snow, not play football”, he said, “Who wants to see a game in conditions like that? It was being shown worldwide but was very bad PR for football”. Ultimately, though, there is much in the truism that, “the conditions are the same for both teams”, and the fact of the matter is that Ipswich reacted far better to them than Leicester did. Had the boot been on the other foot and Leicester have won 3-0, we would doubtlessly have heard much the same from Roy Keane (who, to give him credit, admits as much in his post-match interview), and herein lies one of the eternal hypocrisies of football: these matters only become an issue for managers that have just lost the match. To say this isn’t to level criticism at Eriksson specifically – it is merely part of the culture of modern football.
The responsibility for the safety of the players lies, of course, with the referee in terms of the condition of the pitch, and it is to be hoped that Stuart Atwell made his decision to keep playing on the basis of the conditions of the pitch rather than because of pressure applied by one manager or any thoughts in the back of his head relating to the televising of the match. Also, the irony will not be lost on some that, had the match been a three o’clock kick-off, very little of this debate would be taking place. Roy Keane’s position as the Ipswich Town manager may not necessarily have been secured by this result – his managerial career thus far has not exactly been one to which the word “secure” would be the most apposite – but his team have arrested a psychologically damaging run and, with the frantic Christmas and New Year period coming up, it may turn out to have just been in time.
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