Garner’s first Ipswich season started and ended with a bang... but was he asked to do too much?
PUBLISHED: 08:28 28 March 2018 | UPDATED: 08:28 28 March 2018
© Copyright Stephen Waller
After Joe Garner’s season was ended by a small fracture to his skull, sports writer Andy Warren looks back on the striker’s debut campaign at Portman Road.
Joe Garner’s first Ipswich Town season started with a bang and was ended by another.
The 29-year-old’s campaign, which began with a debut winner against Birmingham, has seen him finish with 10 goals, a fractured skull, needing a shoulder operation and the potential of a procedure to repair damage to his knee.
His final appearance was as a substitute in the Blues’ 0-0 draw with Sheffield United in which he suffered a small fracture at the base of his skull, leaving the Blues without the man who has led the line for them all season.
While his style of play, approach to the game and the way he is used by manager Mick McCarthy has been the subject of debate, there is no doubting the commitment of a player who gives his all each and every time he steps onto the football field.
His list of injuries alone proves that, with McCarthy regularly discussing how his battering ram forward has insisted on playing through the knocks which have hampered him since Christmas at least.
He arrived in the Portman Road dressing room expecting to play against Hull on March 13, despite his partner having given birth to their baby earlier in the day, but was eventually pulled out on medical advice after he was found to have blood in his ears and mouth.
Quite the warrior. McCarthy predicted earlier in the campaign that his striker’s playing style meant he couldn’t be ‘flogged’ in that way for an entire Championship season. Sadly he was right.
He is one of just 19 Championship players to have hit double figures by this point of the season, with his haul making this the most productive Championship season of his career to date.
Those goals have come from just 19 shots on target, an impressive conversion rate, but the fact he had just 55 efforts on goal in 32 starts suggest the Blues were not getting the most out of a player who has at times found himself isolated in attack.
Only Millwall forward Steve Morison has competed in more than Garner’s 524 aerial battles, and this is where the debate regarding the striker’s role in the team comes in.
He has lost 322 of those, winning 202, but the fact the lone striker is competing in so many compounds the frustration around some fans regarding a perceived direct approach.
During his career he has played his best football as part of a front two, most notably as he and Jermaine Beckford fired Preston into the Championship in 2014/15, but we have not had much of an opportunity to see how that would translate at Portman Road.
The foils have been there, with Preston fan and Liverpool legend Mark Lawrenson discussing just how much David McGoldrick and Freddie Sears would enjoy playing with him in the summer. He played in the same Rangers side as current Ipswich team-mate Martyn Waghorn just nine times last season, but the system used by McCarthy means they have rarely played in a front two together in Suffolk.
When Garner has not been fit the central striking role has been taken by Waghorn, most notably in back-to-back victories over Derby and Nottingham Forest, where the Blues’ top scorer’s presence ensured the ball was on the floor more often. Similarly, Freddie Sears’ appearance as a lone striker against Cardiff in February ensured Ipswich kept the ball down, although they offered little threat in the final third.
As well as his exceptional ability to defend corners with his head, there is another side to Garner’s game, of course – his mastery of the dark arts.
Preston fans describe their former hero as being like ‘an annoying little brother’ and Ipswich fans will know where they are coming from.
By hook or by crook, only Norwich’s James Maddison has been fouled on more occasions that Garner’s 101, while only Preston’s Jordan Hugill (now of West Ham) and Millwall’s George Saville have committed more than the Ipswich striker’s 71.
Remarkably, given he spends so much of his time roughing up the opposition and chirping in the ear of the referee, he picked up just eight bookings in his 32 Championship games. He knows when he has pushed his luck too far with referees.
His debut goal against Birmingham made him an instant hit and helped him become one of just a handful of current players to have their name sung regularly by the Blues support. He has certainly a player who has pulled his weight during his debut campaign, but was he asked to do too much?
If McCarthy remains in the Portman Road dugout for next season the expectation will be for Garner to be leading the Ipswich line once again but, if there is a change of management, it will be interesting to see how the forward is deployed.