An hour before kick-off on Saturday, the scene behind Portman Road's Britannia Stand resembled a footballing pastoral. Family groups lolled in the spring sunshine, sipping drinks and eating sandwiches, watching the energetic efforts of assorted youngsters on four mini-pitches of flawless artificial grass that was a million miles - and half a million pounds - away from the knee-scouring stuff Terry Venables once had installed at Loftus Road.
Among those supervising the proceedings on behalf of the Ipswich Youth Academy was Chris Marshall, a corporate banker who was once on Southend's books and who now spends his spare time coaching the players who will help maintain the club's profile over the next decade.
These pre-match pick-up games were open to all comers, and Marshall had already spotted one lad who would be invited to an introductory session for the Academy proper.
Over the years, the sale of players brought on by Ipswich's youth system, such as Kieron Dyer, Titus Bramble and Richard Wright - have provided the club with essential financing. Two of the outstanding performers on a day when Ipswich took full advantage of Wigan's lapse to move back to within goal difference of the automatic promotion places, Ian Westlake and Darren Bent, were also products of the Academy.
Marshall was already looking forward with excitement to Friday's FA Youth Cup semi-final, when an Ipswich team which features the England Under-17 forward Darryl Knights, and other highly promising talents such as Aidan Collins and Owen Garvan, will face Tottenham.
Marshall credited the visiting Derby manager, George Burley, for much of the groundwork that is now proving so beneficial for the Sussex club. Before he was sacked in February 2003, Burley was the prime mover in enhancing the youth programme. "Although we had a good structure, it was something George really energised and pushed on," Marshall said.
Burley's philosophy has not changed. Having joined a club no better off than Ipswich were when they slipped temporarily into administration just over two years ago, he has had little option.
The side which he has transformed this season from clear relegation prospects into play-off contenders contains a number of shrewd free transfer signings from foreign clubs, notably the Danish international Morten Bisgaard and the man who scored a late header to give Ipswich five frantic final minutes, the Spaniard Inigo Idiakez. But elsewhere the Academy rules, in the form of the goalkeeper Lee Grant, the defender Pablo Mills, the opening goalscorer Marcus Tudgay, and England Under-21 international Tom Huddlestone, who is already bound for Spurs this summer in a £2.5m deal.
Burley's return to the club he took to fifth in the Premiership and two seasons in Europe was warmly marked. He received a standing ovation as he took his place, and towards the end of a match where his new team had produced sustained bursts of the kind of neat, short-passing football which has for so long characterised Ipswich, he found his name being chanted approvingly all around Portman Road.
The respect is mutual. Burley has, however, additional reasons to wish Ipswich well. If they gain promotion - and with 10 points from their last 12 they appear to be regaining impetus at the ideal time - his share of the wages owed to him in the wake of the club's administration will rise from its current level of five pence in the pound to 20p in the pound. With two more years left for repayment, he stands to recoup around £350,000 should Ipswich remain in the top flight. No one at Portman Road would begrudge him a penny.
Burley's hopes had been raised by a seventh-minute goal from Tudgay after Tommy Smith had left David Unsworth lumbering on the right.
But just as it began to look as if Ipswich were returning to their form of February, when they suffered successive home defeats by Watford and Queen's Park Rangers, their captain, Jim Magilton, equalised with a low drive. Bent made it 2-1 immediately after the break when Tommy Miller's long ball gave him a free run through the centre of a defence missing the injured Mo Konjic and Michale Johnson.
Miller's 71st-minute goal appeared to be the coup de grâce, but Derby made things sweaty with Idaikez's far-post header from a cross by Smith.
"We gave away bad goals, and overall Ipswich deserved to win it," Burley said. "We have come on a long way from being one of the favourites for relegation. We are showing what can be done."
Goals: Tudgay (7) 0-1; Magilton (24) 1-1; Bent, (46) 2-1; Miller (71) 3-1; Idiakez (85) 3-2.
Ipswich Town (3-4-1-2): Davis; Wilnis, Naylor, De Vos; Unsworth, Westlake, Magilton (Horlock, 79), Miller; Currie; Bent, Kuqi. Substitutes not used: Price (gk), Richards, Counago, Scowcroft.
Derby County (4-4-2): Camp; Kenna, Huddlestone, Mills, Makin; Smith, Idiako, Bolder, Tudgay (Peschisolido, 57); Rasiak, Bisgaard. Substitutes not used: Miller (gk), Vincent, Junior, Holmes.
Referee: G Hegley (Hertfordshire).
Bookings: Ipswich Unsworth. Derby Huddlestone.
Man of the match: Smith
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