Stomach Churning

So, after the long league season of 46, ahem 44 games we finished 2nd overall. Not a bad outcome. If someone had offered 2nd place at the start of the season with big Mick in charge I would have bitten their hand off.

When you dive into the water from a great height you carry on going under the water for a while before bobbing back up to the surface. A bit like us really, after our fall through three divisions; though we didn’t quite carry on plummetting, it took a long while in this division before our decline ceased and our long awaited upturn began.

If I was more detatched it would have been fascinating to see that even when the team was at its worst and playing dreadfully against teams that would subsequently be really struggling we still didn’t drop to worse than eigth. Even at our crappiest we were still better than the vast majority of the non-league. But we still needed to get our house in order, to pick ourselves up and to find a formation and first eleven to sort the league out. And once we did then…bang! If it had started a month earlier we might have given the hoofers of Hertforshire a slightly closer run for their money.

It would be poetic justice if we won the play offs at Wembley and were readmitted to the division from which we were evicted because of the wrongs of the previous owners and also the blinkered prejudice and narrow approach of those who run the football league. The team they always loved to hate inisting on readmittance. The team they kicked outside and left to wither and die bouncing straight back at the first attempt, stronger than ever. And having a level playing field. Wouldn’t that be great?

If promotion does occur, in the future perhaps we will look back on this season with a sort of quaint or bizarre fondness, playing in grounds where the away support outnumbers the home fans and some grounds and teams that we should never play again, barring pre-season friendlies or another calamatous disaster. Playing teams whose travelling fans could be accommodated in a couple of the beach huts.

Should this not occur and we manage to lose at Wembley or God-forbid lose to York over two legs then our sentence would have been extended and the punishment (which didn’t fit the crime in the first place) would get distorted further. The down-side would be that we properly become a non-league team rather than a league team sent to sit on the naughty step for a season. It would seem likely that we would not retain the likes of Keane and Heslop and we would have to further re-build. With the team as it is at present it would seem likely that we would walk the title next year, based on our recent form. But that recent form has been reliant on Claude, Tommy Craddock, Keano and Heslop. None of whom will necessarily be here next year if we stay down. If we lost those it mean more changes and more acclimatisation. That said, I’m reasonably confident that Richard Money would bring in some good players and the pipeline looks healthy too. How long before the free scoring youth player Liam Toomey gets on the bench or gets a contract?

What would be a shame if we don’t go up is that we would lose the momentum we now have as well as some of the team. Having watched all of the league two teams last year and played and beaten two of them this year I have full confidence that this squad can repeat its success in that division next year. But if that season had to be in the BSP then it would almost be a waste of a promotion year. We should be spending next year ensuring we get promotion to League one not League two.

Well we will soon know: on bank holiday Monday at approximately 5:50pm we will know if we are to be treated to our second trip to Wembley in two seasons, on the 16th May.

So on to today, and alas I missed the last game of the season, not because of my sat nav playing up again, but because I have been laid low by some horrible stomach bug I picked up in the depressing hole that is Halifax. What was more galling was that not having had much sleep last night I actually slept through the game too which was particularly annoying as I had asked Mrs Mosque to ensure she got me up. So – I know the result and have read the match reports but can add none of my own!

Well done Tommy Craddock on his 24th goal of the season. Still chance to make it to 30 then, three games to go. He must be hungry for that. Not sure about the strange diamond formation employed today either. Horses for courses? Or a little curve ball to those watching from other clubs?

Anyway – I missed it so it is lost forever and I will have to wait to watch the highlights on youtube, if some kindly Hatter has taken the time to post a video. I also understand that there was a high spirited pitch invasion at the end by some Hatters, but will have to wait to see if much is made out of that.

So – on to Thursday night and blagging a day off work and a long trip up to the North again. I do hope that I don’t contract something in delightful Yorkshire again next week…and I have bought a new Sat Nav, so I have got no excuse.

Thanks for reading and many thanks for the kind comments left recently. Keep your fingers crossed for Thursday – Come on you Hatters.

Standard

A touch of the ‘end of seasons’ about it

A beautiful warm April day, not a cloud in the sky – or an aeroplane for that matter. The Hatters battled it out with an Altrincham side who got what they came for.

Sad really to treat the loyal handful of friendly northerners who travelled down to that sort of tactical negativity. I’d hate to support a side who had so little ambition. But hey they got a point – they got what they came for. Job done? They were certainly celebrating as if they’d won at the end.

Altrincham were a big strong team, quick to close us down, a little bit niggly and time wasting more or less from the off. They didn’t have all 11 men behind the ball, they left the mascot up front and played a 4-5-1. The lone striker was called Senior – with the size of him it a more appropriate name would have been Junior surely? The bright sunshine glinted off Coburn, their goalkeeper’s balding pate, very offputting. At least he was a goalie who could kick the ball and keep it on the cut bit.

Keane was named in the starting XI but didn’t start, replaced by Hall. I hope the injury isn’t serious, because whilst we are not quite as effective without Claude on the right we are definitely not the same without Keane in the middle. Hall played un-Hall like, if you like ie closing down and tackling, but he ain’t no Keith Keane. Perhaps if Keane had been injured prior to the warm-up we might have seen Mr Poku? Who knows.

As it happens I don’t think it made a huge difference. Altrincham always managed to get bodies in the way and always had enough back to clear the loose balls. Gallen had half as much room to turn and pass as he did on Tuesday and accordingly the wingers and Craddock had less service. Craddock put in an outstanding amount of effort this afternoon. He ran and ran and ran and his touches and passing and vision were really second to none. He played with the confidence and swagger you would expect from someone who has been scoring for fun recently. All the time he was looking to play neat one-twos with his team mates, or was drifting outside and swapping position with the likes of Howells. He had a couple of snap shots which forced saves from Coburn, but alas none of his team mates were first to the loose balls.

Newton was neutered and Howells was hounded; as I said, much of their supply was cut off and too often we had to go narrow and long. Which is disappointing of course. With Gnapka out, there is also no ‘target’ man for Tyler to aim for with his kicks, so we lost possession or we were in a position whereby we couldn’t grab control because no one could hold it up properly.

That said, we must have had nearly 20 chances, so don’t get the impression that it was completely dire game, we just couldn’t get the ball in the net, or as I said, if we did get a cross or a ball in they managed to get to it first. I kept thinking we might do a repeat of the game up there, which if I remember correctly was a smash’n’grab after a similar tight affair.

Early on Howells burst through down the left and set up Hall for one of his pile drivers. Alas it wasn’t to be. He had another chance shortly afterwards which went wide. Shooting boots not on today.

Howells played a good ball inside to Simon Heslop whose shot hit the target, which was nice, but alas straight to the keeper. One day he will get a brace (for us I hope) he has so many chances that he runs onto at the edge of the box and so many go wide or over, but one day a couple of his rasping strikes will go in I’m sure.

I recall Ed getting a cross in – to Gallen I think, but he seemed to take an age to turn (highly unusual) and the chance was gone.

Half time produced no changes. I was a little surprised that Hatch wasn’t introduced a la Stevenage but it wasn’t too long before he appeared.

Pilks played a hopeful ball forward which Hall picked up – but his left footed shot didn’t trouble Coburn too much at all.

A word on the ref at this point, whilst not as bad as some we have seen this year, and clearly being a ref who wanted to let it keep on going where possible, he failed to spot a couple of corners and at least one hand ball. He failed to hurry Altrincham up until late on in the game (he did add 6 minutes extra time). He gave fouls against our players which were fine if Altrincham did the same thing and bizarrely stopped Craddock and Heslop who had taken a quick corner, making a sort of roly-poly action with his hands. Not sure at all what that was for.

The tiny lone striker Senior who must have touched it twice all game, was replaced after 15 mins in the second half by Denham who was more of a physical presence but no more of a goalscoring threat.

At this point I counted about ten successive headers from a long kick in or around the centre circle – normally after one or two the Kenny End groans and people start yelling “get the bloody ball down” but some were aperplectic at the amount of head tennis going on.

Having quite clearly shown their hands and that it wasn’t going to change Money brought on MBH and Hatch for Ed (who had made a couple of nice overlaps down the right) and Murray (who still can’t take a throw). With Newton and Jake slotting into the full back positions and MBH going to the left and our leading scorer going out to the right wing. You can’t have it much more attacking than a front line of Craddock, Hatch, Gallen and MBH but it was not to be. Hatch got booked with his first touch of the ball (or player) a clumsy lunge at their centre half. However when similar challenges were made on Hatch, no sign of a card being produced. Booked on reputation rather than execution I feel.

Hatch was a little off the pace early on, he picked up a little towards the very end, but did look more unfit and gangly than usual. Perhaps the instant booking took the wind out of his sails?

MBH on the other hand was lively for the whole 25 mins he was on. He picked up a lovely pass from Gallen but his shot went across the face of the goal. Once that happened I knew it was never going to go in, however much we huffed and puffed.

So – another point, and we just need to win next week to guarantee second. I suspect it is no bad thing to have a reality check or two this near to the play offs, because it is important that the players realise they are mortal and redouble their efforts for the play offs. Bizarrely, next week we will be playing Rushden and Diamonds, which for them will be a battle to avoid having to play us in the play offs.

However, and strange though this might seem, in the event that Oxford win their last two games, a win for Rushden will mean they will play us in the semi-finals, but a loss might mean the same thing too if York get a point.

I don’t know who I would prefer we play. York have got the leagues leading scorer Brodie playing for them whilst I think Rushden are the better team.

A grudging congratulations to Stevenage on winning the title, a victory for them but certainly not for football. My feelings towards them might mellow a little if we follow them into the league via Wembley.

Some scores on the doors.

Tyler – 7 – had only one shot to save which was a fantastic save from a volley by Williams (I think).

Ed – 6.5 – overlapped nicely and played some good balls in, but got mugged twice by their left winger enabling them to get a ball into the box.

Pilks – 7.5 – sound as a pound

Blackett – 7 – took it in turns to mark the mascot and did a good job. Played one lovely ball forward in the second half.

Murray – 6.5 still can’t take throws.

Newton – 6 – bit slow to react on occasions and had limited chances with a couple of heavy touches. Moved to right back once Craddock moved to the right.

Heslop – 7 – talking of heavy touches, played a very strange back pass to Tyler which he completely overhit and put it out for a corner. He clomped it like an elephant tied to a JCB.

Hall – 6.5 – late replacement for Keano, put more challenges in than he used to before he was dropped, but faded towards the end.

Howells – 7.5 less effective than recently because he was denied space – often 2 or 3 men would be on him as soon as he got the ball. Moved to left back one MBH came on.

Craddock – 8 – lively and hard working always wanting the ball. Didn’t get as much of it in front of goal as he would like. Skinned a couple of full backs and pulled the ball back to no one in particular. Very threatening and seemingly on fire.

Gallen – 7 – less effective than usual, given less room. Too many balls played too high for him

Subs:

Hatch – 6.5 – fully committed but looked unfit I thought.

MBH – 7.5 – lively and skinned his marker a couple of times putting crosses in which didn’t quite go to an orange shirt.

And so another season at home ends. Our final home record in the league this year reads: P22 W14 D3 L5 F54 A22.

We scored 9 more at home than Stevenage and yet conceded more at home than 9 other teams (with games still to be played of course). To put it in context Gateshead who are 3rd from bottom have also conceded 22 goals at home – though they do have to play two more games at home.

Let’s look at the 5 games we lost:

Stevenage 0-1 – where they did a job on us and made us look like mugs with their bullyboy tactics. Mick’s last game.

Rushden 0-2 – did another job on us, kept it tight and bottled us up, waited for the fans to turn and then got a couple of goals. Nielson’s last game.

Kettering 0-1 which was just woeful.

Ebbsfleet 2-3 a blip when the team had begun to turn it around. But embarrasing nevertheless. Can’t think of too many more embarrasing results in our recent history really.

Wimbledon 1-2 where we dominated play but couldn’t find the net and played a diamond formation with Hall, Jarvis and Nico having as much bite as a toothless granny.

Ironically of course, the majority of the home defeats have been under Money – whilst he was still finding his feet and his preferred formation. Once we found the right formation (that new fangled 4-4-2 thingy) and the right players, we started to hit our straps. If only we could have got him in earlier. Or started the good run earlier anyway.

That’s enough for now. Thanks for reading. And Stuart, I hope you enjoyed your cuppa and your pork pie, your kind comments are much appreciated.

Standard

Pinch Yourself…

…because life for Luton in this third of the season is as surreal as it will ever get.

6-3 for goodness sake. First 6-3 I’ve attended since we lost to Sheffield United at home in 1994 when we were 2-0 down and down to 10 men after 20 minutes and I was moved from just behind the directors’ box because my language was offending the sensibilities of the ladies.

I felt numb walking back that day, and slightly numb walking back on Tuesday night. It really was a match of contrasts. Sublime attacking play that any Hatters fan down the ages could only dream of, matched with some clown-some defending making you wonder as if we had re-employed dear Clive Goodyear in his pomp.

Now since the match I’ve checked the Outlaws message board and there seems to be a lot of whingeing about this match. I think folk have been concentrating more on the 3 goals conceded than the six goals scored. Are our fans perfectionsists already? Have we become so blase that we assume that we don’t have the right to concede goals at home and that every game against this sort of opponent means an automatic trouncing these days in the post-Nico era? Yes it was daft that we conceded three goals so easily – but how often does this happen under Richard Money? We know that he likes to keep a clean sheet almost more than he likes us to score. It was a freak occurence, especially at home.

And fair play to Histon. Didn’t give up, didn’t give in. Played good football where they could and showed us up when we were a little complacent.

Compare the goals, let’s recall that we had only a 2-0 lead at half time and were 4-0 up and there was only half an hour to go before they scored their first.

It started with a thrown on the left. I recall watching our friend Mr Heslop who looked very puffed at that point (hardly surprising, he had covered every inch of the pitch!) it meant that when the ball was thrown in and was knocked out, he hadn’t made the ground to pick up the man with the ball who played it back to the original thrower who then had lots of time and space to put in a good cross to the middle of the goal. We hadn’t pushed out and so whatever went on in the box henceforth meant that there was no chance of a Histon player being offside. Murray was marking Sparkes (Blackett was marking fresh air) and Murray won the header with Sheringham the ball ran out to Southam on the penalty spot who played it right back to Sparkes who volleyed it in albeit it off the underside of the bar. Blackett was still in no man’s land Murray had the choice of two strikers to intercept but had retreated to the line. Pilks tried to close down the crosser and so a goal was almost inevitable.

We hadn’t picked up our men, we hadn’t pushed up and one of the defenders was wholly out of postion leading his teammates with too much to do. 4-1.

So – their second goal a long ball was played out of defence to one of theirs (Sheringham?) who was completely unmarked. Keano was the nearest but hadn’t picked him up. He took the ball down with the aplomb of Ronaldo and flicked a ball through between Blackett and Pilks. Pilks got a foot to it to cut it out but the ball flew to Knight-Percival who had accelerated into the box taking Ed with him and went round Ed and drilled the ball past Tyler into the corner. Good goal. 4-2. Where did that one come from? Well if Keano or Heslop had picked up their man then the ball would have been cut out and the danger removed. Secondly Pilks was a bit unlucky that his interception went straight to K-P. However it was a good finish and the player showed excellent intelligence in our box.

Third goal – by this time we were 6-2 up – came initially from a corner whalloped to the far post where their player had a free header not challenged by Ed. The ball was headed in and not cleared again (a la Tamworth?) and the excellent Southam – their livliest player by far – picked up the ball on the edge of the box collected it and ran around to the left going round Ed and Pilks and smacked it into the top corner of the goal from the edge of the box with his left foot. A cracking goal by all accounts, but borne out of players not picking up their men, again, and not clearing from a corner.

None of their goals were a case of “Blimey, if Histon can get three how many can Rushden/York/Oxford get against us.” Because all of those sides would have scored those goals. In fact, to be honest, all of those teams would have been delighted with those goals.

The point I am making is, our defence isn’t rubbish so that even Histon can get three. It is, Histon made us pay in full for three lapses.

So – enough of the downside let’s look at the positives. All six of them. A hattrick for Tommy Craddock and another fantastic attacking performance. Pressing from the front, high tempo, fluid and attacking football. All that we have ever asked for we got last night. We are dining on the richest of footballing feasts at the moment and we should savour every mouthful.

Now to those of you who are unfamiliar with the Kenny, the Hatters traditionally attack the home end in the second half. Yesterday, and it happens a few times each season we must have lost the toss and we swapped ends. Just like against Grays it took us about half an hour to get the first goal. It wasn’t a wasted half an hour because we created plenty of chances and played bright football. One thing that stood out for me was Poor Newton fluffing another chance (not quite a la Southampton) but which should have been put away. Oh, for the confidence we was playing with at the start of the season. To the goals…

The ball had been played nicely along the floor all the way from the back to the front by Blackett. Gallen controlled the ball and played it back to Jakey Howells – just one of what seemed like two dozen lovely lay offs and touches by Gallen – Jake played the ball forward to Craddock but there wasn’t enough room and it was cut out and came back to their right back who attempted to move forward with the ball only to be intercepted by Gallen who fell over in the process but by closing him down ensured that the ball fell to Howells who got a toe to Craddock who was overlapping and who drove into the box. He took the ball diagonally into the box almost to the byline and layed it inside to Howells who side footed it into the net from 8 yards out 1-0.

Apart from the close interchange of play between Gallen, Howells and Craddock in the inside left position the phase of play (that word phase again, sorry) emanated from Blacketts lovely pass from the back and Gallen’s tackling back to win the ball.

Goal number two:

Histon were in our half, playing the ball around nicely until Keano intercepted a pass with a perfect tackle which he accelerated into, assuming he would win the ball and ran forward and then played a lovely through ball to Craddock who was on his own 40 yards out. Craddock with the confidence and swagger of a man who has been scoring more than a junkie locked in a pharmacy took the ball into the box rounded his man, settled himself and slotted it in to the left hand corner. 2-0 and fully in control. Chances aplenty and result not in doubt.

Our third and Craddock’s second came from a long kick by Tyler. It went to no one but Tann the centre half who was just outside the centre circle. A lazy pass back or at least to noone in particular was picked up by Craddock who ran on and slotted it confidently past Knight the keeper from outside the box. 3-0.

The fourth was my favourite. A long clearance from Tyler fell to Newton who didn’t quite make the header but the ball ran to Howells who dribbled it to the edge of the box the ball ran to Gallen who with his umpteenth intelligent touch of the night layed it wide to Newton. His cross was heavy and long with the outside of his boot rather than the instep, the sort of cross that makes you groan and but the lost cause of a goal kick to them was chased down by Craddock who not only just kept in play but managed to play it down the line on the left to Keane. Having seen Craddock do that I confidently predicted out loud that ‘we’ll have a goal now’, Keane passed it to Murray who played a quick exhange of passes with Howell who ran and dribbled and played it just inside the box to Gallen who played an intelligent pass down the inside to Ed, however the pass was far too heavy and Ed did his best to rescue it on the byline, a neat bit of skill enabled him to turn his man and he cut the ball back from the byline to Newton who clipped the ball too high for Gallen right in front of goal, he missed his header or at least it flicked his head and the ball fell to Craddock who brought out a good save from the keeper only for Howells to follow it up and placed it right footed into the corner for 4.

Despite their goals at this point we also made chances. Poor Simon Heslop must have missed three gilt-edged ones. It was Heslop bursting into the box fed by Ed which caused him to be upended and we won our first penalty for a while. Craddock and Howells were both on 2 there was no question who was taking it. Craddock, head down to avoid eye contact marched the ball back to the penalty spot. Jakey went to speak to him but was pointed back to his mark by Gallen. Craddock slotted the ball home for his first, and hopefully not last Luton Hattrick.

Jake was quite keen to get his too. When the ball came to him again after that, any where near goal he had a shot, and fair play to him.

Our sixth came after some excellent posession down the right. Heslop won the ball and drove into the box again, turning it inside for Gallen on the edge of the box who whacked the ball past poor Knight in goal. 6-2.

Some other things to note. As I had hoped for, with Claude out, we had a like-for-like replacement in Newton playing as a winger. He started slowly making a few errors early on, but picked up after about 20 minutes and looked confident again after that. M. Gnakpa he is not though!

Their keeper Knight. Shot stopping fine, kicking poor. Managed to get one in the net in the gantry (the net usually reserved for catching Ian Pearce’s pies I think) His kicking was so poor that he abdicated responsibility in the second half and their full back took the kicks. He wasn’t much better though. This is the second game in which this has happened this year though. What can you do as the Luton strikers if the full back takes the kick? Erm…push up…you don’t have to stand on the half way line in fear of being caught offside if the ball gets played back in. You could even stand on the edge of the ‘D’. And believe me, yesterday, if TC had stood on the edge of the D he would have intercepted a coupe of kicks and had five.

Southam in the middle of their midfield, as I said, their best player by far, but he looks like he has just arrived from the beach. Blonde hair and white boots and he looked as if he was dressed to jump on a surf board not charge around a pitch.

It’s getting late so the players ratings – I have to give Howells and Craddock 10. Gallen I would give 9 to, Heslop too. Keano was an excellent 8.5 and Newton picked up to get an 8. Murray was sound enought to get 7.5. The remainder Pilks, Blackett, Ed and Tyler got a 7 each.

Righty ho – last home game of the normal league season on Saturday, on what was traditionally Hats day in the past. We have one more home game after that in the play offs and then hopefully another successful win at Wembley.

Stevenage need only win one of their remaining three games to be champions, sad, but true. If only our magic run had started a week or two earlier. If only we hadn’t lost to Stevenage at home. If only…

Standard

So near but yet so far…

Oh well – ‘nine straight wins’ gets rebadged as ‘eleven games unbeaten’ after the 1-1 draw away to Tamworth. Stevenage won so Luton are four points behind them, and Stevenage have a game in hand.

Realistically then, if we still hope to finish top then we need a bit of a miracle. I guess it was always a long shot, bearing in mind the start that we had.

I didn’t go to the game yesterday and only caught the last 10 mins on the radio. Pilks scored against the run of play in the first half for his sixth of the season, and his first one in the daylight. Des Lyttle (the Des Lyttle?) equalised with a header when we failed to clear it.

Hatch started instead of Gallen, who was recovering from a knock. Blackett resumed his place in the heart of the defence and Kovacs was relegated to the bench.

Looking at the match statistics it sounded a fairly open game both sides had double-figures worth of chances. We were certainly going for it at the end trying to get the win.

Gnapka hobbled off in the first half and MBH was brought on in his stead. Seems odd to me, and perhaps a bit complacent/self indulgent by RM, but I think you should swap like for like if you can, and Adam Newton who was on the bench should have been the choice, rather than a striker on the wing. In this case it meant Tommy Craddock who scores his goals when playing as part of a front two was stuck out on the right.

Anyway, apparently in the second half we played 4-5-1 with Hatchy on his own until they equalised. Jarvis made a rare appearance replacing Jake, and then Gallen came on to replace Hatch. We pressed and pressed at the end but to no avail.

So the table looks like:

1:Stevenage…….P40….Pts87
2:Luton………..P41….Pts83
3:Oxford……….P40….Pts79
4:Rubbish & D…..P41….Pts75
5:York…………P41….Pts74
—————————-
6:Wimbledon…….P41….Pts64

In the form we have been in no one will look forward to playing us in the play offs. If we stay second then it will be York in the play offs, presumably with us at home in the second leg. I seem to recall we drew 0-0 up there on the sandy beach, and we drew 1-1 at home, when AN was in charge with Nico doing his level best to hand it to them in the last minute.

Histon on Tuesday. They are battling to stay in the league. I will be dashing back from Leeds that day, hopefully getting back in time. What is going to be interesting is how I manage to change from my whistle into my Luton gear. Look out for a car swerving in and out of the outside lane of the M1 whilst the driver slips on his lucky shirt whilst removing his tie…

Hopefully, all things being well, normal service will be resumed on Tuesday both in terms of match reports and also a thumping win.

Come on you Hatters!

PS – Happy Birthday LTFC – 125 years old today – a proud and interesting history which some ‘bigger’ clubs can only dream of.

Standard

Six Degrees of Separation

From away to the top club to home to the bottom club, this time poor Grays were the latest side to take their place in our winning run.

From a personal point of view I did my best to get lost again. Yes, yes, I know it was a home game. Surprised by the shock appearance of J11 on the M1 I managed to miss it completely. I’ve only been driving that way to games for 16 years. Anyway the detour didn’t delay me for too long and I took my position at the Kenny End.

Perhaps the Grays fans all carried on up the M1 too. There were only 10 for much of the warm up and they were joined by another 15. If the programme says 90 or something next week I will know it will be a tax fiddle because there were 25. I counted them. At one point I thought of the old joke “for the benefit of the players, here are the names of the crowd.”

I’ve never seen a greater contrast between fortunes. We are (very nearly) at the top, Grays rooted to the bottom. Kenilworth Road was pretty much full and their end was pretty much empty. We thumped them 6-0. Has there ever been a bigger gulf between two clubs in the same division? I’m not saying that arrogantly either, and I don’t mean it to belittle Grays in any way. I’m just making a point about the relative size of our clubs and it is another reminder that the only reason we are in this division is because of the unfair and unjust points deduction and the foolish, selfish and reckless acts of the previous incumbants.

Kovacs returned to the team in place of Shane Blackett, who wasn’t even on the bench. I don’t know if he had a knock from Saturday, or if he was just having a rest. He certainly earned it on Saturday.

We started slowly a bit hungover still from Saturday. Looked as if they were still a bit stiff and needed bit to get going, which, again, is fair enough because they are probably all still sore from the good kicking Roberts and co dished out.

It think we started as if Hatchy was still playing. The balls were too long for the front two and play was broken up by Grays. Grays played the ball around as nicely as possible when they could, without really looking threatening at any point. I think Mark Tyler had two saves to make all game.

A cross from the right saw Gallen go for it but the ball popped up in the air and KG did the comedy thing of looking for it but not knowing where it was – a very poor clearance by Reynolds found Heslop who combined with Craddock on the left hand side of the box, and put in a perfect cross to the far post which unfortunately evaded everyone. There are times now when I think Heslop is too good for us!

Howells and Gallen played a one two on the edge of the box, Gallen waiting for the perfect split second before playing Howells back in, he chipped it to the far post where it hit Craddock rather than him heading it and went over.

Craddock who once again had an outstanding afternoon, both in the striking department but also with his work rate and passing, laid the ball off the Jakey Howells whose cross was absolutely perfect for Claude at the far post racing in – his shot brought out a point blank save from Garner, their keeper.

Then, Gallen and Claude linked up well with Gallen cushioning a header into Claude’s path – alas our friend shot just wide.

Gnapka drove down the right and squared it back for Keane whose shot was just wide. Gradually, slowly but surely we were hitting our straps. It was only a matter of time, of course.

As I have always said, I was trying to learn the opposition names and numbers and because of that I was looking down at the teamsheet trying to memorise the opposition names. Bang – 1-0. Missed my first goal at a game I had attended in 30 years. Apparently Craddock scored with a header. Unless Lewsey Bob recorded it on his camera that one is lost to me for all time…

Floodgates were oiled and were soon to be opened. But before they were we witnessed a bit of magic from Mr Howells, which if it had gone in would have lived long in the memory. Unfortuntely he was ‘sawn off’ (to use a cricketing phrase) by the ref.

Davis (see? It was worth missing the goal to memorise him) tried to clear it and it went to Howells on the halfway line. Howells ran on, and on and on and on, evading tackles and challenges as he went with the ref playing advantages – I saw him wave the play on twice – Howells rounded Davis and then smacked it past the keeper. A wonder goal – alas not to be because the fool of a ref had blown up (apparently – didn’t hear it myself). It strikes me as totally bizarre because impeded though he was clearly he wasn’t sufficiently impeded to prevent him from scoring the goal. He must be gutted. I hope he has a long, successful and fruitful career of 20 years or more, but I’m thinking he might never get another chance like that. I hope he does of course.

The resulting free kick saw justice done, if not for Howells but for the team. Keane rolled the ball to Gallen who thumped it in the net with one of his piledrivers. 2-0.

As my pre-match preparation had been interupted by my needless detour, I hadn’t had any lunch so I thought it appropriate to appropriate a cheeky pie, but couldn’t be arsed to queue at half time. What a mistake. Half way through the pie procurement there came the roar which meant that I had missed the third goal. Bugger. Two goals missed. Oh well, I finished my pie. It was time for a call of nature – I’d missed two goals, what were the chances of us getting a fourth in that brief window before half time? Every chance. The roar went up again. I wasn’t best pleased, and neither were the others in the gents who had made the same assumption as me. I’d missed three of our four goals, much to the amusement of those sitting around me when I returned to my seat.

Nelthorpe was given a whole half in the second half. Murray was withdrawn and Jake moved to left back. Why not? The game was already won and it was time for Nelthorpe to show us what he could do in more than just a ten minute cameo. Grays also made a substitution the hapless Roberts-lookalike Reynolds was replaced by Gowaki, having been given the run around for the preceeding 45 minutes.

Early on in the second half Howells played it forward for Heslop to flick on Craddock snapped up the flick and shot straight at the keeper.

Heslop then won the ball and played in Claude Le Crosse who raced into the box for Craddock who missed the shot.

We won a corner just short of the hour, Keane played a perfect corner in for Gallen to bang the header in from close range. It was a hatrick – his first by all accounts. And only our second since November 2005. Well done to him. I’m genuinely delighted and amazed at his turnaround in form in the second half of the season doing all he can to win that renewed contract after being told he was surplus to requirements. He has 17 goals now, an excellent return.

Time for our second string strikers (who would be most teams first XI strikers) to get another run out. Reward for their sterling service in the second half against the Stevenage hoofers. Barnes-Homer looked very lively again and Hatch was surprisingly fleet of foot.

Though our play had been pretty long in the first half (a dangerous trend) it got even longer now with the introduction of Hatchy. We must watch that. Having a big man up front makes it too easy just to lump it up to him all the time. We (and Hatch) are better than that. It makes us too lazy.

Hatch was soon in the action when Ed crossed it in nicely which Hatch latched onto and his header produced a fine save from Garner. Poor Garner didn’t have too bad a game. He (and the woodwork) were the difference between since and double figures. We’ve had worse keepers than him at the club in the past.

The next chance was pure route one – Tyler long kicked it to Hatch who nodded down for MBH to fire into the Kenny End. Strange – he had been practisiing crowd dispersal before the game – good to see him reproduce it during the match!

Ed played in Nelthorpe whose shot cannoned off the post.

Heslop found MBH who brought a save out of Garner, Claude Le Crosse, by now playing as a third front man in effect whacking in the loose ball. However, it was not to be, as he was just offside.

Cross after cross came in, header after header went just wide or over. We hit the post (can’t recall who shot).

Then it was time for Hatch to get on the scoresheet. A lay off from Pilkington (unchallenged) to Keane who play in a lovely first time cross to Hatch who dived in at the far post and scored with a Howard-esque header. It was 6-0.

Gnakpa played the ball down the left to Nelthorpe who slipped over in crossing it it went across the face of the goal Gnapka steamed in but Garner pulled off a good save from close range.

Ed took a throw on the right to Hatch who won the header and played it inside to Claude and then sprinted down the win, Claude played it back to him and Hatchy demonstrated why he isn’t a winger.

Keane took a free kick from the right. Instead of crossing it to the far post he intelligently laid it with a perfectly weighted pass across the edge of the box to Heslop who took his time and struck it beautifully – it swerved and dipped and was heading just for the top left hand corner but alas it struck the bar and bounced down and out. That would have been a pearler.

That was more or less that. Once again we had taken a side apart completely and much like Salisbury we could have had two or three more quite easily. If the chances had gone in like they were with Hayes then we would have had double figures. I’m not just saying that.

I felt sorry for Grays – clearly whoever owns the club has got a bit of a West Ham hangup with the kits looking like their away kits from the eighties and Julian Dicks in charge. Back to the Blue Square South they go and I wish them well for the future.

Where does the win leave us? Annoyingly St Evenage beat Wimbledon 3-0 and don’t really look like dropping the ball too much. We can only hope that our pressure makes them do a bit of a Devon Lock (timely Grand National reference). They are still just 2 points clear with a game in hand.

A few scores on the doors:

Mark Tyler – 6.5 – handled it twice all game.

Ed – 8- defended stoutly and some excellent crosses
Pilks – 8.5 – sound as a pound some key passes from front to back
Kovacs – 8 – ditto
Murray – 7.5 looked good in the first half

Le Grapka – 8.5 – fantastic effort, crosses, headers, all he lacked was a goal. Even gave us a comedy moment or two.
Heslop – 9 – if only that shot had gone in – covered all the pitch AGAIN
Keano – 9 – looking a bit knackered now, and it is hardly surprising
Howells – 9 – first half was sublime. Brilliant interchanging and passing with the strikers

Gallen – 10 – Hatrick within an hour. What more can I say?
Craddock – 9.5 – work rate supreme – two goals. 20 in all now. Aim for 30 Tom…

MBH – 8 – eager beaver when he came on.
Hatch – 9 – won everything, 100% effort, really wanted it, and got a good headed goal.
Nelthorpe – 8 – flashes of brilliance – linked up well with Howells on the left.

Lovely to see us drubbing sides good’n’proper at long last, week in week out (Stevenage excepted). I am getting quite used to it. One day I will think back to this end of season run with the fondest of memories. Let’s just hope it can continue at Tamworth (where?) on Saturday. Luton are in blistering form at present – it would be a crime if we didn’t go up after all this…

I won’t be going to that one as I have used up all of my brownie points. The reservoir is dry. Mrs Mosque is getting a bit huffy about all of the games in close succession so to sneak in another away one at the weekend will be impossible. So I’ll be listening to Simon Pitts instead.

As I finish this report this evening (Tuesday) I read with delight that Claude has won the player of the month award and that RM has won the manager of the month award. Both well deserved and my congratulations to them both. Since he had his mum’s soup Claude has been a revelation. Perhaps they should sell it at the ground…

Thanks for reading and welcome to the Hatters who tune in from all (and I do mean all) around the world.

Standard

Where did all the Ballboys Go?

A pleasant day out lead to a pleasant result against a niggly, unpleasant team.

The mighty Hatters did to Stevenage what they did to us back at the end of September, when all was not well in our camp. A tight 1-0 win away from home in a match which didn’t contain much football, but plenty of passion and a good opportunity to shout at the ref on a boggy old pitch.

2,800 official away fans made it an excellent atmosphere, plus the 1000 or so in the home end. Nice of us to help to more than treble Stevenage’s average attendance. Presumably the turnout at the Emirates Stadium was down a bit this afternoon as the Hertfordshire locals turned up to see a home game for a change.

We started with the same XI as against Salisbury, Blackett retaining his position ahead of Kovacs who was on the bench. Ironically, I would have thought that Kovacs would have been the choice against the lump-it and hump-it tactics of Westley and co, as what Kovacs does best is to nod away the headers. It is being run at by nippy defenders he has the problem with. Anyway, Blackett had an even better game than he had against Tubbs and co on Tuesday.

I had forgotten what Stevenage were like. You can see why they have been so successful. It is a team of big lumps and the nippy Yemi Obubade. They close down and then whack it down the middle, there’s not a great deal more to it than that. Oh yes, and they bully too. They are a nasty little side, they remind me of sides put out by Martin Allen or Martin Ling. Roberts their loon-haired lofty centre-half and captain was in the ref’s ear all the game. At one point he raced 50 yards to remonstrate with the ref over a minor incident in which he had no involvement at all. They were constantly trying to make an incident out of nothing. They are the equivalent of some bored unemployed and unemployable single mums stuck on a council high rise estate. All day with nothing to do other than to pick fights and make issues out of nothing.

Their attitude reminded me of another Hertfordshire team not so many miles away. In the first half they attempted to manage the game, with players going down injured when the ref’s back was turned, enabling them to break up the rhythm of the game, to take fluids on and more importantly all traipse over to the touchline for an impromptu ‘time out’ and some ‘wise’ words from Mr Westley. In the second half the ball boys all mysteriously disappeared which I am sure was part of some sort of ruse to break up play or slow things down. It is a tactic the other Hertfordshire team adopt. There must be something in the air.

So – to the game itself. Well, there’s not too much to report – it wasn’t a cracker. It was exciting and I’m damn glad we won, but it was a bit like two titans slugging it out at times.

It was fascinating to see how we would do against a ‘good’ side in form (they had won 8 on the bounce before today). I wanted to see if we had merely grown fat against the weaker sides in the division and just suddenly become good at putting mediocrity to the sword, or if we had made tangible progress. This game would put into context how far we had come since Heslop’s arrival and the turn around in formation, attitude, form and having a settled XI. It was a litmus test as to who would stand out against the sterner opposition.

Let’s remember that recently we have attempted to play a high tempo game, closing down from the front and nicking the ball and playing it quickly down the wings or to Gallen’s feet to spray to the wings or to bring others into the play.

At it happens, they gave Gallen and Craddock almost no room at all. They had done their homework again. They closed down our midfield, and forced us to play it long which was no good for Kevin and Tommy.

It was also good to see how Keane and Heslop would cope with their midfield, having snuffed out the creativity in the last few midfields we have played. Boy, they earned their money today. Neither of them was quite as effective as they have been, but that is not to say they didn’t have good games, just that they were not able to do to Stevenage what they had been doing to the likes of Salisbury, Hayes and Kidderminster. They still harried and hassled and got down and dirty, put the tackles in and worked incredibly hard. They both had to work the whole game at 100% to cope with Stevenage, but cope they did.

At the other end Pilkington and Blackett were absolutely outstanding. Time and time again they needed to get a last-ditch tackle in, or get a foot in or a block in, as well as the barrage of long balls they had to head away. Pilks was absolute class today, wonderful to see how high he can raise his game when needed to. When the game became extra-scappy in the last 20 minutes they picked up the bits and pieces exceedingly well. In the first 20 minutes they actually tidied up and controlled things in a very professional way. Never being too elaborate, but always doing the simple things well. That is one thing I have noticed about Money’s defensive tactics. No full back or centre half is encouraged to bugger-about with the ball. If it needs to go out, it goes out. If the straightforward thing is to hoof it into row Z for a corner then that’s what we do, quite rightly.

So with the first half characterised with us squeezed into playing it long, Roberts and Ashton (I think) spent most of the time heading it away as they are paid to do. I recall us getting a corner after Craddock had beaten their right back to the ball and forced a save. I thought Keane had fluffed the corner seemingly grubbing it to the near post but Pilks did get it into play for it to be cleared.

Stevenage did settle into their game plan quicker, and came at us repeatedly, relying on Obubade to run onto the knock-downs and then to try to score from set pieces. Eventually this relentless pressure paid off, and Obubade ran on passed it to Sills (I think, I really must concentrate on who is who in the opposition) who popped it past Mark Tyler. Fortunately – for once – lady luck came down on the side of truth and justice and lino raised his flag for offside, much to our relief. Tyler wasn’t really tested after that in the first half, for all of Stevenage’s domination; a couple more knock downs and shots, but both well outside the area, and I always think that if outside the area is the nearest you are letting teams shoot, then you must be doing something right, if you see what I mean.

As they all trooped off down the tunnel at half time, including the subs (apart from Gore and Kovacs) Hatch reappeared momentariy to retrieve his jersey from the away bench. Things were about to change.

And change they did. Gallen came off and Hatch started the second half. A canny move by Money. They were allowing nothing to go to feet – so stick someone who could win it in the air. Simple game, football, if you don’t over elaborate. The only danger, of course, of having Hatch is that we tend to then only try and play it long up to him rather than having him as an outlet if necessary. Perhaps that is one to work on for another day, but today it was excused as Stevenage gave us no choice frankly.

Stevenage had a couple of early chances but Tyler saved effectively. Then came the turning point. Matthew Barnes-Homer came on as sub, replacing the Tom Craddock who had been less effective than usual (but still with a high work-rate) for the reasons discussed previously. MBH scored with only his second touch, his first touch setting up the phase of play (I hate ‘phase’ being used – it is a rugby term) for him to score in the first place.

Murray took a throw down the line (hurrah, it stayed in play!) Hatch nodded it on to MBH who surprised the lump Roberts and their right back and took it and sprinted down the left, Roberts caught up with him and stuck it out for a throw level with the edge of the box. Cue Murray again – could he make it two decent throws on the trot? Well, yes he could. He found Jakey Howells in the box who lost out to Bostwick who didn’t clear the ball straight away and Hatch got in and tackled him on the penalty spot, Barnes-Homer pounced on the loose ball in the blink of an eye and slotted it into the back of the net with his left foot: less than a minute after coming on. Cue mass celebrations and relief and delight. So pleased for him.

But blimey, there was still 35 mins to go. I thought Stevenage would come back at us stronger than even they had in the first half, but actually the goal took the wind out of their sails, certainly for the next 10 minutes. Almost as if they were resigned to it. The edge definitely went from their game.

At this point it might be appropriate to have a go at the ref. He was a strange fellow, always trying to keep a smile on his face, but allowing himself to be hoodwinked by Stevenage’s tactics of falling over or making a meal of an innocuous challenge. He missed countless pushes by the Stevenage players but was happy to blow up at the slightest touch from Luton. Why does that happen? That’s how well we contained them today – we had much more work to do because the ref gave them everything and gave us so very little. Hatch was booked for a catching one of their players, so much less than we had been experiencing at their hands but Roberts ensured the ref knew it was the worst challenge in the history of the game and the ref got his card out. Countless times he failed to spot them backing into our players or little pushes and nudges off the ball. Good though, as it makes us all shout and raises the atmosphere and the volume which suits us much better.

With us in the lead we sensibly bottled up the midfield by going to a 4-5-1 with Hatch up front on his own, MBH on the left and Howells at inside left. When it was last ditch time for the last 20 minutes we sank deeper and deeper into our own half. But for all of their chances I was quietly confident that we would keep them out. This wasn’t the Luton team of old who can’t hold a lead or who buckle at the first sign of trouble. They were resolute. They were fantastic.

Despite being barged in the back Jake Howells headed off the line from a knock on from a long throw.

Then one of their players (Drury I think) ran into Ed, but surprise surprise, according to the ref it was actually Ed’s fault. The free kick found our friend Roberts at the far post but he headed it wide.

Dear Claude who had some good knock downs in the first half, didn’t get much of a sniff in the second. He didn’t have a poor game at all, just wasn’t given the chance to have a good one. He didn’t drift off or fall over his feet or do any of the old Claude things. Towards the end a Tyler kick found him rather than Hatch for a change and Hatch bustled into the box to collect the nod on, but their keeper collected.

Newton came on for Howells near the end and went onto the left. He surprised Stevenage (and us) with his pace at the end and got a ball into the box around the right back, but to no avail. He might have been better off to perhaps keep the ball in play near the corner flag and would have been shot I dare say if the resulting open play led to an equaliser.

So that was that – what I have missed out in this report is the succession of balls pumped into our box for us to chase down or clear, lots of last ditch tackles and putting your balls on the line type of tackles. We really did defend well at the end. It wasn’t pretty, it was dogged and determined, and kept us on the edge of our seats. Very small seats by the way, the smallest and most cramped seats I have ever sat in. It was like they had taken a normal size ground and put it on a boil wash and then shrunk it in the tumble drier, leading to the seats being perfect for anyone 4’2 but not 6’2. However to compensate, the jumbo-sausage-bacon-baguettes were a tasty meat-fest.

We took all that the top club had to throw at us: long balls, cheating tactics, dodgy ref and all, and yet still managed to come away with a cheeky win. We had to be at our defensive-best to survive the onslaught, but we managed it. Team work, resilience and a high workrate contributed to our success.

If you didn’t get to the game and wondered what Luton were like – well….we were fab. You would have been proud of the lads. They battled and fought and worked hard, just like you always hoped a Luton team would.

Some ratings:

Tyler – 7.5 – surprisingly didn’t have too much to do. Made a number of key saves when called upon. Kicking accuracy slightly down.

Ed – 8 – tidy enough, a couple of slips under pressure, but a whole host of excellent tackles.
Pilks – 10 – what more could a centre half do in a game?
Blackett – 9.5 – sound as a pound, committed and efficient.
Murray – 7.5 – caught out on the left by their pacy winger chap on a few occasions, but again some excellent cover work in the first half and important challenges.

Claude Le Crosse – 7.5 – not his usual self, but some good touches, including one crunching tackle.
Heslop – 9 – less able to dominate but still a tireless workhorse in midfield
Keane – 9 – only two bad passes at the start in this game, again full effort, committment and concentration
Howells – 8 – less chance to shine in attack, but worked hard both halves

Gallen – 6 – didn’t get much of a sniff, one nice turn in the first half.
Craddock – 7 – high work rate, but not many scraps to feed off

Subs:

Hatch – 8.5 – tons of effort in defence as well as attack, his tackle enabled the goal
MBH – 8.5 – super sub, worked hard in midfield and down the left after THAT goal
Newton – not on long enough

Good result Hatters. That leaves us only 2 points behind Stevenage, but they have a game in hand still.

Let’s compare the run-ins:

We have:

Grays (H) 24th – down and nothing to play for
Tamworth (A) 17th – battling for safety
Histon (H) 15th – more or less safe
Altrincham (H) 10th – nothing to play for
Rushden (A) 4th – play off certainty and jockeying for position

Stevenage have:

Wimbledon (A) – 6th – trying to catch York for the last play off place
Forest Green (H) 21st – battling to avoid joining Grays
Altrincham (A) – see above
Kidderminster (A) – 11th and licking their wounds after their 5-1 drubbing in the cup
Gateshead (A) 19th – battling for survival
York (H) 5th – trying to ensure 5th spot, surely will have already secured play off spot by the last game.

I’ll not jinx anything by trying to make potential point predicitons.

All we can hope for is that Stevenage will now lose a bit of confidence and belief having lost at last. As before, if we continue on our present run then we give ourselves the best shot at the title.

Grays on Monday then. From the sublime to the ridiculous. Some will be predicting double figures (the famous Bristol Rovers game was on an Easter Monday) but 1-0 and a good performance will do fine for me.

Thanks for reading. Happy Easter.

Standard