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.
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
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:
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
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.