Dead Dog and Disappointment

Well, the cricket is back on and that helps me to take my mind of the agony of last Saturday.

I knew it was going to be a bad day when my dog died at 3am, my Betfair account was hacked with my money stolen, and one of my boys was sick on the train. When the winning Wimbledon penalty went in I just shut my eyes and held my head in my hands for half a minute, listening to their noise. It hurt. But there is nothing we can do now, other than dust ourselves off and get on with next year.

300 minutes of football against us and Wimbledon didn’t manage to score a goal. We neutralised their threat all season and particularly on Saturday. I thought Pilks and Kroca were immense. Well, Kroca is immense, but you know what I mean. I thought the pair of them plus Keano were outstanding all afternoon, especially when you consider that this Wimbledon is not terribly different from the old one: eg full of big lumps trying to kick you to bits. We did have a few wobbles, but to keep a clean sheet for 120 minutes against the team in 2nd place was no mean feat, especially when we were trying to attack.

I think we traded blows during the game, and to be fair had plenty of chances to win it. If you watch the game again (which I did with a heavy heart) we put some really excellent football together at times. We couldn’t dominate – but we were against a relatively good team. I think it is encouraging in itself. Unless Fleetwood spend millions a la Crawley in the summer(as is the rumour apparently) then that will nominally be our toughest game for 12 months. That’s not to say we won’t have tough games or indeed that we will waltz round sides, but frankly the two best sides have been promoted – a load of rubbish has been relegated from the FL and so next season (Fleetwood ‘millions’ notwithstanding) it is ours to lose.

But let’s beware – a number of teams finished strongly last year and there are some good managers in the division who will make average teams into competitive ones.

I hope Gary Brabin stays. I think he is what we need. He attacks, likes his sides to score goals, and tries to play it the right way. I’d be happier if we played further up the pitch, eg closing down in their half not ours, but that does leave us vulnerable to counter attacks so you can’t have everything.

If Pilks, Keano and Kroca were outstanding last Saturday then I thought Jakey Howells and Ed A-A were just below that.

Howells played on the left of the three, when we were playing 4-3-3 and then as a winger in 4-4-2 when MBH came on. As he has done throughout the season he showed us glimpses of brilliance and occasionally is far too good for this division. It was a key game for Ed. I thought he was a bit too exposed at left back against Wrexham, once they had sussed he was a right footer playing at left back. I was a bit concerned that Wimbledon might do the same, but I think he stepped up a gear and had an excellent game. Some of his passing was spot on and apart from one or two early touches he was a threat to them and sound for us. It will be interesting to see what happens next season. Assuming Murray is fit, I’d say that Dan Gleeson has a bit of competition at right back now – though of course he was Brabin’s pick and we brought him from Cambridge.

I thought Dan Gleeson had a weak game on Saturday. He seemed to spend the afternoon escorting the oncoming wingers into the box by backing off far too far. In fact the one time he did put a challenge in he sold himself completely and put us under pressure – so perhaps that’s why he’s tackle-shy. He’s been doing it all season so I’m not sure why I’m that surprised. Remember the first game against Charlton? Ouch. In his defence he is of course covering for Claude who spends/spent his time in the never-world of not quite right forward and not quite covering back. In fact on one occasion when he did venture back and clear the ball there was a surprised cheer where I was sitting. Dear Claude – he tried on Saturday, but he didn’t have the impact he would have liked or that Luton needed. An on-song Claude would have posed sufficient problems for us to be pretty confident that the game would have been sewn up long before extra time.

Willmott and Lawless had reasonably anonymous games – for them. We know the influence and skill they have at this level, so it is a bit disappointing that they didn’t stamp more authority onto the game. Again, if either of those had really clicked then we would have been home and dry.Lawless’s piledriver in extra time would have been a fitting winner. It doesn’t make up for the penalty miss though.

Mark Tyler made some crucial saves and ensured we kept a clean sheet. The only downside was that his kicking was a bit wonky. But his kicking has always been a little bit wonky, so that’s nothing new. He is as good a keeper as we can reasonably be expected to have at this level and we are lucky to have him. He deserved his player of the season award.

Lastly Jason Walker. Played on his own up front until MBH came on – and then, to be honest, still played on his own up front when MBH was on. Worked hard – hustled and bustled – was kicked to bits. And was involved in the three key incidents in the game.

Firstly – the penalty decision. Walker got into the box, passed it (didn’t shoot) and the keeper bearing down on him, impeded rather than deliberately fouled him as Walker jumped over him. A penalty it was. A Stone-cold certainty (not stonewall as everyone seems to say. Stonewall means to delay or not to cooperate – a pedant writes…). We’ve all seen them given countless times, and we’ve all seen much less given countless times too. So quite why the ref didn’t have the balls to give it we will never know. Perhaps it was because he didn’t have the balls.

Secondly – after a cracking move where Keano won the ball, Claude played an intelligent ball out to Howells, who played a gorgeous cross from the left which was met by Jason Walker’s head, leaping like the proverbial spring-salmon in between two big lumps, timing it exquisitely, or so we thought: the ball hurtled towards the corner of the goal, we all got to our feet, it struck the post, it struck the inside of the post – where’s it going? Where’s it going..?

It’s bouncing out back to the keeper. Thanks for nothing Lady Luck. You owe us big style. And that was with a minute to go. Walker couldn’t believe it hadn’t gone in. We’ll never fail to score a better or more crucial goal. So, in a couple of minutes we should have had a penalty and we very, very nearly got a goal. Things don’t change around here do they?

Thirdly. The penalty miss. I’m not going to say anything. It’s all been said already.

Oh go on then, I will:

a) what an idiot
b) he’ll regret it for the rest of his life (or should do)
c) hopefully he’ll never do it again.

So that was that – we cancelled each other out in extra-time with Wimbledon finishing stronger. Then the dreaded penalties and then despair. Another season of bloody non-league. Alfreton, Bath, Braintree. For God’s sake.

My scores on the doors:

Tyler: 7.5
Gleeson: 5.5
Kroca: 9.5
Pilks: 9.5
Ed-AA: 8

Lawless: 7
Keane: 9.5 (How much did he want it?)
Howells: 8

Gnapka: 7
Walker: 7
Willmott: 6.5

MBH: 5.5
Newton: 5.5

Rob Hadgraft wrote about his premonitions on here previously. I had a dream in August 2009, the night before the Forest Green game. I’ve not shared it on here before. I do hope it doesn’t come true. It was unthinkable at the time. In the dream we went up in our fourth year of tier five. It was almost against the odds and unexpected. In the dream we had all stopped expecting to be promoted and given up and the team delivered when the pressure was off. Let’s hope not eh?

It was ultimately a disappointing season as well as a season that ended in disappointment. We had a weaker team this season than we ended last season with, and a weaker one than the one we started with. But we shouldn’t be toobdowncast. Unless our best players are lured elsewhere, we have a good young squad which can only get better and better and I’m hoping that Gary Brabin is the manager to add to that squad, build on this year and deliver us to the promised land next April, or preferably by March…

Things to come over the summer/next few weeks:

First of all I hope Rob H is going to continue to post on here over the summer. PDW has also promised to keep the articles coming over the close season which should be good.

I’ve done an end of season report which is presently embargoed (nothing dramatic, it is just likely to be published elsewhere first.)

I’m going to be posting some ‘Open Threads’ whereby readers can post their thoughts on the season and the summer, as well as some ‘Best ever…’, ‘Worst ever…’ general posts that everyone can contribute to like last year.

So – until I post the end of season report I’ll spend a few days watching the cricket and trying my best not to think about LTFC every couple of minutes.

My thanks to all of my readers, wherever you log on from around the world; to those of you who take the time to post such thoughtful comments and encouragement and kind words; and also to PDW and Rob Hadgraft for their time and efforts in adding their opinions and some much needed colour and interest to the blog.

Here’s to season 2011/12 – what’s the betting we get Braintree away first up?

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Monday Morning Thoughts of a Grumpy Old Lutonian

Glad I’m not the only one who thought the opera singer and all that other American-style nonsense was totally unnecessary. Fireworks in bright sunshine? The national anthem? What’s that all about? Save the trimmings for the FA Cup final and internationals, please. :??:

And, by the way, congratulations to the 27-year-old PE teacher who bizarrely booked Keith Keane early for a nothing challenge (leaving him treading on eggshells for the rest of the game), and then allowing Luke Moore to stay on the pitch after elbowing Keane, so he could score in the shoot-out when he should have been showered and changed by then. To cap it all the ref then played advantage when the keeper took out Walker, but failed to give a penalty when no such advantage accrued. :??:

And what shape are Man City’s posts? Normally when a ball hits the inside of a post from a 45 degree angle it will rebound into the net and not come back out in the same direction. One for you geometrists there …. 😥

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PDW’s Kneejerk Reactions

That American crank was wrong about the end of the world happening on Saturday at 6pm. But only about half an hour. Que cera sa, whatever will be , we’re going to Bath City. It sums up our luck ( or lack of it) and the anti -sport nature of the play offs that we lost out to a team which has failed to score against us in five hours of football this season.

On a bright side, I like our new shirt. It’s not dissimilar to the one the team played in the mid 70’s (I think), with a white stripe down one side and a darker orange than the last couple of seasons. Looks like a proper Luton shirt rather than a tangerine sandwich board for that naff low budget airline.

Fair play to Wimbledon. Never believed that old guff about the romance and fairytale of their team of the late 80’s. They were to football what Myra Hindley is to child care. But any side to win six promotions in nine years is a fine effort (not being funny but is Kingstonian really acceptable venue for the Football League? Probably as the people who ” run” the League do what suits them, also being inside the M25 helps ). On the day, they were better, more controlled than us, not by a huge amount by any means, but edged it and but for some woeful finishing in extra time, they could have got the job done by then.

A nervy, tense stalemate with penalties a likely outcome from the early stages, but they used the ball better and got hold of the midfield, in which only Keith Keane showed up. Looked more hungry in the tackle and far more streetwise than in our last meetings with them over the normal League season. It’s Crewe all over again. :o(

That was the trouble our better performers were all defensive ones, Pilkington and Kroca immense, Tyler and Keane. Apart from the obvious wasted opportunity and another year in this oh so delightful division.

The most disappointing aspect of the day, was we didn’t perform to anywhere the standard we can do. If we had gone down fighting and lost, at least you could we had given it our best shot. But, like last season, we have fallen short. Time for a small clearout, nothing radical, but we do need to improve in certain areas, I feel we are vulnerable at full backs, need another creative spark in midfield, to back up Lawless, who was quieter than anonymous, a target man to replace Owusu, a young back up keeper and a goal poacher. Our forwards have all had their good days, but none are relaible enough often enough in front of goal. We do score a lot, but need to improve on the chances: goal ratio. Although keeping Tyler is the main piece of business in the Summer. Although he is playing at least two levels below himself.

We do have the core of a very decent team, Tyler, Pilkington, Keane, Lawless, Willmott, Howells, but generally a sa group haven’t performed consistently enough over the season. There have been some excellent performances but quite a lot of ordinary dross, to be brutally honest in a League which is poor outside the top ten sides.

After not exactly a whole hearted effort by MBH, it is probably best for both parties if he seeks a fresh start. He looked disinterested in probably the biggest match of his career to date. He has some ability, but to show next to zero effort in a match of that importance is unacceptable. His absence was duty noted at the penalty shoot out. Mind you, considering his effort against Mansfield is still orbiting the Earth it might not have been a bad thing.

But for Walker’s header desperately unlucky to see the ball rebound against the inside of the post and a shot by Claude after skinning Stuart, forcing Brown to tip over, if only he had looked up and spotted Jake Howells in a better position, more central and unmarked. That was about the sum of threat to Brown’s goal, apart from a stonewall penalty late in the peace Walker rounded Brown and was clearly tripped. The officials were dreadful all afternoon ( but 90% at this level are, that is hardly noteworthy) . They defended well, as we did too, they defended deep to negotiate the fact their centre halves Stuart and Johnson have the turn of foot of a lame Tortoise. We rarely got the ball behind them.

None of three potential matchwinners were at the races. Willmott, not aided by a knock in the first half, was pocketed comfortably by Hatton ( that’s the best right back in the Division, Mr Money by the way), Claude’s crossing was rather indifferent, when he put a couple of good balls in, no one moved, but on too may occassions it was merely heading practice for the Wimbledon rearguard.

Lawless rarely got involved, was hoping that a player with his ability could stamp his presense on this game, nice wide pitch, but was outmuscled and outplayed by Wimbledon’s diamond formation. Moore, in particular a right little pest, was busy, often involved in quick counter attacks won numerous tackles ( and lost a few, on another day with another referee, should have seen red, an elbow on Keane shortly after he had been booked). The ground at Wastelands ( no typo) is very nice ( not a patch on Church Road in Hayes, mind ), better than the untarmaced dust bowl which punters were parking at the bargain rate of £10 ( almost had a Sean Connery seeing that price), perfectly located. Shame it was perfectly located for Oldham.

Call me a miserable sod, not a fan of the way in modern life they have to make everything into an event. I’m sure there is a time and a place for a smug Mancunian belting out Opera and some random blonde bint trying to sing in a dress which needed a colour fading switch on it. There is it’s called Bomb O’Clock in Afghanistan. Let’s just get the game played and stop the arsing about, please.

Being sanctimonious, rather than waste cash on Commonwealth Stadium and the millions pumped into Manchester City, it would be far better pumped into improving the east side of Manchester, the likes of Gorton even street lamps have ABSO’s. Thankfully, I had my Tetanus jabs in the week.

The same team which comfortably waltzed past Wrexham lined up, with the same formation. Said before, for that formation to work, everything needs to click into gear, otherwise the lone central striker doesn’t receive any service and if the wingers/ midfielders don’t cover the gaps on the flanks, it leaves both full backs exposed. The one change was on the bench Crow back for Owusu. Consideringly Crow thinks Luton is in London and says them things rather than those things, it’s debatable whether he is the man for a crisis.

Our passing and movement so good at Wrexham, let us down. On wide open spaces, if you don’t work the ball well enough, or create space by moving off the ball it’s difficult to make life hard for the opposition. Even when we switched to a 4-4-2 shape, it did give us a more solid shape, but with MBH and Walker playing too far apart from each other, despite spells of possession, little pressure was heaped upon the Wimbledon defence.

Given the importance of the fixture, it was hardly a shock that there was a scrappy start to the a game, which rarely relented. Plenty of effort, but the skill level rarely rose above the medicore.

Wimbledon settled the better, the Wimbledon quartet, Moore , Gregory, the dogged Wellard and Yussuff, a fast little blighter, had more energy than our three in midfield. Although as a whole the increasingly festively plump Kedwell was well marshalled once again, and Mohamed, full of pace and tricks, wasn’t a huge danger.

Most of the opportunities came from crosses and set pieces, after Willmott’s flat corner was put behind by Gregory, his second attempt with more flight, sailed towards the far post, Kedwell headed back across his own goal, but Kroca unable to get enough purchase on the ball to find the target.

The big Czech was at the other end, to stab Gwillim’s dangerous low cross away from the near post. Hatton sent a deep corner swiunging in to the far post, Kedwell managed to get above EAA ( hardly surprising given the massive height/weight difference), but his header lacked any accuracy.

Kedwell did have the ball in the net, ruled out for offside, Lawless ponderous lost out to Wellard, ball sprayed to the left to give Mohamad a run at Gleeson, his shot , Tyler palmed away only for Kedwell to stab in ,thankfully the linesman had his flag up.

It was open and after a poor twenty minutes, we did eventually settle down and the game become very even. Howell, taking Willmott’s quick shiort throw, turning infield and thumped a drive which Brown caught around his midrift. Keane won a fine tackle against Wellard, shifting the ball to Claude, gave it to Walker, who was unsubtly upended by Johnson. Not booked, when the first bad tackle of the match goes unpunished, players start taking liberties and tackles flew in fast and furious. The free kick by Willmott was high and wide, even since he scored his wonder goal at Kidderminster, he thinks he can do it a weekly basis. Erm…no.

Decent passing move between Moore, Yussuff , fell into Kedwell to force Tyler into a save, which was split but the ball feel to Kroca, no hard done. Good run by Claude picked out by a low pass by Willmott on the left, dancing around Stuart with ease, but failing to notice Howells in a better postition, drilled a rising shot , which Brown touched over.

It was a decent spell of pressure, but on a whole we lacked thw width, with Wimbledon defending narrowly, it was hard work, to get through loads of bodies. Stuart poleaxing Howells, no booking obviously. His free kick, was dealt with but only to Pilkington, his shot charged down, but fell to Kroca who missed the ball, so Brown mananged to take the ball an walker in the process.

A superb lofted pass by Gregory, excellent first touch by Kedwell, but decided to fall over Pilkington, when a decent change looked on. A needless lunge by Gwillim, sent Claude to the deck, he got up and was on the receiving end of an inch perfect free kick by Willmott on the right, unmarked but sent his header flying over, with Brown as mobile as a concrete Cow watched it fly over.

Second half was much of a muchness, we had some spells of pressure, not prolonged or with any great threat. The same comment applies to the opposition. A fine cross by Moore which no blue shirt could get on the end of, Pilkington blocked a strike from the same player. Wimbledon used the space we allowed them well, Kedwwell sent down the right by Yussuff, his cross stopped by Kroca. After Gleeson had blocked Mohammed, the ball fell to Wellard to float a cross in, which Tyler had to make a fair amount of yardage and caught the ball brilliantly under pressure for Kedwell.

MBH came on for Willmott, unfortunately not his day, but it needed changing. One mistake Brabin made, was not giving Crow a little run out, although they did try and put him on for the penalities, but were too late getting the sheet across to the fourth official. Neither of our full backs had the opportunity to get forward, on once occasion he did, EAA showed neat control and a decent strike, which was deflected behind. From which, Pilkington’s looping header was never nearer than finding the roof of the net from Howells.

Wimbledon sent on Mulley for Wellard. Like Mohammad for Bath, Mulley caused our defence all sorts of problems for Hayes in the home game, with his direct running style, he sent a curling effort in, which Tyler saved although it looked like it was going to off target. Tyler, unusually finding himself of position on the left, Kedwell rounded him, surprisingly staying on his feet, but the ball dribbled wide.

As the half went on, players were tiring, Wimbledon mainly, as the energy they put in took it’s toil. Spaces were openly all over the pitch, although neither side were good enough to take the opportunity, when the game was there to be won. At times, both sides appeared to be walking it in.

Mohamed turned the ball wide, after Mulley had galloped down the right, feeding in Gregory.Then Walker was felled in the box, by Brown, after taking too long to strike, MBH unable to scramble in the loose ball, after Hatton blocked near the line. Then came the moment to win it, a delightful ball in from Howells on the left, Walker, good contact with his header and how the ball didn’t go in, but kiss the inside of the post will remain a mystery. There would have been little time for them to get the goal back.

Gregory pinged in a low drive, which wasn’t far away, neat pass inside by Lawless Gnakpa beating Yakubu, but an excellent catch by Brown.

In extra time, both teams were dead on their feet. Newton came on for Claude, but we didn’t make the final sub. Wimbledon seemed to settle for penalities as they brought on a sizeable midfield bruiser in Minshull. Gleeson, by his woeful shooting standards wasn’t too far away with a strike outside the box. The only real opportunity of note was a cracking strike by Lawless , fierce but the wrong side of the post, after good little move between Howells and EAA.

On the turn around, Wimbledon had chances to seal it, Yussuff making the kost of space, sliding the ball to Mulley, but his effort was saved by Tyler. Walker glanced a header goalwards, decent cross by Gleeson from lawless’ throw in. A real moent of disaster occured, Moore against kroca on the right channle, kroca slipped, Moore’s pull back, and Mohammed could only side foot across the post. Pilkington’s header was dealt with by Brown from keane’s corner. Then Gleeson produced a rare pice of brilliant defending throwing his body in front of Minshull from point blank range from Kedwell’s low centre. Yakubu missed an easy chance, nodding wide from Hatton’s centre, an incredible miss.

So to penalties, in front of the Wimbledon fans ( why they can’t take them at either end is bizarre. The Police advice..what do they know? Not a lot).We went first…

Lawless, his body language looked awful, a tired poke, low, simple save by Brown

Hatton powerful strike beating Tyler high to his right.

Pilkington, calmly finding the roof of the net to Brown’s left

Moore ditto Pilkington’s penalty.

Newton ( oh gawd) , calmly dispatched the ball to the left, sending Brown the wrong way.

Mohammed, weak effort into Tyler’s legs.

Walker, a cheeky dink, into the middle, looks great when it goes in, but Brown reacted and pawed it out. Oh Jason you ginger haired Northern tit , why didn’t you smash it hard and low like the one against Wrexham a few games ago?

Yakubu calmly slotted the ball down the middle.

Howells, lovely chip into the left top corner. Great penalty, given his age and pressure.

Kedwell, never looked like missing, smashed it high past Tyler’s right. No chance of stopping it.

The two blokes I expected to score missed and the ones I thought maybe dodgy took their penalties perfectly. So it shows you, how little I know. Every picture tells a story, Wimbledon jubilant and our players sunk on the turf. Poor Walker in tears. It was a awful penalty but at least he had the balls to take one, and if it makes him feel any better, he could pay for my transport costs up to his native homeland for the game next season. On a Tuesday night in February probably, called off at 7.44pm. Every player who even attempts that dinky, gay penalty in training should be fined ( or better still shot). Otherwise mistakes will not be learnt from.

Think Brabin deserves another chance to protect his fine record of being unable to win promotion from this league. The players look more happy and relaxed and although it didn’t work yesterday. We have played better football under his management.

Again the Conference board showed not only a lack of business acumen about the prices and not inviting Peter Winkleman to give Wimbledon the trophy, they lack humour as well . A fairly trying day, but when we finally get promoted hopefully some time before the next fifty years, it will be all the sweeter for days like that.

Bring on the Braintree and the white hot cauldron of Cressing Road. #FFS.

Mark Tyler 7.5 , Dan Gleeson 6, Zdenek Kroca 8.5, George Pilkington 8 , Edward Asafu-Adjaye 6.5, Claude Gnakpa 5 ( Adam Newton 6) , Keith Keane 9, Alex Lawless 5, Jake Howells 6.5, Robbie Willmott 5( Matthew Barnes-Homer 4), Jason Walker 6.

Subs not used – Luke Graham,Danny Crow Kevin Pilkington, . Booked – Keane, Lawless.

Wimbledon – Brown, Hatton, Stuart, Johnson, Gwillim( Yakubu), Gregory(Minshull), Wellard( Mulley), Yussuf, Moore, Mohamed, Kedwell. Booked – Johnson, Moore, Minshull

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Nerves taut, bums squeaky, butterflies in residence

The Luton Massive

The nerves are taut, the bums are squeaky and the stomachs are clogged with butterflies. And that’s just us fans. What the hell are the players like?

Saturday’s play-off final in Manchester is being trumpeted as the biggest game in our history, which, at the risk of being called pedantic, I would slightly disagree with. I would suggest it’s not the BIGGEST, but it is quite possibly the most IMPORTANT. You have to say the 1959 FA Cup final and 1988 Littlewoods final were bigger, although even they didn’t have the power to decide the short and medium-term future of the Hatters – which Saturday’s game certainly does.

To my mind, this is the most significant game since the final fixture of 1991-2, when we had to get a win at Notts County to stay in the top flight and become part of the land of fat wallets and dancing girls that is the Premier League. A miserable second-half performance at Meadow Lane did for us that day, and we were unable to repeat our great escapes, both against Derby, of the two preceding years.

If we win this weekend, I suspect the celebrations will be longer, louder and more jubilant than on any other occasion in our club’s 126-year lifetime. The relief at getting out of non-League football would be like Chernobyl blowing its top. And some.

There are not too many other Luton fans living in my neck of the woods, so I’m not seeing the white faces, shaky hands or furrowed brows at first hand, but judging by the messageboards, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest of it, there is one hell of a lot of stress and suppressed excitement around this week.

It’s a shame that AFCW and ourselves can’t both go up, for both are surely far better than the likes of Barnet et al, who marginally survived demotion last week. These days the gap between League 2 and the top half of the BSP is narrower than the leg room in the Oak Road stand.

I have just received an e-mail from the See Ticket agency, promising that, after a regrettable delay, my tickets are on the way and will arrive “in 2-3 days” (even though I stumped up the cash for special/recorded delivery). I trust they don’t really mean that? Three days? That would mean they’d arrive late on Friday, about 15 hours before I set off for Manchester. If that happens the panic button may well have been pressed already.

In the mean time, I promise to let Mosque Blog readers know as soon as my pre-match premonition visits me. Before both legs of the semi-final against Wrexham, I had one of these visions, and both proved correct. On the morning of the away game I declared that Alex Lawless would score, and all would go well, and before the second leg I announced that Jason Walker would net and that we would win. Both were spot on, although sadly I can’t prove anything, as I kept them largely to myself.

Mind you, in an interview with Justin on BBC 3CR, which took place 35 minutes BEFORE the second leg, I told him and the listeners that the only cause we had for worry would be if our visitors bagged an early goal, and then got awarded a lucky disputed penalty. Both things duly happened and worry we did! For a while, anyway.

Now, hang on a sec, just before I go, something is coming through the ether. It’s all a bit hazy and I can’t quite make out too much detail, but three small figures in orange are involved and they are smiling broadly. It looks very much like Howells, Keane and Walker. Those are the three most prominent faces. I don’t know quite what this means, but they look very happy. You read it here first!

:DD

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The Dai is cast: Luton go to Manchester

On a pleasant May evening, a penalty save from Mark Tyler settled Luton’s nerves and turned the tide in the game; much in the way Andy Dibble’s famous save had 23 years ago.

If any doubters on the planet had any lingering uncertainty as to whether our club deserves to be in the football league, if they had attended Kenilworth Road last night it would have shredded the objections of even the most ardent agnostic . Eight thousand Hatters crammed in, with an atmosphere and passion some Premier League clubs would envy – the club the FA and FL tried to bury was singing and buzzing and was ready to return. How they must be dreading it. Little Luton coming back to haunt them like a bad penny.

Wrexham brought about 1000 fans – which is to be applauded as they were already 3-0 down and Luton were the shortest of short odds to go through. They sang, chanted and sang some more despite it becoming increasingly obvious that they wouldn’t be going to Manchester and were consigned to this non-league hell for another year. As someone said on Outlaws last night – proper club proper fans – and they deserve better. It is still galling to me that tiny clubs like Dagenham and Redbridge, Cheltenham and Macclesfield are above the more traditional clubs in the pyramid. But there you go – that’s what you get with the democracy of two up two down with the fifth tier. Where those clubs might be in their cycle of sustainability – ie whether, like us, they have painfully realised that in the lower leagues you cannot exist in the medium term on a wholly unsustainable basis – I’m not sure, but sooner or later just getting two men and a dog through the turnstiles to their home games will ultimately bite them on the behind and they will drift back from whence they came.

Some lively chaps sat or rather stood in the box directly behind the Wrexham dugout. They seemed to be offering the Welshmen plenty of advice during the game as well as lining up a row of inflatable sheep on the roof of the dugout. The sheep were tossed in front of them when one of the goals went in (didn’t see where the sheep went, poor thing) and dangling a Luton flag in front of them in their eye line. Welcome to Luton!

Luton started with the same 4-3-3 we had had on Thursday (which seemed to me to be ages ago – but I have driven 900 miles since then, which makes the days seem like years and turns my mind to paste) and the team had the same attacking intent. I rather thought that the 4-3-3 might become more of a 4-5-1 with our wide men picking up their full backs, as Wrexham were bound to attack – but with Claude being one of those two I guess it was never on the cards, even if it ever had been the intention.

I thought we were rather nervy at the start and struggled to settle initially. This seemed to be because Wrexham did what they failed to do in the first leg, eg close us down and deny us room.
Mangan had a chance within a minute – the longest of long balls from Maxwell swooped towards the forward like a heat-seeking missile following a Mig and the first bounce was horribly misjudged by Kroca presenting Mangan with a clear chance, which he hooked well wide. Fortunately it was offside. It reminded me of the (good) old days with the plassie pitch – if you got the bounce wrong you were a goner.

Within a minute the Czech was to blot his copy book again by slicing out a ball which should have gone forwards after a nice little passing move.

Wrexham’s tactics seemed to be to play the ball back where there was space for their defenders to hoof it long for the gawky pensioner Taylor.

Keane, stronger than an ox all night played in Walker down the right, but the move came to nothing.
Walker ran and ran and ran all night. He must have covered twice the yards of any other players on the pitch.

Keane was outstanding – simply outstanding. He ran and worked so hard putting in vital challenge after challenge. His presence in the middle of midfield in front of the back four reminded me of Nico’s wonderful performance in the JPT final. Keith Keane wants to get back in the league – make no mistake.

After an interchange with the poisoned-dwarf Harris, Fowler shot from distance, but it flew wide.

I was keeping an eye on Harris. It was like watching a non-league Dennis Wise without the wonky eyes. He managed to kick his way through the first game and I had a 50p bet with my mate Bob as to whether he would foul within the first five minutes. I nearly won – I timed his first foul when he hurled his tiny frame at Lawless’ head at 5:15. He provided me with a moment of mirth when at a corner in the second half he marked Kroca – little vs large. A rabid Jack Russell taking on a languid great dane.

Inside eight minutes Cieseleswicz picked up the ball well inside his own half and controlled and turned. He used his momentum to outpace Ed on his weaker side (eg his left) and sped through and past Howells too, who had failed to close and was putting in a challenge when Cieseleswicz threaded the ball past Kroca to Mangan who was overlapping at the far post and couldn’t miss. The initial Luton nervousness had translated itself into the perfect start for Wrexham: “the early goal”.

Shortly after we put together an attractive short-passing move which saw Ashton slip on his arse and shin the ball behind the goal for a corner under pressure from Lawless. The resultant corner, floated to Pilks at the far post saw him man-handled to the floor by the clumsy lump Sinclair. A penalty. And the goon of the ref missed it.

A long ball from Maxwell again saw Ed turned on his wrong side and Tyler had to come for the ball out of his box and he walloped it into touch.

A long ball (got the theme?) from Creighton down the left wing to Obeng in an off-side position saw him outpace Ed and volley a cross across the face of the goal – fortunately Taylor, with the nose of a bloodhound, but the legs of a carthorse failed to sniff out the opportunity and pounce on the cross. Gleeson tucked it into touch wisely.

However we dealt poorly with the corner, and the sense of panic – which so often renders bad things – was rising. Another move from Cieseleswicz saw a Tyler save at the near post and the ball was scrambled away. Half the crowd were imploring “come on Luton” whilst the other half were shouting “get the ball on the floor” and “sort it out”. The sap was rising.

We muffed a good opportunity from a freekick on the edge of their box on the right – the ball being played in and eventually falling for Lawless but he couldn’t get a shot in and Wrexham broke away. Tidied up neatly by Ed who was on the right hand side of the box.

Another neat interchange between Gleeson, Gnapka and saw the ball passed to Howells in space 20 yards out. His excellent shot was deflected behind for a corner. Only it wasn’t given.

After a couple of minutes playing their half, as is so often the way, Harris played a clever ball over the top to Mangan in the box, shepherded by Gleeson. Mangan tried to flick it across Gleeson to get a sight of goal and Gleeson, just for a split second instinctively jabbed an upper arm at the ball, which despite missing so much else, the ref spotted. To me, from behind the goal, it looked ball to arm. Successive replays on the telly showed that actually Dan had nothing to complain about – despite looking genuinely aggrieved at the decision. This was, however, a disaster. We had only played 20 minutes, and we were looking down the barrel of a gun at 0-2. Plenty of time for us to implode into nightmare.

Taylor ditched his walking frame and stepped up to take the penalty. He aimed an accurate shot low down to the keeper’s right, not quite in the corner.

It was not to be. The footballing Gods saw to it that the Luton Player of the Season Mark Tyler in his 509th senior appearance as a professional correctly dived to his left and saved, then parried then saved. Then ran out with the ball in his hands, waved at his Mum/Wife/Concubine in the main stand and whacked it up the pitch. The inevitable “who are ya?” chants transformed into “one Mark Tyler”.

And that was it – the turning point. We stopped being the victims; we stopped the inevitable downward spiral of self doubt, dissolving belief, defeat and thus despair that 0-2 after 20 minutes would spell. We had been here before against Wrexham. We had form.

But from that point whilst Wrexham pressed, some self belief went from them. Whilst they had more chances to score, we now had the upper hand, perhaps it was going to be out night after all. The spring transferred from their step into ours.

After 25 minutes Harris earnt his inevitable yellow card after a filthy lunge on Howells. The resulting free kick only produced more head tennis in their box as the move broke down.

A long ball from Maxwell put Pilks under pressure and he volleyed the ball up into the evening sky ahead of the onrushing Tyler. Fortunately the sky-ball plummeted onto the top of the net, evading the bar by an inch.

A long throw from Ed down the left went to the ever-ebullient Jason Walker who was bundled to the ground by Creighton. For once we didn’t try to take it quickly and Ed took the kick.

At this point I could see that Kroca who had wandered into the box (met with hoots of derision by the bloke in front of me – “why is he going up there?”) and was initially unmarked. He wandered onside and as the ball came in met the ball nicely and lobbed his header slowly, slowly, slowly over Maxwell, who had come for a ball he was never going to get, and it plopped happily into the back of the net. Cue pandemonium. You could see the Hatters faithful injecting the self belief back into their veins and the players seemed to freebase it off the crowd.

Gleeson, after a one two with Gnapka shot very wide – but we were on the front foot again.

Claude popped up on the left and took part in a lovely 11 pass one touch footballing move resulting in a cross from Willmott which was too strong for anyone but which was recycled on the right by the willing Gleeson whose cross driven along the 6 yard line was snaffled by a grateful Maxwell.

After three Luton players cut out a promising Wrexham move and put a quick ball forward for Walker to outpace Sinclair the Luton player realising that he hadn’t sprung the trap, caught the ball, but then chucked it away, like an unwanted cabbage and got a card for his troubles. Don’t know why he protested.

Keane made a vital challenge with his head in the box out keeping it away from Cieseleswicz and defusing the potential attack showing great effort in the process.

A couple of stumbles/gallic dives/trips began and ended another good move from the Town on the edge of the Wrexham box, Luton gradually finding more space to pass and move and more importantly getting first to the ball.

Cieseleswicz used his pace to burst into the box and Tyler saved soundly. Pilks had got caught in the move and required the physio. Concern for Pilks was such that he had a mini fitness test at the start of the second half.

Another long ball from the back saw Aston’s cross saved by Tyler.

Tyler – ever generous and always the first and last to applaud the Kenny End did so for the last time this year at half time. He deserved every decibel of the applause and praise.

No subs at half time. We started where we left off at the end of the first half. A lovely move down the left saw Willmott waste the chance with a cross come shot which ended up as neither.

Lawless was deemed offside after a good move involving Claude in the middle.

Lawless then clipped Harris’ ankle in an obvious foul to earn himself a card and Wrexham a free kick. The free kick from Keates was palmed away expertly by MT.

A dodgy back pass from Creighton saw Willmott presented with a chance on the edge of the box, he passed it to Walker in a better position in the middle but on the edge of the box, he was under pressure from three defenders and played it wide for Claude who was in a better position but whose shot was touched over by Maxwell.

Howells corner to Pilkington saw Claude die a thousand deaths in the box, missed inevitably by the ref who also managed to miss that Wrexham put the ball out for a throw, the ref missed it but eventually the linesman gave the throw to Luton. It took an age seemingly.

Ed’s eyes lit up as he tried to dribble the ball into the penalty area but the ball was cleared.

On 53 minutes Sinclair clonked Walker badly for a free kick just on the edge, but right in front of the goal. Willmott took the free kick. Willmott’s cracker was saved brilliantly by Maxwell preventing a certain goal.

A confident move, started by Keane, saw Ed ultimately pick up the ball from left back, and he lined up a shot, but the lollipop shot didn’t even had the legs to go out for a goal kick. All of the velocity seemed to die from the ball.

Two two footed challenges from Sinclair prevented further Luton progress. Fortunately he won the ball and not Luton legs.

Cieseleswicz roasted Ed again for a corner on the right. The corner went to the far post and was nodded down for Taylor and Sinclair (combined age 77) only for Alex Lawless (26) to nip in and take it off them before they could coax their weary bodies into first gear.

Ed turned and offered some words of advice to his nemisis Cieseleswicz after he won the ball but clattered him to the ground.

Unfortunately Sinclair was withdrawn after 65 minutes. I was rather hoping they’d keep him on, as he was increasingly becoming ragged and tired and would surely have yielded us a goal with his Gus Ceaser-esque stumble-bummery.

There was a good save from Maxwell after Willmott ran into the box on the left.

Twenty minutes to go, and to prove the fates wrong – I uttered Danny Baker’s famous words – “Nothing can go wrong now”.

A short corner from Willmott and Howells saw Maxwell make a good save from Willmott’s curling shot.

Gnapka played a lovely ball over the top to Walker running into the box. Maxwell saved the 1 on 1 and I started to wonder if Jason Walker was going to ever score again.

Gleeson played in Claude down the right, he turned and beat his man and put in a lovely cross to Howells whose glorious volley was saved brilliantly by Maxwell. The Kenny was now coming into its own. Even the darkest doubters were now beginning to believe that our play-off semi final mini hoodoo was cast into the bin like a discarded pie. Up and down we hopped at the Kenny End with each attack. Singing our hearts out. We’ve seen so much at the Kenny down the years, just in the 33 years I’ve been coming I’ve experienced every emotion there is to have. So many good ones, but so many heartbreaking humiliations too. I think for that reason we have reason to enjoy the lovely moments all the more. The same footballing Gods that saw to it that Tyler guessed right tonight have also put us through the wringer more than any other team in footballing history. Our ultimate glory and redemption and progress back to the championship whenever that may be will happen (but happen it will) be it in 5, 10 or 20 years will be all the sweeter for it.

On eighty minutes the turnaround was complete. A sumptious cross field ball from Howells in his own half found Claude bursting into an acre of space down the right. He didn’t quite take it to the byline and for the first time in the game, chose to cross rather than dribble into the box. His cross flew straight to Walker – one of the most potent poachers in the division who chested it and buried it and sealed the win. Delirium. Manchester here we come.

Lawless shot wide on 82 minutes.

Keane’s cross was cut out by Maxwell on a 6-4 overlap.

Barnes-Homer came on with 3 minutes to go replacing the jubilant Claude. In injury time he crossed for Walker whose heavy touch let Maxwell in to save.

Keano was subbed for Newts and got a lovely send off. Wrexham sang “Que sera sera, we’re going to Forest Green”. And the ref blew his whistle.

And then we went off the pitch. And then we came off the pitch and the players came on the pitch. And then some more went on the pitch and then the players went of the pitch. And then I went home.

On the way home I tuned into Five live as 1CR had deemed the match sufficiently important to go off air at 10pm. I nearly turned it off when I heard Graham Taylor’s monotone grinding on about the Premier League (one of my least favourite people talking about one of my least favourite subjects). Eventually to my delight they phoned up Pleaty who spoke intelligently about Luton’s position and plight and then put Nick Owen on who spoke about Luton’s plight and his delight. Then Graham Taylor even said that the mighty Hatters should be back in the league and that it was wrong for football that his former bete noires were evicted from the league. It was a lovely 10 minutes. It was as if we were back from the footballing wilderness and being discussed again. Our punishment served, people in football could discuss us again, but not in hushed tones as if we were some naughty relative caught doing something he ought not; but almost as if we were the prodigal son.

All we have to do now is beat Wimbledon – who tonight humiliated Fleetwood 8-1 on aggregate. A big ask? It is non-league for goodness sake, and we are Luton Town. Of course we will win. Surely?

It would be fitting perhaps to end our non-league sojourn against the team we started it against back in August 2009. But let’s hope it is not the same result – eg a 1-1 with a man sent off.

Come on you Hatters!

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