Saturday 21st May was going to be the celebration of our redemption, our re-admittance to the Football League. But instead parole was denied, our open-ended sentence to dwell in the prison of non-league extended. The footballing anachronism has been perpetuated. The ludicrous position of having a team that should be two divisions above -and could be three – continues. Having Luton Town in non-league is like having a big, hulking, sixteen year-old lad sitting in a class full of eleven year olds, held back for remedial work, year on year. Brutally funny for some, but painful for those enduring it. Havent we been punished enough? I was rather hoping that this piece was going to mark and end to the whole sorry episode of tier five. And it would have been so fitting too the final game in the Blue Square Premier League against the same opponents as the first. It wasnt to be. It will be ironic for Wimbledon too: their last game in non-league was against a team probably much better than the majority of teams waiting for them in League Two.
The season had started so promisingly. Pre-season thumpings of Newcastle and Liverpool XIs suggested that the side had real promise and an ability to play bright football. Richard Money, given the pre-season he yearned for and armed with a selection of promising new players, would surely repeat, or at least allude to the excellent form shown at the end of the previous season. Surely the tenacity and passing of Adam Murray, the quality of Andy Drury coupled with the fire-power of Craddock, backed up with the talents of Crow, Gallen and MBH would be the dream ticket back to the Promised Land?
In truth, the league season never quite clicked. We never quite hit our straps. We never quite got back into the same unencumbered attacking belief in ourselves which we had demonstrated in March 2010. The early season was promising, without being entirely convincing, but it didnt build to anything. From January onwards, we didnt record more than two consecutive league wins, and for any side hoping to be promoted that is not good enough for a club of our size in non-league it is very poor.
Whilst some fans had always had lingering doubts about Richard Moneys managerial style, alarm bells began to ring in earnest for the rest of us when Tom Craddock left the club in August. Tom maintained he didnt want to go. It was Richard Moneys deliberately flippant treatment of him which forced him out. Craddock, the previous campaigns top scorer was actively side-lined by Money, in some sort of contrived mind-game. He had clearly promised first team berths to Crow and MBH and hadnt figured a way of keeping all of his strikers happy. Sure, no one was guaranteed a start, but a bit of respect, common sense and communication would surely have diffused the situation. Instead, when Craddock questioned why he had been sidelined Money questioned his loyalty to the cause this riled TC further into an outburst which resulted in the manager telling him that he wasnt bigger than the team and could get stuffed or words to that effect. Tommy did, thinking that there wasnt a future for him, and Moneys bluff was called, Craddock hot-footing it to Oxford in the blink of an eye. The losers were Luton Town, yet again. A spectacular, foolish and unnecessary own-goal.
Along with Drury, Murray and Crow the close season saw Dan Walker signed after he played well against us for Bedford, and Czechs Zdeněk Kroča and Pavel Besta. Whilst Kroča adjusted quickly and soon became a reliable and enormous rock at the heart of the defence, his compatriot, seemingly signed on the back of one huff and puff performance against Newcastle was never up to the required standard. Besta was quietly released in January. The reaction to his (and the teams) performance away to Tamworth led to an undignified incident between Richard Money and those in the crowd behind him. Another alarm bell.
We had started the season with five defensive midfielders, but after Kevin Nicholls quiet and dignified retirement in August , Adam Murray left for Mansfield after only two months and once Besta was released we were down to the ever-reliable and committed Keith Keane and Godfrey On fire Poku. Thank the Lord Keane stayed fit. Paul Carden joined to bolster the midfield in February but fortunately was only limited to eight starts, whilst he was able to read the game well, his fitness and speed often sold him short.
The season saw pleasing progress for a number of the existing squad members: Freddie Murray, though he missed a chunk of the season with injury made real progress at left back.
Jake Howells, picked for England C, often covered for Murray, but also played left wing (where once again he excelled), in the centre of midfield alongside Keano, and ended up on the left of a middle three. I truly hope we can hold on to him this summer.
A late entry into the pleasing progress category is a certain Mr Edward Asafu-Adjaye. Three years ago, after an encouraging loan spell at Salisbury we appeared to have an excellent prospect on our hands. Eds game was seemingly on the up, he was first choice right back in the division above where we are now and he put in a strong performance against Scunthorpe in the JPT Trophy final. Then for whatever reason Mr Money took a dislike to him, and just left him out. Once Gary Brabin was in charge, he was rushed back from loan at Histon and did well enough out of position covering at left back to win the place on merit for the Wrexham games, and the play off final, and picked up a better player than where he left off.
Of the more established players, captain George Pilkington was as sound as a pound. Apart from a short mixed period mid-way through the season, was at his imperious best for the remainder. In the final against Wimbledon his performance was nigh on flawless.
Matthew Barnes-Homer was leading scorer, but didnt go on a hot streak after his initial burst. He attracts mixed support amongst the fans. His style gives off the appearance of not trying when we know he does. He was leading scorer of course, but without sounding too cruel he missed so many chances through the season that youve got to wonder whether other players, given the same opportunity would have had thirty or more goals. Im not being unfair. The kid has got an eye for goal (remember the winner against Stevenage?) but just scores a lower percentage of his opportunities. As soon as Brabin took over, Moneys favourites MBH and Owusu were relegated to the bench and beyond.
Keith Keane is an immense player at our club. His desire to rise out of the mire of non-league was truly apparent and almost tangible in the semi final and final. He worked hard in the centre of midfield all season, tackling hard, closing down, breaking up attacks and distributing the ball well. Towards the end of April he was looking tired, which was hardly surprising. Fortunately after a game off, his batteries were recharged for the Wrexham games, and the ten days off between the 2nd leg and the final game him time to recover too. He needs a good rest in the summer. Of all of our players I am most sorry for him that we didnt go up. Hes done nothing wrong, hes just given his all, all season and deserved the ultimate prize.
Claude Gnakpa was, well, Claude. He treated us to moments of brilliance, but also some side splitting lovable but dozy clumsiness. He bagged fifteen goals too which is outstanding but Claude, oh Claude please remember to track back: poor Dan Gleeson is so exposed when you stay up the pitch.
Last but not least was Mark Tyler. Time, and time and time again he saved us with saves unbecoming of a keeper at this level. A great shot stopper he has fantastic positional sense and, when permitted, a keenness to distribute to the defenders. The only weak point in his game is that the direction on his kicking is sometimes awry. But if it was perfect hed be playing two or three divisions above. So our loss, is our gain, if you see what I mean. Well done MT deserved player of the season.
Richard Money was a manager whose squad was never quite big enough. Despite a plethora of strikers, in addition to attacking players such as Dan Walker and JJ ODonnell, (who would both walk into most teams in the division) he needed more. And more. And more. Taiwo Atieno signed at the start of September scored seven and was gone by February. Amari Morgan-Smith was brought in at the end of September – though he was played out of position.. Despite this, before his injury he was very lively and showed us why he had been scoring goals for fun at Ilkeston Town. Jason Walker arrived in November, and at that point in time was the leagues leading goalscorer. He was soon made to warm the bench. The final forward signed this season was Lloyd Owusu in January who was signed as a target man. And he did a job to a certain extent (a record of seven goals in fifteen games is not to be sneezed at) but his presence in the team made it too easy for us to play the long ball. A team full of footballers was soon reduced to lumping it towards the big man and our confidence, style and form evaporated; mirroring the evaporation of the adherence to fast-paced attacking, passing football.
It is too easy to get the keeper to lump it up the middle. It is the poor mans game the last refuge of the scoundrel. When all else fails revert to whacking it up the middle because we can all do that and it is easy. By picking and playing up to Owusu in this way showed that Richard Money had run out of ideas. His bold words and good intentions were dashed into the fire. It was unfathomable. Money had shown us that he knew how we should be playing at the tail end of previous campaign when Simon Heslop had shot a bolt of passion and ability into the midfield and team. But that was never quite replicated this term, apart from occasional sporadic bouts such as the away performance at Fleetwood and the home games against Forest Green, York, Darlington and Histon and the excellent spirited performance against Charlton in November. Sorry to hark back again, but hindsight would suggest that that golden month of March 2010 was in spite of -rather than because of – Moneys influence and more down to Mr Heslops presence.
That glimpse of how it could be only served to heap additional pressure onto the team this season. Wed done it once, so why were we so ham-fisted in our attempts to replicate that form this season? Though we had plenty of wins in the season overall, indifferent performances at home led to unacceptable bouts of booing from a handful of fans. Games where we should have strolled to victory we either stumbled to a narrow win or drew against woefully weak opposition.
Andy Drury leaving for Ipswich at the end of January was ultimately a big blow, as he was a genuinely class player. We had brought in Alex Lawless and Robbie Willmott. Both are good players demonstrating plenty of potential, but we can only speculate as to how a full season with likes of Drury, Murray and Craddock would have turned out. Kevin Gallen had bowed out quietly at the end of January having been poorly treated, his intelligent link up play seemingly unwanted this season.
This campaign saw Luton record only two wins in twelve games between March 13 and April 19. For thirteen games from February 4 we scored more than one goal in only one game. By the time we reached the end of March the rot had most definitely set in. The players were flat, listless, uninspired and seemingly overburdened with tactics: the memory cache was full they needed a reboot. And shortly after a woefully poor performance at Southport on the Saturday Money had gone by the Monday lunchtime.
He was replaced by the heir presumptive Gary Brabin, who had ten games to stamp his personality on the team and to install some belief and momentum into the teams performance. He didnt quite manage that in his run up to the semi-finals (though the 6-0 win against Southport and the comfortable wins against Eastbourne and Histon showed promise), but the team truly responded in the semi final against Wrexham. An unfettered, unburdened first half saw the Hatters take a 3-0 lead, which could so easily have been five or six. Suddenly we had clicked. A nervy but entertaining second leg saw the rarity of coming from a goal down to secure a 5-1 aggregate victory, player of the season Mark Tyler once again demonstrating his heroic and game-changing abilities with a penalty save which proved the turning point.
This set up the game at Eastlands last Saturday, where both sides largely cancelled each other out but nevertheless we carved out enough chances to win. But alas it wasnt to be. If only we had been awarded a penalty…or if Jason Walkers header had gone an inch further to the right…or for that matter if he decided to actually blast his penalty in the shoot out…
Wimbledon had failed to score a goal against us in 300 minutes of football yet won the prize of promotion.
So what of the future? If he wants, Brabin will surely get the opportunity to lead the team next year and to demonstrate that the Wrexham away performance was the norm and not a blip.
How many of our better players will keep patience with us in non-league Im not sure. The attraction of playing in front of 6,500 fans each week as opposed to half as many, two divisions above can only last for so long. If good players leave and are replaced by non-league journeymen rather than Football League aspirants then there is a danger that we might meld into the batch of former League clubs eking out their existence in non-league. We absolutely must remain the big club in this division, actively vying for the top spot. I know the board and Gary Brabin will have that ambition it is finding an effective way to put that ambition into practice that is the key. It will have to be third-time lucky.
The final at Manchester was a microcosm of our season. Glimpses of brilliance, frustrating at times, but ultimately the inability to stick the ball in the net cost us dearly.
Come on you Hatters.