We Dared to Dream… (FA Cup 4th Round – Norwich City away)

 

…and that dream came true. Into the last 16 we go and our FA Cup odyssey in this most peculiar of seasons continues. For those of you who think that football started in 1992 we are the first team in the fifth tier to beat a premiership team, and in any case the first 5th tier v 1st tier win since 1989.

What I can’t get my head around though, is the gulf in quality I thought there would be, over what was in fact two seemingly reasonably evenly matched teams. Though some of our touches were heavier and our passes slightly less accurate there was no doubting the togetherness and teamwork that epitomised today’s display in the way it did against Wolves. I was anticipating a potential whoomping, such was the esteem that I had afforded the Premiership team – how wrong I was.

Good time to play Norwich of course, like Wolves they had been on a bad trot and they were not playing with the swagger, belief and confidence of high-flyers. No – there was only one team out there that had a unity of purpose and a one-ness with their supporters. We fed off them and they fed off us. Every clearance, throw, pass, block and interception was cheered. When Paul Buckle and Gary Sweet talk to potential players about joining Luton they must mention the crowd, the 42k at Wembley, the history and the passion and that on the good days, it is very, very good. Well fellas today was that special day, just like the ones they sold to you.

Interestingly where Norwich were superior was their pace in counter attack and their ability to place direct balls on the floor through the channel. But we coped with that well, other than a couple of times when Taylor was substantially outpaced down the left, but our defensive organisation readily dealt with the outcome. Mark Tyler was called on to do a couple of fantastic saves. But I think the fast counter attack was half their problem really. These top teams now are so used to playing each other in a non-tackling and sitting deep kind of way (to such an extent that I bet my mate £25 for every time we were caught offside today eg  that we wouldn’t ever be) that they don’t seem to have a plan B. Whereas today the boot for Luton was very much on the other foot. Used to trying to break down teams intent on defending (not that that was our pure intention today) today the pressure was off completely because we knew that we would be in for a battle and that we could happily try to play on the break feeding Gray a la Wolves. Actually, whilst we had to dig deep and defend solidly, we were in control or rather not under pressure for good chunks of the game, pressing in our half, and so didn’t have to rely on just breaking against the run of play. Such was the solidness and vigour of our play, Mr Buckle made three attacking substitutions and fair play and hats off to him, it was those changes which won us the game. First of all, he took Mendy off, and Mendy was having a good game in the heart of the midfield, and brought JJ on the left.  JJ has twice the pace of Jake who started on the left and who swapped into the middle, but Jake has more attacking vision that Mendy, so it increased our attacking outlook. Then, after 75 minutes, when other managers would have looked to clog up the midfield and hang on for a draw, he swapped Shaw for Rendell and Gray for Fleetwood. Both in the same positions like for like – eg one playing slightly behind the other, Rendell to nod the ball on and to get on the end of crosses and Fleetwood to spearhead the attack with his pace. From Norwich’s point of view it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. They had brought Holt on for the second half – we brought Rendell on for 15 minutes. One was more effective than the other. I have no idea what they both earn but I’d suspect Mr Holt might earn 20 times more than our Scott. I’m thinking we got infinitely value from our investment today…

Rarely can three substitutions have had a greater influence on the outcome of a high profile game.  Fleetwood picked up a headed clearance from Kovacs in midfield, ran into space,  then played a wonderful ball through to the screaming and accelerating JJ O’Donnell sprinting into the inside left channel. He raced to the byline just inside where the penalty box meets the goal line. He dragged it back perfectly for Scott Rendell who beat his man and poked it in. Byline gets another goal (please sir, can we have some more?). Queue mayhem, Brko style. I think you needed to be there to appreciate it. But the noise/reaction and reaction certainly goes down in the books in recent memory alongside Brko’s Hull winner, Brko’s equaliser against the scum and Keano’s winner against Oxford. Superb. Utterly superb. That was big.

Now that goal came after 80 minutes, which meant 10 minutes (or 13 with extra time) hanging on. Only it wasn’t really hanging on. Other than the freekick given away on the edge of the box (er, and the handball that wasn’t), nerves aside, I didn’t really think that fate would snatch the win away once we were in front. No – it was our day and we were going to have the headlines and head into the record books. The glory was ours and ours to keep.

So, all the papers tomorrow will talk about giant killing or biggest FA cup shock in a quarter of a century. But it’s not really a giant killing is it? A giant killing would be Liverpool losing to Tamworth or Hyde. Because Norwich are not giants – just a good, well run, decent club (with sporting fans) enjoying some seasons in the sun in the top flight, whilst we are a football league team residing in non-league waiting to come back and resume our journey back up the leagues. It’s a premiership team vs a non-league team in billing, but let’s remember we were competing on equal terms in 2006 and one day will do so again.   It’s stupid isn’t it? Here’s a club that labours in the mud against Woking, gets out muscled by Braintree and implode against Dartford, but who keep clean sheets against teams who are scores of places above us. I’ve got it. I’ve sussed it: In actual footballing terms, if ever a club was to the Manor Born it is us isn’t it? We are the Audrey fforbes-Hamiltons of the football world. Forced to live in the gatehouse whilst the noveau-riche Richard DeVere wallows in cash in the manor house. We are the aristocrats forced to sell the country mansion and made to move into a council flat. We are the public schoolboys reduced to attending an inner city comprehensive. It’s not nice on the shitty side of the street, but boy we’re at home in posh company. We might wander around the playground with gob on the back of our blazers, but our table manners are second to none. Bizarre analogies aside – that’s it isn’t it? We’re much more at home at the top table – it’s the hard yards against Shitkickers FC which we struggle with. We’re at home swimming with the dolphins, instead we find ourselves having to avoid the flotsam and jetsam whilst hiding from the sharks.

Today the footballing Gods who have shunned us so regularly in the past – and indeed who regularly send us nasty-smelling packages in the post – smiled. Yes, a clearance off the line (and no it wasn’t over the line because I was dead on the line where I stood), yes, blocked shots, yes, it might have been a cheeky handball by LRT, (but then again it might have been a penalty against Gray) but we lived with them, and anyway, how guilty have we been of not taking our chances in the past against inferior opposition? Today, rather than taking it, we dished some out and got the fortune and reward that is due to those who wait long enough.

Of the players themselves – what can I say? Lovely for Mark Tyler, not only to have a great game with good saves, but to come back to the club of his youth, playing a top notch game on his home ground and keeping a clean sheet would have been very, very special. He must feel a million dollars tonight. I’ve already mention Greg Taylor – but in a negative sense. But it was his block in the first half that kept us in the game, and his height at set plays and positional sense in the second half which earned his corn. Henry at right back has settled into his role now. Solid and unspectacular he added intelligence down the right, but defended really well. As did Kovacs and LRT. Ironically, Kovacs didn’t have too much heading to do today – clearances yes, but he didn’t spend his afternoon nodding away long balls hoofed forwards. He was however, a colossus at the heart of the defence. A man-beast. LRT is ten times the player at centre half than he was at left back against Newport. It’s hard to believe they are the same player.

Whilst JJ’s arrival led to the goal, Jake had a really good game at left mid. He picked up the ball in lots of space and used it well, though of course not with pace. He did however have his  best game for a long time. Jon Smith in the middle was a giant. He made two visible passing errors but did not look out of place. What a good piece of business he really is. Mendy I’ve mentioned. Lawless the Brush (Delia this week) had a good game and was played in well by Rendell shortly after Scott was introduced. His shot on the stretch arrowed into the side netting. He put some lovely crosses in and looked at home. Jon Shaw was in a war for 75 minutes and did well. Wasn’t the most effective he has been recently but duh – he was playing against top-flight defenders. Gray ditto. Ideally the focus point of the breaks, Norwich had done their homework and gave him less opportunity to torment them. He was clear through though when tangled with, but a Norwich defender (not sure which one, these premiership players all look alike to me) interfered and snuffed him out/bundled him over. When Fleets came on he was a fresh threat and his pace was an additional headache. Rendell will get the plaudits with his goal and deservedly so – he looked hungry and keen in the 18 minutes he was on the pitch.

They say that you have to experience the lows to appreciate the highs and boy is that the case with Luton Town. I know we are unique in terms of promotions and relegations and promotions again, and dropping out of the league with a record points deduction, three administrations and four years in shit street – but I think we can add today’s win to the list of highs. In future years when we are swanning about back in the league and glossing over and failing to mention the ahem, ‘non-league years’, (like the timeline display at Beaulieu which mysteriously misses out Lord Montague’s ‘middle years’) today was a light in the darkness we will happily look back on with pride. No more, do you remember that draw at Charlton? It’ll be ah – we laboured to get out of the 5th tier but yes, but do you remember that win at Norwich? Oh yes, I was there.

Bring on the Arsenal, I fancy a bit of the Emirates please – I’ve got a taste for this high life.

 

 

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From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (FA Cup 3rd Round Home vs Wolves)

 

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For 99 minutes this afternoon it was almost as if the last six years had never happened. The papers will see it as a giant killing. But until we made the plummet through the divisions we were looking at two clubs with similar-ish recent histories who competed on equal terms. A lovely result and a hard working performance against a Championship side bringing the fans, players, owners and staff together to celebrate a well-deserved win.

But how typically Luton. Throughout the time I’ve been supporting the club, I have been delighted by great results against stronger teams, only to watch us struggle against the weaker teams. This week we beat Wolves. On Tuesday we lost a game we should have walked at Woking. What are the chances that on Tuesday Barrow will prove tricky opposition? Welcome to Luton Town.

As Paul Buckle has been saying all week, it’s lovely to be the underdogs for once. But unlike the shitkickers we have to play against week in week out, we didn’t park the bus. No, in time honoured Luton style when given an inch, we took a mile.

Buckle said in his programme notes that for us to get a result Wolves had to be off colour and we had to play at the top of our game, which is more or less what happened. But for the first time this season he managed to pick the strongest players, in the right positions, in the best formation and drill them to good effect. Having Jonathan Smith in the middle was a big bonus and the non appearance of Jake was also a bonus too. Rather than accommodate a slow left back or a winger without pace, we were treated to the rare appearance of a proper left back (Greg Taylor, who he?) with a left sided player in front of him, rather than a centre forward playing out of position. Amazing what happens when you play the correct players in the correct positions. On the right was Alex Lawless, playing in front of Ronnie Henry. Both had good games, and Henry played well, apart from one dizzy spell in the second half. Lawless of course treated us the winner, just after half time which was precisely what was needed. Looks like Stale Solbakken has been reading the Gary Brabin book of half time team talks and Wolves dozed into a single goal deficit. Having Brabin as his role model cost him his job this evening.

Interesting club Wolves of course. Proper club, proper fans, great history. Good to see their fans applaud JJ O’Donnell off as he was stretchered off. They also gave us a good clap at the end too, I’d like to think we would be as sporting in defeat if the boot was on the other foot…

The footballing Gods smiled on us for once. This season, like last, has seen us squander chance after chance, whilst allowing inferior opposition to mug us against the run of play. On another day Tyler, who has admittedly dropped below his own high standards recently, wouldn’t have made those point blank saves in the first half (one from Henry…), or that tip over the bar in the 2nd and Wolves would have taken and stretched a lead and we would have struggled to get it back. Thank you Mark Tyler, shot stopper extraordinaire, I take my hat off to you once again – even though your feet appear glued to the goal-line.

Up front today, or rather staggered, as part of a 4-4-1-1 were the unrefined talents of Andre Gray and the fearless frontman Jon Shaw. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the first time that our fastest man and our best target man have played together in this way in the fondest tradition of Luton Town. We played on the quick break – for once – with Gray being the early outlet , or Shaw being the target when the ball was restarted or cleared. And boy did Gray torment Wolves. It was fascinating to see. You see Gray as a pacy player, but I wondered if the pace was relative, ie does he seem quick because he is surrounded by non-league plodders. But no, his speed is absolute and he was too quick for Wolves putting them under constant pressure and was wrestled to the floor on a number of occasions – the ref not seeing a thing of course. However, what we saw was a quick player but a slightly raw player and not the finished article. To be fair, I don’t think anyone would suggest that he is, Andre snatched at a couple of gilt-edged chances in the first half which would have made it an even more interesting first half. He needs a fraction more composure. Actually, if he had a fraction more composure he’d be whisked away to a ‘bigger’ club, so perhaps we live the rawer version after all…Well done Andre – top Hatter.

I need to draw your attention to three previous games in our recent history. Remember the Charlton 4-4? Remember, for that matter, the recent Charlton 2-2 and for that matter the Liverpool 3-5. In each of those games we were playing against opposition higher than us in the league having not played against similar quality teams for a while at that time. On each occasion, it took us a few minutes, and often an opposition goal, for us to wake up, pinch ourselves and say “hang on, these are good, but not that much better – we can have a go here”. There’s a period of reality reconciliation where the giants in our minds are brought down to size. The opposition are not ogres after all, but 11 blokes like us. It’s a bit like meeting a famous player or a ‘celeb’. After a while you think, blimey, they’re actually human like me. The point I am waffling on to make is that today, in contrast, we didn’t go through that reconciliation phase. We were up and at it from the off. We didn’t let Wolves settle. The first ten minutes were largely played in their half. We played like the home team in a league game where the opposition wanted to come and win. You wouldn’t have thought one of those sides was 59 places behind the other.  We just didn’t give them any respect.

You have to take your hat off to Paul Buckle. Where on earth did that self-belief come from after Woking? Did they relax into the natural shape, with players playing in the right position? Were they unfettered by the pressure of the league? Where they given confidence by having Mr Smith back in the middle? In a way it is frustrating. You know what I am going to say don’t you? If we can play like that against Wolves, why oh why don’t we play with the same confidence and swagger against the teams in the conference? Why don’t the Newport Counties fear us rather than putting five past us?  Were they just raising their game against a decent team? Under Blackwell, the only time his pensioners XI did ever raise their game was against the better teams, but I don’t think that was the driver today. Interesting too to see the Luton cast off XI Macclesfield featuring MBH (who looks increasingly like Karl Pilkington), AMS, Charlie Henry and JPK were the other non-league side to do the business over Championship opposition, although Cardiff did field their youth team and the guy who washes the kit. We’ve had the players over these four years, we just haven’t marshalled or harnessed them.

I think we did play the strongest XI we could have put out there this afternoon. There was no one on the bench I’d rather have started. On Tuesday, if JJ was fit the only changes you would make would be perhaps have Neilson on the right and Lawless in the middle. What would you change? With Fleets and Rendell on the bench you’d be made. They’d get plenty of starts anyway. What with this cup run, the FA Trophy, the postponed games and the snow to come, we’re going to be playing three games a week shortly anyway. Today, we didn’t miss Jake or Simon Ainge. It was nice not having to squeeze all the ‘best’ players into the side. LRT had an infinitely better game at centre half than he did as left back against Newport – so why normally make him play as a left back when you have a readymade and good one in Taylor? Bizarre.

Anyway, enough harping on about what has gone on thus far this season. Let’s hope that the players’ eyes have opened as to the possibilities of what they can achieve if they play well and play together and remain switched on all afternoon. Today is a day to celebrate another famous Luton Town FA Cup win and trust that it will be the absolute catalyst into turning us into the team we always hoped we would be whilst cast out into the non-league wilderness by the powers-that-be.

Whilst we beat Wolves today, it is always interesting to see the little technical differences between the teams. On the rare occasion we let them pass, it was often sharper and more accurate, the touches tighter and the vision better. It’s the little touches that mark out the differences between players one division off the top flight and those one division off part-time. But if you close teams down, you can, for a certain length of time at least, nullify that technical superiority with hard work and determination. Eventually class will shine through, but not today!

I’ve spoken about Tyler and his great saves. Another player who was immense today was Janos Kovacs. To think that earlier in the season he couldn’t head the ball (according to some…) he was a defending colossus against Wolves. Well done Janos.

Jonathan Smith brought a reassurance back to the team that has been missing recently. He was everywhere, broke play up well – and passed really well. Made man of the match in ye olde traditional way of giving it to the guy who’s gone and done his bit by signing for us, but deserved it. He worked so hard. Mendy was a bit hot and cold, but more hot than cold. One or two strange passes, but was afforded so much room on occasions he almost fainted with surprise. Before he went off JJ had a quiet-ish game, he probably was a little narrow, but I think he was dragged inside by picking up his man. Not a criticism at all. I hope he recovers well – PB said he had broken his nose. From a 9 minute delay, where he was given a neck brace and was stretchered off it could have been so much worse. Lawless, the artist (see today’s current bun) took his goal as well as he can paint a portrait. That might just be the most important goal he ever scores. Completely different player to last season and I’m glad he stayed and we kept him. Despite some indifferent form by the team recently Lawless has been playing well. He deserves all the plaudits that will come his way tonight and tomorrow after that goal.

Jon Shaw was a tower of strength and easy to spot after a clash of heads resulted in a comedy bandage in the first half. He looked like an extra from Carry on Nurse all afternoon but held his own and looked so much more comfortable as part of a two up front. Goodness – in one move down the right in the second half we actually had three men in the box (yes, we couldn’t find them but that’s not the point) including Shaw hungry for a cross. What a refreshing change.

So – a well-deserved win, and an opportunity to look forward to the 4th (fourth) round draw tomorrow and another pay day, and surely (unless we are drawn against Macc) a live TV game? More importantly I’m hoping that this win will give us an intravenous dose of self-belief in the league. Perhaps they will pinch themselves now and start to grab the conference by the scruff of the neck.

Please?

 

PS Apologies for the lack of posts recently. A combination of lots of trips abroad with work, lots of family activities and a disheartening disappointment with our league form has meant I’ve just not had the time to do regular posts, like I used to. To some of you that will be a sigh of relief I’m sure. I have been tweeting though, which isn’t quite the same I know. Must try harder…

 

 

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