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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FA Cup First Round: A cold wind, Tanglefoot and Offside.

Another cup game, another chance to sit where you like and a golden opportunity to sit behind the linesman and give him some stick.  He only had three decisions to make and got each one wrong!

October’s warm bits have been frozen off to create November. An already cold Kenilworth Road was made five degrees colder by a chilly wind.  Luton started well and immediately Fleetwood fluffed a volley within a minute.  Once again the ease of the first ten minutes gave rise to over confidence. I think we thought that it would be too easy and Nuneaton lulled us into a false sense of security by their lack of skill, vision or attacking purpose. It should have been easier, but Nuneaton, miles worse technically man-for-man, worked hard and showed that it is easier to close down, break up play with lots of effort than it is to break a side down and to create chances. It’s easier to be spoilers than to be entertainers. An obvious point perhaps, but one worth making. Otherwise we’d have scores like 7-5 and 5-4 in football matches and that could never be right.

The Nuneaton goal of course wasn’t. For some reason the lino didn’t seem to spot Waite a mile offside – an offside which brought back memories (bad memories) of Wembley in May. Waite pounced a few feet out after Sleath had crossed the ball, but he was miles off. Where do we get these officials from I wonder? Similarly I saw nothing suspicious about Fleetwood’s equaliser later on in the second half. That should have been 1-0 after all. But no. Not at Luton. We have to work twice as hard because seemingly we spend our time battling the crappy officials as well as a defensive opposition.

Our formation was intriguing – or perhaps not the formation, but the way PB insists on trying to squeeze four attackers into a 4-3-3. I thought Andre Gray started on the right of the middle three, though he did break down the wing a number of times. Nuneaton played a very defensive 5-3-2.

Dan Walker started with Jon Shaw pulled up lame before the game – too much herbal life perhaps? He started on the right, Fleetwood on the left and Scott Rendell in the middle. That changed once we’d conceded and Gray went through the middle with Rendell in a 4-2-4. Later on, we looked much better with a 5-2-3/3-4-3, with Howells up the left and Jake Robinson on the right and it was this formation that brought lots of pressure and eventually the goal. And yes, if we’d played for another ten minutes, we would have won. For a time, before Jake Robinson came on, Jake Howells, was on the right, playing behind Gray, they linked up well – Jake’s left peg on the right side, readily finding exactly the right pace and direction for Gray to run on to. Jake Robinson had more room on the right than a tramp at a disco and tormented them towards the end. He was lobbing for fun in the last 5 minutes – his lobbing is better than his crossing, which was a tad mixed. Oh? His lobs were crosses? Whatever next…

The front players played pretty well, without quite clicking, or perhaps having the room to click. Walker was bright and lively, but occasionally let himself down with a heavy touch or a wayward pass. Poor Fleets got no room and seemed a bit remote on the wing (“he is not a winger!” I hear you cry) and went off unfulfilled but not unbowed. On another day he could easily have had three goals, but was sawn off twice through the middle by the baldy lino who can probably still hear my voice ringing in his ears. Gray looked bright, but again, some heavy touches and crappy crosses let him down. Rendell, constantly in a battle, could hold his head up high and netted yet again. After a slow start, Rendell and Luton are getting on quite well now, thank you.

In the middle we started with JJ O’Donnell, Gray (as mentioned previously) and Bendy Mendy making his home debut. He has something about him and he worked hard. A funny sort of midfield though against the quick-to-kick hackers they were up against. JJ buzzed around like a bee – but didn’t have his best game. He still looks like a strong gust of wind would whip him away to Houghton Regis. Any player in the Nico mould would look at him, lick his lips and see him as raw meat to be kicked off the park.

At the back – Howells started on the left, LRT in the middle, Kovacs alongside and Ronnie H on the right. I’m going to get a T-Shirt printed, “I was there when Ronnie Henry got into the opposing penalty-box”. Apart from being caught in possesion to give the goal away Nose-bleed Ronnie had a pretty tidy game actually, but wasn’t over stretched frankly.

Jake had a good game, and showed a bit of class today I thought. The corners he took were very samey, but it was his free kick curling in which found Scott Rendell’s waiting head.

Kovacs had clearly learnt to head the ball again. Not that I particularly had noticed that he couldn’t, but PB had, and he’s the one who counts! In fact – so keen was Kovacs to head that sometimes he headed when a kick would have done, you can have overkill after all.

LRT was deemed surplus to requirements when we went onto the front foot – Jake Robinson took his place. Back from Loan Adam Watkins looked to do as much as he could in the time he came on for Stuart Fleetwood.

Dean Brill had a good game. He wasn’t called upon to do too much – but had to make a couple of good saves which kept us in the game and he did well. He was keen to distribute the ball by throwing out, and we saw why when he did one long kick which went straight back to his opposite number as opposed to finding Rendell or Gray who was in space.  Contrast Brill to Nuneaton’s keeper McNamara, who had a good game last time out, but was approaching comedy status this afternoon. His kicking came from the Carl Emberson school of mis-direction and Dreyer-net finding. He didn’t look confident. If only we’d tried him out a bit more.

So – in ten days time we are back to Nuneaton for the replay. Perhaps more of the onus will be on them to attack, rather than to sit back and try to get a goal from the bits and pieces. Or perhaps they’ll try for penalties. You never know. Not sure we’ll be playing on the Thursday as well as the Tuesday that week. Sod’s law of course because I’ve arranged to be in Mansfield on the Thursday ahead of the televised game. It’s bad enough going there anyway, I’d not have chosen to go there, so now I’m lumbered with a meeting late in the afternoon, with quite possibly no game at the end of it.

Today, we started well, got over confident before our belief was snuffed out and our confidence ebbed. We always looked the better side, but kept at it and I think we always looked as if we would get a goal somehow. That one goal should have been enough – but wasn’t. We looked better once again when we had two wing backs and three at the back. Yet again a side set out to frustrate us and managed to do so. It wasn’t the most sparkling of games, but I quite enjoyed in a bizarre sort of way. It’s quite nice knowing that a home draw doesn’t mean that we slip back in the table. And I’ve got no worries that we won’t prevail with our present away form.

What is the difference between this season and the last one? Slightly more settled team, and formation. Fitness levels such that we are the side scoring in the last 10 minutes, instead of the opposition. We’re showing determination and self belief when we go behind. Other than shipping so many goals from set pieces the only thing that isn’t quite clicking is the quality of the play. We’re still in second gear lurching along. I’m sure at some point we’ll slip into third and fourth gear and get some early goals and cane some of these teams. That said – we are in second place whilst being in second gear. This bodes well.

Edgar Street on a Tuesday next. I’d like to personally thank the fixtures computer for that one – a six hour round trip on a Tuesday night. By then we will know who we might get in the second round. Harrogate, Hastings or Chelmsford would be nice at home please…

One surprise face on the bench today was **The Shadow** Jame Dance – remember him? Glad to see him back – but I fear his days are numbered – now the only winger at the club, he stands out like dandruff on a dinner jacket. No proper wingers here please. 50p says he’ll be out on loan to “get some match fitness” sooner rather than later…and then will be gone. The Shadow will be no more than a memory – you’ll not be sure you ever saw him.

I’ve sat in the main stand/enclose three times now in 18 years. I was there for the Sheffield Utd 6-3, The QPR FA cup game where we held them with 10 (or was it 9?) men and then today.  I’d never been in the Nick Owen bar before today, and was delighted to see they have Tanglefoot, a proper beer behind the bar, albeit in bottled form. None of that at the ‘Hatters Bar’ at the Kenny End, oh no, it’s a flat Fosters or John Smith’s putrid flavour-free brown beer there and we shiver as the wind whistles through the turnstiles directly from the Russian Steppes and claws at your back like a Siberian tiger. How the other half live eh? You’ll be telling me they serve prawn sandwiches in the Century Club next.

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Rock of Ainges

 

Today was the same old story – ball in air: poor. Ball on floor devastatingly good in places. This was ye olde game of two halves. A little bit listless and lazy in the first half whilst in the second half they showed more pace, dynamism and intent.

Lots of changes since the last report. Interesting to see public enemy no 1, famous for being less good at right back than Alex Lawless, Ronnie Henry. He didn’t mess up – his defending was tidy, whilst his attacking play was…was….erm.

Also in came Simon Ainge, a big tough rock of a centre half, he slotted into the team well. Actually it was like he’d been here all along and the other ten were the new ones. Looked like a good partnership alongside Essam, though of course if Essam goes back next week it will be a marriage as short lived as one of Britney’s.

Taylor and Watkins have departed, presumably for fitness reasons, though Taylor’s big bust up with Buckle won’t have helped. With Taylor gone the chance of the stolen moment 3-5-2/3-4-3 reappearing seems as likely as Ronnie Henry being signed by Chelsea.

Tyler in goal, as ever largely untested. Got a loud cheer when he rolled the ball out rather than punting it towards Rendell. Got a groan when he clung onto it rather than punting it out when the break was on. Punting it up front should be frowned upon as it is the best way devised to give possession back to the opposition, unless you have a Steve Howard of course. Aiming for Scott Rendell who’s heading is not the best part of his game seems illogical captain. Ironically of course Rendell won more headers than I’ve seen all season, but I think that says more about the opposition than a leap forward in his ability. Mercurial performance from Tyler today – he seems to have developed a penchant for punching over catching.

Left back today was young Jake Howells, what with Taylor being persona non grata and all that. We saw the best and the worst of him today, his link up play, passing and movement were at his very best, but it was his clumpy mistake like a lad in an orthapaedic brogue which ceded possession to Parry for the Southport goal.

At right back was Ronnie Henry. I spent a lot of time focussing on him. He barely made a forward pass, and of the forward passes he did only about one in four found a fellow Hatter. Hardly a surprise then that his passes are either square or back. He had a tidy enough game, passing aside, and kept the right hand side safe and sound.

I’ve mentioned Essam and Ainge. Both were exactly what Mr Buckle was after – heading the ball away with impunity and keeping it nice and tight at the back. The goal aside they looked good. Not sure how Messrs Beckwith and Kovacs feel right now. After the Grimsby game where  I felt Beckwith had a worse performance than Kovacs I thought if they can’t cope at this level then they’ve got no hope have they? Mind you, as Barnes-Homer and O’Connor have illustrated, underperforming for Luton is not necessarily a guarantee of inability. Essam is good but young, does the basics well, but gives you the impression that it might only be a matter of time before he makes a catastrophic error. A bit like Shane Blackett. Mostly tidy, but prone to howlers.

In the middle we sort of had a three – Kasim, finally given a start and who looked much more at home than at the start of the season. He doesn’t quite have the bite of some defensive midfielders, but, at this level has a degree of nouse and positioning that makes him stand out. In the second half he found space and time and seemed a class above.

O’Donnell worked bloody hard and had a fantastic game. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, his tendency to be knocked off the ball is inversely proportionate to his tenacity. He was at the top of his game today. Played on the left side of the three in midfield and on the left on occasion and linked up well with Jake. Though too often when a ball down the line to a winger would have been good – there was no winger! When he drifted to the middle he had the beating of his opposite number (was it Parry? Not sure – but O’Donnell owned him ) . JJ played a part in the second goal, it was his cross after Fleetwood’s glorious flick that allowed Rendell in to slot home.  He was involved in almost everything that was good in the second half. I’m delighted for him. Whilst I think on occasions we need a player with a bit more teeth in midfield, there are games where, if allowed, he can make a huge difference. And today was one of those days.  Well done JJ.

Lawless had a good game but quiet game, though he was oft shoved to the ground by their player Ledsham.  His quick free kick in the first half freed Jake, but his shot was wide. He also had half of the on-target shots in the first half a neat clip going straight to MacMillan in the Southport goal. He had more opportunity and found more space in the second half – as did Kasim.

In front of the defensive midfielders was Scott Rendell, playing just behind Fleetwood and Gray. Two goals and had a great game. Lovely finish for his first and a cheeky penalty for the third. Pleased to see him settled in and hitting his straps. That’s five goals now – not bad for someone who has not played as an out an out striker all year. My man of the match today. Note to manager: ball to feet – not to head. Feet good, head not-so-good. Link up play on floor to Rendell excellent, knock downs and headers won – not-so-good. Please take note, rocket science it ain’t. Rendell could have had a third when Kasim and Gray linked up well to enable O’Donnell to play him in, but he shot at the goalie.

Up front Fleetwood and Gray, though Gray regularly slipped to the right and Rendell pushed up to make the formation look more like a traditional 4-4-2. The first goal came when Gray latched on to a long ball forward from O’Donnell got to the byline and laid it in the path of Fleetwood who curled home an exquisite finish with the confidence of a man who has eight goals already and who is back playing in the middle rather than stuck out on the wing. Fleets looked lively and hungry again and when he is playing well has the swagger of a junior Viv Richards which I love. He had a good chance in the second half after a poor clearance, but it went straight to the keeper. Gray was perhaps slightly less effective, but his pace is a constant threat and his passing can be superb.

I think I enjoyed the first half more than most. Whilst we were increasingly slow and listless and sleepwalked into the equaliser I think on another day a few of the half chances and dinky little moves we tried but which didn’t quite come off might have resulted in goals.

We actually tried some really good football and Southport let us. Even with Poku. On another day it would have been a whooping. It was like the first half we were shaking off the last vestiges of the sleepiness since the Cambridge game, Tamworth win notwithstanding. By the second half we had rediscovered some belief and confidence and a little pace to our game. It would be lovely to think that that was a bit of a turning point. We did play better and we did look good.

That’s the funny thing. Man for man, again we were miles better. Technically, if they wanted to, if they applied themselves the Luton players were a league ahead of Southport. We are a bit like golfers. Away from a tournament, if you took a golf professional to a tee and said – “go on then, drive this within ten feet of the green” and nine times out of ten, pressure off, they will do it. But put them in the pressure of a tournament and boy watch that ball fly around. We’re the same, against some of these teams the technical gulf is immense. You just watch O’Donnell or Howells tackle back and win the ball up against two players. If the likes of Gray or Howells or O’Donnell take on a man and want to dribble into the box, if they put their mind to it they can do it seemingly unfettered by the opposition. So what stops us? The Physicality of opponents. People closing us down and not letting us play and a lack of confidence and self belief. Once the confidence is there, the ballsyness and belief we should take these teams apart. We should be doing that – but have been allowed ourselves to be bullied by bigger teams and caught on the break by cannier ones.

Missing today was talisman Jon Shaw – did we miss him? No. Good player to bring on though. Good player to have if you have two wide players to cross the ball in. But the byline is an elusive thing. How many times have we got to the byline this year? I’d wager that almost every time we have we have got a goal. Amazing isn’t it. Back to my point in the previous para – if we can muscle or dribble our way to the byline to get the ball pulled back it is goal after goal.

So what of Godfrey Poku? Whilst I was a big fan and was disappointed to see him go he was inconspicuous by his presence this afternoon. He didn’t even get booked. I presume he has the same moronic agent as Robbie Willmott and George Pilkington. Don’t worry lads, I can get you a move away to much smaller clubs but for a few more bob. How many of them are starting for their new teams now? Willmott is as popular as a sausage in a synagogue at Cambridge. Pilks has played three games. And Poku was shipped out back to Southport from Mansfield quicker than you can say “he’s on fire”.

I’m hoping that today is the start of something good. If only we can keep the ball on the floor and not punt it up the middle.

Next game is next Saturday away to the Imps – followed by Tuesday night against the thugs from Braintree. Should be a good opportunity to put pressure on FGR at the top. All other things being equal it should be six points surely? Belief, confidence and a settled back four – that’s what we need.

Come on you Hatters.

 

 

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Infinite Improvement

 

I didn’t buy the “we were the much better” team line last week, but neither did I think the world had ended. Today , building on Tuesday’s excellent performance we beat the side that had been second, comprehensively.

I’m sorry but 5-2-3 was tactical genius. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that that would suit us so well. In effect, when we were going forwards it was 3-4-3, we looked more comfortable  on the ball than for a while. We spent large periods of the game at ease with ourselves and happy in each other’s company. My friend was worried before the kick-off, we were facing a team including MBH, Henry and AMS – surely a legitimate threat. I’m pleased to point out that if they were actually any good they’d all be playing for us still. Three central defenders at the back, the returning Kovacs, Rowe-Turner and Beckwith gave the wing backs of Taylor and Lawless the freedom to attack. They were more overtly offering the width than when the full backs in a 4-4-2. It suited both players well. Howells and O’Donnell were the two very hard working midfielders, who only very occasionally failed to close down the opposition. Jake was the scorer of the first goal – before some had sat down gratefully volleying the ball into the net. Jake’s performance this afternoon was a complete volte face from last week. Tireless in midfield and a creative threat going forwards. Great comeback, fully recuperated after his latest flirtation with the Welsh team. Fantastic.

O’Donnell was tireless all afternoon. Well done PB and the team for identifying where his talent was best employed in the middle of the park. So – three centre halves, two attacking full backs, two hardworking midfielders, means you can have three out and out forwards. With Shaw banned for spitting, Rendell joined Fleetwood and Gray up front. Rendell is a fascinating player. Tall but no target man, he didn’t win a ball all afternoon. He seems much more at ease with the ball at his feet, as he showed with good touches, laying off Fleetwood and Gray repeatedly when given the space.   He got his second goal for us, to make it 3-1, and finish the game off, after Andre Gray got to the byline and pulled it back across the face of the goal Rendell gratefully shinning it in. Gray’s cross came after some good work with Howells having been put in by Fleetwood after we regained the ball from a comedy throw by one of Macc’s finest.

And on to Andre Gray, a fizzing livewire if ever there was one, left up front when we were defending, forming part of the wall if we were defending a free kick, but always a fast threat on the counter attack who stretched play all afternoon. He was a fast direct attacking threat all afternoon and well deserved his goal. I wonder how many headers he has scored in his time. His one from the corner came from a Jake Howells inswinging corner at the near post, as simple as you like. He was helped by the referee having words with the defenders and Gray and Kovacs immediately before, for pushing and shoving. This played completely into our hands as Macc were just resetting and getting  ready again when the corner came in and we caught them cold. How long has it been since we scored from a corner?

Fleetwood has more energy than the national grid and was everywhere wanting to be a part of everything and be involved all over the shop – he is on fire and in form, lovely to see a Luton striker in a golden patch and top of the scoring charts again. How long has it been since that was the case? I reckon it is a healthy sign. Topped a great all round threatening performance with the final goal of the afternoon. He pounced on a delightful cross swept in from the right from the lively Jake Woolley. Woolley only had a couple of minutes to make a mark and in that time had two searing runs down the right, the second one an excellent cross for Fleetwood. Just like the olden days – Luton youngsters coming into the team and making an impact. Eminently possible with a smaller squad.

Watkins came on for Rowe-Turner with 20 minutes to go, replacing one of the three centre-backs with a midfielder seemed on the face of it a strange move, but Buckle was sewing up the midfield with Macclesfield playing 4-4-2 and ultimately we scored twice whilst the effervescent Watkins on the pitch.

Erstwhile Hatter MBH had one good chance that hit the underside of the crossbar which would have made it 2-2, but was otherwise as anonymous as ever. All I can say is that if he has scored 4 goals already this year, Macc must have created 40 chances for him. Charlie Henry was tucked out on the left like a naughty school boy. He buzzed once or twice, but was hardly a threat to Alex Lawless. AMS came on after 70-odd minutes. I’m not sure if he got a touch, but if he did he’s probably picked up an injury from it.

Enough of the Luton cast-offs because today was all about Luton. 36 seconds is always a good time to score and like last week we started very brightly, though this time we didn’t take our foot off the gas and assume it was going to be a waltz. That is until the start of the second half. We started somewhat dozily, and for the umpteenth time this season conceded a goal from a set piece. Not quite sure how it got through, but it meant that our confidence was replaced by nerviness for much of the second half. Despite this, Macclesfield still didn’t look much like scoring, MBH’s  chance notwithstanding. Macclesfield, unlike Telford, did at least come with some attacking intention. Any game plans they might have had, needed to be rewritten within a minute anyway.

So an enjoyably open game and a much improved performance to put a smile back on the home fan’s faces. I think that means we are third – only a couple of points off top now.  Who needs Shaw and Henry!

No Yasser Kasim today, but we did see Connor Essam – that combination is surely a commentator’s nightmare – and I’m still struggling to say Lathanial Rowe-Turner correctly. We are rapidly becoming a team of tongue-twisters.

Cambridge on Tuesday, with ex-Hatters Rossi Jarvis and Robbie “turned down lots of offers from league clubs” Willmott. Should make for an interesting night and it would be good to reverse last year’s woeful home defeat in September. If we played like we did tonight, we surely will.

 

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The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

 

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Just as we were beginning to delude ourselves that everything was now okay, up  pop the welders and scaffolders of Telford to remind us of our own mortality.

The first ten minutes were more open than the legs of a Bangkok ping-pong girl. Such was the ease with which we were carving holes in the Telford defence that we began to think it was an easy game. But like the Borg, Telford quickly assimilated to our method of play and soon snuffed us out with increasing confidence. Coming for the draw, they must be overjoyed with the win.

Having the talismanic Jon Shaw was now a peculiar burden, especially because of the difference he made coming on in the last home game. Our tactics were “we’ve got a big man, we’re going to use him”. Whilst we created a succession of reasonable chances our reliance on the big hoof up to Shaw and/or Rendell were laughable. But we’ve never outmuscled big teams, not ever. What made us think that we could somehow outjump and outmuscle Telford’s line up of hod carriers and bear-wrestlers is truly beyond me. They nodded the ball away all day, our hopeful diagonal balls across the box greedily munched by their centre-halves.

The best play was when the ball went out wide, or where we had an overlap or got to the byline and brought the ball back to someone in space. But as often or not the shot would be blasted over or worse than that passed around the edge of the box until the move broke down, in a similar way to when Big Mick was in charge.

And, just as inevitably as Gateshead did, Telford snuck a goal from a set piece. Suddenly it was like Brabin was back in charge and we’d gone back a year.

Man for man we were miles better than Telford, that was the funny thing. As far as skills and talents were concerned we ran rings round them, yet none of these advantages were used to gain any advantage, if you see what I mean. None of them counted for anything, because we didn’t play to our strengths. There were glimpses, yes we created chances (and one or two clear-cut ones) but we didn’t show of our best. Instead we played to Telford’s strengths. You couldn’t make it up.

Shows how key Kovacs is to our team, not because he was particularly missed today, but because he was unavailable, Henry was in the middle, which meant Lawless was shuffled to right back from midfield, Howells was on the left, which left our three diminutive midfielders, Watkins, O’Donnell and Kasim against the four big lumps of Telford. O’Donnell worked hard again, though the other two were anonymous. Howells swapped for Kasim at half time. Frying pan fire. Don’t know what they teach down in the valleys, but dear Jake came back from Wales about as useful as Anne Frank’s drum kit.

Early in the first half we seemed to play on the break, but without Gray’s pace it was ineffective. Note to manager:  if you are going to play that way, you really need someone to exploit it.

For me Fleetwood and Gray were the only sparks. Fleetwood in a rich and positive vein of form seemed supremely confident and was still lively and wanting the ball at the end. The only time he got any space was out in the wing, moving with ease into the box, but with the amount of bodies in there, rarely got to deliver the perfect ball in. Andre Gray when bought on stretched the play a little, but was eventually dragged down to the general poor standard after a while.

Shaw and Rendell were less effective. Rendell, playing on the hole or slightly on the left Shaw being the target man. Shaw won his fair share of headers, but we were muscled off the bits and pieces and knock downs. At one stage Telford were even allowing Shaw to win the headers, uncontested, because we couldn’t win the second ball. Rendell: I overheard someone say at the end as I was leaving “6ft tall, jumps 5ft 6”.

It was one of those games. I suspect we could have played until tomorrow but still not scored a goal.

To think they ended up with nine men! Rose pushed Shaw over, but stayed on, somehow Henry the peacemaker got sent off too. And their sub striker, Reid could only have been on for a minute before he was off again.

Off we went to boos and some fisticuffs in the Kenny End. Clueless and frustrating, it was a bad day at the office. We must learn to use our skills to break these sides down. Some vision in the midfield, some balls played out wide, some quality crosses in would be nice. Of course, with some better finishing it would have been a scrappy but welcome win. But we cannot just assume that because our quality is better we will automatically win. There is no high-tempo play, and where is the closing down from the front we had last year? We are stuck in a buggers muddle.  Pumping the long ball to Shaw as the main route forward is poor man’s football. The long ball is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

The writing should have been on the wall. Yes, a fightback against Gateshead, but we were lazy and poor in the first half. Against Kiddy I thought we were competent but sterile. We were outfoxed by Hyde until Gray’s pace and Henry’s ball of the season combined with Fleetwood’s finishing to bring that game back from the brink, and today? Once Telford sussed us we were uninventive and lacklustre. Buckle must have been near apoplexy afterwards. His standards are higher than this. Hopefully this is the kick up the backside we need – I’m hoping PB kicked their backsides all the way down the Oak Road afterwards. Perhaps he got Embo to do it for him – hang on, Embo would have missed the kick.

Lastly, today I was looking forward to watching and writing about the comedy talents of Kyle Perry, one of the few luxuries afforded the watcher of non-league football, but I was even denied that because he wasn’t even good enough for Telford and is now at Nuneaton. Curses.

Time for another 6-1 against Ebbsfleet on Monday to make things better I think. Come on Luton – you are better than this. Make it the last loss until Christmas….

 

(PS Apologies for the lack of posts after the Kiddy and Hyde games – after the Kiddy game I did 2 14 hour days and was too knackered to do anything and I went to Lords on the Saturday after the Hyde game and was too hungover to type anything on the Sunday.)

 

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Here we go again…

 

In the middle of the summer, just as the sun comes out, with the Olympics and cricket still ongoing, up pops the football like a bashful, gawky teenager intruding on a private party.

Nevertheless, like punch-drunk fools we will still turn out in our thousands to witness another season of triumph and disaster, the disappointment of Wembley as recently as May not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the hordes of Hatters.

I think we generally and genuinely look forward to this season with a bit more optimism than in previous years. Town discovered a lot more gumption under PB last season and ended the league season on a high. Buckle has recruited in his own image this summer, knowing his favoured formation, purchasing players to fit that formation and getting shot of the dead wood.

And what of the match this afternoon? Based on the pre-season performances and formations I think it was easy to call the starting XI, if you assumed that Luton wouldn’t start with Jon Shaw, having not played a full 90 mins since returning from injury.

Rowe-Turner started at left back, I was keen to see how he fitted in. He had a mixed game. His game seemed to consist of good blocks, strong tackles and occasionally pretty lousy passing. We like the first two, the third must improve and I’m sure it will do.

Greg Taylor started at right back and had a poor game, whilst he got into good positions his touch and distribution were poor for him. He failed to mark Hatch properly for the soft first goal. He was substituted at half time and made way for Alex Lawless.

Ronnie Henry partnered Kovacs in the heart of defence – what I saw of him he looked tidy and competent – as indeed he should be, however he was caught cold for the (offside?) second goal, and was caught out more than once by the canny Hatch, whilst Kovacs, who was otherwise sound, was occasionally led a merry dance by Odubade.

Yaser Kasim – seemed to have a competent start getting stuck in and playing the sensible ball. Sacrificed at half time tactically for Jon Shaw it will be good to see more of him on Tuesday.

Howells had a better second half than first. Seemed off the pace at the start, but got going considerably better in the second – though I notice he has the turning circle of an old E class Merc.

And the revelation of pre-season? JJ O’Donnell. Seemingly found his best position, having started out on the wing and moved to left back, now he is a live-wire dynamo in midfield. Thought there must be something about him to be given a three year deal and you can see that that he works so very hard. His only downside, and presumably this will come with age a bit, but he seems a tad lightweight, by that I mean easier to knock off the ball with his short stature and slight build. But his tenacity makes up for it.

Up top we had Andre Gray, the star at the end of last season. Poor Andre didn’t get much of a sniff today, other than the chance he blasted over five minutes before our first goal. Not his day today, but hopefully he can richly benefit from the hundred of nod ons he should get from Jon Shaw.

Scott Rendell was off the pace a little in the first half, for long periods he seemed to be playing at the front of a diamond, just behind Fleetwood and Gray. I think he looked happier in the second when he pushed further forwards and was more of a handful. Plenty more to come.

Stuart Fleetwood can feel very happy with his performance. Again, like Rendell and Gray didn’t see much of the ball in the subdued first half, but his determination to succeed meant that he set up the first and got the second. Not a bad afternoon’s work.

 

 

Overall the first half was a great disappointment. Seemed to think we could coast it and the goals would come by themselves. The performance was the antitheses to what we were used to from Buckle’s teams last year, the pace was far too slow, they didn’t play far enough up the pitch and we were narrower than a country lane. There was just no service to the front three at all. The midfield was bunged up worse than someone with a diet of only eggs and rice. I think dear Andre Gray must only have touched the ball about three times in the whole half. Wholly unsatisfactory and changes (and presumably a kick up the arse) were needed.

And what a difference a half makes. On came the icon Shaw for his debut replacing Kasim and Lawless replaced Taylor. Both made an immediate impact. Jon Shaw’s class was immediately apparent. More direct, without being long suddenly we had a man to aim for to stretch the play. Shaw won headers (yes, a rarity for a Luton centre forward I know), laid the ball off, nodded the ball on and was a general pain in the arse for the Gateshead defenders. With him on the pitch they had the fear. Suddenly, having had only one chance in the first half, Gray and Fleetwood had chances which they both snatched at unfortunately. Then with  15 minutes of the second half gone,  good Lord, a Luton player got to the by-line for the first time. On this occasion it was Stuart Fleetwood who played it across the goal for Shaw to poke in for his first goal, hopefully first of many in Luton colours. Respectfully he didn’t celebrate in front of his old club. The fans were energised and the noise ratcheted up. Gateshead were suddenly rattled. On came Watkins for Andre Gray, who hadn’t really been in the game as much as he would have liked. The team settled back into a more natural shape, and about a minute later Rendell stuck his head on an O’Donnell cross after a rather lame header by Kovacs after a poor corner from the left . Fleetwood pounced to level the scores. All seemed to me to be offside, in fact three Luton players might have been, but who cares – I think we are due an off-side goal or ten after the Wembley refereeing debacle.

We continued to press and looked by far the better side, but Gateshead’s discipline was too good. Bogie’s sides rarely get picked. The winner could have come with five minutes to spare. Ironically Adam Watkins, who has a goal sniffers nose if ever there was one was presented with a gilt-edged chance for the winner after Jon Shaw (who else) nodded down a through ball for Watkins to run onto in the box. With only the keeper to beat Adam shot wide. If he has ten more chances like that in his life, I’d wager that he’d slot 7 or 8 of them. What a winner that would have been, but it wasn’t to be. We’ll leave the roof-raisers until later on in the season.

So there you go – first game of the new season, not going to be such a waltz after all perhaps, but Gateshead are a canny well-organised team and no mugs. You always get funny results in the first round of games. Mansfield lost at home to a re-energised Newport and Ebbsfleet beat Nuneaton 5-4 for goodness sake. Slow out of the blocks, but we worked our way through the gears in the second half. We looked so much better with Jon Shaw up front, he transformed our play, our positivity and our outlook. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so reliant on him so soon, but the difference today at least was tangible.

Off to Kiddy on Tuesday (yet again) and hopefully for the last time…

 

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The Calm before The Storm

 

As I type this we are in the quiet, nervous period between the two games. The eye of the storm if you will, where all that happens is that the respective managers give out positive messages, whilst concentrating 100% on the task in hand.

Whatever happens tomorrow (and I was one of the ones who were too slow off the mark to get a ticket) in this past month, since the last Bank Holiday Monday we have seen an unprecedented about-turn in our performances and fortunes.

A month ago if you had told me that the team that we were all happy to slag off, who were underperforming and limping along without a win in eight games would then go unbeaten in the next seven, with six clean sheets on the trot I wouldn’t have believed you – I don’t think anyone thought that the change around would be so comprehensive and effective.  It is fairy-tale Roy of the Rovers stuff – and is down to the discipline, determination and drive of Paul Buckle.

I can’t think of such a turnaround in a season before. To go from zeros to heroes in such a short space of time (Buckle had 24 hours) is utterly, utterly remarkable. Pinch yourself.

It isn’t just the results that are different. It is the fact that in the past few games we have been resilient at the back, we have always been first to the loose ball, we have closed down from the front,  got stuck in and winning challenges, and delightfully attacking at pace on the break. A little bit of the early 1980s Hatters have rubbed off on non-league Luton. Furthermore, if you could have devised a playing style and an attitude to get the Luton faithful on your side – this would be it. This would truly be it. For me, this is what I’ve been waiting for all these years.

It was so wonderful to be in a very nearly full Kenilworth Road once again. The atmosphere spurred the players on the way that the boos dispirited them previously. And what a buzz for Andre Gray. Playing in front of a few hundred a few weeks ago and now a near full Kenilworth Road – no wonder he is responding. Fleetwood too was on fire (in a Poku way) his determination for the first goal and his left-foot finish for the second raised the roof at the Kenny End once again. Good to see AMS back and playing again – and big Macca did his job well too when he came on.

Having gone all of the season without a performance or result against the teams in the top 5, to go and whoomp Fleetwood and whack Wrexham was very special and out of the blue. It would have fascinating to see what would have happened if we had been like this from the start of the season. This is most certainly the method that we should have been applying since that first game away to Wimbledon in August 2009.

My only worry is that having had all those chances to make it three, or four or even five against Wrexham, that fate turns around and slaps us in the face and punishes us for the profligacy once again. Perhaps, however, the fact that Wrexham have to get two goals, may enable us to counter attack for a third one in the tie?We can but hope.

But if we have a modicum of luck and play as well again as we have in the past two games, we shouldn’t give Wrexham a sniff, should we???

As the clock ticks around to 4 30pm tomorrow, I’m going to be getting more and more nervous – just one more sound performance and we are at our home-from-home again. …

All the best to those lucky ones of you going up to Wrexham in the morning – well done & sing your hearts out for the lads, I’ll be watching from behind the sofa…

Come on you Hatters.

 

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