9 v 12

Mr Money asked for passion, and passion he got from both the fans and the players. As ever, in adversity, the players, fans and manager were drawn together, and the atmosphere at times was as good as we’ve had for many a year. Certainly since the Oxford win last year. Typical Luton: we only start playing with intensity with our backs to the wall.

Yesterday in his press conference Money called for us fans to put all of the angst and the reasons for our frustration (which I conveniently listed for him in my last piece) behind us and come together to wholeheartedly get behind the team. Whilst Money’s press conference was quite surreal in its own right, the fans did what he asked and got right behind the players from the off. It was quite reminiscent of times gone by. And wonderfully refreshing.

Whether this is a new start, a new covenant between the fans and the manager, or a temporary cessation of hostilities we will have to see.

It depends entirely on the players. If the players can continue to pull together and fight and demonstrate that they want to progress in the league as much as they wanted to get to Wembley then poor form aside, the determination will see us through. Today, the Town fans came together and collectively said “well we are keeping to our side of the bargain”, and, egged on by the increasing noise and support, the players responded. We were indeed the 12th man – or more accurately, after the ref had had his say, the 10th man.

And it will be the ref’s actions which get remembered about this game. Already hell-bent on penalising Luton for challenges that he was happy to turn a blind eye to for Mansfield – he did himself no favours when he dismissed Claude and Lawless in quick succession within final six minutes of the ninety.

Ironically, the first time Claude showed a bit of effort for a long time resulted in him getting his first card. The ball was running out on the right hand side of the goal, the Mansfield defender was attempting to shepherd it out behind the goal. Claude dashed across and put a challenge in, right on the line winning the ball fair and square but bundling the Stags player over in the process.

Unfortunately the ref saw it differently and booked the Frenchman, and it was this booking which was his ultimate downfall because when he felled Spence with a late challenge on 84 minutes he deserved the yellow card, but got a second yellow and a red for his troubles. What was very frustrating was that Morgan-Smith (who was sub) had already stripped off and was ready to come on when Claude got his red card, ensuring that instead of making the substitution we had to quickly reshuffle the pack and tactics. In hindsight of course we should have taken the opportunity to sub Claude a minute or so earlier, but I think either we waited until the Luton corner was taken or the fourth official denied us the chance. But it was too late to do anything about it after that.

Five minutes later that well-known dirty-player Alex Lawless was given a straight red for – well I’m not too sure. I think he made a sturdy challenge on Nix I think . The meal Nix made of it you would thought Lawless had wrestled him to the ground and given him a good shoeing too. Nine men now then, and time to hang on.

Extra time was truly backs-to-the-wall time. Each kick and clearance by a Luton player was greeted with a cheer, whilst every time a Mansfield player was on the ball they were roundly booed. The support reached fever pitch when Danny Crow chased down a Mansfield player in possession of the ball dallying by the goal line at the Kenny End. Crow sprinted (yes, not a typing error) twenty five yards to close the player down. All it meant was that the ball went out for a goal kick but that demonstration of the never-say-die attitude ratcheted up the noise to another level and brought the home fans to their feet in a paroxysm of support, appreciation and fervour.

This brings me to a fundamental part of supporting Luton and an important point which needs to be noted at this stage. Crow’s charging the ball down when he could quite easily have not done so wasn’t the only example in the game of a Luton player putting in an extra effort to sprint and close down a player or the keeper. But it is the sort of effort that all fans notice, appreciate and applaud. If all Luton players did that, every game, never again could us fans walk home and decry a lack of effort or commitment to the cause. We love players to put it about, and to charge after a lost cause and to show that they care. And to be fair to Crow his first few games he was synonymous with this. If Matthew Barnes Homer had spent his entire Luton career charging about and chasing things down it would be ludicrous to imagine that anyone could ever accuse him of a lack of effort. Running down balls that appear a lost cause and by closing players down it demonstrates the sort of passion and commitment we expect from players. It creates a joint sense of purpose and unity between the players and the fans (whereby the players commitment matches the fans’), and what’s more it puts the wind up the opposition. My point is this – if it is so easy to win fans over by demonstrating that you will give your all in a Luton shirt (like Nico and Sol always used to) why don’t players always do it? If Money had wanted to get the fans on the players’ side notwithstanding all that has gone on this week, a simple instruction to chase everything down, however seemingly pointless it might be, would always, but always, endear that player to the fans.

Anyway – on with the summary, if you had any doubts at all that the ref had money on Mansfield to go through he saw to it that Mansfield got a penalty just before the end of extra time. The ball was crossed from the right hand side to Briscoe who hit it hard on the edge of the box and the ball cannoned off Pilks arm behind for a corner. Ball to hand surely? Yes the arm went up, but did he deliberately play the ball with his hand? Only Pilks will know. The Mansfield players didn’t spot it. In any case, it was a sickener and only compounded the Luton fans’ belief that the ref was bent. Put it this way – the referee did nothing in the game to delight and surprise us into thinking he was being even-handed. Briscoe managed to blast the ball at Kevin Pilkington, who saved it but parried it and Briscoe was first to the ball and banged it in. The police and stewards who by now were surrounding the perimeter and were en masse in front of J block twitched nervously as fans spilled onto the playing area in disgust. Fortunately we didn’t give the FA an opportunity to throw the book at us, though I am sure they will try, as the ref was no doubt pelted when he ran off the field, looking as frightened as a paedophile in Portsmouth.

The players were called into (another) huddle at the end by Money and no doubt he told them to bottle the spirit and the passion they had shown, and furthermore if they showed that spirit and passion from here on to the end of the season, they would have no worries – which is surely true. Following on from the huddle the players split to re-applaud and acknowledge the home fans who responded by intensifying their appreciation.

Kevin Pilkington started the game in goal – as he has done throughout the competition. Whilst he made some good saves (and saved the penalty) and made some easy saves looked good, he let himself down with some shocking Emberson-esque kicking. And whilst his kicking was inaccurate he did also opt to lump it far too often, especially when the better pass was the build up from the back. Towards the end of the second half he started playing it out a bit more. However on one occasion he threw the ball out to Jake but the ball lost all of its energy on the damp and bumpy pitch and merely served to play Mansfield in. Says a lot for football at this level – he didn’t have a great game, but if it wasn’t for the penalty he would have kept a clean sheet.

Luke Graham slotted in at right back as Dan Gleeson is injured. It was Graham’s long ball which played in Owusu for our goal. Graham was occasionally outpaced on the wing – but then again he is a centre half. One or two of his passes went astray too which gave away possession needlessly. He supported in attack though – didn’t overlap and covered pretty well. We also have to remember that he is doing the job of two players at right back, as dear Claude rarely does the hard yards these days. He had one excellent chance to put us in the lead from a great free kick from Keano – forcing the goalie to pull off an excellent save.

In the middle Kroca had an effective game, but was slightly less sure of himself than in recent games. He went up front once we had gone a goal down, but it was too late.

George Pilks had a pick up in form today. Okay – he gave away the penalty but I don’t think fans are ever going to record the game as ‘that one where Pilks lost it for us’. He showed that underneath his cleancut Captain Perfect exterior beats the heart of an angry man when he shoved Istead who tried to push him out of the way when he was standing over the ball when they won a free kick 2 yards outside the box. I suspect he’d had enough by that stage, having had no protection from the ref when the aforementioned Istead studded him. The way things were going he was lucky to stay on I guess – but perhaps reducing us to 8 men would have made the ref’s partisanship a bit too obvious. Istead didn’t get a talking to on either occasion though, which in itself was ludicrously poor refereeing.

Jake was back to left back with Murray’s hamstring gone. He had a good game, closed his man down well, showing a lot of commitment in the challenge and getting forward and supporting play very well. He deserved to go to Wembley.

I have mentioned Claude already. He put in a tad more effort, but was largely ineffective – he put in one good cross and three weak ones from what I can remember. He did have some urgency about his play, but was the obvious choice to be subbed before his dismissal.

In the middle of the park Keith Keane was hard work, drive and effort personified. Continually putting in ball-winning challenges his work rate was incredible.

Alongside him Lawless played well, without perhaps showing all of the brilliance he can do . He actually had to work very hard in the middle of the park. I recall one lovely through ball he played to Claude. Presumably with a straight red he will miss some games – the challenge was not made with malice, it must be worth an appeal, the alternative is having to start with Carden for up to three games…

Adam Newton started on the left and had a really good game. He was involved in almost all our attacking play and showed us the player who scored against us for Brentford in our last game in the league. His effort and work rate went unrewarded but epitomised our spirit and performance this afternoon. He was substituted after 70 minutes, which was fair enough, because he has not long come back from injury. Presumably with Claude missing Tuesday’s game now with suspension, he will slot in on the right. If he performs like he did today he would deserve to keep his place and to relegate Claude to the bench.

Up front were Lloyd Owusu and MBH. Owusu had a great chance where his not quite cleanly struck shot beat the keeper but trickled across the line. Once again, not a shred of luck. He scored our goal with a thumping shot from LG’s long ball but missed a sitter shortly after. He worked hard whilst he was on but didn’t get the service from the back that he would expect. He was replaced by Big Hips Danny Crow after 77 minutes, which was fair enough, because the old boy does get a bit tired.

MBH – a man transformed since the Kidderminster game. He harried, chased and pressed. Got into good positions and heart-warmingly didn’t drift out to the left or right all the time but stayed in the middle. When Jason Walker replaced Adam Newton, Walker went up front and MBH moved to the left, which made sense, because MBH can cross a ball and Walker is a hustling bustling goal poacher. When we were down to nine men he led the line on his own, with Walker and Crow playing behind him in a sort of midfield with Keith Keane on his own behind them. Like a sort of Christmas tree formation – not a real Christmas tree of course but a plastic Christmas tree that has been in and out of the loft a few times and seen better days and lost a couple of branches.

Walker had much longer in this game than his usual 30 seconds, albeit in an unfamiliar position for most of it. He worked hard and looked dangerous when on the ball. One day, with a bit of luck, and a run in the side, he is going to knock out goals for us like the Royal Mint prints notes. He has even shorter legs than Mr Crow – at no point was there flesh showing between the tops of his socks and the bottom of his shorts. It would be easy to spot if there was because his torso is whiter than a Scottish prisoner who has seen a ghost.

Danny Crow – I have already mentioned him – he worked hard and looked hungry – again, like Walker he performed in strange circumstances but gave his all for the cause.

Amari Morgan-Smith. A much discussed player in the forums this week. A player who was talismanic when he came on board at the start of the season. A player whose recent career had involved scoring for fun, but after his injury had been a shadow of his former self, the flame extinguished. He came on for the knackered MBH with 8 minutes to go and did look sharp and did chase things down.
Circumstances meant that this wasn’t a game where he would be judged on performance so much as effort when our backs were to the wall.

So, as a game it will be memorable one in the fans minds. There wasn’t a ton of great football played, but it will be remembered as a good cup tie, blighted by the sendings off and the penalty decision.

Quick scores on the doors:
Pilks K – 6
Graham – 6.5
Pilks G – 7.5
Kroca – 7
Gnapka – 5
Keane – 8.5
Lawless – 7
Newton 8
MBH – 8
Owusu – 7.5
Walker – 6.5
Crow – 6.5

In the scheme of things it was just an FA Trophy game – which counts for nothing other than a chance to have a splendid day out at Wembley and an opportunity to win another cup 3-2. The same FA Trophy we were prepared to risk playing the youngsters in in the first few rounds as it was considered a nuisance. The same FA Trophy we will be embarrassed to remember that we were competing for, when we are eventually back in the league (in the same way that Watford always pretend they don’t want to progress in the League cup, because it is a meaningless trophy, apparently).

But what this game might be remembered for is far more important. There is a chance that this game was the turning point in Richard Money’s relationship with the fans. He has the same foibles and faults that he had before – but there is a chance that the passion and commitment shown by his players and also the fans, has reignited the relationship between the two. Yes, there is a chance that Tuesday’s game at Rushden might be the same-old same-old; but what is exciting is there is a chance, just a chance, that today we saw the start of a new contract between the players and fans: we will sing and shout and create an atmosphere that most clubs but for the top few can only dream of, if you will always give your all.

Will the re-engagement last? Only time will tell.

Thank you for all of your excellent comments after the Richard Money piece. During the week the hundreds of people visiting the site tipped the ‘page view’ total over the 100,000 mark, which is both amazing and humbling. My thanks for your continued support.

Come on you Hatters.

DM

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