FA Cup 1st Round – Newport (h)

A good win in a thumping FA Cup tie in the pouring rain. Just a short summary tonight as I have to be up early in the morning. At last I have the internet again, no thanks to BT whose shambolic performance in diagnosing and fixing the phone line was the technological equivalent to Newport’s defence this afternoon.

We started with the 3-5-2 system given outings earlier in the season, Howells and Harriman acting as the wing backs and playing well, though always vulnerable behind. Smith and Doyle patrolling the middle and Guttridge bossing things behind Benson and Cullen.

It seems that with the clocks going back the weather has changed, this was the first rainy and dark game for a long time. The football, or at least the goals were illuminating. I thought it was a good, old-fashioned cup tie with some physicality being permitted which added to the event.

Great to see Guttridge showing the form which set the season alight last year. Not sure how many other clubs would be as effective as we are with creative players such as Drury, Lawless and PRM out of the side. Quite amazing.

The first half was more sleepy, with the teams shadow boxing for the first 20 minutes, then we started to click with Guttridge and Benson going close. Then Newport had an effective spell including an overhead kick from Aaron O’Connor, which Tyler saved well. With about five minutes to go and against the run of play Doyle won the ball, fed in Gutts who had acres of space to run into in front of goal – and give this guy an inch he will take a mile and fired a fantastic left foot shot into the top left hand corner. If it was on match of the day, it would be in the goal of the month competition.

Nothing about the first half suggested that the second would have five more goals. But both sides attacked, neither seemingly fancying a replay. I should say fair play to Justin Edinburgh for doing that, but he hasn’t changed has he? Badgering the ref at half time and then bleating about him afterwards on the radio.

Klukowski’s equaliser was also a good goal, a deep cross headed out was fed back in and Klukowski knocked the ball up and volleyed it in. Not much we could have done about that other than getting the initial clearance further out.

Fortunately, Newport included the clodhopper Minshull in their ranks and it was thanks to him for the phase of play that led to our second goal. He headed poorly to Howells, who was excellent all afternoon and who shimmied turned and put a weakish right foot cross in, which fell poorly for Cullen, but he brought it down, put Guttridge in, who played it back to MC whose shot was parried by the keeper, looping up dangerously only for Paul Benson to bludgeon it across the line. It may have spun in without his intervention, but he made sure.

Newport’s second goal came from Obeng making a good run down the left skipped past Harriman who did his best to bring him down, the ref played advantage and he slipped a cross to O’Connor who stole in, in front of Tyler, played onside by Lacey. That is the casual danger of having wing backs of course, they are inherently vulnerable to a quick break down the wings and getting the ball behind them as they push up. Hey ho – so be it – it made for a six goal thriller though.

3-2 courtesy of a substitution Miller replaced the ever-hardworking Cullen. We won a corner Yakubu sticking the ball behind from a Wilkinson cross. Howells whipped in a low corner which fell to Miller who slotted it home for his first (official) goal for the Hatters. I hope it is one of very many. I like the look of him.

The icing on the cake was an individual goal from Jake Howells, excelling in his wing back role. Driving forward with the ball at his feet he picked up the ball just inside the half way line and ran and ran into the box and slotted it home level with the penalty spot a great individual goal and it just shows what he is capable of – he is a fine Luton player.

Bright pink ball today – eurgh. And because of the rain it appeared to me to bounce like the old leather things they had in my Dad’s day, or like a flat ball you find in the back of the shed.

Much has been spoken about O’Connor’s over the top celebration, I shan’t add anything here other than bigger men are able to shrug off a bit of what they call crowd ‘banter’ nowadays. I’d like to venture that one of the reasons he was let go was because he did let the then negative Luton crowd get to him. He played well enough today and it was a safe bet that he would get a goal. Silly boy, when we play them again just before Chrimbo he will get stick from thousands of fans, rather than a handful. The twit.

Let’s hope that we get a nice home draw in the second round – perhaps a game against one of the smaller clubs left in the competition such as MK Dongs – and then the chance for a third round draw against a top side, or failing that against that lot down the M1 who can show what a well-supported club they are by not selling out the away end again.

Nice that now the BBC have got the FA Cup back they go all out and show the highlights after match of the day in a special programme. What? They haven’t? They are only showing them online? Utter disgrace. They don’t deserve to have the coverage.

In other news, it looks as if we have signed that young lad from Sunderland Lewis Gibbons – John Still hopefully has sniffed out another gem. Let us hope that that is the only sniffing being done. I wish him well. Though I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Alex Lacey and Fraser Franks, but if he was good enough to be at a premiership club before it will be interesting to see how good he is once he settles in and learns what we are about. It subscribes to the business plan – get good young players who will end up playing at a much higher level, improve them and reap the benefit of them for a couple of years before selling them on.

Finally, I loved the poppy shirts today – there’s not too many things more important than football but showing respect to those who gave their lives is indisputably one of them.

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Mark Tyler saves the day & welcome back Smudger

A welcome return to winning ways after a hard-fought 1-0 win. Whilst the performance was better and the battling was excellent, we have Mark Tyler to thank for some excellent saves that kept us in the game.

At the final whistle there was tangible pulse of relief from the crowd – a P-wave of appreciation and acknowledgement of the efforts undertaken.

The team lined up with four tactical changes. Interesting to say the least, especially as John Still had said how well the team performed in the last game. However, we matched Cheltenham’s formation like-for-like with a 3-5-2. Curtley Williams made his debut, whilst Ross Lafayette made his full debut. Smudger Smith returned for his first game since his leg-break horror on Boxing Day and Luke Wilkinson returned in the heart of the defence. Missing out were Drury, Rooney, Howells and Connolly.

Williams and Griffiths pushed up against their opposing wing-backs. Lacey, McNulty and Wilkinson formed a back three. Smudger Smith was the holding man in front of the back three and Pelly and Gutts were further forward. Lafayette and Cullen were up front.

So what of the game? Well we clung on by the skin of our teeth as Cheltenham pressed and pressed in the second half. We had plenty of chances to go two up though, to be fair. The goal came from a throw on the left. Griffiths took the throw to Layette who held the ball up under pressure and forced the ball back to Griffiths, who crossed a lovely ball for an excellent glancing header by Mark Cullen. One up after 7 mins and that was it for the goals, but not the action. If Cheltenham had been able to finish better the outcome would have been different, but I suppose you could say that of us too. Other than the sustained pressure, there was nothing about them that suggested they were worthy of their starting position. Shrewsbury they’re not.

I thought Curtley Williams slotted in well at right wing back. He is a tidy player, good on the ball and seemed to have a good understanding of what was required. He tired in the second half, and went off after about 75 mins looking a bit sore, I hope he is okay. We transferred to a 442 shortly after the start of the second half as Cheltenham had swapped around too. It also helped us to defend and keep men behind the ball. I think dear Curtley forgot he was no longer a wing back though as he was stuck forward out of position with the Robins looking to get the ball behind him. Perhaps it was just as well that he went off!

Lacey was the first substitution when we changed formation, the tactical sacrificial lamb again. I recall he had a free header at the far post from a corner which truthfully he should have hit the target with. This left Wilkinson and McNulty in the heart of defence. Both had good games, apart from one tiny cock up by Nults. He put himself in the line of the ball time and time again, and hurled himself to block shots. What does Sir Ian say in that film? “They shall not pass”? McNulty should have that tattooed somewhere special. In fact I think Wilkinson had his best game for us and made a vital clearance off the line. Boy, they needed to be at their most dogged, we were stretched and pushed and pulled for all our worth and needed to be at our best to hang on.

Scott Griffiths had a good game, though more than once or twice he was caught betwixt and between as he had two players coming at him down the right. This stopped once Howells came on – but in both of the last two games Scott has been badly exposed on occasion with too much to deal with on his own. Anyway – we kept them out and Scott played pretty well, including the ‘assist’. But the clean sheet was really down to Mark Tyler who had a fantastic game. I think I counted four decisive, crucial saves without which we would have conceded a goal. I can see how Cheltenham came from two down last week – they came at us hard – but the last time of defence, M Tyler esq., stood firm. His kicking was really accurate too, in the first half he sent ball after ball out to Williams on the wing and otherwise accurately sought out the heads of Lafayette and Cullen like a heat seeking missile. Early season wobbles behind him, this was Tyler’s latest tour de force.

Pelly Ruddock is in fine form, he had another good game today, and in the first half was a constant threat. With half an hour to go he slotted into right back and took to it like an eager puppy. It didn’t stop him marauding down the flank like a border reiver. He was kicked to death by Cheltenham and each time he was felled the miscreant was decorated with a yellow card – but no more. Somehow it seems a bit wrong to see a team from Cheltenham filled with bruising thugs. The gnarled bully-boys they had at centre half would be better suited to somewhere like Grays, Millwall or Barnsley not the pleasant spa town with the ladies college.

~~intermission~~

Switching away from football for a second – dear reader – I’ve got a little topical question for you. It’s a bit of a moral-maze type question. I’m not sure which I would do. I wonder if you can help me out…

If you are disturbed in the night and hear a noise in the bathroom do you:

a) turn over to see if the wife* has got up for a midnight pee

b) fart & go back to sleep

c) if you are really concerned, get up, put your legs on (if necessary) and walk over to the bathroom door and whisper “Is that you in there my love? Has that curry brought on a touch of the collywobbles? I told you not to have them prawns.”

Or d) immediately reach for the semi-automatic 9mm firearm in your bedside cabinet and loose off a few rounds through the bog door just in case?

 ~~~

Back to the football, Jonathan Smith played the full 90 minutes, which I was surprised at. And he played well, he was everywhere and faultless in his effort and spirit. He was tiring at the end, which meant that some of his passes went astray but he had a really good game – like he’d never been away. I wondered, what with the massed ranks of midfielders JS has recruited, if he’d get many games this year. If he carries on like he does today, Robinson will have a job in getting his place back.

Luke Guttridge was a constant thorn in their side, but not quite as much of a threat as last week – when we moved to 442 he moved out onto the left before Howells came on. He got a standing ovation, from my bit of the Kenny End at least. He came close to scoring on a couple of occasions, including a lovely 1-2, but also did a dodgy back pass too.

Lafayette, also tired towards the end but had a pretty good game I reckon, bearing in mind he’s new to us. It was his strength which enabled Griffiths to cross the ball for the goal. He made some good touches some poor ones. He’s learning and he’s keen- and furthermore, with Benson injured and Alex Wall in the maison du chien, he’s our main man.

Speaking of goals, what a lovely header it was by Mark Cullen. He knows how to sniff a goal, and it was great that he got the winner and only goal. I think that’s just desserts. There’s tons of pressure on him this year in the absence of Gray – and to give him credit I don’t think he’s had two games the same with either striking partners or formations. I hope he goes from strength to strength.

Jim Stevenson nearly got a goal with his first touch when he came on to replace Lacey. From a corner and a melee he twisted and turned and slotted home his fourth goal in a week. However, after thinking about it, lighting up a fag, settling down with a good book and sending a couple of texts, the lino decided to raise his flag, allowing poor Jim in a few seconds of ecstasy only for it to be dashed. I like the look of Stevenson – he seems to be growing with each game, with each touch almost. Not sure why the goal wasn’t given though.

Andy Drury let us have a couple of glimpses of him at his best when he came on to replace Williams. A close shot followed by a lovely dink through for Pelly.

In other news, it’s nice to see Mr D’Urso hasn’t much improved with age. I’m not going to say anything more.

Good to see their keeper Carson foolishly engaged in what I think the young-folk call ‘banter’ with the Kenny End, which basically means he was daft enough to react to the abuse/friendly career advice/fatherhood-news he was receiving from the front row. Which meant that he got it in spades back. Silly boy.

Another comedy moment was when their excellent wing back Braham-Barrett got a kick ‘amidships’ as Blowers would say on TMS. Jesus did he look in pain. He could barely walk let alone run, such was the state of his nether regions. He limped around on tiptoes. I liked the way that he was so concerned about his balls he wasn’t bothered about dropping his shorts in front of us all for the physio to check that everything was still there, and that nothing was hanging off. His pained face gave us an idea of what a Scottish taxpayer would look like post-Independence.

I’m pleased with the win – it was no footballing spectacle, especially in the second half when we were largely under the cosh, but a gritty win which – from the looks of what we’ve seen from this division so far – is what is needed for success whilst we acclimatise.

The next two games are against Cambridge and Blackbird Leys FC and I’m looking forward to locking horns with Richard Money again next week. They’ve had a slightly better start and are 6th – but only 3 points ahead. We let them have a bigger lead last season before we overhauled them…then, after Oxford come the footballing purists and fairplay specialists of Stevenage. Not.

Well done lads, a good win.

PS Just noticed that there are two Luton references in the MoTD title sequence. Sorry if everyone else spotted them first.

PPS I still think that Diego Costa looks like an evil Danny Crow, but without the love-handles.

*or hubby, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, lover, neighbour, one night stand, window-cleaner, significant other etc etc delete as appropriate.

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Still Adjusting

To lose to a side wearing Ebola-yellow was bad enough, but for the winner to be scored by an ex-Hornet was galling, especially when that ex-Hornet had earlier performed the very same tackle that Robinson was sent off for last week. He received a mild rebuke and a yellow card. Robbo got the book thrown at him. Refs. Don’t ya just love ‘em?

As it happens, I was thoroughly enjoying the game. I thought we outplayed Plymouth certainly in the first half, but the goal just wouldn’t come.

Once again it was a loss of concentration that cost us a goal – we switched off for the briefest of seconds, but it was enough to let them take their chance. Things weren’t helped terribly by Mr Magoo the ref who – when not slipping on his arse or getting in the way of the ball – was terribly good at not being terribly good. Countless pushes on Cullen were missed and Bray, their first substitute inflicted a leg-breaker on Lacey and got a yellow, where we have so often seen red. In a premiership game, Plymouth would have been playing with nine at the end.

After the surprising draw at Accrington and the disappointing performance against a resurgent Shrewsbury (who were a much better team) the game against Plymouth was a chance to right those wrongs and to pop the train back on the rails and inject some confidence and momentum into the team. No such joy. There is a difference between the conference and league two. The opposition are stronger, close you down quicker and break faster than in the conference; the managers are cannier and quicker to adjust their tactics. It is a big wake up call. But once we’ve made and completed the readjustment then we will be fine and able to push on. I think that is why sometimes we are too elaborate in front of goal: we’re not able to stretch their defences and penetrate in the way we did last year. The pace and pressure of dear Andre is being missed.

We started with a 4-5-1 formation. Guttridge sitting just behind Cullen who was on his own up top, with Howells on the left and Rooney on the right. Alex Lacey was at centre half partnering McNulty. Early on, Plymouth, having watched how a couple of our goals this year had been conceded, targeted our skipper. Their early intent being to play the ball over the top behind him to the pacier Reid. Fortunately, we adjusted to compensate for this and this tactic was largely snuffed out: we pushed up less – one man went on Reid whilst the other covered.  He was then toothless until the second half where he moved to the right to torment poor Scotty Griffiths instead.

Rooney is a funny player. At times he looks like a live-wire and our only direct threat, he can play quick balls which get us on the front foot, but occasionally he over-elaborates, takes too many touches and deflates, defuses and denudes our counter attacks. In one fell swoop this man can turn a snappy counter into a slow build up, whether he receives the ball in midfield or up front. He collapses our soufflé. He releases the pressure valve on the opposition. He lets our balloon down.

Pelly and Drury were in the middle. Pelly had an excellent game – driving from box to box – being first to the ball in defence and supporting up front. In little bursts Pelly oozes class.

Drury was certainly better than he had been but not playmaking as he was before he left. He’s still adjusting to how we play, and this division too. He has to do his fair share of breaking up play and chasing down, rather than having the luxury of standing in the centre circle and spraying it around.  He did, however, play some creative and intelligent balls. Guttridge was really effective on the edge of the box and played a number of juicy one-twos with Cullen and others, but it never quite clicked. Griffiths had a hard time of it at left back – he got better as the first half went on, but was caught out of position a number of times in the first half and given a good working over by Alessandro. In the second half, with the introduction of Bray he had Bray and Reid to contend with as Plymouth manager John Sheridan obviously targeted our left side as the chink in our defensive armour.

Mark Tyler didn’t have too much to do. But when called on was back to his best – getting down to shut down a couple of opportunities where Reid had stolen in. His kicking was very accurate to his great credit.

In patches we played really well. On a different day, we would have had the run of the ball and with a bit more confidence we would have slotted a few home, but it was not to be. What is good is that all of this will balance out at some point and we will get the rub of the green and start banging them in.

Plenty of chances came our way:

Guttridge’s direct free kick in the first minute or so which was parried over by McCormick. There was a corner from the right shortly after that, which the keeper had to beat clear.

After a nice build up Guttridge had another chance drawing a low save from McCormick. Good work from Jake on the left cut Rooney in to make a blistering half volley which was just over – on other days that would have been a net-buster.

In the 20th minute Cullen dragged a good chance wide from the edge of the box, having been played in with an incisive ball by Guttridge.

Five minutes later Guttridge again played in Jake, who will be kicking himself for missing a guilt edged chance which was pure Luton.

After half an hour again, good play from Gutts gave Cullen a good chance, but this time dragged with wide with his left foot.

With two minutes to go in the first half a lovely combination of passes between Howells, Cullen and Pelly saw Jake get another fine chance to open the scoring. It would have been a lovely goal – but it wasn’t to be.

The first chance of the second half was a good through ball from Drury to Cullen – but Cullen was just offside.

A couple of minutes later a deft interception from Jake on halfway let Gutts play a weighted ball in front of the on rushing Cullen. Alas the ball was a centimetre or two too long, otherwise he would have been played in perfectly. As it was McCormack snuffled it up for his umpteenth save.

After 10 minutes in the second half Paul Connolly mistimed his strike at the far post, after a good cross by Griffiths. From the following corner, Pelly picked up a loose ball at the far post and turned and struck it – but it didn’t find a way through and was blocked.

Lafayette, who was brought on to replace Cullen (I think many folk wanted Alex Wall) played a quick one two with Alex Lawless (who had replaced Howells) but Lafayette fluffed his golden opportunity and sliced it wide.

Lawless posed a further attacking threat when getting into the box he crossed it for the on-rushing Lafayette, but Nelson scrambled the ball away before the tall target man could make contact.

With a couple of minutes to go an unlikely chance came from an enormous kick by Tyler – deep into the box Nelson mistimed his header and nearly looped it over McCormack.

The final chance came when Rooney played a deep cross from the half way line towards Lafayette whose cushioned header played in Guttridge who, given a second longer would have got a shot away, as it happens the ball was cleverly taken off his toe and he was flattened in the process.

So, we had plenty of opportunities. Though things smacked a little of desperation towards the end, this wasn’t a hark back to the dark days under Mr Brabin where we’d only make a couple of chances in a match, this was good stuff – good attacking creative play, where we had done more than enough to win. But you have to stick it in the old onion bag, and, like the game against Wimbledon we could have played another 90 mins and I don’t think it would have happened. It was in effect another game from the season before last: dominating, missing chances, not scoring, and being caught on the hop.

Lawless added a spark of momentum and decent crosses. Good to see him back. Last year his return galvanised us. It wasn’t quite enough today. He pushed up as part of a front three when he was on and was an immediate thorn.

One thing to note is that I don’t recall seeing so many players slip over in the game. Is the pitch greasy? Did they all need longer studs? It was peculiar. More people slipped over in this match than the televised bog-farce at the start of the year.

There were two early pointers to the Plymouth goal. Firstly, after about an hour Plymouth were focusing all of their moves down our left with Richard Reid and the sub Bray taking it in turns to power their way through. On this occasion Reid forced his way through the right and put in a good cross for Blizzard to take a snapshot in the middle, just turning the ball wide of the post: alarm bells should have been ringing. Secondly, a minute later, yet another attack down the right saw Bray on the ball spearing down the wing only to go over on his ankle, unchallenged, and he went down as if a sniper hid in box 10 had taken him out (seeking revenge for the dirty studding of Lacey’s shins?) We had the stretcher on and it took a couple of minutes out of the game, but Bray eventually got up and was fine. A couple of minutes later and yet another attack down the right saw Bray run towards our box again. He got as far as the edge of the box and then collapsed again in agony unchallenged. We froze for a second, Reid picked up the ball on the edge of the box, played Cox in, who slipped the ball to Blizzard who skipped around Connolly, a lunging McNulty and a stationary Lacey and slotted in a well-taken goal all with Bray dead on the edge of the box. Had we not gone sleepy-bo-bos when Bray went down Reid would not have collected the ball.

So, Plymouth weren’t anything special at all. Hard working, brutal in the tackle and opportunistic but not a great side. We had plenty of chances to put the game beyond doubt in the first half alone, but didn’t and got caught napping.

Our fortunes will change at some point, we will get that rub of the green and that spark we need to get the season properly started. It might seem as if we’ve not yet settled on the right team, combination and formation but at least we know that John Still has the know-how, experience and common-sense to get us to where we need to be. He’s no liar or bullshitter, if there were problems then he would say. He is finding out about his players and his squad and what they can do in a match situation. I’m not disheartened, just downcast about the latest defeat. A good chance to put things right next week against Cheltenham and I can start looking at the league table again.

By the way – I think I was a bit harsh about Rooney – do you agree?

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More of the same…

1144_canned_dragon_meat
 
A brilliant attacking burst at the start of the game ensured the result with still 75 minutes to play. The mighty Hatters carried on where they left off in the second half against Nuneaton with a magnificent team performance where there were no weak links.
 
Rudderless Wrexham weren’t too bad a side, defending apart. They made plenty of chances and half chances in the first half, could have had a penalty and if the sitters they missed had gone in, the scoreline and the outlook would have been very different, if not perhaps the result. We started with the same XI for the third game running – well, if you can’t stick with the same team when your previous results have been 5-0 and 7-0 when can you? Feel sorry for Mssrs Cullen, Ferdinand, Parry, Lacey and Meade who can’t even get a sniff.
 
What can I say? When the side switches it on and play high-tempo one touch football on the edge of the opponents box we are irrepressible and there is such control, confidence, skill and ability that even when the one twos don’t quite come off, there are still going to be chances, the ball still has to be dealt with and pressure still applied.
 
Ogleby missed a sitter in the opening seconds, his first of many. Our first goal was almost immediately after. It was our first attack of the game and scored after 131 seconds. Gutteridge stroking home from the edge of the box having been played in by that man Benson after excellent persistence by Howells. The second was down to Andre Gray’s persistence as he was presented with the ball a couple of times having seemingly lost it, but he motored on through and struck it home having originally been put through by Franks. The Wrexham defending was a bit like “after you…no, after you…have another go Andre, because we know you are the leading goalscorer in the division after all, we wouldn’t want you to go without”.
 
 
The third goal was a lovely move with a series of one touch passes starting with PRMs pass an culminating in Guttridge bagging his second and his 12th for the season. How Boothroyd must have kicked himself for letting him go. Probably refused to roll around the floor with half an hour to go with his team one up…
 
We had to wait a bit for the fourth, but ultimately Henry got a nose bleed and assist by crossing for Benson after a strangely slow motion move where Wrexham seemingly escorted us on.
 
Despite what JohnStill said afterwards, I thought whilst the second half was disciplined and we played some lovely football it was little more subdued, with the foot off the gas a fraction. We switched to 4-4-2 with Howells and Guttridge on the flanks, though to be fair the attacking movement is so fluid that many of the roles are interchangeable at times. I did think there were times when there was a hole in front of the Wrexham centre halves which would have been filled by a lively Guttridge buzzing around. Howells was felled for the penalty and got up and offered the ball to Guttridge, who, like the consummate professional declined it to allow Howells to pop it home. To be fair, if the ball had rolled slightly differently we could have had three more in the second half. Wrexham did play their part, not hacking us to death but still trying to pass it around, to their credit. Being the superstitious type – I don’t mind us missing a few half chances when we’re five up – I’d rather that then when we are scrabbling around for winner, get your misses out of the way when you are already five up!
 
Meanwhile Richard Money was doing his pieces for Cambridge as their season further implodes. He’s now worried about making the play offs – he’s not bothering about us. He’s thrown in the towel for the title race – as his players Matthew Barnes-Homer et al seem already to have done.
 
Again, our performance and finishing was confident, superb to watch and so gratifying after the seasons of dross we’ve had to endure.  This is, without doubt the best team we have had since we were in the championship. Full credit to JohnStill. He said it might take 20 months  when he started a year ago.  Well – on the anniversary of his appointment we are 14 points clear at the top, with 14 games to go. That means even if we only drew our away games and won all of our home games, Cambridge would have to win each of their remaining games to finish ahead of us. I’ll let you ponder as to the likelihood of that.  Anyway I suspect on current form Barnet will overtake Cambridge shortly. Without Davids they look much better. In any case, maths aside we need to keep the pressure on, play well again on Saturday and let the table take care of itself. Can’t wait until Saturday. My congratulations to the team and the club for extending this breathtaking run of form and results. I keep pinching myself but it really is happening…
 
No report after Saturday by the way as I’m going up to Scotland immediately after the game. They don’t have the internet up there. Last time I was in Glasgow I watched as they burnt a wicker effigy of Tim Berners-Lee. 
 
Come on you Hatters!
 
 
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Un-BULL-lievable

What an excellently enjoyable game of football. That is two outstanding wins in a week. The first in Macc. was a hard earned scrappy win, the sort of game we would have lost in the past, whereas this afternoon was a glorious second-half feast of a victory.

In a game where the referee chose to be lenient on Hereford, but harsh on the Hatters we still managed to romp home. Once we got out of first gear with Andre Gray’s first goal I didn’t think we ever looked like not winning, let alone conceding. And, much like the Nuneaton game two weeks ago, any rustiness or lack of cohesion in the first half was swept away with a tide of goals in the second.

And what goals they were.

The first goal came after nice move and a good interchange on the edge of the box. McGeehan curled in a low shot which the keeper failed to grasp, and in effect parried it to Gray who pounced like a cat on a bird and instinctively poked it in. Good – that was 1-0, pressure off, and playing into the wind. We had plenty more chances, but weren’t quite dominating in the way we can. It all changed when we played with the wind in the second half, but we didn’t succumb to any temptation to use the breeze by playing it long.

The second goal came from an inswinging Howells corner. McGeehan rose well and jumped competitively to win the ball, he hung like a spring salmon in the air, and took one for the team in the process, hurting his arm, and playing like a bird with a broken wing thereafter. Benson got on the end of McGeehan’s header and forced it home. It was probably going to go in anyway to be fair.

The third goal was smartly taken penalty by Jake Howells, however it was not the penalty but the build up to the award of the penalty which was impressive. It all started with a long cross field ball by Scott Griffiths to Howells, on the right. He played it back to Ronnie Henry who fired a fast ball forward to PRM who had lots of room to turn and drive into the box (just for a change!) and play a one-two with Luke Guttridge before being scythed down by the Gypsy-beast James.

The fourth goal was my favourite, and another move that would be more at home four divisions above, or at the Nou Camp. Think quick, sharp, high tempo passing – Luton football at its best. Guttridge played the ball back to McGeehan who played the ball inside to PRM who burst forward and injected more pace into the move on the edge of the box. He laid it inside for Guttridge who drifted to the left then slotted it inside to Benson standing on the penalty spot who touched it back for that man Ruddock who clip/chip/curled the ball perfectly into the top corner. He couldn’t have caught it more perfectly. A beautiful move matched by an exquisite finish. Little fast triangles, impossible to defend.

Three goals still to go, including a hat trick. McGeehan went off shortly afterwards, clutching his arm – he got a great reception as he gingerly made his way to the tunnel. A very lively Matt Robinson replaced him.

Benson started the fifth by muscling the ball back in the centre circle. It went back to Guttridge (there’s a theme here) who played a direct ball forward in front of Gray, which was, frankly a bit cruel. Fast striker vs knackered defender. Only one winner. Gray took the ball into the box and, carefully slotted the ball into the far corner giving the keeper no chance.

On came Jon Shaw, back from injury and on the bench, he replaced Benson, who had had a lovely game. Shaw’s first involvement was under-jumping for a ball, or rather being outjumped for the ball – and I thought ‘here we go again’ but fortunately this is the new version of Jon Shaw and that is the last time that happened.

Another lovely passing move resulted in Guttridge sending Lawless down the left wing stretching the play and getting to the byline. Another player you don’t really want to be facing when you are tired and five down. Lawless got to the byline, crossed it left footed and Gray darted it in for his hat trick of hat tricks this year. Who was the last Hatter to do that?

Last goal came from a free kick would you believe? Matt Robinson struck a right foot shot from 20 yards out, and the keeper made a fantastic save to touch it onto the bar, but the ball looped up and there was not one but two Luton players following it in from about a foot out – Shaw and Lawless, I think they both touched it, or rather the ball hit both of them, with possibly Lawless having the last touch. I don’t know, from where I was stood at the Kenny End I had a pretty good view. My instinct was that Shaw got the touch, but his body language suggested he might be a bit lucky to claim it. Anyway – doesn’t matter it was a goal – a seventh goal – and the drubbing was complete.

Who looked good, who looked bad? Difficult to find someone who struggled in any way. I suppose you could say that McNulty made a couple of uncharacteristic errors in the first half, that Guttridge took a while to get into the game and that Andre Gray shot rather than passing on two occasions once he had had this hat trick, but that was about that, the splitingest of split hairs. The second half saw a succession of confident flowing moves from a side top of the table who are playing like they are top of the table. This is the Luton side we always envisaged and hoped for (and arrogantly assumed) when we dropped down – a class above the rest and looking like a Ferrari in a garage full of Fiestas. 

Hereford, able to live with us for the first half but were simply blown away in the second half as our fitness levels made a difference and our class shone through.

Poor old Hereford. Another proper club fallen on proper hard times. Decent fans. I hope things turn around for them. Of course, it was only five seasons ago they were in league one rubbing shoulders with Leicester, Leeds and Brighton. Mind you, we know a thing or two about falling down the divisions.

We were quality. There wasn’t a weak link. I’m not sure there is a weak link. Players who were out of form when they came to the club (eg Ronnie Henry) and players who were out of form at the start of the year (Griffiths, Gray) have come good and are in top form. Players such as Cullen, Ferdinand and Meade can’t even get in the match day squad, everything is going well. Once again I must take my hat off to the players and the manager JohnStill for their performance and attitude this year, which has been spot on. They are taking it a game at a time, playing with confidence and at high tempo and not getting complacent. Still has filled the squad with willing talent, bursting to impose itself on games. And long may it continue.

Brilliant today, brilliant. It feels good to be a Hatter right now – everything comes to he who waits…

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Gateshead in the rain #2

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If it’s Gateshead then it must be raining. A wet afternoon and a cracking game. The Hatters played at such a pace in the first half that perhaps it was inevitable that they would run out of puff at some point. When we did we let in a couple of sloppy goals – but not before we had scored four crackers. On the final Saturday before Christmas,  an excuse for lower crowds in the days before Amazon, just under 7000 Hatters made the place rock and the Oak Road sang like the old days. For a while in the first half we were irrepressible, and at times there was clear blue water man for man between each Luton player and his Gateshead counterpart – for  a little while it was men against boys.

The side picked itself, with Joe Davis slotting in alongside McNulty. Lawless however played on the left, rather than the right, which was interesting. He set up one goal and scored two others and was in fine form.

The scoring was opened by the in form Paul Benson – who led the line superbly all night. It came from a lovely cross from Lawless from the byline across the face of the goal to the far post.

The second was down to Alex Lawless’s persistence in front of goal. Having lost the ball a couple of yards out he tackled the defender span around and lashed the ball in the net with his left foot.

Persistence was the name of the game for the third goal. On the far right wing, but the dugouts Lawless closed down the dilatory Sirrell and the ball ran to his colleague who barely had time to control it before Ronnie Henry intercepted and his interception became a perfect through ball for Andre Gray. Gray took a couple of touches, ran with the ball a little way, didn’t bother to try to create an angle and just blasted it past the goalie into the net. Nothing prevented the goalie from saving it, he wasn’t obstructed or impeded – he was on his line, but Gray just blasted it as hard as he could into the back of the net.

The fourth goal was a beauty too. It began at the back whereby McNulty and Henry tidied up a Gateshead loose ball, with them pressed up the pitch, Henry slotted the ball to Gray on the right who took the ball from his own half and played the ball into the path of Benson who rounded a player and then reversed a shot into the opposite corner. The keeper got his fingers to it, but could only parry the ball to Lawless who calmly slotted it in.

Steve McNulty was simply awesome all afternoon. His tackling, heading and positional play was outstanding. He even had a tete-a-tete with Hatch right at the end with the ex-Hatter (and fellow Mastermind contestant) goading our lovable scouse and picking up a booking in the process. He kept on and on and wouldn’t let it lie (clearly debating that the atomic weight of xenon is indeed 131.293, not 131.294) but fantastically  (in the hypocritical way that cricketers go and have a beer with the bloke whose mother they were slagging off a few minutes earlier at the end of the game) turned around and shook McNulty’s hand the second the whistle was blown. No hard feelings Macca. McNulty also lambasted Lawless for the first Gateshead goal. Nice to see the passion and annoyance about conceding one when four up. Glad it didn’t develop into a Batty/Le Saux tiff.

Scott Griffiths has gone from strength to strength over the past few weeks, he pressed further forwards than usual and on two or three occasions took an active part in play in the box – and even had a shot, a left-back special. His commitment on the touchline and interplay with Lawless was the key to the first goal: he played Alex in to cross for Benson’s header. I think he did go a bit sleepy bo bos for the Heed’s first goal – but I’ll forgive him that.

On the right Ronnie Henry roamed forward on occasion with great effect and brought a challenging extra element for Gateshead to contend with.

Davis was also tidy and competent.  I recall one bone-cruncher of a tackle he did – on the no 7 (Larkin?) the tackle had to be perfect, because something bad would have happened if he had been out by an inch either way.

The middle three comprised of PRM, Guttridge and Smudger Smith. Smith was quietly competent with some composed tackles – he pressed their midfield effectively and never let them settle on the ball. He had an outstanding game. Guttridge was utterly dominant and pulling all the strings in the way he does, more so in the first half than second. PRM at times looked way too good for the conference, between you and me he looked a bit too good for Luton a couple of times. What a difference his presence is making. The original box to box man, driving forward, skipping around people, scattering Gateshead players as he went.  As it happens today, he wasn’t a key contributor, but didn’t need to be. I recall possibly the miss of the season in the second half when he volleyed a Guttridge corner, it’s not many shots that run the risk of going over the roof at the Kenny End.

Gray was superb on the right and tormented Sirell like a cat playing with a dying mouse. Sirrell must have hacked at him, dragged him down, rugby tackled him and all sorts in his attempts to stop him, but without much success – even at that. Gray is in top form at the moment, with 7 goals in his last 5 days. He is tormenting defenders with his pace. Long may he remain at LTFC.

I won’t say anything about the defending for their second goal – basically Turnbill put in a deep curling cross to the far post that evaded everyone but that cheeky-chappy Liam Hatch at the far post. I’m sure JS would have gone potty at conceding that type of goal. Thank goodness it is a rarity these days.

I hope we can build on the performance today and eagerly look forward to the Barnet games and the Kiddy game next week. The Christmas period is key – I must admit we could have had easier ties – but we’ve got to play these sides sometime – they will be fearing us more than us fearing them.

Today’s game, the Gateshead goals aside was a superb performance for the Town. These are the performances and play which you want to bottle and keep forever. The pace, the touches, the vision, the confidence and self belief and the ethos were as good as they have been for a long, long time. It is a pleasure to watch them. How many times in recent years have we been able to say that? There are so many good things going on at the club from the youth team, through the ressies and the first team that I must take my hat off to the club and more importantly to JohnStill and his back room staff. I’m a happy Hatter as at Christmas 2013. By the way, it seems that everyone in the football world is following our recent (but not future) habit of sacking the manager, they’ve been falling like flies this week. I’m pleased to see that we’ve extended JohnStill’s contract.

Some scores:

Tyler 7

Henry 8

McNulty 8.5

Davis 8

Griffiths 8.5

Smith 8.5

Guttridge 8

PRM 7.5

Lawless 9.5

Benson 8.5

Gray 9

 

Happy Christmas to all of you out there who take the time out to read this blog. I wish you all the best and here’s to a successful 2014 for everyone.

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Wings ain’t what they used to be

A home game so long after the last one that it was like having another close season. I swear we’ve had shorter summers. When I was last at the Kenny it was the last knockings of a long summer, today was an early blast of winter.

Fortunately a couple of pints in the Nick Owen lounge insulated me from the biting coldness that the Kenny end normally has to offer pre-match.

Only a limited time to write the report this evening due to strictly fun, Dr Who and I’m a Celeb. You’ve got to get your priorities right after all.

An enjoyable game and a good win against a team from the Planet of Giants, apart that is, from the pint sized right back/mascot.

Andre Gray scored both goals, one a lovely finish after a knock on from Benson the other a fine poacher’s effort after good cross from the left channel by Lawless which either Benson or Gray could have stuck in.

Gray was keen, direct, determined and a pain in the neck throughout – but I thought for the most part he clumped around as if he had a big shoe. Every direct ball played to him he failed to control. It was quite funny by the end, and of course, because it wasn’t crucial we could have a laugh. But I swear JohnStill has given him an orthopaedic brogue as a boot. To be fair to him, there were three occasions in the game when his close control were spot on, one of them was for the first goal and at the end of the day that is when it matters. He did show a lovely touch on the right at one point when Tyler set him free on a break. Close control on occasion aside – we are lucky to have him, he has 9 goals now.

Up front Benson was a constant threat in both halves. He got very little support from the ref, who seemed to think the laws allowed their centre halves to use him as a climbing frame all afternoon. Must check that… He held the ball up well and linked incredibly well with Gray. His football intelligence shone out. Little touches here and there – he often sees things that are on which most of the cloggers in this division couldn’t even begin to envisage. His partnership with Gray is the best one we’ve had up front since Howard and Vine, in my very humble opinion. Having watched a couple of howlers in the Scouse Derby, PB served up one of his own this afternoon. One of the ones which are harder to miss than to score. He was set on a wonderful through ball by Parry I think and needed only to slot it in to score. Instead he slotted it wide. If he gets ten more of those this season he will score nine of them.

At the back Mark Tyler often chose to kick when some of us would have preferred to retain possession and build from the back. But to be fair to Tyler his kicking was accurate and regularly picked out Benson, rather than just conceding possession by placing it onto the forehead of the opposing centre half. Tyler made a couple of cracking saves too – which ultimately were crucial.

On the right Ronnie Henry struggled a little on occasion, but was sound and tight for most of the time and for some reason took it upon himself to fell Lafayette as he ran past him, in the season’s most obvious penalty. This was a wake-up call at the start of the second half to ensure you took your seats quickly. Lafayette took the penalty – which Tyler saved but unfortunately we were all sleepy-bo bo on the edge of the box and he followed up and scored. Henry was pushed over just before half time and was lying prone in the box and play carried on. And in a comedy way after Welling pulled level got warned for time wasting by the ref. Where do we get them from?

More troubled on the left, but not really in trouble was Scott Griffiths who is in zingingly good form at the moment. He was marking the lofty no 9 of Guthrie who had the dangerous combination of height and pace. Apart from one move where he got the ball to feet and cleverly deceived the Luton defence, his bark was worse than his bite. It was Griffiths’ pass to Benson which set up the first goal and he made further progress down the left when possible and put in a good cross to Gray who headed just wide.

In the middle was Steve McNulty ultimately doing his best Fozzie impression with a bandage after an elbow in the head from Lafayette- he’s got your card marked now son. Bless him, he looked like a broken Weeble found on a stall in a car boot sale. In the first half he made crucial interception after crucial interception. When we were under the most pressure it was McNulty who got the important clearance just when it was needed. He treated us to a bit of Brazilian flair by attempting to pass the ball with the outside of his foot in the second half. Needless to say the pass flew straight to the opposition and I can only imagine the amount of ribbing he will get all week from his colleagues.

Alex Lacey alongside – he grows in strength and ability with each game. Who would have thought that he would have maintained his form and position this far into the year. Often young players have a bounce when they first get into the side playing with the form and confidence of youth – but often after 5 or 6 games their lack of experience starts to show and they run out of puff as the initial bubble bursts. Then they are dropped and they must build the form again to challenge. Remember the likes of Stephen O’Leary and Michael Leary when they broke into Newell’s side? They were stop gaps because we were down on our uppers at the time. But they punched above their weight initially before ultimately skill and experience caught up with them. There are some young players, like Keet’ Keane or Kevin Foley who take to first team football like a duck to water and grow and grow in the role never looking back. I’m delighted to say that Alex Lacey appears to have slipped effortlessly into the latter group rather than the former examples. Long may it continue.

In Jonathan Smith’s absence in stepped Jim Stevenson. He buzzed around in midfield without imposing himself. Much of the play eluded him. Another young player who might benefit from a run in the side. I was surprised he started ahead of Matt Robinson – but I’m not the manager. However Robinson made a real difference when he was brought on and looked hungry for the place. I was sitting there thinking what is the difference with Robinson – he appeared to have a shock of fluffy hair all of a sudden – then it dawned on me he’d left his Alice band at home.

Shaun Whalley mark two started on the left, ahead of Jakey Howells. Whilst he had a few good runs and interchanged well and created a threat he didn’t really make that much of an impact – or at least as much as he would have liked. He was replaced by Luke Guttridge, who slotted in playing just behind a front three of Lawless, Gray and Benson. Guttridge made a huge difference to the second half. Pulling the strings. He pressed so far forward he was almost part of a front four. A constant threat which frankly Welling were struggling to deal with. This was the fundamental difference, suddenly we were controlling the midfield and thus the match. It was Guttridge’s through ball to Lawless which set up the winner.

Alex Lawless started on the right of a four and ended up the right of a three. He wasn’t in the game too much in the first half but increasingly had influence as the game went on. It was his cross from a Guttridge pass which ran across the face of the goal for Gray to stick in.

Andrew Parry has become a fixture in the side – I like him. He showed a couple of very good touches today, but was outnumbered and couldn’t impose himself on the game in the way he would have wanted. He put in one excellent cross to his partner Stevenson. But also one nightmare pass to Griffiths, which fortunately he tidied up himself with an excellent tackle. I think he was a bit swamped with an inexperienced partner alongside – but hey – we won didn’t we? One thing that we learned from the game was that a central midfield partnership of Parry and Stevenson has less influence on a game than an three of Parry, Guttridge and Robinson.

So no home games for six weeks and then two come at once. We can look forward to seeing the Oak Road end full of Hatters again on Tuesday against Southport. Crikey – if we were confident they wouldn’t send many on a Saturday – how few are they going to send on a cold Tuesday night? Are we going to set aside 8 seats in a box for them? Mind you I say that, but Bedfordshire in November probably feels like the Med compared to the windy charms of the Irish sea coastline in Lancashire.

Then next Saturday an opportunity for the reserves to enjoy themselves against the Staines massive in the comedy cup. What could be more fun? 

Oh, I’d better do some scores, for what it’s worth:

Tyler: 7
Griffiths: 8
Henry: 6.5
McNulty: 7.5
Lacey: 7
Whalley: 6
Parry: 6
Stevenson: 5
Lawless: 7
Gray: 8.5
Benson: 7.5

Guttridge: 8
Robinson: 7.5

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