Slightly Surreal

Not really sure what to make of this one. It is rare that we get to dominate a game so much, but the scoreline suggested that it was a close game.

The beautiful March sunshine hinted at spring, but the cold easterly wind reminded us that it was winter. My impression was that we were miles better than Hayes. I tried to look at it objectively (difficult I know) I tried to ignore the fact that they were part-timers and last year we were two divisions apart. We were better on the ball, we moved the ball better, our first touch was superior and our players man for man looked superior and fitter. However, we seem to have not yet shed the post-Newell hangover of not being able to put sides like this to the sword. Three goals away from home is a good return for a team who had been posting nil nils and one nils away from home, but I don’t think I am being unreasonable or greedy to say we could have had a few more.

Money’s post-match conference suggested we could have had ten, and whilst we did have plenty of chances, “ten” is Money hypberbole kicking in again. We did dominate the game and indeed created lots of shots and headers on goal, however I think that perhaps 5-2 would not have been out of place.

There you go. We won anyway – a win, is a win, is a win.

Hayes’ ground was a funny little place – it reminded me a bit of Aylesbury Utd’s old ground years ago, but of course Aylesbury were a much bigger club than Hayes! It seemed half-built, and was inevitably two thirds full of Hatters.

We started with the same XI which opened against Mansfield:

Tyler, Murray, Pilks, Kovacs-block-of-flats and Newton were at the back. In the middle, Howells, Hall, Keano and Gnapka. Up front Hatchy started with Barnes-Homer.

Machine-like we eased into a two goal lead in the first half. At no point was I in any doubt as to the result, such was the gulf. It was rather relaxing and inevitable. It felt a bit like the surreal 3-0 at home to Grays in the cup.

Hall had an early headed chance (which is a bit of a common theme) from a cross by Jake Howells. Murray blasted a chance wide after Hatch had knocked the ball down. We were caught offside plenty of times and created many opportunities without really turning them into chances. In effect we dominated play, without making their keeper work too hard.

Then, Kovacs-block-of-flats, was caught square by Cochrane who nearly put in Watkins (their lone striker) but Kovacs managed to get his feet to the ball.

As is often the way, we opened the scoring almost immediately afterwards. Keano took a free kick from the left hand side and good old Hatchy made no mistake by heading/forcing it in at the far post. One nil.

Tyler kept us in the game with an excellent save to deny Binns (I think) after Newton was wrong footed. Kovacs-block-of-flats passed the ball out to Claude on the right. He diddled Green their left back (for the umpteenth time) and was bundled to the floor by Ruby, it was undoubtedly a penalty despite Claude’s penchant for collapsing like a house of cards in a hurricane.

With Craddock on the bench and Nico injured (expecting operation – so he might be out for a which is important as we have some key games we need to win in the next few weeks) Claude nicked the ball and insisted on taking it. He took such a short run up that the keeper didn’t have long enough to try and suss which way he was taking it he rolled it to the right. Had the keeper not previously committed himself I’m not sure it would have been terribly good penalty but there you go.

We were now in total control and I felt completely at ease – to quote Danny Baker “nothing can possibly go wrong now”. Shortly, Hall missed a good chance, Hatch drove across the goal, and MB-H shot wide.

My impression at half time was that if we pressed in the second half, we would squeeze at least another couple of goals. However the second half was to prove a different kettle of fish.

Instead, Hayes pressed us much more from the off, which tended to mean that we had to play on the break. But don’t imagine this that meant we were on the back foot, because time and time again we were creating opportunities.

Hayes got back into the game courtesy of Cochrane, who along with Binns and Cadmore were their best players. About 30 yards out on the left, he had the foresight to try a shot which curled past Tyler into the net. Simple opportunism, almost their first chance and suddenly it is 2-1. It didn’t stop us from generating more yet more chances though. MBH shot wide and Hall placed/sliced a shot wide. Hatch limped off at this point having pulled a hamstring.

Craddock came on and looked lively from his first touch. Whilst Hatch and MBH had linked up well, Craddock and MBH were even more sparky. Newton won the ball just inside his own half and played a long and accurate ball to Craddock in the inside left position. He ran with the ball, cut inside and took it to the edge of the box where he played a one two with MBH. It didn’t quite come off but the ball got back to Craddock who lifted the ball into the net with his right foot, catching it just right, on the up after it bounced giving the keeper no chance. Not quite a half volley, more like a well struck four or six.

Shortly after this, Hall had another chance – another header – this time cleared off the line. Binns I think it was. Hayes now had their best period of the game testing Tyler out and forcing him to make a couple of key saves.

Just to dwell on Tyler for a second. He has been outstanding this year. I can recall only one, perhaps two half-errors all season. He strikes me as a model professional and full credit to big Mick for landing his signature at the start of the year. His only weak point is the accuracy of his kicking – which is not great, but nowhere near even half as poor as the likes of Ovengloves or Emberson’s kicking used to be, if you can remember them. His communication with the players is outstanding, as is his positioning in the box. He gets down quickly and is a fantastic shot stopper. He is the keeper we have been looking for between the sticks for a number of years now. When Beresford joined us, he was, for the first two years at least, an excellent keeper. Prior to that, and before our rise and fall in the leagues I seem to recall that Cederic Bertelin was also a fantastic keeper albeit only for a short while on loan. I’d put Tyler in that category.

Over the years we have seen some fantastic keepers at the club: Sealey, Dibble, Feuer, Findlay, Chamberlain, Davis, etc; and whilst Tyler can’t quite be compared to them, I think the impact he has had at the club, and the difference it has made to the team, can.

Howells, who had had a big impact in the first half, but not so much in the second, was replaced by Nelthorpe. More or less his first touch was to cross to Hall from a short corner – and Hall, as so many times before in the game headed wide/over.

Then, with about a minute to go the scoreline, which was only just believable was made unreal again. Cadmore, who had just been awarded the home team man of the match snuck in with a header at a corner. Kovacs-block-of-flats failed to pick him up, from what I could see.

He was at fault again about a minute later, now in injury time, when his cloggy back pass almost put Watkins in.

But that was it. It could have been 4 or 5, might have been 6, but we had to make do with a 3.

I have been boring my mates for ages (ha! deliberate mistake I meant ‘mate’) saying that one day soon we are going to take all of these half chances and get a bit of luck and suddenly get a real hatful. After today, that is even more likely, we are so overdue to give a side a sound thrashing it is unreal. One day, just one day, it will all click and we will post 7 (seven) or 8 (eight) I swear.

So, fair play to Hayes, they made a proper game of it and passed nicely where they could. It was slightly embarrassing that their pitch looks in better nick than ours. I wish them well. Though I can see now why they built the Hayes bypass around the place.

More fun and games on Tuesday of course – and Hatch permitting, we should stick to the same team I think, with perhaps Ed or Blackett replacing Mr Kovacs at centre half.

As with my pleadings before, we just need to keep sticking the ball in the net, and winning and winning. We have three home games on the trot now: Forest Green, Wrexham and Kidderminster all of whom have pretty poor away records. We should get 9 points out of 9 of course and that would place us in a strong position to cement our play off spot – however, Luton being Luton, whoever is in charge, we tend to shoot ourselves in the foot and make the easy games appear hard, and then surprise ourselves in the hard games. Well – looking at the fixture list, we haven’t got any hard games left in March – I don’t know if that is good news or bad!

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A day at the Seaside

About 80 miles to the west, Southampton and Portsmouth had been thrashing out a local derby. It was definitely the south coast’s main feature to our B movie. Quite surreal to be watching our club hoof it around a freezing cold and muddy field in Eastbourne when 25 months earlier we had graced Anfield.

A visit to Eastbourne meant three things: a detour to Lewes to meet an old friend, a chance to have a couple of pints of Harveys Ale and a trip to the brewery shop, and another opportunity to get completely lost in a strange seaside town I had never been to before. Fortunately I didn’t miss any of the game.

Just as well, because most of the best play was in the first ten minutes, capped by an excellent Asa Hall goal from outside the box, clubbed into the corner, giving the keeper Knowles no chance.

We started where we left off against Oxford, all drive and determination. Before he scored Hall had already brought off a good save by Knowles following a Craddock run and cross.

The first ten minutes were all us, but then Tyler was brought into action having to block a chance from their centre-half Pullen at the far post from a corner.

I made a note then there was a lull at this point and I think it was here that we transformed from the confident side that took on and beat Oxford, to the competent side which has gone all of these games away from home without conceeding a goal.

Hall had another chance from a Nicholls corner.

Taylor had an opportunity for Eastborne, Kovacs being caught square (again) but he shot wide.

After about half an hour Jarvis got a bloody nose for his trouble and wandered around like a window-licker with toilet paper stuffed up his nose.

A good move started with Craddock dribbling the ball into the box before crossing it to Gnapka, Elphick (I think) cleared it, only as far as Nico who then played Gnapka in for an excellent chance which the Frenchman drove wide.

Just before half time the strangely named but constant pain in the neck Enver-Marum had a chance to level it, before Tyler pulled off an excellent save.

Half time then, and as ever, we had had lots of half chances and ensured both Knowles and the little man who retrieved the ball out of the car park both earned their money.

Before I carry on I’d better name the team. Tyler remained between the posts, Newton stayed at right back, Kovacs and Pilks in the middle and Murray on the left. A settled back five then. In the middle a threesome of Nico, Hall and Jarvis, with Jarvis on the right of the three, and Craddock was on the left, but slightly further forwards, but not quite up front. MBH started up front in his ugly yellow boots, but took them off at half-time fortunately. It was tricky for MBH because whilst he was involved in much of the play in the first half in the second half he was increasingly isolated, and not being a Hatch, couldn’t get on the end of the long balls or hold the play up as well. That said, we did play some good intricate football today and often it was the pitch which confounded us.

Apart from the attempt just before half time the Eastbourne Borough threat had subsided as the half wore on. However, they almost equalised from the kick off – the lively Benjamin shooting wide.

Pilks then played a good ball to Hall who got it out to Craddock who linked up with MBH but the ball bobbled and it went into the car park again.

We started to kill off the game by pushing up and causing Eastbourne to go longer and longer, this meant that all Kovacs and Pilks had to do was to pick up the pieces which they ably did.

Craddock scrambled a ball to MBH who got it back to Craddock who crossed it wide to Gnapka who messed up again and tripped over his feet.

MBH laid it wide to Craddock, Hall tried to flick it to Murray who was overlapping (I kid you not) Gnapka picked up the ball and passed to our old friend Asa who shot from 30 yards this time – having mastered the 20 yard effort earlier.

Glenn Austin tripped Murray as he was threatening to go around him and got the first yellow card of the game.

Then is was Jarvis’s turn to keep the little man who retrieved the balls busy, by launching one out of the ground after a long throw by Newton found its way to Jarvis from a mass of bodies. The ball must have bobbled on a cowpat I think.

Hall won a header and found Newton on the right, who in turn played in Jarvis, Pilkington played it forwards but lost possession – however Eastbourne just hoofed it when a proper counter attack would have been more effective.

To be honest I started drifting off at this point and started thinking about work and what time I will have to bunk off to get to York for 7:45.

MBH got to the byline and a right foot cross found Newton however it looped up and Knowles scrambled it away. The resultant shot took a deflection and we won a corner. Which Nico fluffed. He had another bite of the cherry but Knowles gathered easily.

Eastbourne struggled to find their men up front, their play usually broke up of its own accord – but where it didn’t Luton invariably did the simple things well at the back.

From a Luton throw on the right Jarvis passed the ball into the path of Gnapka who won a corner. Nico managed to reach Kovacs this time and it bounced out to Craddock who played a horrible slice into the car park. Cue the little man, who was working up quite a sweat.

Someone who hadn’t been working up a sweat was Mark Tyler who thankfully was alert enough to make an excellent save from Enver-Marum whose shot was heading for the top right corner from about 10 yards out.

MBH was replaced by Nwokeji with about 10 mins to go – as ever he made a nuisance of himself in the short time available to him.

Gnapka made a poor challange on Benjamin which was later than a late bus, and picked up a yellow card.

Elphick did an impersonation of dear Brko with an overhead kick but it was well saved by Tyler.

As usual Nico made lots of last ditch tackles and excellent blocks today, however it’s all the rest that so often lets him down. If I had to pick a Hatter to put his neck (or indeed any other part of his anatomy) on the line it would be Nico. If only he were a centre half, he could nod stuff away and get in the way all afternoon, without having to worry about the passing and catching up with the nippy midfielders of the world.

Apart from another couple of ballooned efforts from Craddock, that was about it – I must admit, it was one of those games that once we were one up the result didn’t really seem in doubt.

Having watched the team away from home a number of times under Money now, this seems to be the theme, keep it tidy at the back by denying the home side the opportunity to pass it around. A sort of stifling play. Not very pretty, but it has proven to be very effective. In fact it is now over 700 minutes without conceding a goal away from home in the league. That must be a club record by some distance I would have thought. We seem to have discovered a (not very pretty) methodology. If by following this methodology away from home it means we get to trade the likes of Grays, Salisbury and Eastbourne for the likes of Port Vale, Bradford and Northampton then so be it. Mind you, even that doesn’t seem terribly enticing.

Six points in six weeks against Eastbourne then – I do hope they don’t go bust and do a ‘Chester’ on us. How those St Evenage fans must be twitching at the thought of losing six points.

What a bad position Chester are in. To be wholly fair to the Conference organisers they have bent-over backwards to accommodate them this year. Allowing them to start the season late and now they have missed the last two games. The first because their players went on strike and now because the Police wouldn’t police the local derby and so the council shut the ground. It’s not looking good for them I must admit. Somehow though, I think the authorities will still manage to find a way of preventing them going out of existence. Which is the right thing, of course.

Looking at the forcast now, it looks like more snow on Tuesday, so that might just decide whether or not I nip off work early to set off for York. It might just tip the balance.

So we remain 5th, level on points with Rushden, but with a game in hand on them. As I said before we still are yet to play Stevenage, York, Mansfield and Rushden away. It is those fixtures, and perhaps the Chester expungification that will decide how far towards the top we go. You never know…

My thanks to all of you once again for leaving so many positive and constructive comments on the blog. In addition to those Hatters living abroad who post on here (and no, I don’t include Wales or Scotland in that) looking at that widget thing on the page it seems that I have regular visitors from the US, Canada, Albania (Albania!!) China, Japan, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore and one has cropped up from South Africa, in addition to Spain, Austria, Sweden and France a bit closer to home.

Welcome one and all. It makes me feel very humble to think that people thousands of miles away in countries I will never get to visit take the trouble to read my rantings.

Come on you Hatters!

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"A bad day at the office"…

… said Mr Money, and that it surely was. On Friday I refused to even contemplate defeat. Perhaps not an unreasonable assumption based on having had three wins on the trot, the fact that we were playing a side at the bottom end of the table, and having lived with a team two divisons above us at the start of the month.

Richard Money described the result and the game as the worst in all of his years in football. I don’t think it was even the worst game this season. Clearly he wasn’t at the Kettering away game, and the home game wasn’t much better, or Wrexham. We’ve had a few stinking performances in the past few years, and whilst it was totally embarrassing to lose to Ebbsfleet, and the defending was woeful, I didn’t think that the performance in the scheme of things was much worse than just ‘piss-poor’. It was rubbish, but we’ve played worse. I’m not making excuses – just trying to reduce Money’s hyperbole a little.

At least we got three goals, only two of which were allowed. I was full of praise of the ref before the game, because it was quite obvious that usual corner of the ground was still frozen and, laughable though it would have been, some of the pedants we have had reffing at the Kenny in the past few years would have called it off. However, fifteen minutes before the kick off was the last time the ref endeared himself to me. His performance was as bad as Luton’s. He was happy to allow us free kicks in our own half, but not any in Ebbsfleet’s half. I lost count of the occasions when a blatant foul by one of their players was given against us. We were truly playing against 12 men. I find it hard to believe that someone can have such a bad game without being bent. If he is genuinely capable of being that poor he shouldn’t be allowed near a pub game.

So, the team for this epic journey was: Pilks in goal, Murray at left back, Keane at right back, George Pilks and new-boy Kovak at centre half. On the right wing Newton, in the middle Nico and Hall, and Craddock the left. Up front, M B-H and Liam Hatch.

Just as in the last two games we allowed the opposition to start brightly. Pilkington got a knock after bravely blocking a shot, whilst still in pain he brought off a world-class save (a phrase I use sparingly) from a cracking long range drive from Peter Holmes (remember him? We could do worse…) Unfortunately the next kick he did was his last, and on came Shane Gore for his league debut. I’m not yet aware of the extent of Pilk’s injury so I don’t know if we have to go and find yet another keeper. Next time I go on about it being a waste having a keeper on the bench, please ignore me.

Alarm bells should have been ringing as they soon had another couple of chances – their lad Ashikodi was getting more room than a tramp on a bus. It was almost as if the players had been told that they would catch something of they went anywhere near him.

The worst culprit of all was Adam Newton, he repeatedly failed to close down their left back who was passing the ball untroubled by any pressure. A bloke behind me shouted “We’re all bloody cold Newton, put some effort in”. He failed to heed the advice, and I’m of the opinion now that Mr Newton won’t be getting a second year at our club. I think there is more chance of a spotty schoolboy with bad breath getting a snog with the Queen.

Then, against the run of play, Liam Hatch scored his first goal for us. Hatch was the one of the few players who looked particularly bothered yesterday, I might count Keane and Ed A-A and probably Craddock as the ones who put some effort in, but Hatch was head and shoulders above anyone else. Literally. Craddock played him in and he powered his way into the box, we thought he had taken it too far and had to go past Charles, however he persevered and drilled a shot into the far corner with his left peg. A good finish from someone who yet again failed to get one into the net in the pre-match warm up.

Did we kick on from this? Did we build on our unexpected luck? No. We were still pedestrian and going forward were caught by their defenders pushing right up. I guess their equaliser was inevitable, but it was so simple. Viera I think it was, was played inside by the lad named Stavros (or something similar) and slotted it home. Never has the phrase “a hot knife through butter” been more apt. Until the second goal that is. Newton was the culprit for me as he failed to close Easton down, Keane followed him, then stopped when he remembered he was right back. Easton moved inside and crossed/passed for Shakes, who took out Gore, and crossed for Viera to poke it in again. Two goals in four minutes would certainly have changed Money’s half time talk and his mood.

It didn’t change the outcome, but he did change the shape. Newton, who by now should have been substituted was moved to right back. Keane was moved to the middle, where he should have started. Craddock stayed on the left, but M B-H was moved on to the right of a three. It was sort of a four, because Asa Hall pushed right forwards when we were attacking to make a front four. However, this meant that there was a whacking great hole behind where the midfield should have been. This made us completely vulnerable to Ashikodi’s pace when Ebbsfleet broke forward. Unfortunately it also meant that we knocked the ball long down the channels to our two strikers pretending to be wingers.

However, suddenly we were back on level terms with the sort of bits and pieces goal we don’t score enough of these days. Ed showed hidden talents with a Delap-esque long throw, nodded on by Asa I think and Craddock bundled himself and the ball into the net. Hurrah for Tom, well deserved.

The reason for their third goal had been hanging around and haunting us for a while now without anyone doing anything about it. It has been the elephant in the room for some time. It has been the occasion murmur in the stands as a point to note, but without causing great concern. It has been the whisper on the lips of those monitoring the tactics. It is this: for some unknown, unthinkingly dim reason, we don’t leave anyone up front when defending corners. We have all 11 players in or around the box. Most of you who read this, Watford fans excepted, will have enough brain power to realise that this leaves us with no ‘out’, no option to clear the ball to when we gain possession. Now, ideally, you need to leave someone up front who can’t contribute to the defence of the corner. Perhaps the shorter of the two strikers, or perhaps a Craddock. Or alternatively someone who can hold the play up and bring others into the game, though often this is a tall striker, who you may want to be marking the opposing centre-half, so traditionally it is a shortish striker, or someone who is really quick, a la Mark Nwokeji.

However, if you leave no one up, this means that, logically, the only thing we should do is to clear the ball into touch, to allow the team to reshape for the throw. But no, that seems to be beyond the thinking of our players and/or coaching staff.

And lo, it came to pass that the Hatters defended a corner and Pilks did play the ball out of the box, not into touch but into the way of the one known as Salmon, who unopposed did whack the ball back in for Mr Ashokodi who did smite the Hatters by cracking it past the goalie and there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth by the good folk Luton-by-the-Lea.

Schoolboy stuff. In fact, most school XIs would be embarrassed by some of our tactics and performance, and certainly by the third goal. Flowery embellishment by me aside, boy, has that goal been coming.

Cue even more booing and chanting. Money said afterwards that when fans started singing “what a load of rubbish” he was joining in. He certainly applauded those in the Kenny End who chose to sing it.

I didn’t. I was so stunned that I started to chuckle like a mad bloke. The scoreline was so shocking to my system that my psyche refused to accept it and so I started laughing like a fool. Perhaps my subconscious was protecting me from what should have been suicidal depression.

We actually scored a third, Craddock worked well down the left and played a delectable ball to Hatch who rose perfectly to power the ball into the net. We celebrated. The Luton players turned and started to run back to their own half. Time passed. The clock ticked. I sent a couple of texts amd composed some notes for this. I made a couple of calls. Then the linesman flagged for offside.

It was almost as it he was waiting for an appeal, as in cricket. He raised his flag, just after one of the Ebbsfleet players raised his hand. Now I sit behind the goal, and so have no idea if it was offside or not, but it didn’t strike me as a blatant one. The referee debated it with his linesman, though I suspect his conversation was something more like “I got Ebbsfleet at 9.4 on Betfair, what about you?”

We pressed and pressed for the last 20 mins, and had a succession of half chances. This is the reason why I don’t think this was our worst performance this year. Compared to some of the non-performances we have put in, at least we were in their half and trying to score for the last quarter of the game.

Nelthorpe came on for about 5 mins and looked good and lively, God only knows why he didn’t start.

And then that was that, final whistle after four minutes of extra time, largely spent by the corner flag at the Oak Road end. Cue booing and jeering and general disgust.

I have been trying to put the finger on our malaise. I think it is because we have almost too many players for each position. Too much choice. Think back to when Newell took over. I think we had 3 centre halves at the club, two right backs, one of whom was a youth player. We two first team central midfielders and two reserve midfielders in Leary and O’Leary.

Now, we have a lot of players, and a lot of players who can play in a lot of positions. We have more strikers than we know what to do with and appease as many as possible by giving them a game, but play them out of position. We have a captain who tries hard, but who is not really up to it any more.

Until we know who our best striking partnership is, who our best left winger is, who our best defensive midfielder is, whether or not we should play a central midfielder in the hole or in the centre circle (Hall can do one not the other) who our first choice right back is (should be Ed) who our best central paring is. Who our first choice left back is. We are spoilt for choice with players who can play in more that one position.

Take Jake Howells. Is he a lightweight left-back or a left winger? If he is a left back then why have we signed Murray for 18 months? If he is a winger then why play Craddock there, or why loan Nelthorpe. What about Taylor Nathaniel? What hope for him if Jakey can’t get a game?

Ed. Is he a centre half or a right back? He did a great job at centre half last season, including the Wembley final.

Jarvis – holding midfielder, central midfielder, attacking midfielder (his preference) or right or left winger?

Claude? Sleepy right back or nippy winger?

Porno? First choice left back or third choice winger?

Do you see what I mean? – It’s no wonder we have not clicked.

Based on the last two performances, injuries notwithstanding, my preference up front would be Hatch, who can lead the line and hold the ball up, with the nippy Nwokeji alongside. What? I hear you say…this means that £150ks worth of Craddock and M B-H would be on the bench. Yes I say. Let them fight for a place, by bagging goals when they come on as sub. Let M B-H score 4 goals for the reserves and insist on a place. No one should be getting a game just for the sake of it.

So, where do we go from here? Money said in his press conference that if he could bring 12 players in on Monday to replace those who appeared today (Hatch apart) he would. However, speculation ahead of the Barrow game is pointless this far out as injuries will have a big say on the team.

Now even though I couldn’t even begin to contemplate defeat in the pub on Friday night, I said that if the result was a draw or a loss, it would be a blip rather than an indicator of where we are. And I still think that is the case, however galling and hard to swallow the defeat was. Money will lead us to salvation, eventually.

Fair play to Ebbsfleet, they, like so many before them, stuck to their game plan, executed it well, and battled hard.

It can’t be so hard for us to do the same can it? All we need is a game plan, some players to execute it who are also capable of battling hard. Oh dear. We’re stuffed then….

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Amazing Grays…

…or not as the case may be. A match more like a pre-season friendly ended up with the Hatters deserved 3-0 victors.

Because of the anticipated small crowd it was one of those unreserved seating games where the Upper bit of the Kenny, and the David Preece Stand were closed. This gave me the opportunity to sit behind the goal like I used to, and also to make a personal discovery. Since moving from the bearpit to a slightly more reserved location a few seasons ago (coincided with our slide down the divisions..mmmm..) I have clearly honed my shouting technique to ensure that the players and ref can still hear me thirty rows back. However, I shocked myself yesterday when shouting at one of the players, as I used the full force from three rows in, which frankly could be heard at the Oak Road end. I think poor Mark Tyler put his hands over his ears. I turned down the volume from 11 from then on.

Yesterday was of course an FA cup qualifying round game, the first time we had played in the equivalent of this round since beating Great Yarmouth 15-0 in 1914. The FA had it in for us even then because we should have got a bye, and made a mockery of having to play at that level even then. I read in the programme that three goals was the fewest goals number we had scored in a tie in this round, so it was fitting that we didn’t break that particular record yesterday.

Strange game for me yesterday as I was unfettered by friends or by Godson and was all on my lonesome for the first time since the Plymouth game last year. My Godson had received a one-match ban from his Mum for bunking off his flute lessons, apparently there was further punishment in store for him as he had to go and see his mad Granny too.

It was like a ghost town behind the goal in the Kenny bar, and I think at one point I had been the only customer for 20 minutes. At least being on my own gave me the chance to read the programme from cover to cover for a change and also to sink three pints. However, I still had plenty of time to spare at about 2:30pm so reluctantly I took my seat early and watched the players warm up and play dodge ball from all of the stray shots.

Three things stood out from the pre-match warm up – firstly Rio Charles knows where the goal is instinctively and was knocking them in for fun. Secondly, yesterday at least, Liam Hatch couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. He must have had twenty shots at goal, just one on one with Shane Gore, and didn’t hit the target once let alone score a goal. Can it be that difficult receiving and hitting a ball into the net from 12 years? Even I might have got one on target, and I was a very slow left back who never scored in over 150 games.

Thirdly, it struck me what a good keeper Shane Gore is. I think he would have easily made the team if we hadn’t had Tyler, or if we still had Dean Brill.

So, onto the match: Tyler started in goal and had very little to do other than put his hands over his ears and to kick the ball to the opposing centre halves. Reynolds started at right back and treated us to the heaviest contact on a back pass I have seen for many a year, giving them a corner early on. White and Blackett teamed up in the middle, both having sound enough games, and I think Blackett is much better at centre half than left back. Howells started at left back and had a cracking game I thought. He linked up with Burgess really well down the left, made some good runs, got some crosses in and generally did very well. I think he must be the most improved player this year, and he has come on leaps and bounds since Mick left.

In the middle we started with Burgess on the left who played about 80 minutes. He did look at bit tired and wasn’t completely in the game, but it was a good workout. In the middle was Asa Hall, now back to his best and surprise surprise Pilks who played in the holding role because Nico had the ‘flu. He showed what a quality professional he was and how poor Nico has been by not putting a foot wrong and looking as if he had played there for years. The only thing that let him down slightly (and only slightly) was his distribution, but if he kept things simple he was excellent. On the right Adam Newton started, and had a sound if not spectacular game.

Up front, we started with Rio and the returning Kevin Gallen, who must have been pleased to get 90 minutes under his belt again.

We started well with Burgess and Howell linking up nicely to put Gallen in and created a few chances from the start. It was only about 10 mins before the first goal came when Pilks, aiming to take the leading scorer mantle back from Craddock, shot and Blackett pounced on the rebound.

Grays weren’t showing much at all hardly surprising bearing in mind they were missing all of their loan players, including our own Geo. Beavan esq. The only one who stood out for me was the long haired Jamie Slabber, who played some nice passed and laid the ball off well, but couldn’t shoot for toffee, which is just as well as I think all of their decent chances fell to him.

Reynolds redeemed his early blunders by powering forward a la Ed Asafu-Adjaye and struck one from about 25 yards which brought of a great save from their keeper.

Meanwhile Rio was having a great game. He must have managed two or three runs down the right resulting in good crosses, the best of which presented Gallen with an easy header to make it two nil but he put it wide.

The second goal was as inevitable as the BBCs baiting of Nick Griffin. Newton ran down the right crossed well (I do like Adam Newton) and their poor centre half Rnkovic put it in his own net, a fraction of a second before Gallen would have done. Later on Rnkovic was involved in an amusing off the ball incident with Rio, which they both saw the funny side of. Rnkovic outpaced Rio down our left to then shield and to see the ball out. As the pair of them ran back up the pitch Rio clipped his heels as if to say ‘that’ll teach you for being so clever’ and he fell over. Rio gave him a wink and Rnkovic grinned and shook his head.

In the second half the game became much more of a training match as the result was already known. After an hour Gnapka came on for Newton and Ed A-A replaced Alan White. Interesting to see Reynolds switch to centre half and Ed to stay at right back. Reynolds looked much more comfortable from then on. So we ended with the unusual back four of Howells, Blackett, Reynolds and Ed. Numerous chances came and went for us in the second half, and Grays looked a bit better but only because we dropped the tempo a bit.

As I mentioned above, Burgess came off after about 80 mins and Nielson brought on one of the trio of youth team players on the bench, Taylor Nathaniel. Taylor looked lively down the left with an excelent turn of pace and was immediately involved. The ball was played to him from the back and he ran down the left, turned the ball back to Asa Hall, carried on, as looking to get the 1-2 but instead Hall steadied himself and finished beatifully to make the game 3-0.

Apart from another chance for poor Slabber that was about it. I enjoyed the game, even though it had a pre-season friendly feel to it. It’s hard not to enjoy 3-0 wins, we have had so few in the last few years.

Fair play to Grays they did look down on quality, but did play some decent football, when we failed to close them down sufficiently.

The only other thing of note was Gary Sweet’s very informative notes about the process of recruiting the new manager. Without saying so in as many words he made it clear that AN isn’t being considered which is a real shame. He even described Nico et al’s comments calling for Neils to be given the job as “rather outspoken” – which to me seemed a bit snooty or clumsy, which I am absolutely sure it wasn’t meant to be.

To quote the latest position he said:

Having conducted numerous interviews to date, we are confident that we will soon be able to appoint a manager who matches our immediate need and our longer term ambition and a man who should be popular with you all.

That last line was tantalising. Does he mean that the manager should be popular with us because he will match the clubs ambitions and get us promoted, ie he will become popular because of success? Or, intriguingly, does he mean that once the manager is announced he will be a popular because of who he is?

That’s Graham Taylor out then!

So the draw is later on today – I bet we get Leeds away…

UPDATE: It’s Rochdale at home on the 7th.

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Hall of Fame

A cracking strike from Asa Hall gave Luton a well-deserved equaliser in what was an enjoyable game against a well organised York side.

Luton started with the same XI who started against Altrincham – another rarity over the last few years of not changing a winning team – though in a different formation. Howells, Pilks, White and Ed made up the back four. Pilks got man of the match and he played really well, but I was also really impressed with Howells, who got forward nicely and whose game seems to be growing quite nicely. Ed played soundly – got forward on a good few occasions and had an outstanding shot from about 30 yards out which brought off a spectacular save from their keeper.

In the midfield, Hall started on the left, but not particularly wide, and didn’t get too much of the ball. In the second half he drifted more and more into the middle behind the front two and it from there where he got his goal. Nico played a few good balls, however seemed way off the pace and blowing towards the end. In fact it was an error by him in the last minute which nearly cost us the game. He played a stupid pass across the back which got to their left winger who crossed it and it was literally an inch from the toe of the oncoming striker. I think Nico would have been lynched if it had gone in. It was Nico’s own daft over-exuberance which led to their first goal. The ball had been cleared out by their centre half and it was bouncing out towards touch with Nico chasing it rapidly with the intention of grabbing it and taking a very quick throw. However as the ball bounded towards touch with Nico in fast pursuit you could see Nico’s brain calculating “line…ball…line…ball…line…ball…d’oh” unfortunately he got it wrong and grabbed the ball before it had gone out, right in front of the lino. The resulting free kick (taken about 15 feet from touch, when Nico had grabbed it about a foot out) led to the goalie pumping the ball forward, it being knocked on, and for once a huge hole opened up between Pilks and White and York pounced.

Gnapka/Gnakpa started on the right and was mercurial throughout. He played a few incisive crosses and some great touches, but also did his fair share of heavy passes, comedy kicks and running into opponents. He entertained throughout though. You are never quite sure which Claude will turn up to a game or indeed which mood Claude is in on the pitch.

Up front was Ben Wright and Tom Craddock. Craddock worked his socks off through the whole game and did us proud. Once again he had a couple of clear cut chances and didn’t manage to bury them. It’s only a matter of time….. Ben Wright was substitued after about 42 mins. He did look a bit leggy, but he was substitued for tactical reasons – when the ball was played up to him he was being beaten to it by the enormous centre-halves and so they bodly brought Rio on in the first half to turn the centre halves round with his pace which is of course what our supersub did almost immediately. He played really well, and on a couple of occasions managed to get crosses in, which from the positon he was in and the pace of the ball he had no right to do but managed it anyway. If only we had a Steve Howard to get on the end of them! He also endeared himself to the crowd as we chased the win by running along the touchline to retrieve the ball for the opposing full back to take the throw. He chucked the ball at the player and it hit him in the face and he dropped it and then took his time to take the throw.

In the second half we dominated huge chunks of the play as York sat back. We made plenty of chances and really deserved to get the winner once Hall’s cracker nearly broke the net. Once again, I think Rio was the spark which improved the performance. Now Wright’s loan is up – will he be in for a start?

No sign of Burgess yet – but he’s not being rushed back and that can only be a good thing. The longer he spends sitting on the bench is more time for him to recover fully and get back to peak fitness.

Some of the daft things that happened during the game: The first ball went flat and it was rolled to Alan Nielson. The second ball subsequently burst and Nielson then rolled the first ball back in play – forgetting that it had been replaced. Tyler cleared the third ball all the way over main stand, and from the looks of it across Hatters Way. Perhaps we need a Dreyer net on the roof of the main stand?

Bring on Grays in the cup on Saturday. I can’t wait. One of these days, one of these sides is going to get a bloody hiding. If we keep making a dozen decent chances in a game, it can only be a matter of time before four or five go in. Once Craddock hits the back of the net, he’ll be banging them in like a squaddie returning home after six months in Afghanistan.

Well done to Alan and the coaching team, it is welcome relief to come to a game against a good team and play pretty well, and to be entertained and not to have to worry about a crappy ref or piss-poor tactics.

P17 (40% of the season) W9 D5 L3 F23 A16 Pts 32 Pos 5th.

The top five of Oxford, Stevenage, Kettering, Mansfield and Luton seem now to be a separate little group at the top. We need to keep up this good run and the results will see us drift up the table and gradually snip away the points between us and Oxford.

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