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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Professional

The mighty Hatters swung back into action yesterday and comprehensively outplayed Oxford, despite half the squad being afflicted by the trots presumably in a show of support of the broken-legged right back.

Despite being down in numbers, the performance was professional from beginning to end, as ever our cause and our confidence being greatly aided by a good early goal from Luke Wilkinson.

And what a good game Wilkinson had. Even without his headed goal he was my man of the match. He was the archetypal rock at the back. Sure-footed and commanding he swept up Oxford’s attacks – when they did occasionally venture into our half – and won header after header. We can now see why John Still was so keen to sign him in close season. Four games without conceding a goal suggests that we are doing something right at the back. Today we defended in such a way that only on two occasions in the whole 90 minutes did Oxford get around the back of us. The first one caused the heart to flutter as McNulty, suffering from nappy syndrome (his mind addled no doubt by sleepless nights and the thought of nipple pads) let the ball go over his head rather than to head it clear. It was like he was pushed forward by an imaginary Micky Quinn. As it happens that moment served to galvanise the defence and they hardly put a foot wrong after that, forcing Oxford to shoot from miles out – they couldn’t get close.

I think Oxford had only two decent shots on target and Tyler had to make a couple of reflex saves, the first was very nearly world class and to be added to his long list of brilliant point blank saves too numerous to tally, where he touched a shot from Barnett round the post – I don’t know how he got down in time. The second was a near point-blank header from Barnett where he got down to save in exactly the right place. A bit like a baseball catcher who knows where the pitch is going. Without those saves the result would have been very different. Earlier in the season I indicated that MT was beginning to show signs that he was starting to show his age. His recent form has dispelled this, in fact you could assert that he has improved. Mark Tyler is a fine wine, improving with age.

Alex Lacey started at right back today and had a pretty tidy game, he was up against their only attacking threat down the left in O’Dowd.

Scott Griffiths battled excellently on the left and had Ruffel in his pocket. He played well all game and largely neutralised Oxford down the right.

Nathan Doyle made his debut, sitting in front of the back four. He had a physical presence about him and was tidy enough I think. Survived the attempt to rearrange his kneecaps by Tyrone Barnett. Bearing in mind many of John Still’s acquisitions often take time to bed in and get up to speed, I look forward to seeing what he is like after ten games…Drury replaced him later on when we changed to a 4-4-2.

In the middle too – but in a more advanced role than I seem to recall was Smudger Smith, who as ever ran and worked hard in the middle, charging people down with impunity.

More or less the most advanced midfielder of a three – but still back and forth in his ‘box to box’ role was PRM who had a slightly strange game compared to his Trojan performances recently. He certainly posed an attacking threat but seemed to have a gear in reserve. Perhaps he didn’t need his top gear such was the underwhelming threat of Oxford. We could have doubled the lead within a minute when Pelly was given a good chance after good play in the box from Cullen and Whalley but he popped it over the bar.

On the right of front three (or the right of a midfield 5 if you prefer) was Shaun Whalley, a slightly revitalised version of the walking shambles we saw at the start of last season. He was a direct threat, and tracked back well when needed. He does get bumped off the ball a bit easily. Didn’t perhaps cut through their lines in the way he would have like but at least was felled for the free kick which led to the goal. His replacement by Layafette re-injected vigour into our performance, so he played a part in that way I guess – he was the facilitator for the final push by being substituted. I wish Shaun well, hopefully by starting yesterday that will give him some of the confidence he was lacking.

On the left up was Jake Howells who had an outstanding game and his alertness was rewarded when he sprung to score from the rebound from his own penalty a la Cullen. He didn’t just whack it back though, but got it under control, dribbled a bit, did a shimmy, checked his emails, before slotting it home. The penalty itself was for handball by Mullins on the edge of the box. The sort of penalty decision you get when things are going your way as the Mr Magoos of the lower leagues invariably fail to spot that sort of thing. For example later on in the second half one of our team (I can’t recall who) played catch with himself and the ref missed that one. It was Howells’ inswinging freekick that gave Wilkinson such a perfect opportunity for the goal.

In the middle was the long suffering Mark Cullen, ploughing a lone furrow, until Lafayette came on. Too often though he was left isolated when, having received the ball, had no one to lay it off to. Such is the nature of the system I guess. Late on he went on a splendid run with a golden opportunity to make it three – but stumbled and shot rather than passing it. Great when they go in and you can’t blame a centre forward for having a go, especially when we were two up already. If it had been 0-0 then he might have been lynched for not passing it.

As I said earlier – the introduction of Lafayette gave us the momentum to finish the job, it levered away the slow momentum Oxford had gained as our high tempo approach was difficult to maintain. When he came on he posed an immediate threat and gave us the edge and gave Oxford something to think about. He might not be the most refined front man yet, but yesterday he brimmed with confidence. Oxford’s centre halves who had been barely coping with just Cullen, suddenly had  a big strong bloke to try to manage and they struggled and thereafter were on the back foot. It was a masterstroke, as was shoring up the right hand side by changing to 442 and bringing on Drury.

It was a good game and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. A good competent, professional win. We played at high tempo and pressed Oxford hard, they were toothless up front and mainly had to rely on long shots. We did a job on Oxford, and their only decent chances fell to Tyrone Barnett, who surely nine times out of ten would have been dismissed for the brutal lunge on Doyle. Hats off to John Still’s men for playing well and keeping them at bay. The only worrying note is that our goals are coming from set plays, but good to be still winning whilst that is the case.

Next week we renew our acquaintance with the strange Hertfordshire brand of anti-football when we play the cheats from Stevenage, I can’t wait. I’m interested to see if the Westley leopard has changed its spots, or mellowed over the years. Yesterday when Barnett went over the top on Doyle the whole team led by Macca were enraged and were ready to pile in. We all reacted and stood together a la Paul Colingwood for England against the Aussies in 2005. I suspect there might be more of that needed next week if Stevenage revert to type. Had we not got the early goal today, I suspect Mr Appleton’s team would have given us a dress-rehearsal for the tactics we can expect. Certainly the tackling and the constant whining to the ref were straight out of the Westley text-book.

Come on you Hatters.

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More of the same…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Infinite Improvement

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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