Bruising Encounter (for Pelly’s shins)

lawless

A hard-fought and determined performance from the Hatters saw a well-deserved victory over the whelk-munching spoilers from Southend.

I’ve given myself an hour and two beers to write this so that I can avoid watching Downton Abbey, so let’s see how far I get.

I loved this game. It wasn’t a footballing classic by any means, in fact, brief glimpses of brilliance aside; there wasn’t enough play between the ref blowing his whistle for the game to really get going. It was a stop-start affair. Mainly stop.

How Southend got to fourth before the game God only knows, their shooting was woeful, and their defence alternated between comedy and criminal.  

But we won, and won well. For the first goal, Griffiths played a ball down the channel outside the narrow midfield and full back into space for Lawless to run onto, he took a touch, turned, put it on his right foot and a put in a sublime curling shot into the top corner.  Does Alex Lawless do simple tap ins? He has had more than his fair share of brilliant goals. You can see why John Still was so keen to get him back into the team. He is a constant, intelligent, creative thorn in any opponents side. And long may he remain in our side. 

The second goal was straight out of the Keystone Kops handbook. A big hoof by Macca I think went all the way down to the keeper and there was a sigh of disappointment at giving possession away so easily. But hold your exasperation Hatters, because comedy keeper Bentley passed the ball to the shell-shocked and bandaged Bolger who in his infinite wisdom slipped it neatly to Drury, who despite slipping himself slid it neatly to Cullen who slotted it past the hapless Bentley. Like any goals against a ‘fancied’ team these felt extra special as we have to work much harder for the opportunities.  

Unlike the bad old days, we are efficiently taking the few chances we get, rather than in the dark years when we seemed to need ten clear cut chances to be able to eek out a goal.

In the second half Southend made two substitutions, played 3 up front and came out all guns blazing, until we snuffed their fire out, and then they had nothing left at all. After that point we merely soaked up their pressure, forced them to shoot (badly) from outside the box and play on the counter attack with the ball going forward to the pace of Pelly and the persistence of Mark Cullen. Each time the ball went to Pelly he was hacked down. Only a ref of such spectacular incompetence could allow such a team of one-dimensional thugs to get away with it for so long.

That Dave Penney (Southend’s assistant coach and JS’s pal) was the only one to go was remarkable. Presumably and official with a pair of kahunas would have stamped out the rather clogging Southend tactics early on, but by turning a blind-eye he only sought to indulge them further. He was good at blowing his whistle. Very good at that. Very good at stopping play. But enforcing discipline isn’t his strong point, against us anyway. He did get four cards out for Southend, but he spared them so many more. But a bit of googling reminded me that Mr Kavanagh was the appalling ref for the Woking game back in March (link here) and also the kindly soul who did manage to find a red card for Macca up at Southport at the start of last season. How he managed to get promoted to the football league I’ll never know. Chances are that we’ll only see him once more this season though. 

It really isn’t how football should be played. For the second week running we were playing against a team of spoilers, who prefer to clog and hoof than pass and move. Southend were like Braintree under Devonshire, or Leyton Orient under Ling. A nasty little outfit. There must be something in the water east of Greenwich. Let’s hope that the next visitors at home are the exception to the rule.

But as the match disintegrated into a bad tempered affair it only served to tweak the volume on the Hatters fans dial and maintain the players’ resolve to keep their defensive and personal discipline.  The only slip really, hardly surprising bearing in mind the provocation, was the altercation with Pelly and the aforementioned Penney on the touchline, after the ball went out. After all that, the ref **was** happy to send someone off, but just not anyone on the field of play.

Alas I didn’t see the much discussed ‘ball-boy’ incident. Cheeky lad.

Michael Harriman from QPR (but don’t hold that against him) slotted in at right back as if he has been playing with the team all season. He had a sound game. Our back four does look good at the moment, and with the effervescent Smith and the strong “you should see him when he’s fit” Doyle playing in front of them it is beginning to look like a very effective unit.

Pelly Ruddock got the official man of the match award, presumably as consolation for having chunks hacked out of his shins all afternoon. Though in fairness, it could have gone to Lawless for his performance, Cullen for his effort (not least at being offside all the time), Wilko and Macca, Doyle and Smith and ahem, a certain Mr Andy Drury might have won it on other days. Drury played just off Cullen, his old role, and was back to his best, having previously been on both wings and in central midfield.  Has to be a good player to keep Guttridge out of the starting XI – if you recall Guttridge was our beating heart last year. And just like last year JS is slowly identifying the best formation and the best players in that formation, whilst all the while experimenting and pushing and testing and bringing back players who were injured. Difficult to have a truly settled team I guess, when we have so many good players whose performances demand selection.

Well time’s nearly up – where did an hour go? Off to Hartlepool next week. Or not as the case may be as I will be consuming beer, sausage und sauerkraut in Germany. Some guys hef all ze luck.

Really enjoyed the game and the spirited performance, the sort of resilient display that gets John Still purring like a Queen. 

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I was there…

…when Craig McAllister scored. Don’t worry I’ve already got the tattoo done. Hopefully he won’t have to wait quite as long for his next goal!

Town 3-0 Ebbsfleet

 

After busy couple of weeks I thought I’d better put electronic pen to paper.

This is my first post since Paul Buckle was appointed as manager. I was impressed with his initial press conference and his desire to get cracking from the off. It was a pleasant change to have a press conference where the manager actually said something rather than a string of meaningless platitudes.  My first impression was that whilst he has managed clubs in the division above, and indeed got Torquay promoted out of this division, he isn’t quite prepared yet for the roller coaster ride he is going to experience. Whilst the likes of Torquay and Brizzle Rovers currently sit above us in the pyramid, it would only be a fool who asserted that they were ‘bigger’ clubs. He’s going to learn pretty quickly that he’s riding a tiger now.

What he said was music to my ears – pressing high up the pitch to win the ball back, put the opposition under pressure, play at tempo and let the smart football take care of itself once you’ve won the ball back.

And there was plenty of that tonight. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at a football game at the match itself. The first half in particular was hilarious, made so by a comedy ref and a pair of blind linos. Whilst they were less visible and less random in the second half their performances certainly ensured that the crowd was livened up. We used to have a boss at work whose decision making ability was so poor that we used to do the opposite of what he asked us to do. The ref was a bit like that tonight – for a little while he managed to get everything wrong – missed handballs, free kicks, corners and throws given the wrong way, it was truly splendid and whilst it was vital that we won the game he added to my enjoyment with his spectacular wrongness. He even missed Osano’s career-ending challenge on Marwa early on. Or rather he let it go. In the Premiership that was a straight red, in non-league it wasn’t even a ticking off. To be fair to the ref he did let a lot of fairly crunching tackles go and let the game flow, which isn’t all bad.

And flow it largely did. Fleetwood’s goals either side of half-time relieved a lot of pressure and allowed us to enjoy it.  I lost count of the number of chances we had in the first half and whilst the football was less fluent in the second half we still pressed forward and tried for a third. Fleetwood drifted out to the right and Lawless into the middle again. Being on the right of the midfield three didn’t prejudice Fleetwood’s opportunities though. Gray worked very hard again, without getting much luck. He did manage to blast it over from about 6 yards out (perhaps we’ve got all of the goals we are going to get out of him!). His pace is always going to cause trouble at this level and while some of his flicks and passes didn’t quite come off tonight, one day they will and we will get double figures. Fleetwood looked forlorn under Brabin, often getting relegated to the bench by Big Hips Crow (who I understand hasn’t impressed the manager in training with his attitude and must be favourite to be out the door in June).  But seems somewhat reborn under Buckle.

Robbie Willmott seemed a little off the pace and out of touch tonight. That’s not to say he didn’t contribute and put some good balls in – but he seemed to be a bit lost out there at times. Blackett looked fit and quick when he came on at left back. Is there a case for pushing Jake forwards again? I’m more than happy to trust PB’s judgement though – which is a strange thing again. When did we last have a manager whose I implicitly trusted? Newell?  Watkins came in for Poku which was a more attacking move. Whilst Adam had some excellent touches and passes, I think he would have wanted to impose himself on the game a little more. He made one blistering turn and shot in the first half which would have been a cracking goal – there’s no doubt he knows where the goal is.

And on to dear Craig McAllister. There were plenty of comments when he came on around me “Well we’ve settled for the 2-0 then” and such like, and when he scored, capitalising on a fluff by the keeper and then taking the ball around him to stroke it home the relief was tangible and palpable. Some wags started singing “it’s a miracle” and ‘Macca’ to use the nickname Buckle used,  probably thought it was too. Must be galling to be paid for scoring goals and to go so long without one – bit like a salesman who can’t close a deal, a pilot who keeps fluffing landings or a lady-of-the-night who can’t attract a punter.  Big relief to know that you can still do it.

The manager must have imbued some confidence into them and it has been interesting to see the turnaround from a team who were happy to lay down and die to one which wants to get the ball and try for more goals.

Certainly the game against Hayes was a pretty good demonstration of this. It was utterly fascinating to see a team of players  who hadn’t won in eight games, and just lost to Braintree (Braintree – I ask you) be jolted back into life on Easter Monday. And how ironic it was Easter time– the team that died on the first day had been resurrected on the third.

We witnessed the passage from the old to the new during the Hayes match, before our very eyes. Despite the very obvious ‘rocket’ they had been given they still demonstrated some of the slovenly ways first up. I had shouted myself hoarse in the first 20 minutes whilst Pilkington, Kovacs, Osano, Howells and Keane had continued playing ‘after you’ to the opposition, escorting them onto them rather than closing them down.  It was as if they were yet to run the bad ways out of their legs, not quite having shed the cocoon of chaos that had been our comical defending in the recent poor run.

They were rough and ready at the back, but liberated at the front – the shackles of the mindless tactics of trying (and failing) to sit on a lead cast off like a heavy shroud from the attacker’s backs. And attack they did. Fleetwood in particular benefitted from having (initially at least) a second player alongside, and Gray too repeated his sharpness. Lovely to see Keano pop up at the far post too and give the Kenny the luxury of a rare treat a Keano goal.

I even liked the tactical awareness Buckle showed in the first half in the attempt to snuff out Hatter-baiting Jamie Hand, who from a deep position was pulling all of the strings in Hayes’ midfield. Whilst in recent weeks we’ve seen that a 4-5-1 doesn’t sit happily on our shoulders, the tactic on this occasion showed tactical nous, as opposed to bloody-minded inflexibility. Lawless pushed into the middle and pushed forward and closed down Hand, and with it ended Hayes chances.  Gray showed that he can still get goals on the right side of a three.

So we witnessed the team transforming before our very eyes – it was still rough and ready, still glaring errors, still mistakes from the past poking through, but a promising pointer to the future.

 

 

Alfreton was a different matter, it was always going to be tougher, they were pretty much the form team coming into the match. It was very much going to be a case of grabbing the ball off them and hoping to sneak something. And to be fair we nearly did. Both Fleetwood and Gray had excellent chances to grab goals, which perhaps on another day, with a little bit of luck we would have done. We couldn’t have come any closer: penalties turned down, posts hit and headers cleared off the line.  This would have been a game that Alfreton would have won under the previous manager, so I guess we should be grateful for small mercies – a clean sheet away from home – Lord, whatever next.

However the game was rather similar to what had gone before – plenty of opportunity to score, but chances not quite taken – not quite the clinical finishing touch that would have given us the edge.

The second half was a different matter, Alfreton got back into the game and to be fair had chances to win themselves. All the more important therefore that the defence remained resolute.  A triple substitution after an hour failed to make any meaningful impact and O’Connor came on and played on the left of a genuine 4-3-3 to match Alfreton’s. Boucaud got a run out and very nearly won it right at the end – but it did seem a little strange to have a midfield three of Boucaud, Keane and Lawless with the more creative talents of Watkins and Kissock nowhere to be seen. But there you go early days.  Though Mr Buckle doesn’t have much time he is still getting to know his players, how they react and how they respond. He’s also got to work out who to keep and who to ditch in the summer…

What is encouraging are the fact that ethos in training has been transformed from that of a country club, sauntering mid morning to do an hour’s jog-about,  to actually physically training, covering tactics and then some more training. They’re actually earning their money now, and alas the Playstations and Xboxes are sitting idly by during the day.  I don’t think they’ve gone out on the piss in the West End either. They can do that when they get promoted or when they’ve won four games on the trot. Hopefully Mr Buckle is helping the penny to drop. The players are waking up to the fact that an awful lot of people spend an awful lot of cash and come an awful long way to watch the team. Some people don’t have an awful lot of cash to spend on the club, yet still find a way of coming, week in week out. And they don’t deserve to watch awful performances.

What the Luton crowd have always appreciated, win, lose or draw is effort and commitment. Players going that extra mile to win the ball back or to close a player down – whatever the circumstances. In the past we have given standing ovations to sides who might have lost but who have given everything – and we want to see more of that attitude. If Mr Buckle can install the concept of fight into these players and let them express themselves with attacking football, we might just, just have a chance.

Now my maths might not be the strongest in the world, and assuming York will win both of their last two games (away at Braintree and home to FGR)  I reckon that if we beat Kidderminster we are going to need to win one of our last two games to ensure we qualify for the play offs, which is going to pretty ironic. In the event that we do get into the play offs we will more of less be the form team going into them. If – and indulge me for a second – we manage to beat Kiddy and Gateshead  – it will have to have been three wins on the trot, and unbeaten in five, by the time we play Fleetwood. After all the huff and puff about being the form team, we will actually have to be the form team to get in the play offs in the first place. Perhaps no bad thing?

 

Games at home to Kiddy, and away at Gateshead and Fleetwood isn’t  quite the run in we would have liked,  and puts the squandered points at Hayes, Bath etc etc into sharp focus at the tail end of the year. However, if we do win all three or even two , we will deserve to be in the top 5 and will be on an excellent run.

It’s no cakewalk though. Kiddy have won 12 times away this season, have won their last 5 games in all, and are unbeaten in their last 7. A bit of a tall order at the best of times, and at other times in our history, playing the 5th place side in those circumstances we’d not necessarily be too disappointed with a draw at home. But if we do draw against them, then we will need to beat Gateshead and Fleetwood, assuming York win again. If we beat Kiddy, York will only need to win one of their last two to ensure a play off place.

Gateshead won’t be a pushover either, they will entertain hopes themselves that if they can win their last 3 games, (Bath, us and Telford) they might sneak in if they are lucky with the other results. In a way that might count in our favour if they are going for the win themselves they might be easier to break down, thought it won’t be too easy. Perhaps we should remind ourselves of the 5-1 this season and the 2-0 at home in the FATrophy. Gateshead’s form is a little patchy at present, but they’ve won their last four games at home, all without conceding a goal.

Truly, if we win the next two games it will be a decent achievement, given that both of our opponents are in good form themselves.

So  the games on Saturday and Tuesday are quite literally ‘massive’. What odds would you get on Craig McAllister  scoring the winner in both?

Come on you Hatters!

 

 

 

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