Miller Earns His Corn.

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The mighty orange machine marches on after another home win, putting us back top of the league.

A cracking goal by Ricky Miller (he’s on a roll now) was the difference between the two sides in terms of the scoreline at least. Whilst 1-0 suggests it was a close contest we dominated large chunks of the match. On a different day, with a few of the slick moves coming off we would have been two up at half time. Shots a couple of inches the other way would have been goals.

We started 3-5-2 again, with Fraser Franks returning as part of a back three instead of Alex Lacey. The three centre halves coped well with the front two of a largely-passing Tranmere side also playing the same formation. The industrious Mark Cullen up front with Paul Benson, who won more than his fair share in the air today despite being up against three tall goons at the back. Again, like the Northampton 1-0 win at home, much of the first half was gentle sparring each side sizing the other up and cancelling each other out.

Mark Tyler, as ever, when called upon brought off two excellent saves – the second one at point blank was Banks-esque. How many games and points has he saved us down the years? Tyler was as solid as the Tranmere keeper, Brezovan, was wobbly – if it wasn’t for his kicking, throwing, catching and saving he’d be an excellent keeper. Joking aside, he was called on to make a couple of good saves.

I thought the full home crowd was a bit subdued in parts this afternoon, not sure why. Perhaps folks just expected us to turn up and win and that Micky Adams’ team wouldn’t make a fist of it just because they are down the bottom (clumsy English) but we were made to work hard for it. At no point did I think we wouldn’t sneak a win – but it was a little while coming. Once again it was an inspired substitution by John Still which brought the change which brough the goal. Miller, given confidence by his goal last week following his indecent rush back from Dover had the confidence to strike one from the edge of the box and Brezovan got a hand to it but it looped into the net. Cue huge sigh of relief and plenty of noise. As you were, Kenilworth Road.

There was a bit of handbags in an otherwise mostly aggro and foul-free game. The man mountain Gnanduillet (award for best name of the year) deliberated tripped over the sliding Franks leg. Franks could have done nothing about it as he had slipped. It would otherwise have been a comedy moment but it led to a tete-a-tete (keeping the French theme) between the Frenchman and Wilkinson. Both fortunate I suppose to escape with a telling off. Poorer refs would have needed little excuse to get their cards out.

Smudger Smith got the man of the match today and it could equally have gone to McNulty, Harriman or Luke Wilkinson too. Smith is a player who goes from strength to strength and has the work ethic which typifies a John Still team. It was his pass which played in Miller I think.

So whilst it wasn’t a classic, it was another ground-out professional 1-0 win, the sort of win you think about when you say to your mates “I’d take a 1-0 this afternoon”. The sort of win we used to dream of before Mr Still and his team came along.

And with that I’m done. I think on Outlaws they call it a flounce, though I’m not sure that’s quite the right word. I’ve been doing this blog now since August 2009 and I’ve enjoyed doing it very much. When I started out I was the first Luton Town blogger, but now I’m pleased to say there are plenty of sites out there, all of whom do a much better job than me.  I did wonder if I should hold out until I reached the 1,000,000 page hits mark, but that would probably be another four years and millions more words. And after all there’s only so many ways you can say “Guttridge threaded a perfect ball for Howells”, “Tyler saved the day yet again” or “John Still is a footballing genius who has transformed the club on and off the field”.

This blog opened ‘writing’ doors for me which has meant that I’ve been invited to write for publications and magazines that are sold all over the world, I’ve been on Sky and the beeb, something that I could not have conceived of when I started out. Even when I don’t post anything the blog gets a couple of hundred readers a day from readers across the globe, and each post gets over a thousand readers, statistics which never cease to amaze me. However, I’ve noticed that the number of people commenting has just about dropped off to zero now. Comments are the only feedback I get – and now I’m not getting any – so I have concluded that I’m no longer hitting the spot as it were. It actually takes hours to write and check each post and it takes quite a chunk out of my Saturday/Tuesday nights/Sunday mornings. I think my family will be relieved: they will no longer have me tapping away all through Strictly, Dr Who and all of the other telly!

I’d Iike to thank two people for their help and support in the last five years. First of all erstwhile co-blogger and superb writer Rob Hadgraft who has been good enough to dignify my words by quoting me in a couple of his excellent books, something that has made me proud beyond words. Secondly Paul Wright, PDW, whose desert-dry humoured match reports have made him a Luton Legend and hopefully long may continue to do so. I just don’t know how he does it. To think, I nearly bumped into him in the summer in the pavilion at Lord’s of all places, both there watching our other mutual sporting team Northamptonshire.

I’d also like to thank: the excellent Hatters News who always put my blog up and were bold enough to put a direct link on their site years ago. The Luton Town America team who invited me to speak on their podcast, which I forgot to follow up.  The now defunct Luton Town Fans website (other than the forum) who invited me to post and gave me the log in details and I only intermittently posted but periodically wiped out the whole website, being the computer-klutz that I am. Also, all of the other websites which link and tweet my posts. And how could I forget all my Luton wonderful followers on twitter? Including some strange religious types who must follow me because of my silly pseudonym.

Favourite bits? I lenjoyed doing my “Newell years” post which took the best part of a day when I didn’t have much work to do. It was great doing the post amid the celebrations when we finally went up last April,  also I hope I’ve got the definitive “Famous Luton Fans” list. I loved it when Ronnie Irani ticked me off when I missed off dear Faye Carruthers. 

Regrets? Only one I suppose and it is entirely self-indulgent. It is that in five years I’ve never had the chance the write a piece for the match programme, not sure if that is because I’m no bloody good, or because I write under a pseudonym or because I put Gary Sweet’s nose out of joint a bit early on with a couple of revelations which would not otherwise have made it outside of the club, but which came directly from one of the players in the then first team squad, who is/was a local lad and who I know quite well. The truth hurt the club, but those revelations were ultimately a means to an end I guess. I don’t think I’ve ever been forgiven, though I felt a bit better when David Wilkinson followed me on twitter.

I’d like to thank everyone who has read the blog, even if you didn’t like it or agree with what I’ve said, and especially those who took the time to post a message and those who encouraged me with a few kind words. Even ‘Sheffield Hatter’ who only seemed to comment when I incorrectly used the word schizophrenic to describe a match of two halves.

It’s nice that we are now top of the league. When I decided to write this (and it took me a year before I got around to it, just think of the stuff I could have written when Pinkney was still in charge) we had been in free-fall for three seasons with the club previously being owned by crooks, thieves and idiots; we had been lurching from crisis to crisis the previous ten years. Five years on and we are in the most stable position we have been in for generations, with a really strong squad, top of the league and managed by a man for whom I have the utmost respect. But let us be in no doubt, without the investment and commitment of the 2020 board we wouldn’t have a club to support. I’m truly grateful to them for that and whatever happens in the future will always be grateful. It may have taken longer than we hoped but we are well on course now to reach the original objectives. Everything at the club is moving in the right direction from top to bottom, from the youth team to the first team. The ground is full at home games and all are pulling in the same direction. It is where I’d always hoped we would be, if not quite in the right division yet! Ours is the most special of clubs, with a unique topsy-turvy history, destined for great things once again in the future. But I think you all know that already.

As an aside, this week my eldest son played for his school for the first time in two years after a couple of years off due to injury – I’m a very, very proud Luton fan, but an even more proud father.

Thanks for reading.

Come on you Hatters!

David.

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FA Cup 1st Round – Newport (h)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mark Tyler saves the day & welcome back Smudger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~intermission~~

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

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

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

b) fart & go back to sleep

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

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

 ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well done lads, a good win.

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

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

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

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And so the journey continues

And what a journey! Proud, as ever, of the club and its fans. 1088 fans drove up to Carlisle in the middle of the holiday season – a level of commitment that would flatter some premiership clubs. At least the cricket was on the radio for some of the journey.

It was sort of fitting that the league would see to it that our first game was Carlisle away, it was like a final test of our resolve, the final paroxysm of spitefulness from the FL, like a scally having been outmuscled and outnumbered flicking a V sign as he retreats down the street, tail between his legs –it’s all they had left to throw at us, an empty gesture a 600 mile round trip to welcome us back. But as many have said this week, better this fixture was on a sunny Saturday in August than a cold Tuesday in February. 

Though a great relief to be away from our friends in non-league, we (like Portsmouth) are still punching below our weight in this division, and whilst we can proudly hold our heads up to be part of the ’72’ again (where did that branding come from?) I want us to be out of league two asap. It’s still an embarrassing division to be in for a club our size and with our support and history.  Our average equivalent league position in the seventeen football league seasons since we dropped out of the top tier in 91/92 is 9th in League One. League One is bad enough, but at least it is like the resting room for those keen to get back into the Championship. The proverbial wardrobe to lean on to get your breath back before you go back for some more. The good news is that the fans, the management and most importantly the board share the ambition to be out of League Two as soon as we can.

So what of Saturday? Other than being grim up north, I thought it was a splendid performance showing the determination and resilience that characterised last season. Whilst we dominated the first half aided by Carlisle’s determination to play a formation that had both me and their players dumbfounded, the second half, or at least the first half of the second half was a different matter with them coming out as if their manager Kavanagh (ex Middlesbrough I think, good fantasy league player in his day) had rebooted them and recharged them at half time. Presumably Carlisle started with three centre halves because they thought they would up against a narrow front three – as it happens it was just Benson causing them bother with Cullen and Howells swapping flanks in support. In any case Kavanagh got it wrong.

The goal was a snappy interplay between our attacking players that would grace any era of the team. Started by Benson, the ball went to Robinson and Howells who played Benson in (who had sprinted into the box) down the right hand channel behind the left back. He approached the byline and crossed across the face of the goal and Cullen popped up at the far post to tuck it in. If you blinked you would have missed it. The Carlisle defenders stood and blinked in the sunlight, patting their pockets to see if their wallets were still there.

It was the type of performance of which John Still is typically proud – a tough away game after a long journey against a decent side. The sort of game you’d otherwise think of as getting a point being a reasonable result. I seem to recall that last season Still described the 2-1 win at Macclesfield as the most battling/pleasing performance of the season, and this was from the same mould. We dominated when we could and dug in when we needed to.

Benson impressed, old war dog that he is. Didn’t win too much in the air seemingly but fought for everything. Started the move and got the all important assist for the goal, and worked his socks off.

Wilkinson played well in the heart of defence,  as did Cap’n Steve, the scouse wall. Connolly, having taken one for the team with the booking was then sensible enough not to sell himself short for the rest of the game though was put under the most pressure as Carlisle’s main tactic was seemingly to punt it ahead of Amoo on the left. Griffiths was characteristically tenacious and occasionally a threat down the left. Determined to turn up to each new season with a shocking haircut. Tyler, unusual bizarre dalliance where he messed around and didn’t clear the ball aside, didn’t need to do that much, but made an outstanding save to keep out Meppen-Walter.

I thought Robinson was our best midfielder and boy has he got a good work ethic and an old head on young shoulders. Drury was good, and excellent in places – not the sort of game for him to impose himself perhaps – or rather – less opportunity to do so in the second half. He still showed elements of brilliance and certainly in the first half pulled all the strings. Alex Lacey played the anchor role ahead of the defence a new role for him (trialled in pre-season) and good to see him starting. Jake played an intelligent game and seemed very alert. Lovely for him to be back in the football league, though of course he made his debut whilst we were in league One. Nice to see that he has bowed to the inevitable hair-wise.

Cullen got the goal an spurned a other good chance….Andre who? Mark has a natural eye for goal a talent and a hungerthat will get us plenty – he doesn’t have Andre’s pace (who does?) and so I guess we will be less of a force on the counter,  but we will see. If we continue to create the chances we did last year – he will have the opportunity for a hatful. I’m chuffed for him to get what was the winner.

So a good win, good to get the first one under the belt. Swindon on Tuesday in the cup (the one that Watford are never bothered about) and then Wimbledon on Saturday. I shall miss the Swindon one because of my new business but wild horses would struggle to hold me back next Saturday. For the record, Swindon beat Scunny 3-1 and Wimbledon drew 2-2 at home to Shrewsbury at the weekend.

It’s lovely to be back in the league. I don’t know what the fuss was all about – it’s like we’ve never been away….

Come on you Hatters

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You can’t win them all…

…And with a ref like that we probably wouldn’t win again. All good things come to an end. But without being too disingenuous we didn’t play well. Woking had more of the play whilst we had the better of the chances. I shan’t mention the two dead-cert penalties that weren’t given, the free kick that should have been given, hitting the post twice as well as the one cleared off the line. The referee didn’t give us a thing all night, despite Ruddock being felled like a tree on two occasions and Benson being used as a climbing frame throughout the game.

To be fair, I think the standard of refereeing has improved this year, just our luck we got a duff one. He definitely had the game as an away win on his coupon…

Woking played us at our own game and won. They played high tempo short passing football, closed us down and didn’t give us much of a sniff and we didn’t have too much of an answer. The Hatters came into it more in the second half as Woking tired a little and dropped off a little but all the little through balls and half chances that have been coming off most of the season just didn’t drop tonight. The luck ran out – but to be fair, it was going to do it at some point.  As Woking hadn’t capitalised on their utter dominance, I think we played well enough to get a point especially based on the second half improvement.

In the first half Kevin Betsy tormented poor Scott Griffiths who was not given enough cover initially and was constantly exposed. Woking constant probed down our left and Griffiths had a torrid time.

But despite all of the last gasp tackles and blocks and balls-on-the-line interventions we actually did well to hold them at bay. We manfully absorbed attack after attack, but didn’t do anything substantial with the ball and back it came. McNulty was man of the match, rightly so, but even he had his wobbly moments.

I thought the defenders largely defended well, but distributed poorly. We were as good at defending as we were poor at passing. Because Woking pressed us so far up the pitch we were forced to play slightly longer, more hopeful balls than usual (that’s the idea of pressing, obviously) and we were snuffed out. However, if they could shoot straight Woking would have had the game in the bag by half time. In the second half we pushed up more and made Woking stretch the play which accordingly gave us better opportunities to be creative. Pelly Ruddock made a big difference when he came on for McGeehan, but then was forced back when Cullen came on to replace Howells – which I think was an unusual error as Pelly was beginning to dominate the play from the advanced midfielder position.

So, it was a funny game. To repeat, Woking played well enough to be three up by the interval, such was their total domination of us and of our midfield. But, somehow we kept them out. But in the second half, all other things being equal we did enough to win the game – and had we had the same rub of the green we have enjoyed all year we would have had those two penalties and the ref would have blown up for that free kick.

Mind you, I suppose you only get so much luck in a season. If you think about it, we’ve been quite fortunate – wonderful one-twos coming off, freak shots going in, that sort of thing. It may be that we’ve used up our quota for 2013/4.

Well played to Woking, under the management of Dr Death himself they did us up like a kipper. The best tactical display against us, you could argue, since perhaps Stevenage in the first season. In which case the circle is almost complete.

You could argue that after such a long run of great results some of the players are in need of a rest. The youngsters McGeehan and Ruddock have certainly being going full pelt, and whilst it is fantastic experience you don’t want to work them both too hard in their first proper seasons at senior level. You need to run the engine in a little, to get longer mileage overall. Young Franks in the heart of defence was looking a little bit frayed at the edges yesterday, some great headers and defending, but (like a few of them) was a bit shorn of confidence and composure. In the absence of Gutteridge Lawless has been playing in his stead. Initially, last night in the hole and then out on the right and then the left, he’s yet to return to the top form he was in earlier in the year, understandably perhaps.

The games are coming thick and fast now, and I guess having another home game on Saturday is a balancing act between sufficient recovery time and getting back onto the horse to bang a few in and to break out of this mini-blip. Wouldn’t it be great to recharge our confidence, if not our batteries with a thumping win again? Remember them?

Cambridge got back to winning ways tonight with a 2-1 home win over Welling. With 10 games to go, our lead is 11 points. Cambridge have to play 4 teams with realistic chances of play off places plus Hyde and Southport in the bottom six. We have to play Grimsby, Halifax and Forest Green of the contenders, and each of the bottom five. Even if our record in the last 10 is P10 W4 D4 L2, Cambridge would have to win 9 and draw the tenth to pip us at the post. I’ll let you decide how realistic that is.

My congratulations to the team for such a splendid run of 27 league games unbeaten. How wonderful indeed to have been part of that. A good thing to tell the grandchildren about when recalling the dark ages.

Roll on Saturday…come on you Hatters!

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Typical

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Typical, no goals for ages, then three come at once. Cue Relief all around. Ah – so that’s what a goal is. From a low point against Wrexham I hope that today’s improved performance engenders some further confidence and self belief.

The catalyst? Tricky one…but I’d like to suggest that it was a certain A Lawless Esq, from the Valleys. Poor that we should be seemingly so reliant on one player, but today the difference was obvious almost from the kick off. He didn’t play behind the striker but on the right hand side of the front three, Guttridge holding on to his place behind Benson as the ‘lone’ striker. Not being in the centre didn’t diminish Lawless’ influence, and made a significant impact on the game and the team. Within minutes of the start he had already got to the byline and put in a dangerous cross, a basic but important part of football that has been missing from the start of the season. His assist for the first was almost identical, a run and a cross from the right onto Benson’s head for the goal. He capped off his performance with the third goal after he rounded Julian in the Dartford goal and slotted it in. Whether or not the ball was carried across the line by the Dartford defender I neither know nor care.

Guttridge got the second with a canny deflection from about 20 yards to give us a 2-0 lead at half time. Howells broke forward from a corner and played Guttridge in. Guttridge had a super game. Whilst our midfield was so wholly superior from the outset Guttridge had an outstanding game in the ‘hole’ behind Benson. Pulling the strings is an understatement.

The difference between this year’s Dartford and last year’s is that they afforded us so much time on the ball. The fundamental error to make against the Hatters. Mind you – that’s probably the last time it’ll happen this year, so just as well we made hay. A small side, a team of full of friendly but hyperactive dwarves,  they did try to play properly which is credit to them. You might think representing Dartford they’d be a brutal, ugly team, but they went about things the right way. Alas, the good die young.

Benson had a terrific game too. Not only does he win the season award as the first striker to get a goal for us this year (17th September must be a record for that) but he covered yards and yards and yards, won knock downs aplenty and linked up play – controlling that part of the field.

It was the sort of performance we always anticipated and expected on dropping down to the 5th tier. Part time Dartford away to mighty Luton should always be a tidy 3-0 – but our seasons at this level have suggested that this should never be expected, because it has almost never been delivered. But tonight it was, at a canter really. We showed the confidence of pre-season. It struck me that the win was never in the doubt.

That’s not to say it was a complete walk over. Griffiths had another mixed game. At present rightly or wrongly I feel that he is at present the weakest link in the team. If his tackling is good then his distribution is poor. When his positional play is poor his marking is excellent, and when his marking is poor his passing can be good. He can’t get everything going at once quite yet.

Tyler was stretched enough to make a good couple of saves, but otherwise was fairly redundant. His kicking was mixed and I really wish he’d throw more, especially in games like this where we are afforded so much time on the ball. Punting it up to Benson (or realistically onto the head of the opposing centre half) is a good way to lose possession and for spells of the second half the only way we would concede possession.

At the back, Steve McNulty was an absolute colossus. Metaphorically of course. If Lawless hadn’t got MoM then McNulty surely would. Not only did he win the ball, but he did his utmost to ensure that he distributed it to feet and/or set up a play, rather than just hoofing it into the crowd. Quite, quite brilliant today. Like Lawless truly a division or class or two above. The first time the ball came to his feet at the start of the game he did the ol’ Brazilian two-step around the oncoming striker, very cheeky, very well played.

Parry. I like Mr Parry. Unfussy, good position-wise and hardworking, we have genuine stiff competition for the defender to partner McNulty in defence. My friend Pete said he was better in the middle of the park, but one dodgy corner aside looked completely at home.

Henry the skip was sound enough as ever. Didn’t cross the half way line as much as I would like but continues to excel at what he does best which is tidy defending.

Jim Stevenson – second time I’ve seen him and this was his first home start. I thought he put himself around well and helped to be part of that midfield three which ran Dartford ragged. I was pleased. If that is Stevenson at the stat of his Luton career I’m encouraged and excited about what we might see in a couple of years time. Sound start indeed.

Smudger Smith – hard working again though with fewer tackles but more time on the ball than against Grimsby. An important part of a midfield which dominated Dartford.

Jake Howells. Whilst he didn’t get many crosses in, he linked up play very well, as well as positionally being in the right place at the right time. His attitude was spot on. He was replaced by Dave Martin, who I hadn’t seen for a while. Dave offers something different, his pace being the biggest difference I think. Whilst his first couple of touches didn’t quite go to plan, Martin adds a different dimension. I think his confidence needs building up after being dropped after a poor start. I don’t know why, but he reminds me (and apologies to anyone under 40) of a footballing Derek Randall in appearance, perhaps slightly less in demeanour. Rags was all twitchy and laugh a minute, and whilst Martin seems to be enjoying it, (but doesn’t twitch), it is his body language, languid style and shifty shuffle that reminds me of the Retford-born batsman.

Five minutes after Howells was replaced by Martin, Whalley replaced Lawless. Now Shaun has never had bigger boots to fill. I want Shaun to be a success, as does everyone at the club, and more importantly the manager believes he can be successful. John Moore said that SW needs to move his game to another plane to continue to outwit defenders. The jury’s still out. I don’t think we serve wingers like Whalley and Gray particularly well, because we aim to get the ball to them by accurate, to feet, pin point pass – rather than by playing into space behind the defence for the defenders to run on to. Fine if you have players like Jake, but you have to exploit the fast players’ strengths if you have them, and perhaps for him that is the difference between here and Southport, this year and last. Perhaps last year he had more time to get his crosses in, whereas this season he’s normally been closed down faster than a junkie is in a supermarket by a security guard, when loitering near the jaffa cakes.

So that was definitely more like it at last – you could see the relief on all concerned, not least the crowd, not a boo to be heard. Need to start stringing a few performances like that together. They’ve been few and far between this season, or to be fair non-league as a whole. And now I’m looking forward to Lincoln on Saturday…

Scores on the doors: Tyler: 6.5, Henry 7, McNulty 9, Parry 8.5, Griffiths 5.5, Smith 7.5, Stevenson 7, Guttridge 9 (loses half for a silly yellow card) Benson 8.5, Howells 7, Lawless 9.

 

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading, as ever all comments good or bad welcomed. Apologies for the lack of reports recently, trips abroad with work, whilst pleasant, really do rip into your blogging time. I must have a word with my boss.

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Off the Mark

After the pleasant amuse-bouches of Villa and Arsenal,  the rather dodgy starter at Southport, by half time I was still a bit worried that the main course would leave a bitter aftertaste or even have a spicy kick to it.

Fortunately, all was to be well. Andre Gray injected some life pace and purpose into the game as soon as he was introduced on the hour. His pace stretched and worried the Salisbury centre halves. We had a bit of fortune with the penalty award – he was out of play by a good two feet when he was felled by Clarke. But it is about time we had a bit of luck isn’t it? Taiwo converted the penalty with a hop, a skip, a jump and a side foot.

Minutes later the first decent corner from Dave Martin perfectly met by a screaming and unmarked Luke Gutteridge put the result beyond doubt. Clinical, not particularly pretty in places. But a sound enough and competent start to the home campaign. A win is what we needed and a win is what we got. Let the flashy goals from open play come later on in the season, for tonight I’m happy with a pen and a corner thank you very much.

Of course a disappointing and bitty first half had the intelligentsia booing already. Where do we get them from? No staying power. No patience. No thought.

I expect to see us score as many late goals this year as we were prone to concede under Gary Brabin. Being fitter than fleas means we can run for longer and stay sharper. Whilst the part timers and journeymen in this league (not drilled within in an inch of their lives in Portugal) wilt and fade, our boys will be making hay. That is why Andre Gray is such a bonus to have on the bench. He’ll cause more damage in the last half an hour than in the first half an hour.

And didn’t he look hungry for it. JohnStill was keen to repeatedly emphasise that he was slow to start in pre-season, though equally keen to make the point that this sometimes happens and it doesn’t make him a bad player. When I saw Gray come on in the pre-season games he looked very determined to make his mark and again so today. He galvanised the team just as we were looking a little disjointed.

Mark Tyler started in goal – clocking up his 156th appearance for the Hatters. I’m not sure, but I don’t think he had a shot to actually save. For all of their passing game, initially at least, Salisbury were pretty impotent as an attacking force. Ex loanee Ben Wright was largely anonymous. Rob Sinclair chucked his toys out of his pram, made a fuss then had had enough and was subbed. Presumably with strict orders to go to the barbers in the morning. Ironically, Ben Wright was replaced by another ex-Hatter our famous non-goalscoring striker Warren Feeney (him of the “two one, even Feeney scored” chant against QPR in 2006) making his 2nd appearance for his eleventh club. Amazingly, though he left us for Cardiff in March 2007, he has only scored 16 goals since then. The game was in the bag when he appeared. Bringing him on as sub, bless him, is the footballing equivalent of raising the white flag. My old gran had more bite even after mistakenly putting her dentures in the waste disposal.

Smudger Smith continued to deputise for Ronnie Henry at right back. I think he had a solid enough game, from what I can remember. In the middle ‘Steeevo’ McNulty had a very good game indeed. Sticking his head on everything that came his way, rightly reprieved after a successful review of the DRS by Luton. Alongside him Anthony Charles had a sound enough debut , before being sawn off on 71 minutes. I hope he is okay. He looked good – and clearly likes to play an early ball into space – I suspect this year his long balls will convert into a goodly number of counter attacks, but also a goodly number of throw ins and goal kicks.

On the left was Scott Griffiths, not afraid to get stuck in or get his head in the way too. Occasionally a little bit loose with his passing, otherwise he played quite well. Though, as with all of the defenders and the two midfielders, was regularly closed down quickly enough to prevent him from passing out as he would have wanted to.

In the middle were Luke Gutteridge and Solomon Taiwo. Gutteridge had a good game, getting stuck in, spraying the ball nicely and intelligently joining up the play. Though he got a deserved goal today, I suspect he has much more to offer. Taiwo had a strange game as if he was two people. Often he was the guilty party causing our forward movement to break down with a dodgy pass, but to be fair to him, he had often won the ball back in order to be in the position to make that pass. From what I saw of him last year, this was a pretty par for the course performance from him. You can’t doubt his effort and I suspect JohnStill will be pleased with his standard of play tonight.

On the left was David Martin. He was fed quite a few balls down his flank and had to battle hard to get his crosses in, which he did pretty well. On the right was Shaun Whalley, who had a bit more of the ball, in the first half at least and tormented the left back, but (and I suspect I’ll be typing this once or twice this year) didn’t quite have the final ball. When he did have the final ball, there was no one quite on it. Thought to be fair to DM and to SW – on another night, they could both have contributed to a goal each. If the ball had run slightly better it could have been a slightly flattering 3-0 or 4-0. Whalley is a tricky player who loves to run at full backs in ye olde traditional way. For those youngsters who can’t recall wing play: a lot of runs down the wing will inevitably mean that defenders will win the ball occasionally and the run will seem to have come to nothing and be ‘selfish’. Worry not, for ultimately it only takes a few crosses to be got in from the by-line. And that is where goals are born.

Up top was big Jon Shaw. A little off the pace today and I thought out of sorts in the first half. Much improved in the second half he got his head to more balls and also played in the strikers a couple of times. Perhaps, he’s not quite at 100% yet after the weekend. Again on another day, his header would have evaded the keeper and he would have been a foot further forward/back/left or right to get on the end of one of the crosses. A sound enough start and plenty to build on.

Alongside for the first hour was the promising Mark Cullen. His appearances in the pre-season showed that he knows where the goal is. Tonight he was closed down (hacked down) quite mercilessly. He was replaced by AG after an hour and the rest is history. Salisbury were lucky only to  get 2 yellows. There were 4 or 5 pretty scything challenges that would have caused any premiership ref to have apoplexy.  We didn’t see the best of him tonight, but he has a host of goals in him.

We battled and fought hard and won at a canter really in the end. Let us not forget though that it was Andre Gray whose introduction was the catalyst to the win – thank goodness.  There will be stiffer tests than this, but it was good to get this one out of the way early season to build up a little momentum and more importantly a big dollop of confidence. It was a good old-fashioned 2-0 win, and whilst not pretty at times, we can’t always tear sides apart with neat passing football and as fans we should remember that. When sides press from the front, put 5 in midfield and close us down, our players simply don’t have the time to play out to feet. It’s something we’ve had to get very used to over these years in non-league. Time will tell, but I suspect our resolve, fitness, skill, and confidence will mean that we do indeed get our noses in front early in games this year and then we will decimate them as they have to come at us for a goal. Like Arsenal.

On Saturday, we are going to be visited by the Macc lads – who are presently on 0 points. I understand that they are a bit financially troubled at present, but that’s no guide to performance necessarily. I know they still have Kissock (how many step-overs on Saturday?) I’m not sure if the likes of Charlie Henry are still there though. Good time to be playing them I’d suggest, and hopefully we can get another win in the bag before the ‘big one’ against Forest Green Rovers (yes, I did type that) the following week.

Some scores on the doors for tonight: Tyler 6, Smith 6.5, McNulty 8, Charles 7, Griffiths 6.5, Gutteridge 7.5, Taiwo 6.5, Martin 7, Whalley 7, Shaw 6, Cullen 6.5. Subs – Gray 8, Howells and Lacey not on long enough.

 

#COYH

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