Good Intentions, Poor Execution

 

A cold easterly breeze chilled us like lollies in a freezer; the wind from the Steppes more direct than a Watford pass. Unfortunately much of the play wasn’t enough to keep our spirits warm. A George Pilkington penalty was the only goal to separate the two teams.

Felt a bit sorry for Alfreton, we were promised a big bullying gruff Derbyshire team hell-bent on defending. A little time wasting aside, what we got was a team with one or two promising players keen to pass it where possible and with an eye to cut defences open with neat moves, in the first half at least. They tired as the game went on, and in trying to snatch something from the game presented us with an increasing number of opportunities; not that we could do anything with them. We wouldn’t have scored in open play if we’d doubled the size of the goals. Mind you – neither would Alfreton.

My first look at McAllister – playing for us, that is. I was warned that he didn’t win many headers for a big man, but set up plenty of goals. Strange that Newport let him go when they are in a bit of a fight for survival. Does he cost them too much? Are they confident of survival? Or was it that he’d not scored a goal in 25 games for them? Not sure – you decide. He was presented with one clear cut and two pretty good chances this afternoon and missed them all. That said he worked hard, did win one or two headers and looked as if he could pass and cross the ball. That’s a start at least.

Perhaps it is a new direction for the club? We normally take in-form strikers and turn them into toothless tigers. Perhaps with McAllister we are going to be doing the reverse?

We made three changes from what was a dire 0-0 on Wednesday. We started with 4-4-2 seemingly for the first time since Brabin had hair. Willmott and Howell were the lucky wingers with Watkins and Lawless in midfield. Crow started up front with McAllister. Crow was replaced at half time with the lively Fleetwood keen to get his place back. Whilst his passing was sometimes a bit wayward, he did seem to get in some good positions.

Which brings me back to the reason for the headline. For a team lacking confidence, the ideas were often right, other than perhaps not get wide enough or overlap enough down the wings. The attacking design was there, certainly in the second half. The trouble was, on occasion, the players looked as if they had never played with each other before, let alone playing this new-fangled strange formation. I can see why Brabin might be concerned that Watkins and Lawless might get overrun as part of a midfield two. Nicholls and Robinson they are not. Watkins was certainly less bright than usual today. and when he was replaced by Poku there was more bite in the midfield, if less creativity. I was keen to see how ‘on fire’ he was. He looked okay – a few good passes, some good tackles and seemed to be haring around in a good way, rather than the rough ‘n’ ready headless chicken last time I saw him.

O’Connor replaced Willmott with 18 minutes to go in the second half. Before he’d had a chance to hit his straps he got a bad knock and wasn’t quite himself after that. Personally, I think O’Connor fits better on the right of a front three, rather than a winger. Felt a bit sorry for him as he has been popping up with plenty of goals recently.

Dan Gleeson, with Andy Burgess removed from his Christmas card list, was a real mixture. He combined his usual efforts of escorting the oncoming winger to the byline, with a couple of good tackles and at one stage a lovely move forward where he overlapped and crossed.

Greg Taylor resembled the other Taylor who has recently played at left back for the Hatters. Not in his overall quality, heavens no, but the fact that he was much more likely to be seen in the offensive half of the pitch than defending. I find it refreshing and really like him as a player. He didn’t have his finest game, but I love the fact that he is up and down that side of the pitch so often. If all left backs spent as long up the pitch as him, their scoring reputation would be far superior.

Good to see Tyler back between the sticks. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking him a better keeper than Kevin Pilks (ahem). Kevin Pilks is good, but Tyler is better all round. His distribution was quick and was keen to roll out to a defender. There were plenty of clearances to McAlister down the pitch, but not unreasonably so. I can only remember seeing him make one proper save. So he must as been as cold as I was. Poor love. Bizarre though that Tyler was back a couple of days after GB continued to justify Pilks’ selection ahead of Tyler’s. Perhaps his continued omission was being a bit too personal.

The other Pilks, George, got man of the match. More for the fact that he cooly scored the penalty than for any great defending I think – though his defending was sound enough, as was Kovacs. Kovacs’ distribution was poor in the first half, too often he was the only defender in space when the ball came to him. He would launch it forward and wide, but not to a man in orange so often. I know no one was making any space for him, no movement – but surely it is more important to retain possession than to play a hopeful ball forward only to lose possession. I’d rather a square pass than a poor pass.

So the game was far from a classic. For me it had more the feel of a pre-season friendly (played in Iceland I hasten to add) where the players were getting to know each other and the formation. It’s a damn shame that next week it is February and we are aiming for a play-off victory come May-time. Today, there was much effort, and lots of huffing and puffing but there was barely a shot on target, or for that matter many shots at all.

 

York drew at Darlo and we are now five points clear of them, which is nice. So even though we are bumping along, not at our best, with two draws and a win in the past week, we are still making third our own. Seems odd doesn’t it? We’d be bloody dangerous if we actually started playing well. Perhaps that’s our lot from now on? However mediocre we are, or this awful division is, perhaps we’re just going to be perennially third; doomed to play-off stress, heartache and misery for all eternity?

It really doesn’t have to be so. It really doesn’t. This can’t be it. Someone do something to wake us from this nightmare.

And on that positive thought I’ll leave you until next time! Come on you Hatters!

 

 

 

 

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Hatters Banish Exiles

Luton emerged victorious from a bruising encounter with a rough n ready Newport who showed spirit but no finesse.

Happy New Year first of all.

I think the best thing to come out of Newport today were the fans who ironically got the sheep shaggers chant in before we did, and who sang with pride all afternoon. I’m not sure quite who Bedfordshire Police were expecting to turn up because they were out in force around the town at lunchtime. Perhaps they heard the words ‘South Wales’ and thought of Cardiff and battened down the hatches.

Today’s game wasn’t a footballing classic by any means as Newport stifled our midfield and pressed us from the front, but ultimately could do nothing to prevent the win.

Because Newport harried us so effectively some of our attacking play was subdued. This meant that some of our passing had to be slightly too long or slightly too adventurous – but that is the only criticism. Our play lacked the pace of the previous three and because of the way Newport closed us down the players were reluctant to attack down the flanks as much. It wasn’t a sparkling game but it was good enough. This is the sort of game earlier in the season that we would have contrived to draw – so I was delighted with a solid 2-0. We don’t have enough solid 2-0s at this club – so today was fine.

We lined up with more or less the same team as the previous two, with the sicknotes Gleeson and Crow returning to the fold. Since the Hatters’ form picked up with the Tamworth game, GB has settled into his 4-3-3/4-5-1/4-3-2-1 formation. Pilks K retained his place in goal, having not been tested in the previous two games. On the right was Dan Gleeson who showed some promising moves prior to being scythed down by erstwhile Hatter and internet fraudster Rio Charles after 33 minutes. Rio showed two footed ability in the challenge unseen in his time with us. But as has happened before this season the red card acted as a catalyst for a Luton goal. It was Dan Gleeson who won the corner from which Jake Howells perfect cross picked out Aaron O’Connor for his splendid far post glancing header on. Gleeson went off, then on again and then limped off to be replaced by The Shadow, James Dance. The Shadow has been in fine form over the past couple of months and was unlucky not to start. The 4-3-3 suits him as an up top player on the right, rather than as an out and out winger (largely because his crossing is a bit dodgy) but today he slotted in at right back. He had an excellent game, provided the width down the right and overlapped really well.

In the middle were G Pilks Esq and the newly re-signed Janos Kovacs, delighted to have been back with us on permanent basis. Both did what they needed to do. Once Newport were down to 10 men Pilks had a big hole in front of him and used this to run into on more than one occasion. Often with Pilks his passing is the weak point of his game, because there is rarely much for him to pass to – today it was much tidier. But alas he was clonked too and hobbled off towards the end. Not good news with a game on Tuesday.

On the left was the improving-by-the-game Greg Taylor. He was an immense presence and posed an enormous threat down the left. He too overlapped well and seemed to spend most of the game up the pitch. It was his cross from the left after Watkins played him in superbly down the channel with a which led to the second goal. Danny Crow charged in at the far post and pounced and poached in the finest style – another thing we don’t have enough of at the Kenny. Poor Big-Hips wanged the post in the process – I thought it was his head that made contact and he went off ten minutes later. Big Hips was largely ill-served today by the fact that he got reduced amount of ball to feet. I don’t think he touched it more than a couple of times in the first twenty minutes. He put plenty of effort in, in any case; though Fleetwood was noticeably (and understandably) fresher and livelier when he came on.

Nice to have a settled team isn’t it? Is it a coincidence that since the happy triumvirate of Watkins, Keane and Lawless became a fixture in the midfield, our fortunes have taken a more positive turn for the better? No – I didn’t think so either. Lawless is the deepest of the three, mopping up and starting off moves, Keano the enforcer in the middle, and who is a breath of fresh air further up the park. Adam Watkins buzzes around the opposing box causing mischief and mayhem. Again, no coincidence that since he has been starting things have picked up. Not one to say I told you so – but I told you so. That said, AW, defence splitting passes aside, had a quieter – but still excellent – game than recently.

Our front three were Howells, Danny Crow and O’Connor. Now, there is fluid, and there is fluid. They took turns in rotating who was up front and on the wings. DC obviously did the bulk of the up front work but they all swapped around on occasion. Howells had a good game – O’Connor worked hard too and deserved his goal.

Like I said earlier we tried to play today, but it didn’t quite catch. We had plenty of chances – plenty of patient build up. I could spend column inches describing all the Luton chances – but PDW does that infinitely better than I can. Needless to say that Newport were as accurate in front of goal as Ed Miliband is in front of a keyboard.

But – four wins (in the league) out of four now. What did we say after the Telford game? We did the maths and boy do we need a lot of points per game to get up to a realistic challenging total. All we can do is win and win and win. Well – 3 points per game is doing us no harm at all! We need to keep going, showing a bit of professionalism and class – putting the pressure on by not messing up and slipping up. Let’s keep winning get a bit closer to those in front of us and see how they handle the pressure of having to look over their shoulders. Long way to go I know – “plenty of football to be played” but all we can do is win and that at present is what we are doing, so fair play the team and to the management.

Stockport on Tuesday, and another opportunity to put a poor side to the sword. Fascinatingly, of their last seven games Stockport have failed to score in six of them. In fact they went 491 minutes between goals until they put 3 past Barrow on New Year’s day. Lost to Gateshead again today though.

So today’s performance warrants the epithet of ‘workmanlike’ and ‘solid’. Which is fair enough. We were the better side and beat an ambition-free bunch of cloggers. Enough said, job done. Fingers crossed that George Pilks and Dan Gleeson are okay for Tuesday. If Pilks isn’t fit I’d want Alex Lacey to start in his place. Time to allow him to step up.

Elsewhere in the world of football it was the FA Cup third round. Nice of ESPN to show the Liverpool 5-3 this evening I thought to remind the footballing world of what a proper cup tie is.

The team down the M1, given a virtual bye at home to Bradford beat them 4-2 in front of only 1700 more than we got for our last home game. We are catching them up. Their crowds are falling rapidly, I’d love to see how many they’d get in the fifth tier – they’d only need to open a couple of stands.

Spurs beat Cheltenham 3-0 in what was our nominal draw – had we won in Round 2.

St Evenage diddled Reading away (is there no stopping them?) and Fleetwood were humbled at home by Blackpool, let’s hope their balloon has been burst (some hope!) Wrexham maintained their FA Cup tradition by holding Brighton to an away draw. Let’s hope they become distracted and drop the ball. I’m clutching at straws here.

Hopefully I’ll post again after another win under the lights on Tuesday night. Well done today lads, less spectacular than during the festive period but 3 points nevertheless.

Come on you Hatters.

 

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O’Connor sizzles, but the dream is over for another year…

 

A spirited performance from the Hatters wasn’t enough to see us go through. 4-2 flattered Cheltenham a little because though they were a tight, bright, well-organised team, we went through long spells of the game in control.

It was the same old story – chance after chance – but at least there was more than one goal. And those goals came a sizzling on-fire Aaron O’Connor. Even if he hadn’t got any goals his performance would still have been sufficient to have outshone his coleagues.

I often get the feeling we are in for a treat of a game when a better opposition come and score an early goal. Remember Liverpool? Remember the 3-2 against Reading? Game on!

Actually ITV must be gutted that we are out – we are FA Cup TV gold.

The formation was an attacking 4-3-3. Now I have no problem with a proper 4-3-3. It is an attacking formation. Pleaty would often play 4-3-3 and there was nothing wrong with that. However, his midfield would be wider with the midfielders strung across. Ours tends to be a bit narrower with a holding midfielder stuck behind two central midfielders. That tends to necessitate that two of the front three have to act as wide-ish men. But I think for it to be a proper attacking formation you need three proper front men, not two wingers and a striker. Otherwise there is a danger of it soon becoming a 4-5-1. Ian Blackwell anyone?

What should happen of course, if one of the front three goes wide on the wing to pick up the ball the other one of the front three drifts into the box to make a front two. With us I suppose though the front three would be Willmott/AMS on the left O’Connor/AMS on the right and a proper centre forward in the middle.

Personally I would have a big man as part of the front three. Just think: if we’d had a tall man in there yesterday, how many of the crosses which sailed over the top of dear Danny Crow would have been connected? Whilst we still have him, I’d play Brunty in there, otherwise Wright.

There is nothing wrong with having a big man in the front three – you need someone to get on the end of the crosses. However, if we do play a big man in the front three we mustn’t change the way we are playing. Just because you have a big fella up there, does not – I repeat does not – give you the excuse to lump the ball up there at every opportunity. This is for two reasons 1) it’s not what we do. 2) it’s pointless I think, unless you are playing a striker just off him to nod the ball onto/lay the ball off and then we are talking about a 4-4-2 instead.

To use a cricketing example to illustrate my point: Perth is the fastest, bounciest cricket pitch in the world. Because it is so bouncy sides get tempted to bowl short stuff all the time and get carried away with seeing the batmen hop around and the keeper taking the ball above his head– however the sides that prosper at Perth are the ones that pitch the ball up and make the most of the extra bounce off a good length or fuller pitched delivery. Playing with a big man up front is the same. Just because he’s there you don’t have to pump the ball up to him. He’s an outlet, an occasional Plan B or a release valve when clearing the ball – but not the raison d’etre. So many managers’ eyes light up (Mr Money anyone?) when suddenly they have the option of a 6’ 2”plus bloke in there. The game plan changes and the slow build up becomes a hoof it up the middle chaps. No. No. No. He’s there to get on the end of your crosses, to pose a threat at set pieces. Back to Pleaty for a second – he wasn’t averse to having a big player up there (eg Aylott, Big Mick, etc) but you could hardly accuse him of being Mr Route One. No, leave that to the Hertfordshire teams.

I think that 4-3-3 suits the players we now have. We have flair players like Kissock and Dance. Busy midfielders like Watkins, and in theory Lawless (who was, I thought, much improved when playing the deeper of the three yesterday when Keane went off) and holding players like Keano and Hand.(and Godfrey ‘on fire’ Poku – who is indeed on fire at Southport).

With Willmott or Howells or AMS (when fit) on the left, O’Connor or Dance or AMS on the right of a front 3 and Brunt/Wright as the middle man I think that should (**should**) be a real attacking force in this division. In fact – any other team would waltz it with that line up I’m sure.

I would have loved a big tie in the third round (Cheltenham got Spurs) but in a way, nice though it would have been, it would have been papering over the cracks that have appeared and the huge doubts I now have as to the Manager’s ability to get us into the play offs and out the other side. A cup run, or money spinner in January would have diverted attention from the real matter in hand.

Now, a couple of years ago, you will recall that a member of the first team playing squad told me about the shenanigans that were going on under Mick (see link here). I deliberately don’t pass on some of the occasional snippets I hear because it would jeopardise the players trust in me, put him in a tricky position and break my anonymity I guess, potentially.

However, I’ve decided to mention a couple of the chats I’ve had recently. I could detail things at length, but to put them in a nutshell, the first team squad feel that Brabs acts as if he is one of the boys and not the gaffer, he is too close to them and sees himself as one of them (David Brent anyone?) I’ve also been told that the discipline and training the first team get is more akin to a country club than a football club, the players spend a lot of time not training as hard as they might, having a laugh and Brabin lets them get away with it, when others don’t. But thirdly, and something I’d not heard before is how much respect they have for Alan Nielson. His training methods are seen as spot on, widely respected and he has a good awareness of the game and tactical nous. What I learnt however that from the players perspective (and not Neilson’s I hasten to add) GB contradicts some of the things they are working on with AN, i.e. they are working on one thing with AN and then Brabin comes in and says the opposite– and that Nielson is constantly undermined in front of the players. This is interesting, but a little disturbing. I’ve always felt a bit sorry for AN. He was quite happily and successfully working as youth development coach – was reluctantly promoted to first team coach, caretaker manager for five games, then assistant manager to Money, then unceremoniously bumped to First Team Development manager, when Brabin leapfrogged him, and now Brab’s buddy Carden has been brought in. All the time he uncomplainingly gets on with it, and the reserves’ and youngsters results under him this year have been encouraging. It seems to be that he is as likeable, solid and dignified as a coach as he was a player.

Whilst getting two goals in a game has been a rarity recently and should be applauded – conceding four wasn’t so good.

The first goal was a route one comedy of school boy errors – the second goal was an own goal off Gleeson, but the cross should never have been allowed in the first place. The third goal was a good move – in fact Cheltenham appeared to up a gear just when they needed to. Another sign of a good side. The fourth goal – well…Kovacs was deputising as that big striker I have been going on about and so perhaps it is not a surprise. Four goals flattered them a bit – three didn’t though.

What can I say of our defenders? Pilks is seemingly less sharp than he was, perhaps because he is not being tested out at a higher level week in week out. He is only 30, and should be reaching his peak, though to be fair he has spent most of the season injured. Kovacs seems a much better player than we was when he was with us before, though as yesterday showed, he is prone to the odd howler or two. Both should have no problem with anything non-league throws at them though. On the right yesterday Dan Gleeson came back to replace Curtis Osano. It didn’t improve things. Seems bizarre to fling Gleeson in against Cheltenham, when there is a park kick about next Saturday. In any case, Keano is a much better right back than either Osano or Gleeson, so why wasn’t he playing there for the big game? Error of judgement in my humble opinion. What annoys me about Gleeson is his unwillingness to close an oncoming winger down, he is seemingly happy to escort him to the byline. However, when he does put a tackle in he is one of the best tacklers in the team. It is so frustrating. Whilst it didn’t seem as if he was fit yesterday, Brabin insisted that he was match fit. So there you go.

Jake is one of the best crossers and passers in the team and so we are better served with him playing further up – however, because Murray has been injured this year and because Taylor was cup-tied had to play at left back for the umpteenth time. Whilst his positioning and his all round play is better than Gleeson’s unfortunately his lack of pace is what lets him down. He is sometimes outpaced and then fails to stop the cross going in. He’s a really good tackler too if he gets the opportunity to put one in.

Blimey – reading this back sounds like one big whinge – for which I apologise.

What I must say is that I really enjoyed the game yesterday. It was a good cup tie and very entertaining we got our money’s worth.  Our performance was improved and, like I said at the top, for long periods of the game we held our own. How many crosses did we get in – I stopped counting at 10. Or perhaps Cheltenham allowed us to dominate as much as they wanted us to – before they upped a gear. For a little club (average crowd 3,000) they’ve done spectacularly well and just demonstrate what a canny manager can do on a limited budget at any level. Swap ya?

A couple of weeks ago when I said that the next five games were ‘must wins’ and that a club in our position should expect at the very least four wins and a draw from those – I forgot that we were playing Cheltenham instead of Stockport. Nevertheless – of the four league games (Newport away, Telford home, Lincoln away, and Tamworth away) we should be getting 10 points from those games. Well as we have already dropped two against Telford so that means we need to win at Lincoln on Tuesday and Tamworth on the 17th. Anything else should not really be acceptable with the good players we have at the club.

Work prevents me from going up to Lincoln on Tuesday, and family commitments prevent me from seeing Swindon Submarine next Saturday (a game I was looking forward to – I love the unreserved seating games) and also the trip to Tamworth. So I’m having a through-no-fault-of-my-own mid-season break. I’ll be getting withdrawal symptoms.

On Boxing Day we have the unfortunate Kettering who are in freefall that the moment, having only got 2 points from their last seven games. Again, that and the return fixture on New Year’s Day should be nail on certainties, as should the home games against Newport and Stockport.

So really, truly, not wanting to burden the team with too much expectation we should really win the next six league games. Shouldn’t we? We should get 18 points. Am I being unfair? Okay, okay, we know that slip ups do occur and so I would expect us to get perhaps 16 points in those games. Four wins and two draws would give us 14. I’m thinking that would be poor, against teams with an average position of 18th – when we are looking to be promotion contenders.

What I’m trying to get at here is how poor do the results have to be in must-win games for the board to sit up and take notice? If we win all six then fine, perhaps, things would have been turned around – confidence will be high and things will start to click. Suddenly the luck will go our way. But what happens if we only draw at Lincoln? What happens if we stutter to a draw at Tamworth? What happens if we only narrowly beat Kettering, but then draw away to them? What happens if we only draw at home to Newport and/or Stockport? What if – heaven forefend we lose one of them? Where is the cut off? There are some who think it has already passed, but there must be an point if reached that would mean another change at the top.

Personally, I just want to put the crappy performances behind us, for things to be sorted out, for the air to be cleared and to start banging them in. There were glimpses yesterday that things were coming together a little. Perhaps all we need is a lucky break, and the season will kick on from here – the team will suddenly click and we will start scoring for fun again. It could be – it should be. I truly hope so. My grave misgivings aside, I would love Gary Brabin to be on the pitch at Wembley at the end of the season giving a big two fingers to all of the doubters, myself included. His point will have been proved. Whether or not we will remains to be seen. It is never boring being a Luton Fan.

Come on you Hatters!

 

 

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One Mistake…

…is all it takes to lose a game against a well-drilled and cynical team who came for the draw.

What can I say? I thought for much of the first half we looked the better side, and we were camped in their half for much of it, but lacked the ability to have more than a couple of shots on target. Wrexham came to defend, played 4-5-1, closed us down and didn’t give us the room to play.

The second half we were closed down even more and until JPK came on lacked intensity and drive. The game as a specticle was also spoilt by Wrexham’s somewhat comedic and obvious time wasting tactics, most of which the referee was oblivious to. Wrexham are certainly a side who look to put in a challenge or two and I thought the ref’s unwillingness (inability?) to stamp out the time wasting and nasty tackles early on rather indulged Wrexham and allowed them to carry on with impunity.

We looked like a team who had used up all of its luck and breaks on Saturday in the 5-1 win, and to be honest I thought it had 0-0 written all over it. Wrexham largely kept us out of their box and therefore the chances were few and far between. I don’t think the players lacked effort or desire, I just think that Wrexham achieved their spoiling objective.

I don’t think we helped ourselves by slavishly playing in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 ourselves. Fleetwood looked too isolated, Willmott and O’Connor too deep because they were bogged down in midfield.

One player who stood out today and really looked committed to the cause was Keith Keane who always seems to up a gear for these big games. He shone out a mile.

As AMS is injured we could have played the same XI, but with O’Connor up front and The Shadow James Dance on the right, or, shock horror in a game likely to be dominated by a tightly packed midfield and a defensive opposition perhaps play a flair player like JPK to pick the Welsh lock? Be nice to play him from the start one day. Not sure what he has got to do to get a start.

Now here’s a novel idea – how about when we play against teams who are going to be defensive against us, we pick an attacking team, and on those rare occasions where we only need a draw, pick a more defensively minded team then? We could have done with more than 27 minutes of Mr Kissock today, he looked a threat (again) from the minute he first touched the ball.

Tommy Wright came on as sub for Aaron O’Connor or ‘Azza’ as he is known. Big Tommy Wright. I must admit I couldn’t recall him playing against us. His name wasn’t the first on my lips of target men, but there you go. I wish him well. Remember I am the son of the man who described Mick Harford as the poor man’s Trevor Aylott, so what can I possibly know about target men? Tommy Wright won his first ball, showed a bit of commitment by chucking his head where feet were, and won more things than he lost. He gives us an ‘outlet’. However, a word of caution. Having a big man up front to aim at gives us an option to play the ball long – but not a reason to. It shouldn’t mean that we play the ball long all the time – it should just mean that for restarts and balls played forward he can hold the ball up and bring players in – but more importantly like Steve Howard he should be getting on the end of crosses and corners. Howard though, never played on his own up front, and always had a nippier man alongside.

The Garys Sweet and Brabin have laboured long and hard this week about ‘winning ugly’. A phrase I’m not too keen on. Winning ugly for me means blagging a win even when we don’t play very well. ‘Ugly runs’ in cricket are scored when you stick in there, even though you are out of form and push and poke your way to a score. Like Alistair Cook’s ton against Pakistan at the Oval last year, or most of Michael Atherton’s runs. Basically succeeding not through form or fluency but by stickability and determination. Mr Brabin’s version of ‘winning ugly’ seems to be ‘playing ugly’ which is a different thing altogether in my book.

It really does annoy me – let’s try and win pretty before we attempt to win ugly. If we had started with Kissock and gone all out for an attack, but failed then having a Plan B up our sleeves (like we did away to Stevenage) is fine. But to start without an overt attacking intent and then to revert to sticking a big fella on, strikes me as confused thinking. Let’s look for the 3-0 before we try to nick a 1-0.

David Pleat had the right idea about big strikers – he always seemed to have one on board – but under Pleaty you could never say we were a long ball team. Having Steve Howard in the team didn’t mean that Mike Newell just pumped it up to him. In fact the best use of Stevo I saw in a team is when he came and played against us for Derby that time. They counter attacked beautifully without expecting Howard to lead the front line when they did so. He was the heavy artillery that arrived in the box for the second-phase if the initial one broke down.

So, just having a big bloke shouldn’t mean we change tactics, it should just add an additional dimension, and should be part of a front two – not on his own.

I’ve not got much more to say really. I feel sorry for George Pilkington, no one will be more annoyed than him about conceding the goal in the way we did. It is cruelly ironic that Brabin has been bleating about getting his key players back and when Pilks reappears it is his error that costs us a point. But that is being wholly unfair. Despite the error, over a whole season George Pilkington will have snuffed out countless opportunities that would otherwise have been a chance at a higher ratio/percentage than any other defender we’ve got.

Speaking of defenders Mr Kovacs gave a valedictory wave at the end and a cheeky badge touch. I’m hoping that the Grimsby game isn’t the last time we’ll see him this season. I don’t hear any promising noises though.

On that cheery note on this disappointing evening, what better place to look forward to going to next – on a Friday night – than Cleethorpes-Smells-of-Fish? I hope we don’t get battered. Cod forbid.

Come on you Hatters!

PS – I’d like to thank the Neanderthal who sat behind me tonight, who came with his mate on a free ticket. It’s a shame you don’t come to games any more, because I genuinely think that the players miss you yelling “useless wanker” at each of them constantly for 90 minutes each time they touch the ball. The only blessing is that tonight’s non-vintage performance won’t be encouraging you to part with any cash to come again very soon. Please, please stay away and don’t come back. Or better still go and support either of the clubs up or down the M1.

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Wrexham #1

They came, they saw, they played out a draw. Wrexham and Luton’s reserves – near the end at least – treated us to an entertaining enough 1-1.

Whilst we were tentative initially and didn’t create anything like enough chances, by the second half of the second half we were wholly dominant and playing some nice stuff. A draw was a fair result: Wrexham who played some nice football, and were happy to play most of it in their own half. Their goal was a good footballing goal, but certainly they were permitted to do so because at the start of the move they weren’t closed down, Poku the guilty party. It did also look rather offside to me too from where I was sat.

The ref awarding the penalty was a good case of evening things up. If the game had continued further for any length of time we would surely have won it as Wrexham were looking tired and rattled.
It was interesting to watch the penalty award. Dan Walker was running away from the goal – Belgrano-like and stumbling towards the byline. Stephens (not our Basher, but could have been) put in a pointless and clumsy challenge which Walker could easily have skipped over, but fell over nevertheless. Correctly initially for a fraction of a second, the referee gave a goal kick, glanced towards his linesman, quite methodically who was flagging and the referee instantaneously pointed to the spot. The whole decision process taking less than a second.

Walker and MBH had a bit of a discussion about the taker, understandably, but it was nothing like the Handbags of Howie et al 10 years ago. Walker’s argument won, in fact if MBH had won the argument would have been the first thing he had won all afternoon (boom boom) – his feet being welded to the grass when going up for a header.

Back to the ref for a second. In the week that Mark Tyler said all the refs at this level were rubbish, I actually liked the one this afternoon. He clearly was keen to let play run wherever possible and where other refs would have been having apoplexy, he regularly allowed dodgy tackle after dodgy tackle and kept the game moving. Truly, the ref didn’t want to be the star of the show. Which is a rarity and a relief. There can’t have been too many fouls in the game itself which was much better for it. What was a little strange was that the Wrexham players seemed to be dropping like flies on some sort of coordinated conspiracy to break the game up. However when Moss (good name) fell over before a corner Saunders waved him up, even though he was clearly limping and was substituted shortly afterwards. Bizarre. Something else that was bizarre was their keeper Mayebi. He was worth the entrance fee alone. Insistent on rolling the ball out to his defenders so that they could put themselves under pressure from the off when he did kick it he demonstrated a very strong kick. And then the second time he showed why he likes to roll it out, by crashing it into touch, radar awry. Even when he made a save he dropped to his knees as if to go down injured, before getting back to his feet again. Eccentric. But good value.

Tyler – who was awarded his Loyal Luton player of the season award before the match, a well deserved accolade, didn’t have too much to do. I recall a point blank save from Williams, but apart from that he wasn’t really troubled, apart from when Pilks slipped over on the newly watered pitch.

Luke Graham played at right back. I don’t think he was really that troubled and overlapped on a couple of occasions and even had the balls to put a couple of crosses in. He was replaced by Alex Lacey who has impressed me each time I’ve seen him. Lacey showed a turn of speed and the ability to cross too (and shoot!) I must admit, I’d love to see some of these youngsters incorporated into the first team more and more. How are we ever going to know quite how good they are if we don’t play them more regularly (I know, I know we’ve just GOT to get promoted and that is the most important thing). It strikes me as good practise to give the likes of Lacey (who I think has been injured for much of the campaign) and Watkins more opportunities. When Watkins came on he was a burst of energy that hadn’t been there previously He looked keen, lively and dangerous and unleashed a very hard shot which was just tipped around the post – he had another thunderbolt which was blocked unfortunately. He looks good. We don’t need any more left wingers. We’ve got cover for Jake now, thanks, next question.

In the middle were captain Pilks, and then when Pilks was substituted, captain Kroca, who sounds a bit like a Marvel comics character. Both were sound, Kroca sounder. Pilks sprayed a couple of passes, Kroca played one sublime dink-come-through-ball. He also had a decent chance with a header but put it over.

At left back was the rehabilitated and reintegrated Ed Asafu-Adjaye. I don’t know what Richard Money had against Ed A-A but he briefed against him on a number of occasions and sent him out on loan as soon as he could. Ed was back, and playing again in an alien role did pretty well. Whether it is well enough to give GB the confidence he needs to keep him there and play Jake as a left winger, I’m not sure. But in Murray’s absence it gives him a genuine choice now. Ed got forward well, crossed well with both left and right feet, and defended when he needed to. He was given the man of the match and deservedly so I thought.

Willmott started on the right wing and Dan Walker kicked off on the left. Willmott was somewhat subsdued today, and didn’t get as much of the ball as he would have liked. That didn’t stop him from attacking aggressively on a couple of occasions, but the front two never seemed to be either in the box, or in the right place in the box or perhaps they were in the right place and the crosses were poor. You decide.

Dan Walker looked a little out of sorts on the left I thought. Our burst in the second half coincided with Watkins introduction on the left and Walker switching to the right where he looked much more at home. He didn’t get the passes to test out his pace but did get plenty of chances to cross, when he was on both sides. On occasions his touch was too heavy and his control let him down too – but surely this is the whole point of having a player – so you can play him. So he learns at the highest level possible. I’d love to see him get another game up front as part of a front two. It happened for AMS….

In the middle was the ever-bustling on-fire Godfrey Poku and Adam Newton. For a good chunk of the first half they did seem to be chasing shadows. An unusual partnership in the centre of the park, and I would wager that it will be the last time we ever do see that pairing. Adam Newton had more influence in the second half and Poku closed more people down, albeit at a distance on occasion. You can’t fault his effort, it just his results which let him down on occasion.

Up front we had MBH who must have been confident going into the game. Strangely his confidence and touch on the park seemed to directly match that of the team – like a human barometer. When we were flat MBH was flat, but as we picked up and started to hit our straps MBH looked lively too. He had his chance to make an impression on the game in the first half but didn’t trouble the keeper and blasted over.

Lloyd Owusu was well, Lloyd. I think perhaps he is so muscular he can’t jump as high as he should be able to . He’s a target man who doesn’t seem to win his fair share of balls in the air. However some of his touches and passes were good, he made a nuisance of himself and if you watch him, he demonstrates some of that old pro nouse when ensuring he gets in the way of the keeper or cuts off he path back to the goalie from the centre half, some of the tricks of the trade. It’s the goals thing and winning the headers thing that he is missing.

Jason Walker came on for Lloyd in the second half an immediately out jumped him, despite being a foot smaller. Walker looked lively and hungry when he came on and made a nuisance of himself and played his part in the improved performance at the end.

Ours wasn’t a top drawer performance today, but the dead rubber game was entertaining enough in its own way. Such was the lack of importance of the game (apart from not handing Wrexham a double over us and the corresponding kudos and confidence) it was a little like watching a neutral fixture with no money on the outcome, but just wanting to see a good game and a good performance.

Oops, better do the scores on the doors before the final para:

Tyler 6.5, Graham 6, Pilks 6.5, Kroca 7, Ed 7.5, Willmott 6, Poku 4.5, Newton 6, Walker 6.5, MBH 6, Owusu 5.5. Subs – Lacey 6, Watkins, 7, Walker J 7.

So the season has ended, but also started too. We are now where we realistically where we thought we would be after a couple of months of the season. So – in a way, all that has gone before has been meaningless. You could have recorded the whole season on a virtual Sky plus and fast forwarded the season from August until April and we are still where we thought we would be. Which makes the next two, hopefully three games all the more important. We need three cup-final performances, three good games and the jail sentence and the nightmare are over and we can wave goodbye to non-league forever…

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Six Appeal

That’s more like it. Today we witnessed the sort of result we should have had more of since we were evicted from the league. Furthermore it was a demonstration of being able to put a poor side to the sword without particularly playing outstandingly well. What a difference confidence, freedom, belief and enjoyment can make.

Hopefully the result will now give the team some much-needed confidence going into the Crawley game. They have to treat the Crawley game as a dry-run for the second leg of the play offs or even the play off final – ie a tough battle that must be won. It will be a good test to see how far Brabin’s team have come. I suspect we will have to play much better than we did today. But we are now on an upwards slope.

Murray returned at left back with Claude moving to the bench, otherwise, refreshingly there was no tinkering.

Ironically the first half saw us play much better than the second, well for all but the last 15 minutes of the second anyway, but as Southport got more tired and despondent we piled in four goals into the last 6 minutes, just as you should do against a tiring part-time team. If we had played for another ten minutes we would have had double figures. ‘Twas like a hot knife through butter at the end there.

We dominated from the start, Southport showing as much ambition as a third generation council tenant. They showed that they came to slow things down and waste time, but once they went a goal down truly showed that they in fact had very little passing ability at all. How we managed to lose two weeks ago against this lot beggars belief. That’s not to say they didn’t have chances, but I don’t think Tyler’s heart missed a beat all afternoon. Their only danger, Kissock, was snuffed out by Keane and Lawless.

I thought for a while that it was going to be the same old same old, especially when Kroca managed to miss a dolly chance only yards out. Seconds later Walkers cushioned and twisted header from a Lawless corner went inches wide “one of those days” I could hear myself thinking.

Then, at that dangerous place on the edge of the box, Barrett handballed it. Willmott was presented with another free kick opportunity – he took it and narrowly put it over – but what now? Hang on the ref’s said it had to be retaken – we’ll take this. For once, probably in my entire Luton watching career, we didn’t just try the same thing with the same outcome for the re-take. No this time Willmott didn’t line it up, but instead AMS had an opportunity to curl it in with his right foot round the wall. The angle from where I sit in the Kenny showed a big gap around the wall and AMS promptly curled around and in. 1-0.

That’s two goals direct from free kicks in successive weekends; I don’t know what’s up with them. Since Gallen left we’ve had no one in the side who might have a chance of hitting the target from free-kicks and haven’t scored from one, from what I recall, since Gallen’s thunderbolt 18 months ago.

I brought a friend from work today, who is an Arsenal fan and who goes to watch them occasionally – now Arsenal are a magnificent footballing team, and so not being technically as good as them is no shame(!!) – I prepared him for the delights of non-league in the pub before the game – however I did watch the game through his eyes today, and it is amazing to see how far standards have fallen. Simple mistakes, easy passes not finding their man. Heavy touches, poor control, ill-disciplined positional play – it is all apparent. I must admit I had got used to watching us at this level and the regular slips and gaffs go almost unnoticed. But when you are used to football of the highest quality the clumsy nature of our play becomes painfully obvious. That’s not having a pop at our players of course – we are where we are and we are improving anyway. There was also a huge gulf in quality between us and the part-time Scousers today. They were very poor indeed and not afraid of putting in a dirty tackle, the ref’s reluctance to get his cards out for poor tackles in the first half only encouraged them more.

The second goal was started by Howells winning the ball on the left and then driving forwards finally playing the ball to Lawless who dinked the ball through to Willmott who cleverly dinked the ball over the keeper. We played some really good football in the first half, which is why the second half was, initially at least, a bit of a disappointment. Southport closed us down better, but we also got a bit slack, a bit lazy and sat back.

After 55 minutes the first change was made – Claude Le Goal came on for Willmott. His 30 minute cameos are just the role I was anticipating for him at the start of the year. He attacked well put in a couple of good crosses and at last became a target for Tyler’s long kicks. One lovely cross enabled Lawless to put in Jason Walker who sliced his shot right over. Mrs Thatcher once described Michael Foot as “frit” – well the Southport left back was “frit” when Claude came on.
MBH replaced AMS with 18 minutes to go and while we were starting to get it together a bit more there was no hint of the carnage to come. The turning point seemed to come when the ref starting to realise what his yellow card was for – mind you Robbie Williams wasn’t entertaining us when his crude challenge on Howells actually deserved a red.

Freddie Murray broke his duck after 76 appearances after some good skill on the touchline after good inter play with Howells. Murray flicked the ball over the onrushing rightback and then in a split second it quickly dawned on him that a volley at goal rather than a cross might actually be on. He hit it quite well and whilst it would have gone in, took a mighty and fortuitous deflection off the centre half. Some could be cruel and say it was an own goal – but only if you were being uncharitable. Well done Freddie – well deserved for the most improved player of the season.

More was to come. Lawless, by this point having as much impact as the imperious Ricky Hill in his pomp, threaded a lovely ball for Walker to run onto only for the keeper to block, but showing some as yet unseen anticipation ran onto the loose ball closing in on goal, controlled it with his arm (ahem) and slotted it in.

Into injury time then, and it wasn’t all over yet, Keane with a free kick over on the far left hand side remembered a move used to use when Newell was in charge. He crossed the ball right over and past goal to beyond the far post almost on the touchline where an alert George Pilkington was waiting (a la Chris Coyne) Pilks nodded it back across goal perfectly for Kroca to make amends for his howler earlier on and register another goal albeit from an inch. Well worked lads. It was wonderful because, just like under Newell as the ball went seemingly ‘too far’ there was a faint groan from the fans before they realised that Pilks was waiting. 5-0 and we were taking the Mickey.

Next up ball was played through to Claude in the penalty area and the hapless and totally one-footed McMillan flattened Claude with a crudely timed leap. Claude doesn’t usually take too much flattening in the box, but on this occasion was impeded and the ref immediately pointed to the spot. Between you and me I think the ref was enjoying all of the goals going in too. Claude, amidst plenty of theatricals and farting about, tucked the ball nicely away for the sixth. He proceeded to celebrate as if he’d scored a forty yard screamer, treating us to a Freddie Flintoff style statuesque pose, a little mince and a bit of samba. God knows what would happen if he got another hat trick!

My only concern is that if you consider the concept that we only get a finite amount of luck per season, we may have used a chunk of it up today: deflected goal, un-spotted handball and penalty (yes, we do have to be ‘lucky’ to be awarded one). I’d rather keep some luck in the bag for the games that really count eg play offs. Conversely of course you might consider that we’ve had virtually none all year (or indeed for many years) we are due some. Keep calling by please, Lady Luck, you’re welcome to stay.

Righty ho – scores on the doors:

Tyler -7– actually had to make a keen couple of saves.

Newton – 6.5 – overlapped well, but went missing on a couple of occasions.

Pilkington – 7.5 – back to his best, perfect header at the far post set up the fifth

Kroca – 7 – sound defensively, made up for the howler with the goal.

Murray – 8 – not overworked defensively, but linked up really well, and had a good understanfing with Howells. Oh – and a goal.

Willmott – 8 – flashes of brilliance, including the goal, a little subdued for the start of the second half.

Lawless – 8.5 – sublime at times and given room to play in the second half of the second half.

Keane – 7 – working harder and harder but needs a rest. Needs to re-boot.

Howells – 8 – little narrow on occasion, but showed some excellent touches including the start of the second goal. Got the ball in the net in an excellent move, but was ruled offside.

AMS – 7.5 – not yet back to his best, but clearly back enjoying playing as a striker again. Two goals in two games playing up front. There’s a clue there somewhere.

Walker – 7.5 – worked hard, but as I overhead someone near me say – do we need another Talbot? Drew Talbot if you recall, worked hard and ran around like a mad thing but was like a toothless tiger up front. Jason Walker has shown that he can bag goals at this level and I’m so glad that he got his goal this afternoon, having missed the shots he did he needed some confidence going into the Crawley game and there is nothing better than a goal to put you back on track. Oh, and he has springs in his legs.

Subs: Claude – 7.5- on for long enough to make a difference. Perfect opportunity to do that today and looked nearly back to his old self – still didn’t track back. It’s not a crime Claude.

MBH – well – we scored 4 goals once he was introduced, but I don’t think he had a hand in any of them. He looked sharp and eager though. Super sub? Sported a natty Mohican too.

So, onto Crawley on Tuesday. Now that the handbrake is well and truly off (though I don’t think we’ve hit top speed yet) it will be fascinating to see how we get on against the club who have bought their success and have dominated. Like last year against Stevenage (when we won 1-0) it will be a barometer of our progress against a club which has set the pace and as of today won the league.

It’s just a shame that so few people in West Sussex are enthralled enough to turn up to cheer them on each week. Okay, we have no God-given right as the biggest club to be champions of this division and we are going to have to do it the hard way again, but it is galling that a club (with as much history as South Sudan and with only just a few more fans attending in 20 games at home all season than we took to Wembley for one game) can buy its way to the top of the league in non-league. But it is the way of the modern game alas. What we know for certain is how painful it can be when the money runs out, and one day they will trickle back from whence they came, their short term joy replaced by long term pain. Our model is to grow organically and to run the club sustainably, not unreasonably living beyond our means. Let’s see where both clubs are in five years time. Whatever happens, and whichever leagues we are in we will still be getting more fans each week, we will still have 125 years of drama and history and above all some (rather dented and bruised) pride. No breeding some of these upstarts you know.

So – 6-0 without hitting top gear. As I said in the opening paragraph, the sort of thing that we expected would be a regular occurrence when we dropped to the fifth tier. Let’s hope that the in last few games in this league we can show what could or should have been possible since August 2009.

By the way – the Arsenal fan was impressed, technical shortfalls aside, and asked “is it like this every week?”

If only he knew…

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Unencumbered at Aggborough

I make no apologies for littering this post with cliches (no change there then – I hear you cry).

With Saturday’s game we saw the team further unfettered by the shackles of the recent past. I thought, and more than one fan leaving the ground said that we were more like the Old Hatters, attacking with gay abandon whilst leaving the defence vulnerable. Who amongst us would prefer a dreary 0-0 or some of the dross we have been up recently to a sporty 3-3 with goals being scored at will at the end?

It may be that the three goals we conceded are the most important ones we let in all year. Had we won that game – which I think we did more than enough to do – it would have perhaps led us into a false sense of security: everything would have been alright again. It is not of course and the team has much, much more work to do – but how encouraging is it that after only two games in charge Brabin’s Hatters score more than one goal away from home in the league for the first time since the 16th October (against the giants of Eastbourne). Early days to say this I know, but if Kettering, Southport, Eastbourne or Wrexham come to Luton unprepared or in poor form, on Saturday’s showing one of them is going to get a bloody hiding.

I like what Brabin says about the players – last week he described Dan Walker and Godfrey Poku as being in the development squad – aka the 2nd team. Nothing wrong with this. For the first time it gives them and us a sense of where they are. Under Money everyone was in a state of perpetual limbo, in a netherworld which is neither first team nor reserve. Only MBH, George Pilks and Krocha didn’t dwell there and they were lucky. Players like roles – some enjoy responsibility. Letting a player know where he stands gives him something to aim for or maintain, rather than not knowing if he is on the fringes of the team or no longer part of the manager’s plans.

Another cliche I’m afraid: having an unburdened Jason Walker on Saturday for the second half was like having a new player. Suddenly there is a chance that some of these diamonds we signed might actually sparkle, rather than being allowed to become dull. Imagine Walker and Crow reaching the form they were in when we signed them – or even MBH for that matter or AMS. I thought there were times in the match where we truly showed some of the potential and that, in reality, we are actually a class above all of the other teams in this league (Crawley notwithstanding). I’m not getting carried away – a 3-3 doesn’t an epoch make. But bearing in mind the quality of the players we knew we had on our books and the fact that we weren’t relegated on merit, and because we aren’t limited to a wage budget of £3k a week we should be demonstrating that difference, that class, more than we have been. Is now our chance?

On Saturday I think the team played as if a great weight had been lifted from its shoulders. Tomorrow we face Kettering and the portly Roper. Let’s hope that under the lights at the Kenny we can 1) improve on last year’s performance and 2) continue in the attacking vein – after all a win is only about scoring one more goal than the opposition surely?

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