You couldn’t make it up

 

Town 1-1 Grimsby

 

After a strange, rollercoaster week, there have been four more twists and turns in the past 24 hours in the developing and ongoing soap opera of Luton Town FC.

I say rollercoaster – rollercoasters have ups as well as downs. Our week was more like a go on the dodgems.

First of all, last night at tea-time the board threw us a strange curve ball in the shape of Lil Fuccillo. Now the fans today and 3CR were full of intrigue and gossip and rumour about why Lil has been brought in. ‘Manager in waiting’ ‘Director of Football’ ‘Breathing down Brabin’s neck’. For all the hidden agendas (and of course time will tell) I’m happy to go on what the press release said and what Gary Sweet said in his programme notes (more of that in a second).  All the Board know Lil quite well, he’s a local man and a Luton chap and they want someone ‘Footbally’ on the board. Despite his grandiose title of Technical Director, Sweet suggested that whilst they are all football fans on the Board, none of them has a soccer background and Lil adds that experience and knowledge that they haven’t got. Presumably he will help in negotiations with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea as they snaffle our promising youngsters and give the benefit of his footballness in recruitment policy. I was suggesting a similar role for Big Mick, when he stepped down. Actually I’d still have Mick at the club but as both head coach and Director of Football – but presumably he’s had enough of us (for now) and so now we have Lil. I always thought Lil looked bloody grumpy as a player, but apparently he’s a charming chap and Luton through and through. If it gives the management structure of the club an edge over other clubs and helps the board’s decisions then I’m all for it.

The second twist and turn was the pre-match notes by Gary Sweet. Gary has been under intense pressure this week to both act in terms of sacking GB, but to come out and say something about the current state of affairs. Now he said nothing all week which I commented on yesterday but I think he was unequivocal in his programme notes today. I predicted that it would be full of the usual warm words about giving the manager support. But, ahem, I’m delighted to say that it was full and frank and left us in no doubt as to his, and presumably the board’s position. I think it mirrored most of our opinions and certainly all of the comments left on here in the past week or so.

I’m going to quote some of the best bits – bear with me – the italics are mine:

“…I’ve been left disenchanted and dejected after some dreadful league performances…”

“I can’t remember when I have ever felt embarrassed about …the Hatters, past or present. Tuesday night though truly dented my pride after witnessing one of the most abject and sterile performances…from a Luton team.”

“As a club official…I feel unreservedly apologetic for letting every one of you down…”

“…what we have delivered recently has not been acceptable.”

“…what decisions we make from herein [sic] are of paramount importance to us all. We are in control and know what needs to be done to ensure that these performances are not repeated.”

“I was particularly disheartened…by the apparent lack of fight and drive from almost every member of the team…”

“Like it or not, Luton Town players need to fully embrace the fervent, passionate and…volatile culture of this Club. This Club is clearly not for the faint-hearted…good nature wins nothing out on the pitch.”

“At this time of year football players and staff all need to impress ahead of pre-season and contract renewal…very few are demonstrating the required ambition to be rewarded.”

“We have demanded that a substantial improvement is expected from all directly involved – that this ship is firmly placed on course without delay and starting this afternoon.”

Well, if that’s not a bollocking, I don’t know what is. I wonder if all of the elements of the phrases above were communicated to the staff and players, or just basically the last paragraph. Even if it was only the last paragraph then the rest of it is now in the open and is direct and open in its meaning and intent.  Hats off to GS for saying what he did. He’s restored my confidence.

To paraphrase: shape up bloody quickly or ship out. I suspect GB is on the equivalent of a final warning and another performance like Tuesday’s today would have meant the end of him.  I think the 1-1 leaves the board between a rock and a hard place. Whilst the attitude was improved, the result did us no favours, we are still going backwards, and if York win their game in hand on Tuesday (at Bath) then we are out of the play offs altogether. Yes, my friends, we will have to fight just to get back in the play offs – we won’t be in the top five in the fifth tier. Incredible. How did it ever get to this?

I’ve been at businesses where the employees treat work as if it’s a jolly where you are given an inch but take a mile and take the piss and don’t care about the work.  But I’ve also been in ones where everyone is pulling together and their roles and success are interdependent, but you are left in no doubt that you pull your weight or are shown the door.  Our club is like the former, successful clubs are like the latter. There has been nothing to suggest from the players’ demeanour, comments and attitude that some of them see their time at the club as anything but a big party and a country club. I get the impression that some of them don’t give a stuff about Luton. I can tell you now that if that group of players had had the talking-to on Tuesday night that I would have given them, or that they would have got at my work place, they wouldn’t have been messing around on the pitch before kick off or laughing and joking on twitter. They would have had very solemn, stern and determined expressions and demeanour. They would have been very, very focussed indeed. They would have had some manners stuck on ‘em.

As it was – and we come on the third bit – the performance, but not the outcome, was improved. The players did play better, not brilliantly, but better. There was more passion, though clearly confidence and belief are still low. There were some nice touches and some good football. They dominated large chunks of the afternoon. Poku and Keano added some balls and crunch to the midfield. Lawless and Willmott showed glimpses of what they can do out wide. Even Big Hips Crow, even though he was out-jumped all afternoon showed some good touches and vision in the second half at least. The new lad, Gray deserved his goal and looked a breath of fresh air. I’ve got to ask, how long before his sharpness and eye for goal are dulled and he is turned into yet another toothless tiger (oh David – you old cynic.). I don’t think we play to his strengths though. He is a quick nippy player, but we won’t exploit him unless we are quick to break downfield. Our tempo is normally far too slow. I could mention the interesting substitutions we got to enjoy this afternoon. But I’m sure much more will be written elsewhere.Y

But for a bit more luck in front of goal – albeit Lawless’ shot, one of the corners, Crow’s lob, or that cross from Howells which just went over Gray’s head then the result would not have been in doubt. But that has been the case nearly all season. Crosses haven’t connected, shots haven’t found the target, penalties have been missed etc. It’s either just not clicking or we’ve run out of luck/karma or there’s something fundamentally wrong. I’ll let you decide which.

And so onto the result. Hands up who could see that coming? Almost everyone I suspect. How many times this year has a failure to extend the lead led to us being bitten on the arse by a late goal or comeback by the opposition? Some might argue that having failed to extend the lead, and with wins in such short supply recently that the team might just have decided to cling on to the 1-0 and get what would have been a well-deserved win. Others might say that once we went one up our change of tempo had already been enough to allow Grimsby a chance to get back in. Whatever it was, with about four minutes left, we were all up the field and exposed and mistakes from the defenders allowed them in to equalise. No change there then. Mike Newell always insisted that the only way to defend a lead was to score another goal – but Gary Brabin is no Mike Newell.

The result is a shame really, because I enjoyed the game and thought we deserved to win. Perhaps you could argue we were unlucky. No – to sound very clichéd – you have to make your own luck.

Another enjoyable aspect of today’s play was the terrible ref. Well, he was terrible in some ways at least. Very keen to let play flow where he could, he certainly allowed plenty of challenges which would have been blown up and carded in the majority of games, but it wasn’t a dirty game. What he wasn’t terribly good at was getting the decisions right. Fortunately (for his own safety’s sake) most of the decisions went in our favour. There were too many to mention, about a dozen perhaps? But I think the best one of all was when Tyler did a beautiful tip over, a good save, only for it to be given as a goal kick. A wonderfully short-sighted non-league ref.

The last thing to comment on was the fans. Bearing in mind the poor performances recently, and helped perhaps by kids for a quid (note to the board: must do this more often) for 5,700 home fans to turn up today was remarkable. Every excuse to stay away. God knows how many we will get when we are half decent again next year.

Whilst there isn’t the singing that there used to be, there was more than there has been of late at home. The players were warmly applauded and supported all the way. The fans responded to the increased effort and determination and spurred the team on. The crowd erupted when we went 1-0 up and for a second we were lulled into thinking that, hey perhaps things have turned the corner and will all be okay from here on in. Though there was good reason for it to be like a morgue the Hatters fans gave it our all and kept our side of the bargain. At least the players weren’t given the option of blaming the result on a lack of vocal support.

What was fascinating was that when at the start of the game when Brabin came onto the pitch after the players the clapping noticeably died down, he got no plaudits and sought none either.

At the end of the game the players were applauded off, but oh dear, as poor GB ventured near the Kenny End boy did it vent its collective opinion – he was left in no doubt as to what the feeling was on his continued presence at the club. The crowd turned on him like an angry bear. He instantly retreated from the cacophony of jeers like the neighbour’s cat when squirted with a hose.  The applause resumed for the players when it was clear that it was not GB they were clapping. Sad really, feel sorry for the guy. Only promotion would grant him redemption I suspect, and even then with a multitude of reservations. Alas, I don’t feel confident that we will even reach the play offs with him in charge. So we won’t get the chance to see.

So, the board and the manager demanded a change in attitude and they got it. Though things were not perfect they were better. Taken on its own or in a different time and place, that performance would have been okay. Disappointing result but an okay day out. But because it came after the recent lows it will be judged in context and as another game we could and should have won.

In summary then – Lil…interesting, Gary Sweet’s comments…spot on, the performance…better, the result…much the same, Andre Gray…promising, the fans…unstintingly supportive. Gary Sweet’s comments relieved some of the frustration I was feeling because they echoed how I feel. As I’ve said before though – I can’t do anything about the present situation – he can.

 

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A damp and cold December 0-0 to forget

I guess we could have predicted the outcome of the last two games: dominating – but ultimately losing to – a better team, and then struggling against a weaker team. It is the way of the Luton world. What didn’t help was that the strikers left their shooting boots on the coach.

I was one of not-very-many who turned up in the shivery December cold this afternoon, and my attendance afforded a queue-free opportunity to get a beer before the game and at half-time. Every cloud has a silver lining they say.

Richard Money had promised us changes aplenty, and changes aplenty is what we got. What we actually got was 11 footballers who looked as if they hadn’t played together before, which is in fact what they are.

What does it say about our performance that young Alex Lacey a centre-half making his first team debut was the sponsors man of the match? I had hoped that we would go about breaking some records this afternoon but we really failed to dazzle. Well, no, that’s unfair. At times in the second half at least we were back to the old ‘hot knife through butter’ scenario where we were attacking for fun against a weaker team. But could we finish? It was one of those days when we could have played for another 90 minutes and still not scored. I understand we fashioned 16 chances with only one or two of those being on target. Same old same old – lots of opportunities, no one to stick ‘em in.

Big changes from the Charlton XI:

Tyler in goal – who was made skipper for the day, being the obvious and most experienced option in Pilk’s absence. He had a handful of saves to make after a couple of harum-scarum defensive lapses granting opportunities for Welling in the game.

Ed A-A – at right back, good opportunity to shine today, but didn’t really. Perhaps it was the cold, perhaps it was the lack of games. Ed did get forward and support where possible, though some of his passes went astray down the line. He was sound enough at the back, and that is after all what he gets a paid to do.

Craig Hinton made his debut at centre half and had a tidy but unspectacular game at centre half.

Alex Lacey – had an excellent game and on this account at least looks a good prospect. Made some important and cruicial challenges and looked unflustered on occasions when you would have expected a young chap to be flustered. A cool head and good in the tackle are key attributes if he is going to make a living in the game which of course we all hope he does.

Jake Howells – who was my man of the match today. He did look like an England C player and stood out. His drive, determination, ambition and frankly, pace, looked at times like a man playing with boys (if you excuse the expression) which is ironic bearing in mind Jake’s age.

Dan Walker started on the right, swapped to the left and then went out to the right again. He came into his own more in the second half and made his excellent pace tell on a couple of occasions.

In the middle were the unconvincing partnership of Poku and Besta who sound to me a bit like a Norwegian children’s cartoon. ‘On fire’ Godfrey still has a bit of convincing to do as far as I’m concerned. Against Charlton I think his Blue Square South pedigree stood out like a sore thumb, the only player really to be outclassed by Charlton and again today, apart from a lot of huffing and puffing and chasing around his passing was generally poor. He improved in the second half when he seemed to push forward slightly more rather than wholly sitting in front of the defence. I wish him well and given time and opportunity, clearly he has something about him – but sometimes energy and the ability the run and run aren’t enough on their own.

Besta again failed to impress. He seems to chase the play around in the way that Keano doesn’t. He’s the sort of player I who I think could come in for the occasional game to cover for absences, but I don’t think, on the appearances I have seen so far this year that he can seriously challenge for a place.

On the left was Alex Lawless which was a bit surprising as a) he is pretty one footed and that foot being his right and b) Dan Walker has played more on the left and Lawless had played on the right previously. Perhaps RM wanted to see him in action on the left. In any case after about half an hour he swapped with Dan Walker and in the second half played in the middle when Besta went off. When he was on the left he had to cut back onto his right foot, and when he was in the middle we did improve, but he didn’t show me any of the class I know he was capable of at York. Early days.

Up front we started, and finished with, Atieno and Jason Walker. Atieno must have missed five or six chances, by far the most of anyone in the team. He was getting gradually closer nearer the end but by-Christ he had folk in the Kenny End diving for cover in the second half. The ball was banging around back there like a game of pinball – the empty blue seats being the flippers.

Jason Walker seemed to be involved in lots of interchanges and held the ball well on occasion – but how many chances actually fell his way? He had a header from a Dan Walker cross but he had nothing to pounce on which must have been very frustrating. If he’d just had half the attempts that Atieno had, Walker would have snatched a hat-trick.

Welling for their part came, saw and closed us down. Fair play to them a good effort from them, but they did strike me as an unspectatular team, other than their slightly ramshackle but effective keeper Gareth Stewart.

I can’t say too much about the first half because there wasn’t much to report on. Our first proper shot on target came on about 45 minutes.

I’ll list the chances – Atieno missed one which was easier to score when a Howells cross found him in space.

Lawless then shot after some hard work and a cross by Jason Walker after a good pass by Howells, but his shot was blocked.

Some hot chocolate and a tasteless hot dog later and Poku had a good chance running on to a short corner by Lawless but endangered nothing but the kids playing in Oak Road.

Ed got forward for the first time just towards injury time but his weak shot was easily held by Stewart. 0-0 then, and disappointing. Nothing too adventurous and clearly the players had been instructed to have a good run out, but nothing more than that.

But shortly after half time a brilliant diving header from a lovely cross from Lawless brought off a fine reaction save by Stewart. Alas, it was a full length defensive dive by Sambrook who presumably was just trying to head it behind rather than give his keeper a coronary. Smiles all round though as they saw the funny side. Would have gone into the top 5 all time own-goals though if it had gone in. It might have broken the net too. I think Lacey headed the ensuring corner over the bar.

A while later Dan Walker was played into space and showed his pace when he drove down the wing, cut inside and shot just wide of the far post.

Cue the sequence of Atieno howlers, probably the best chance came up first, presumably draining his confidence and our hope of seeing a goal from him today (or ever again?) Stewart’s kick went straight to him but alas the Kenyan saw fit only to whack the ball wide. Next chance a few minutes later – Atieno himself created the chance with some good skill on the edge of the box but put the ball the other side. Another confidence sapping effort was missed shortly after when a good cross from Jake Howells saw him glance it wide, when it might have been easier to score.

JJ O’Donnell had entered the fray by this point, replacing Besta. The last time I saw him my memories were of a player who liked to get a cross in and put the effort in but was knocked off the ball slightly too easily. Nothing really happened to change that impression this afternoon however he did have a couple of good efforts too – he popped up at the far post from a deep cross by Ed but had the crowd ducking rather than the keeper. The better effort was when he found himself in the middle just outside the ‘D’ and drove a shot which would have gone in had Stewart not made a full length stretch to palm it onto the post and out for a corner.

Other than another couple of Atieno half chances the only other incident was when Dan Walker had the ball in the net only for it somehow to have been offside. Howells had found him in room and he shaped up and thumped a shot to Stewart’s right. It would have been a good goal to win any game, but somehow by then it would almost have been wrong to break the deadlock, such was the very nature of this game.

Scores on the doors:
Tyler: 6
Ed AA: 5.5
Hinton: 6
Lacey: 8
Howells: 8.5

Dan Walker: 7
Poku: 5
Besta: 4
Lawless: 5.5

Jason Walker: 6
Atieno: 2

O’Donnell: 6

Uninspiring and a bit lacklustre, but with the occasional glimpse of brilliance, this was your archetypal 0-0. “Remember these games” I keep telling my son –“ when you are thirty my boy and the likes of Man Utd and Liverpool are coming to visit us in our new stadium, remember this awful 0-0 on a freezing cold December day against a bunch of part-timers from somewhere you can’t find on the map.”

When I am having discussions over a pint, one day in the future, about the worst striker to have played for us, and friends suggest to me the regulars of Peter Thomson and Tresor Kandol – I will say “yes, they were shite – but did they ever struggle to score on against the part-timers of Welling when we were in the FA Trophy?” It is only when you contextualise where we actually are now do you realise the true horror of a gallery of missed chances against a sixth tier team.
Oh well, such is life. York at home on Saturday lunchtime next.

All comments welcome – not just about my post but all things Luton Town.

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Saints witness Amari-cle

A reasonably gentle work-out for the mighty Hatters saw a convincing 4-0 win against St Albans City, in our first appearance this season in the oldest football competition in the world.

St Albans harried and hustled as much as they could, closing down well in the first half, but it was all in vain, as some great finishing by new boy Amari Morgan-Smith put them to the sword.

Once again, as with Grays last year I had the bar to myself having shooed the children to sit down and let me read the programme in peace. Bearing in mind twice as many people came this year to last, about 3000 must have arrived in the last 15 minutes. Perhaps they had heard that St Albans had a bald pensioner in goal. Just as well we didn’t bother to put the floodlights on or we would have been dazzled by the glare off his scalp. For those of you not at the game some of you may recall the episode of Alan Partridge’s Knowing Me Knowing You where Alan hosted a Question Time type discussion and it was hijacked by Lieutenant Colonel Kojak Slaphead III of the Bald Brummies. Need I say more?

The only change to the team that routed Nailsworth Utd on Tuesday was Gnapka in for Drury.
There were some good moves, and we especially stretched them in the last 15 minutes when Dan Walker came on, but because St Albans were so content just to try to stop us from playing there were quite a few bitty periods. Keane and Howells dominated a very narrow and tight midfield and pulled the strings in distributing the ball. It was a pretty narrow game actually, neither Claude nor AMS got particularly wide – one of the reasons he managed to get the three goals perhaps? That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of crosses, just not much out and out touchline-hugging wing-play. On occasion the match was crying out for a player to find a bit of space on the wing. That’s the only criticism really, because it was a very professional performance otherwise. There weren’t many fouls in the game, unusual for a Beds-Herts clash but there didn’t need to be and the ref let the game run really well. The one stand-out stinker was when David Deeney, clearly wanting to leave some sort of impression at Kenilworth Road clattered Ed A-A but it was out of place in this contest and in that regard St Albans stand out as Hertfordshire’s most sporting football team.

The match started quietly and slowly and it took a while to start to dominate. Pilks had a header from a Howells free kick after about 10 mins – but it went straight to the keeper Bastock.

Barnes-Homer, who had an excellent game started the next move which led to the first goal, he sent Claude down the right and he played a cross right to the far post where Amari-Smith tucked it in neatly glancing the post. It was one of those where you weren’t quite sure how he managed to squeeze it in, but he did.

He had another chance shortly afterwards when I think it was Jakey Howells who played him in – he had a one on one with the keeper but popped it wide.

Danny Crow made it 2-0 a couple of minutes later, a quick free kick taken by Jake Howells gave him bags of room, so much in fact that some strikers would fluff the chance because of the unexpected time and space they are given. Not Danny Crow – a lovely bit of control and a swing of the right peg was enough to bury the ball past the flailing Bastock. It was well-deserved because once again old ‘Big Hips’ ran his heart out in the game before being given a rest with 15 mins to go.

Six minutes later it was 3-0 and the fixture was well and truly over as a contest. This time it was an exquisite pin-point cross from from MBH on the right which perfectly found the head of AMS who powered the header home with the dead-eye certainty of a Harford or Howard.

More chances came for Danny Crow, who on another day could have had a first half hat-trick. Claude had one saved and MBH shot over from 35 yards.

It was a good first half without being a great one, St Albans tried to close us down from the front and so snuffed out some of the creativity, but as the half went on and the goals went in we carved out more chances and they had less influence on trying to frustrate us. Poor St Albans had almost nothing to offer. Anything that went forwards was either too long and ended up in Tyler’s hands at the other end or was easily tidied up by the back four.

The second half started slowly with Danny Crow having a chance to bag a second after a good knock down by Krocha. The first change was made on about 55 mins with Dan Gleeson being replaced by Ed A-A. It was Ed’s long overdue opportunity this year and he did well. He did managed to get caught out of position on a couple of occasions after trying passes that didn’t come off, but I think that was because he was trying too hard to impress. He managed some good exchanges with Keane and Howells and got forward and supported Claude and AMS.

A minute later Danny Crow had another chance, AMS flying down the left and pulling it back for Crow to crack the ball onto the underside of the bar. No Russian linesman – no goal – but the thwack was loud enough to be heard in Dunstable. Imagine, if you can, being back at school playing football in games on a cold February afternoon everyone’s breath being visible and your fingers being so numb you can’t do your school shirt up and miss your school bus home. Imagine being on that pitch and the opposition being awarded a free kick. That free kick sails over your head and that wet, mud-splattered ball smacks into the old-fashioned square wooden goalposts, and the sound of that smack/crack/thwack of the ball carries across the football field, across the playground and is loud enough to be heard in the classrooms. It was that sort of thwack.

Time for Godfrey ‘on fire’ Poku to come on. He replaced MBH who had worked tirelessly all afternoon and who set up the excellent third goal. This meant a slight reorganisation. Jake went to the left and I would have thought that AMS would have gone up front, but the striker moved out to the right wing this time and Claude moved to centre forward. To be fair to AMS he was hardly out on the ‘wing’, because he was playing so narrow and pushed so far up he was almost the third of a front three – in the way that Brko did so successfully in the promotion season to the Championship.

Almost instant success came for Claude and it was his turn to hit the post, with Howells not quite catching the rebound and it being clear off the goal-line. With 20 minutes to go AMS showed that he can hit a good free kick on target from about 20 yards out (a rarity in these parts recently with the exception of the occasional cracker from Gallen) but the ball was saved by Bastock down to his left.

Dan Walker then made his second appearance of the week with just over 15 minutes left. Once again he was like a breath of fresh air giving a touch of additional pace. He did tend to migrate out to the left a bit but gave the tired St Albans defenders something new to worry about. He had a couple of clear cut chances and looked very lively again.

With time ticking on Poku was presented with a guilt-edged chance to score against his former employers, but demonstrated why he hasn’t pursued a career as a striker with an ugly sliced volley from the edge of the box which slewed well wide and surprised an elderly gentleman behind the goal, rather than the elderly gentleman between the posts.

The fourth goal finally came with six minutes left. Dan Walker once again stretched St Albans down the wing and pulled the ball back to Amari Morgan-Smith whose deft chip over the keeper suggested a coolness and ability far better than the level we are presently condemned to play at. Five goals in five games for goodness sake. What a start. The matchball was his.

With time nearly up Keano nearly did another cheeky ‘Oxford’ with a perfect inswinging corner. This time the keeper wasn’t miles off his line and anyway the ball was headed clear.

So, an entertaining game without Luton having to hit top gear. Long may that continue. Things are looking up again.

Scores on the doors:

Tyler didn’t have too much to do, can remember one shot and one corner from them so a 6 is pretty standard I guess.

Gleeson 6
Pilkington 7
Krocha 7
Murray 7

Gnapka 8
Keane 8
Howells 8
AMS 10

Crow 8.5
MBH 8

Ed 7
Poku 6
Walker 8.5

So that was that was that. The Luton ball is in the hat for the next round. I’m not sure when the draw is – Monday presumably. Let’s hope we get Hythe Town at home and then another nice home tie, and then either play Liverpool or Watford in the third round. What a lovely thought to go to bed with on a Saturday night.

Many thanks as ever for all of the comments on my posts and an especially warm welcome to those readers from the around the world who log on to read this. I trust your part of the world is warmer than Luton was this afternoon. Call me a sissy, but that’s the last game I go to without gloves until Easter.

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