On a pleasant May evening, a penalty save from Mark Tyler settled Lutons nerves and turned the tide in the game; much in the way Andy Dibbles famous save had 23 years ago.
If any doubters on the planet had any lingering uncertainty as to whether our club deserves to be in the football league, if they had attended Kenilworth Road last night it would have shredded the objections of even the most ardent agnostic . Eight thousand Hatters crammed in, with an atmosphere and passion some Premier League clubs would envy the club the FA and FL tried to bury was singing and buzzing and was ready to return. How they must be dreading it. Little Luton coming back to haunt them like a bad penny.
Wrexham brought about 1000 fans which is to be applauded as they were already 3-0 down and Luton were the shortest of short odds to go through. They sang, chanted and sang some more despite it becoming increasingly obvious that they wouldnt be going to Manchester and were consigned to this non-league hell for another year. As someone said on Outlaws last night proper club proper fans and they deserve better. It is still galling to me that tiny clubs like Dagenham and Redbridge, Cheltenham and Macclesfield are above the more traditional clubs in the pyramid. But there you go thats what you get with the democracy of two up two down with the fifth tier. Where those clubs might be in their cycle of sustainability – ie whether, like us, they have painfully realised that in the lower leagues you cannot exist in the medium term on a wholly unsustainable basis – Im not sure, but sooner or later just getting two men and a dog through the turnstiles to their home games will ultimately bite them on the behind and they will drift back from whence they came.
Some lively chaps sat or rather stood in the box directly behind the Wrexham dugout. They seemed to be offering the Welshmen plenty of advice during the game as well as lining up a row of inflatable sheep on the roof of the dugout. The sheep were tossed in front of them when one of the goals went in (didnt see where the sheep went, poor thing) and dangling a Luton flag in front of them in their eye line. Welcome to Luton!
Luton started with the same 4-3-3 we had had on Thursday (which seemed to me to be ages ago but I have driven 900 miles since then, which makes the days seem like years and turns my mind to paste) and the team had the same attacking intent. I rather thought that the 4-3-3 might become more of a 4-5-1 with our wide men picking up their full backs, as Wrexham were bound to attack but with Claude being one of those two I guess it was never on the cards, even if it ever had been the intention.
I thought we were rather nervy at the start and struggled to settle initially. This seemed to be because Wrexham did what they failed to do in the first leg, eg close us down and deny us room.
Mangan had a chance within a minute the longest of long balls from Maxwell swooped towards the forward like a heat-seeking missile following a Mig and the first bounce was horribly misjudged by Kroca presenting Mangan with a clear chance, which he hooked well wide. Fortunately it was offside. It reminded me of the (good) old days with the plassie pitch if you got the bounce wrong you were a goner.
Within a minute the Czech was to blot his copy book again by slicing out a ball which should have gone forwards after a nice little passing move.
Wrexhams tactics seemed to be to play the ball back where there was space for their defenders to hoof it long for the gawky pensioner Taylor.
Keane, stronger than an ox all night played in Walker down the right, but the move came to nothing.
Walker ran and ran and ran all night. He must have covered twice the yards of any other players on the pitch.
Keane was outstanding simply outstanding. He ran and worked so hard putting in vital challenge after challenge. His presence in the middle of midfield in front of the back four reminded me of Nicos wonderful performance in the JPT final. Keith Keane wants to get back in the league make no mistake.
After an interchange with the poisoned-dwarf Harris, Fowler shot from distance, but it flew wide.
I was keeping an eye on Harris. It was like watching a non-league Dennis Wise without the wonky eyes. He managed to kick his way through the first game and I had a 50p bet with my mate Bob as to whether he would foul within the first five minutes. I nearly won I timed his first foul when he hurled his tiny frame at Lawless head at 5:15. He provided me with a moment of mirth when at a corner in the second half he marked Kroca – little vs large. A rabid Jack Russell taking on a languid great dane.
Inside eight minutes Cieseleswicz picked up the ball well inside his own half and controlled and turned. He used his momentum to outpace Ed on his weaker side (eg his left) and sped through and past Howells too, who had failed to close and was putting in a challenge when Cieseleswicz threaded the ball past Kroca to Mangan who was overlapping at the far post and couldnt miss. The initial Luton nervousness had translated itself into the perfect start for Wrexham: the early goal.
Shortly after we put together an attractive short-passing move which saw Ashton slip on his arse and shin the ball behind the goal for a corner under pressure from Lawless. The resultant corner, floated to Pilks at the far post saw him man-handled to the floor by the clumsy lump Sinclair. A penalty. And the goon of the ref missed it.
A long ball from Maxwell again saw Ed turned on his wrong side and Tyler had to come for the ball out of his box and he walloped it into touch.
A long ball (got the theme?) from Creighton down the left wing to Obeng in an off-side position saw him outpace Ed and volley a cross across the face of the goal – fortunately Taylor, with the nose of a bloodhound, but the legs of a carthorse failed to sniff out the opportunity and pounce on the cross. Gleeson tucked it into touch wisely.
However we dealt poorly with the corner, and the sense of panic – which so often renders bad things – was rising. Another move from Cieseleswicz saw a Tyler save at the near post and the ball was scrambled away. Half the crowd were imploring “come on Luton” whilst the other half were shouting “get the ball on the floor” and “sort it out”. The sap was rising.
We muffed a good opportunity from a freekick on the edge of their box on the right – the ball being played in and eventually falling for Lawless but he couldn’t get a shot in and Wrexham broke away. Tidied up neatly by Ed who was on the right hand side of the box.
Another neat interchange between Gleeson, Gnapka and saw the ball passed to Howells in space 20 yards out. His excellent shot was deflected behind for a corner. Only it wasn’t given.
After a couple of minutes playing their half, as is so often the way, Harris played a clever ball over the top to Mangan in the box, shepherded by Gleeson. Mangan tried to flick it across Gleeson to get a sight of goal and Gleeson, just for a split second instinctively jabbed an upper arm at the ball, which despite missing so much else, the ref spotted. To me, from behind the goal, it looked ball to arm. Successive replays on the telly showed that actually Dan had nothing to complain about – despite looking genuinely aggrieved at the decision. This was, however, a disaster. We had only played 20 minutes, and we were looking down the barrel of a gun at 0-2. Plenty of time for us to implode into nightmare.
Taylor ditched his walking frame and stepped up to take the penalty. He aimed an accurate shot low down to the keeper’s right, not quite in the corner.
It was not to be. The footballing Gods saw to it that the Luton Player of the Season Mark Tyler in his 509th senior appearance as a professional correctly dived to his left and saved, then parried then saved. Then ran out with the ball in his hands, waved at his Mum/Wife/Concubine in the main stand and whacked it up the pitch. The inevitable “who are ya?” chants transformed into “one Mark Tyler”.
And that was it – the turning point. We stopped being the victims; we stopped the inevitable downward spiral of self doubt, dissolving belief, defeat and thus despair that 0-2 after 20 minutes would spell. We had been here before against Wrexham. We had form.
But from that point whilst Wrexham pressed, some self belief went from them. Whilst they had more chances to score, we now had the upper hand, perhaps it was going to be out night after all. The spring transferred from their step into ours.
After 25 minutes Harris earnt his inevitable yellow card after a filthy lunge on Howells. The resulting free kick only produced more head tennis in their box as the move broke down.
A long ball from Maxwell put Pilks under pressure and he volleyed the ball up into the evening sky ahead of the onrushing Tyler. Fortunately the sky-ball plummeted onto the top of the net, evading the bar by an inch.
A long throw from Ed down the left went to the ever-ebullient Jason Walker who was bundled to the ground by Creighton. For once we didn’t try to take it quickly and Ed took the kick.
At this point I could see that Kroca who had wandered into the box (met with hoots of derision by the bloke in front of me – “why is he going up there?”) and was initially unmarked. He wandered onside and as the ball came in met the ball nicely and lobbed his header slowly, slowly, slowly over Maxwell, who had come for a ball he was never going to get, and it plopped happily into the back of the net. Cue pandemonium. You could see the Hatters faithful injecting the self belief back into their veins and the players seemed to freebase it off the crowd.
Gleeson, after a one two with Gnapka shot very wide – but we were on the front foot again.
Claude popped up on the left and took part in a lovely 11 pass one touch footballing move resulting in a cross from Willmott which was too strong for anyone but which was recycled on the right by the willing Gleeson whose cross driven along the 6 yard line was snaffled by a grateful Maxwell.
After three Luton players cut out a promising Wrexham move and put a quick ball forward for Walker to outpace Sinclair the Luton player realising that he hadn’t sprung the trap, caught the ball, but then chucked it away, like an unwanted cabbage and got a card for his troubles. Don’t know why he protested.
Keane made a vital challenge with his head in the box out keeping it away from Cieseleswicz and defusing the potential attack showing great effort in the process.
A couple of stumbles/gallic dives/trips began and ended another good move from the Town on the edge of the Wrexham box, Luton gradually finding more space to pass and move and more importantly getting first to the ball.
Cieseleswicz used his pace to burst into the box and Tyler saved soundly. Pilks had got caught in the move and required the physio. Concern for Pilks was such that he had a mini fitness test at the start of the second half.
Another long ball from the back saw Aston’s cross saved by Tyler.
Tyler – ever generous and always the first and last to applaud the Kenny End did so for the last time this year at half time. He deserved every decibel of the applause and praise.
No subs at half time. We started where we left off at the end of the first half. A lovely move down the left saw Willmott waste the chance with a cross come shot which ended up as neither.
Lawless was deemed offside after a good move involving Claude in the middle.
Lawless then clipped Harris’ ankle in an obvious foul to earn himself a card and Wrexham a free kick. The free kick from Keates was palmed away expertly by MT.
A dodgy back pass from Creighton saw Willmott presented with a chance on the edge of the box, he passed it to Walker in a better position in the middle but on the edge of the box, he was under pressure from three defenders and played it wide for Claude who was in a better position but whose shot was touched over by Maxwell.
Howells corner to Pilkington saw Claude die a thousand deaths in the box, missed inevitably by the ref who also managed to miss that Wrexham put the ball out for a throw, the ref missed it but eventually the linesman gave the throw to Luton. It took an age seemingly.
Ed’s eyes lit up as he tried to dribble the ball into the penalty area but the ball was cleared.
On 53 minutes Sinclair clonked Walker badly for a free kick just on the edge, but right in front of the goal. Willmott took the free kick. Willmott’s cracker was saved brilliantly by Maxwell preventing a certain goal.
A confident move, started by Keane, saw Ed ultimately pick up the ball from left back, and he lined up a shot, but the lollipop shot didn’t even had the legs to go out for a goal kick. All of the velocity seemed to die from the ball.
Two two footed challenges from Sinclair prevented further Luton progress. Fortunately he won the ball and not Luton legs.
Cieseleswicz roasted Ed again for a corner on the right. The corner went to the far post and was nodded down for Taylor and Sinclair (combined age 77) only for Alex Lawless (26) to nip in and take it off them before they could coax their weary bodies into first gear.
Ed turned and offered some words of advice to his nemisis Cieseleswicz after he won the ball but clattered him to the ground.
Unfortunately Sinclair was withdrawn after 65 minutes. I was rather hoping they’d keep him on, as he was increasingly becoming ragged and tired and would surely have yielded us a goal with his Gus Ceaser-esque stumble-bummery.
There was a good save from Maxwell after Willmott ran into the box on the left.
Twenty minutes to go, and to prove the fates wrong – I uttered Danny Baker’s famous words – “Nothing can go wrong now”.
A short corner from Willmott and Howells saw Maxwell make a good save from Willmott’s curling shot.
Gnapka played a lovely ball over the top to Walker running into the box. Maxwell saved the 1 on 1 and I started to wonder if Jason Walker was going to ever score again.
Gleeson played in Claude down the right, he turned and beat his man and put in a lovely cross to Howells whose glorious volley was saved brilliantly by Maxwell. The Kenny was now coming into its own. Even the darkest doubters were now beginning to believe that our play-off semi final mini hoodoo was cast into the bin like a discarded pie. Up and down we hopped at the Kenny End with each attack. Singing our hearts out. We’ve seen so much at the Kenny down the years, just in the 33 years I’ve been coming I’ve experienced every emotion there is to have. So many good ones, but so many heartbreaking humiliations too. I think for that reason we have reason to enjoy the lovely moments all the more. The same footballing Gods that saw to it that Tyler guessed right tonight have also put us through the wringer more than any other team in footballing history. Our ultimate glory and redemption and progress back to the championship whenever that may be will happen (but happen it will) be it in 5, 10 or 20 years will be all the sweeter for it.
On eighty minutes the turnaround was complete. A sumptious cross field ball from Howells in his own half found Claude bursting into an acre of space down the right. He didn’t quite take it to the byline and for the first time in the game, chose to cross rather than dribble into the box. His cross flew straight to Walker – one of the most potent poachers in the division who chested it and buried it and sealed the win. Delirium. Manchester here we come.
Lawless shot wide on 82 minutes.
Keane’s cross was cut out by Maxwell on a 6-4 overlap.
Barnes-Homer came on with 3 minutes to go replacing the jubilant Claude. In injury time he crossed for Walker whose heavy touch let Maxwell in to save.
Keano was subbed for Newts and got a lovely send off. Wrexham sang “Que sera sera, we’re going to Forest Green”. And the ref blew his whistle.
And then we went off the pitch. And then we came off the pitch and the players came on the pitch. And then some more went on the pitch and then the players went of the pitch. And then I went home.
On the way home I tuned into Five live as 1CR had deemed the match sufficiently important to go off air at 10pm. I nearly turned it off when I heard Graham Taylor’s monotone grinding on about the Premier League (one of my least favourite people talking about one of my least favourite subjects). Eventually to my delight they phoned up Pleaty who spoke intelligently about Luton’s position and plight and then put Nick Owen on who spoke about Luton’s plight and his delight. Then Graham Taylor even said that the mighty Hatters should be back in the league and that it was wrong for football that his former bete noires were evicted from the league. It was a lovely 10 minutes. It was as if we were back from the footballing wilderness and being discussed again. Our punishment served, people in football could discuss us again, but not in hushed tones as if we were some naughty relative caught doing something he ought not; but almost as if we were the prodigal son.
All we have to do now is beat Wimbledon – who tonight humiliated Fleetwood 8-1 on aggregate. A big ask? It is non-league for goodness sake, and we are Luton Town. Of course we will win. Surely?
It would be fitting perhaps to end our non-league sojourn against the team we started it against back in August 2009. But let’s hope it is not the same result – eg a 1-1 with a man sent off.
Come on you Hatters!