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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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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