Bruising Encounter (for Pelly’s shins)

lawless

A hard-fought and determined performance from the Hatters saw a well-deserved victory over the whelk-munching spoilers from Southend.

I’ve given myself an hour and two beers to write this so that I can avoid watching Downton Abbey, so let’s see how far I get.

I loved this game. It wasn’t a footballing classic by any means, in fact, brief glimpses of brilliance aside; there wasn’t enough play between the ref blowing his whistle for the game to really get going. It was a stop-start affair. Mainly stop.

How Southend got to fourth before the game God only knows, their shooting was woeful, and their defence alternated between comedy and criminal.  

But we won, and won well. For the first goal, Griffiths played a ball down the channel outside the narrow midfield and full back into space for Lawless to run onto, he took a touch, turned, put it on his right foot and a put in a sublime curling shot into the top corner.  Does Alex Lawless do simple tap ins? He has had more than his fair share of brilliant goals. You can see why John Still was so keen to get him back into the team. He is a constant, intelligent, creative thorn in any opponents side. And long may he remain in our side. 

The second goal was straight out of the Keystone Kops handbook. A big hoof by Macca I think went all the way down to the keeper and there was a sigh of disappointment at giving possession away so easily. But hold your exasperation Hatters, because comedy keeper Bentley passed the ball to the shell-shocked and bandaged Bolger who in his infinite wisdom slipped it neatly to Drury, who despite slipping himself slid it neatly to Cullen who slotted it past the hapless Bentley. Like any goals against a ‘fancied’ team these felt extra special as we have to work much harder for the opportunities.  

Unlike the bad old days, we are efficiently taking the few chances we get, rather than in the dark years when we seemed to need ten clear cut chances to be able to eek out a goal.

In the second half Southend made two substitutions, played 3 up front and came out all guns blazing, until we snuffed their fire out, and then they had nothing left at all. After that point we merely soaked up their pressure, forced them to shoot (badly) from outside the box and play on the counter attack with the ball going forward to the pace of Pelly and the persistence of Mark Cullen. Each time the ball went to Pelly he was hacked down. Only a ref of such spectacular incompetence could allow such a team of one-dimensional thugs to get away with it for so long.

That Dave Penney (Southend’s assistant coach and JS’s pal) was the only one to go was remarkable. Presumably and official with a pair of kahunas would have stamped out the rather clogging Southend tactics early on, but by turning a blind-eye he only sought to indulge them further. He was good at blowing his whistle. Very good at that. Very good at stopping play. But enforcing discipline isn’t his strong point, against us anyway. He did get four cards out for Southend, but he spared them so many more. But a bit of googling reminded me that Mr Kavanagh was the appalling ref for the Woking game back in March (link here) and also the kindly soul who did manage to find a red card for Macca up at Southport at the start of last season. How he managed to get promoted to the football league I’ll never know. Chances are that we’ll only see him once more this season though. 

It really isn’t how football should be played. For the second week running we were playing against a team of spoilers, who prefer to clog and hoof than pass and move. Southend were like Braintree under Devonshire, or Leyton Orient under Ling. A nasty little outfit. There must be something in the water east of Greenwich. Let’s hope that the next visitors at home are the exception to the rule.

But as the match disintegrated into a bad tempered affair it only served to tweak the volume on the Hatters fans dial and maintain the players’ resolve to keep their defensive and personal discipline.  The only slip really, hardly surprising bearing in mind the provocation, was the altercation with Pelly and the aforementioned Penney on the touchline, after the ball went out. After all that, the ref **was** happy to send someone off, but just not anyone on the field of play.

Alas I didn’t see the much discussed ‘ball-boy’ incident. Cheeky lad.

Michael Harriman from QPR (but don’t hold that against him) slotted in at right back as if he has been playing with the team all season. He had a sound game. Our back four does look good at the moment, and with the effervescent Smith and the strong “you should see him when he’s fit” Doyle playing in front of them it is beginning to look like a very effective unit.

Pelly Ruddock got the official man of the match award, presumably as consolation for having chunks hacked out of his shins all afternoon. Though in fairness, it could have gone to Lawless for his performance, Cullen for his effort (not least at being offside all the time), Wilko and Macca, Doyle and Smith and ahem, a certain Mr Andy Drury might have won it on other days. Drury played just off Cullen, his old role, and was back to his best, having previously been on both wings and in central midfield.  Has to be a good player to keep Guttridge out of the starting XI – if you recall Guttridge was our beating heart last year. And just like last year JS is slowly identifying the best formation and the best players in that formation, whilst all the while experimenting and pushing and testing and bringing back players who were injured. Difficult to have a truly settled team I guess, when we have so many good players whose performances demand selection.

Well time’s nearly up – where did an hour go? Off to Hartlepool next week. Or not as the case may be as I will be consuming beer, sausage und sauerkraut in Germany. Some guys hef all ze luck.

Really enjoyed the game and the spirited performance, the sort of resilient display that gets John Still purring like a Queen. 

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The writing’s on The Wall

Another triumphant chapter in the long history of games against teams from Hertfordshire. Good to see that once again truth and justice defeated whinge and hack.

I do enjoy a local derby. Who doesn’t? Whilst this isn’t THE local derby, it is indeed a local derby as St Evenage with all its grace and charm lies nearer to us than the other comedy Hertfordshire outfit. It is games like these where the atmosphere and added spice can transcend league positions and form. The greater the intensity of the crowd the more it can become 11 men battling against another 11 men with quality and form meaning nothing. As it happens of course, the form team and better side won out over the cloggers from down the road, which was only fair.

Hopping into the car on the way back and shushing the kids it was fascinating to listen to 1CRs Simon Oxley describing Stevenage as a side that would be ‘up there’ at the end of the season, his strange assertions seemingly backed up by a random (and somewhat confused) caller from Hertfordshire claiming that Stevenage would not only finish above Luton but be in the automatic promotion positions. Other than the usual huff, puff and bluster I saw nothing about Stevenage to suggest they would be challenging for anything this year, other than perhaps the trophy for the most yellow cards. I suppose I can credit Westley and his team for something – they are the equivalent of the Wimbledon (the originals) of the 1980s, small budget, not much talent but they compete on their own terms by playing a brand of football with an aggressive ‘in your face’ style which enables them to compete on the same terms as everyone else. At the end of the day, it is still long-ball, dirty little kicks and shoves and constant bleating to the officials. There’s clearly something in the water in Hertfordshire because it’s a footballing theme.

One of the enjoyable asides during such an away trip is to spot the inevitable Luton fans in the away bit of the main stand, and there were quite a few, including somewhat incongruous Bruno Stein. Not sure what he was doing and for whom, but good to spot him. There were the usual exchanges, expulsions and dust ups which only serve to enhance the atmosphere adding an edge, a frisson to the argy bargy also going on, on the field. Not sure what to make of the stewarding – it was the usual mix of friendly banter and over-exuberant heavy handedness. But as we are not waking up to headlines of 40 fans arrested and tear-gas I suppose they must have done something right. Mind you, it never ceases to amaze me the broad spectrum of support our wonderful club attracts. I’m a broad-minded guy, I’ve been around the block a few times but even I overheard a few new terms of abuse yesterday that I had not heard before.

I’m glad we beat them to continue our excellent run. We played well enough in the opening spell to have finished the game off before the first Westley Time Out©. As it happens, by the time the normal Westley Time Out© occurs they were gradually clawing their way back into the game and presumably it was surplus to requirements. We did get one in the second half though right on cue, just enough to take the wind out of our sails and to break up the momentum. The cheats.
Pelly Ruddock was a revelation on the right. He gave them a real headache and they never came to terms with him at any point, for it was his turn and pass to Alex Wall which provided the winner. He was still terrorising and tormenting poor Charles and the Stevenage team at the end. He’s a brave lad, and just as well that he is quick and agile because their sights were trained on his shins.

But for Chris Day (good shot stopper, poor kicker) we would have been three up in 15 mins. One of his saves was as good at Tyler’s last week. He could do nothing about our first goal, another towering header from Luke Wilkinson, from another free kick served up perfectly by Drury, as simple as you like (the pass, not Drury – though as an aside AD is looking increasingly like mad-Alan White – see below) Drury played out on the left in a 442, and was effective in attack, mainly in the first half, but is less effective at tracking back, leaving Griff a little exposed on occasions. Griff got forward nicely yesterday, though won’t be happy with a couple of his crosses – another good couple of opportunities which on another day should have found a Luton player. Perhaps he reserves his best for the home games where he inevitably wins the man of the match award. 

Andry Drury or is it Alan White?

Cullen was replaced by Charlie Walker, and strange pink boots aside he looked slightly quicker and certainly keen to make an impression. Was his header over the line? Well, I thought it was. Charlie thought it was, John Still thought it was, and more importantly some of the Stevenage players thought it was. Shame that the combination of a dopey linesman and ref missed it. Look forward to seeing a bit more of Mr Walker quite possibly on Tuesday night. Perhaps not the boots though!
Speaking of dopey linesmen, was their goal offside? Well, at the time I thought it was. Certainly when the player picked the ball up on the right he was goal-side of the defence, but looking at it on MoTD last night and using the technology afforded me by Sky+ (believe in better) as the ball was kicked I think dear Macca just played him on. Perhaps knowing this, it was Macca who stuck his hand in the air to appeal for offside and was keenest to berate the lino after the goal.

Still on the theme of dopey linesmen, just how many foul throws did they do? How do they get away with that? Perhaps the officials are so numbed by the constant bleating and whinging by Westley that they ignore the little things. Anything for a quiet life….

So, 1-1 ten minutes to go in a local derby, a game we should be winning and what do we need? We need the Blunt Instrument that is Alex Wall. When you see him up close (as I did when the goal went in, a bit too close) flippin’ ‘eck he’s a big strong lad. A man whose pint you wouldn’t spill. In fact a man for whom I would buy a spare pint, just in case I did spill it. Pelly Ruddock picked the ball up from a poor throw by Stevenage and slotted the ball inside to Mr Wall who took a touch then struck a curling ball into the back of the net. Cue celebrations. I’m chuffed for him. Still not entirely convinced that he understands why he got a dressing down from JS a few weeks ago after the sending off in the 5-0 reserves win – but there you go. He redoubled his efforts on the training pitch, when it wasn’t his training and commitment which were in doubt. What he does give you is the occasional spark of match-winning magic and a battering ram up front. We’ve had a few of those down the years and long may it be the case. Good competition up front for the target man position. The experience and wiry strength of Benson, the energy and willingness of Lafayette and the sheer presence, strength and determination of The Wall.

Final words for our hardworking two starters in midfield Nathan Doyle and Smudger Smith. The two of them had to cope with three from Stevenage and outplayed them and out passed them. Bearing in mind Doyle isn’t supposed to be fit yet, he’s doing a very good job of sitting in front of the back four and stating that “they shall not pass”. Smudger was replaced with 25 mins to go by Jim Stevenson who upped the tempo and allowed us a degree of extra control.

So an excellent win and an enjoyable match and experience. A sound win against a difficult opposition which I’m sure absolutely delights John Still. A few years ago we might have buckled under the pressure and oppression, but not now.
On Tuesday we continue our defence of the JPT against another side whom we haven’t played since we met in non-league. I will be there, though I’m not sure who else will be. Currently playing for Crawley is a certain Mr Keet’ Keane. Whether or not he will play on Tuesday is anyone’s guess. I guess progress depends upon how seriously we or they are going to take it, though it is always nice to play in cup finals at Wembley.

Next Saturday we play Phil Brown’s Sarfend who despite losing yesterday are challenging at the top end of this division again. This is will our first game at home in the league against them since 2007 and the dark days of Jackson, Goodall, McVeigh and Currie who never seemed like Luton players at the time and I suppose never will. In 2007 we were on our way down, seven years later and our club, manager and players are on our way back.
 

 

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Professional

The mighty Hatters swung back into action yesterday and comprehensively outplayed Oxford, despite half the squad being afflicted by the trots presumably in a show of support of the broken-legged right back.

Despite being down in numbers, the performance was professional from beginning to end, as ever our cause and our confidence being greatly aided by a good early goal from Luke Wilkinson.

And what a good game Wilkinson had. Even without his headed goal he was my man of the match. He was the archetypal rock at the back. Sure-footed and commanding he swept up Oxford’s attacks – when they did occasionally venture into our half – and won header after header. We can now see why John Still was so keen to sign him in close season. Four games without conceding a goal suggests that we are doing something right at the back. Today we defended in such a way that only on two occasions in the whole 90 minutes did Oxford get around the back of us. The first one caused the heart to flutter as McNulty, suffering from nappy syndrome (his mind addled no doubt by sleepless nights and the thought of nipple pads) let the ball go over his head rather than to head it clear. It was like he was pushed forward by an imaginary Micky Quinn. As it happens that moment served to galvanise the defence and they hardly put a foot wrong after that, forcing Oxford to shoot from miles out – they couldn’t get close.

I think Oxford had only two decent shots on target and Tyler had to make a couple of reflex saves, the first was very nearly world class and to be added to his long list of brilliant point blank saves too numerous to tally, where he touched a shot from Barnett round the post – I don’t know how he got down in time. The second was a near point-blank header from Barnett where he got down to save in exactly the right place. A bit like a baseball catcher who knows where the pitch is going. Without those saves the result would have been very different. Earlier in the season I indicated that MT was beginning to show signs that he was starting to show his age. His recent form has dispelled this, in fact you could assert that he has improved. Mark Tyler is a fine wine, improving with age.

Alex Lacey started at right back today and had a pretty tidy game, he was up against their only attacking threat down the left in O’Dowd.

Scott Griffiths battled excellently on the left and had Ruffel in his pocket. He played well all game and largely neutralised Oxford down the right.

Nathan Doyle made his debut, sitting in front of the back four. He had a physical presence about him and was tidy enough I think. Survived the attempt to rearrange his kneecaps by Tyrone Barnett. Bearing in mind many of John Still’s acquisitions often take time to bed in and get up to speed, I look forward to seeing what he is like after ten games…Drury replaced him later on when we changed to a 4-4-2.

In the middle too – but in a more advanced role than I seem to recall was Smudger Smith, who as ever ran and worked hard in the middle, charging people down with impunity.

More or less the most advanced midfielder of a three – but still back and forth in his ‘box to box’ role was PRM who had a slightly strange game compared to his Trojan performances recently. He certainly posed an attacking threat but seemed to have a gear in reserve. Perhaps he didn’t need his top gear such was the underwhelming threat of Oxford. We could have doubled the lead within a minute when Pelly was given a good chance after good play in the box from Cullen and Whalley but he popped it over the bar.

On the right of front three (or the right of a midfield 5 if you prefer) was Shaun Whalley, a slightly revitalised version of the walking shambles we saw at the start of last season. He was a direct threat, and tracked back well when needed. He does get bumped off the ball a bit easily. Didn’t perhaps cut through their lines in the way he would have like but at least was felled for the free kick which led to the goal. His replacement by Layafette re-injected vigour into our performance, so he played a part in that way I guess – he was the facilitator for the final push by being substituted. I wish Shaun well, hopefully by starting yesterday that will give him some of the confidence he was lacking.

On the left up was Jake Howells who had an outstanding game and his alertness was rewarded when he sprung to score from the rebound from his own penalty a la Cullen. He didn’t just whack it back though, but got it under control, dribbled a bit, did a shimmy, checked his emails, before slotting it home. The penalty itself was for handball by Mullins on the edge of the box. The sort of penalty decision you get when things are going your way as the Mr Magoos of the lower leagues invariably fail to spot that sort of thing. For example later on in the second half one of our team (I can’t recall who) played catch with himself and the ref missed that one. It was Howells’ inswinging freekick that gave Wilkinson such a perfect opportunity for the goal.

In the middle was the long suffering Mark Cullen, ploughing a lone furrow, until Lafayette came on. Too often though he was left isolated when, having received the ball, had no one to lay it off to. Such is the nature of the system I guess. Late on he went on a splendid run with a golden opportunity to make it three – but stumbled and shot rather than passing it. Great when they go in and you can’t blame a centre forward for having a go, especially when we were two up already. If it had been 0-0 then he might have been lynched for not passing it.

As I said earlier – the introduction of Lafayette gave us the momentum to finish the job, it levered away the slow momentum Oxford had gained as our high tempo approach was difficult to maintain. When he came on he posed an immediate threat and gave us the edge and gave Oxford something to think about. He might not be the most refined front man yet, but yesterday he brimmed with confidence. Oxford’s centre halves who had been barely coping with just Cullen, suddenly had  a big strong bloke to try to manage and they struggled and thereafter were on the back foot. It was a masterstroke, as was shoring up the right hand side by changing to 442 and bringing on Drury.

It was a good game and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. A good competent, professional win. We played at high tempo and pressed Oxford hard, they were toothless up front and mainly had to rely on long shots. We did a job on Oxford, and their only decent chances fell to Tyrone Barnett, who surely nine times out of ten would have been dismissed for the brutal lunge on Doyle. Hats off to John Still’s men for playing well and keeping them at bay. The only worrying note is that our goals are coming from set plays, but good to be still winning whilst that is the case.

Next week we renew our acquaintance with the strange Hertfordshire brand of anti-football when we play the cheats from Stevenage, I can’t wait. I’m interested to see if the Westley leopard has changed its spots, or mellowed over the years. Yesterday when Barnett went over the top on Doyle the whole team led by Macca were enraged and were ready to pile in. We all reacted and stood together a la Paul Colingwood for England against the Aussies in 2005. I suspect there might be more of that needed next week if Stevenage revert to type. Had we not got the early goal today, I suspect Mr Appleton’s team would have given us a dress-rehearsal for the tactics we can expect. Certainly the tackling and the constant whining to the ref were straight out of the Westley text-book.

Come on you Hatters.

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