By Matt Rowson
It's eleven'o'clock in the morning and we're in a football stadium.
Getting to games early is normally something I'd approve of, but when a game kicks off at lunchtime it's an unwritten rule that everyone gets to the game as close to kick-off as possible. Not so today. Ig is particularly unimpressed; having had to get up at some ungodly hour in Brighton just to be here, he had departed a Thameslink train destined for Luton for the scenic route with us, a scenic route that had also seen our coach trundle within a brisk walk of my front door a good hour or so after I exited through it. The eighteen coaches had reassembled at Junction 10 before the team trundled past and lead the convoy up to Junction 11. The mood on the coach had been bubbly but watchful, however the most exciting aspect of the trip proved to be Rupert's pathetic and increasingly anguished attempts to illuminate the toilet cubicle.
It's noticeable that the roll call has a distinctly male, young-to-middle-aged feel about it. There are exceptions... Amanda keeps herself entertained in the queue for refreshment by jumping up and down like a hyperactive pixie and yelling "SCUM! SCUM!" at the Luton players trotting out for their warm-up before turning to us and grinning excitedly like a child at a fairground. "I love this!". But mostly, it's blokes. The away end is full, the home stands still merely dotted with early arrivals. As the minutes tick away and the rest of the stadium populates the travelling 'orns, fuelled by restlessness, are in good voice. The tannoy compere attempts to stoke the atmosphere (in common with so many of his profession, feeling the need to conduct emotion rather than merely usher it along) by announcing that this is the first derby here since 1997 before, presumably, regretting that he'd spoken as the away end reacts gleefully to the prompt.
The dugouts, such as they are, have been relocated since October 1997 when Lennie Lawrence had such an uncomfortable afternoon, and are now out of harm's way in front of the chalets to our left. This has resulted, as ig points out, in the smallest "technical areas" imaginable (insert your own pun here), and also necessitates both sets of managers, coaches, subs and physios traipsing across the pitch in front of us from the tunnel entrance opposite. During his trip across after the teams' arrival, Mike Newell appears to get all narky with Marlon King, who has to explain that he had been trying to pass a warm-up ball to the team mate on the other side of Mr.Newell and wasn't actually kicking the ball at him... with the air of a parent patiently explaining to a tired toddler that he couldn't stay up late to watch television. Newell's peevishness is to rear its head again later.
Ashley Young's welcome return to the fold is confirmed as he's named in the starting eleven for the first time since November. Matthew Spring, somewhat eye-catchingly, drops to the bench, a move that doesn't spare him from the attentions of either set of supporters. The home side are missing a first-choice centre-back, and the theme of the first half is to be Darius Henderson's total domination of young stand-in Leon Barnett. As early as the first minute the big striker batters his way through on the left and provokes what appears to be a goalline clearance before Young sends the clearance back in from the right prompting another defensive header. When the clearance comes it's a long one, and finds its target, Howard ultimately shooting wide.
A frantic tone as been set and the game never really settles down, much as the passing of events changes the mood. The first such event occurs on nine minutes; another monstrous leap from Henderson results in a knock-down for King with his back to goal. King allows the ball to roll off him back to his strike partner on the edge of the area who smacks it first time past the stationary Marlon Beresford, his second goal with his weaker foot in consecutive games.
In the away end, joyous bedlam. Noise levels around the ground are ratcheted up as Luton come back at us... James Chambers stands up to his first test at left back, executing a stiff challenge on Carlos Edwards but it doesn't take the home side long to establish that with McNamee and an out-of-position and out-of-sorts Chambers in front of them the right wing might prove a little more fruitful than the left. A good pass cuts out Chambers to reach the overlapping Edwards; his cross finds Brkovic whose shot is blocked.
Al Bangura, another to have a very fine first half, is the next to make his presence felt with a fierce but clean challenge on Edwards. Vine wins a free kick on the right, Howard puts the cross over and out of the ground. Luton are applying pressure without creating a great deal, but our defending is nervy enough for this to be an uncomfortable fifteen minutes or so... Doyley's uncharacteristic airkick lets in Brkovic on the left, the first of many linesman's flags ultimately curtailing Vine's progress. A weak header back from Chambers forces Foster to come out quickly to clear with Vine closing in.
Gradually we re-establish a foothold, however; Henderson is still not only winning every header but getting good direction on them too, and with King snarling and Young getting into the swing of things again we look threatening on the counterattack. One sweeping move finds Young in space on the right, his low early ball finds Henderson who belts over; a linesman's flag, presumably for offside, proving irrelevant. Two minutes later Young sets off on a mad charge down the right flank which, improbably, results in him winning a free kick to the right of the area. McNamee curls it in, Mackay gets his head to it. From virtually pitch level at the far end, where any assessment of lengthwise distance in Luton's penalty area is impossible, it appears that Beresford has saved comfortably. Malky Mackay's arms are straight up in the air though, and it doesn't take long for the second goal to be confirmed; pictures later reaffirm that the decision, laughably described as "controversial" in at least one newspaper the next day, wasn't even a particularly close call. Two-nil.
Whereas the first goal had provoked a spirited response, the second flattens the home side completely both on and off the pitch. The closing fifteen minutes of the half sees few signs of life from the home side... indeed, the greatest show of defiance comes when Matthew Spring indulges our scoreline-based inquiries to the displeasure of one of the chalet-inhabitants above him, who proves to be an entertaining distraction for five minutes or so. The noise from the away end is relentless until the interval, when hostilities temporarily cease and everyone sits down for the first time for a bit of a rest.
Lucky half-time chocolate: Mini Daim/Dime-bars
Reason: Sarah had passed them on with her best wishes
Level of success: Difficult to fathom. We won the game, I guess, but not sure luck had much to do with it...
Somewhat inevitably, the home side come at us with renewed venom at the start of the second half. One suspects, given how the first half had panned out, that had we withstood the first fifteen minutes or so a more comfortable victory might have been on the cards. Not to be, however. A warning is sounded when Edwards is awarded too much space on the right of the area to shoot wide. A minute later a ball comes across from the left, Chambers fannies around unforgivably on the penalty spot and is dispossessed by Robinson who slips the ball sideways for Edwards to score from a similar position to his earlier effort.
The tables are turned. Luton are flying now, whilst the away end is quietened for the first time. Edwards attacks down the Luton right and send a wicked cross in for Howard. The big striker - who appears to be carrying a few pounds, not that I'm in a position to criticise - heaves his bulk off the ground to meet the ball perfectly, a fierce header directed low to the bottom corner... where, impossibly, it is met by Ben Foster's glove, pushing it around the post. An awesome save.
It's probably worth breaking off at this point to mention Mike Newell's pathetic wittering after the game ("He's bleeding all over the radio!" related Dad gleefully down the phoneline later). Since, for all Newell's complaints about timewasting and gamesmanship, which we'll move on to directly, a central failing that he neglected to mention was Luton's inability to register more than two attempts on target in the entire game. Or, frankly, to look much as if they were going to do so. Whilst Watford must take credit for closing the game down - and it's pitiable to suggest that there's anything wrong with this tactic when a goal up and a man down away from home in a local derby - Luton's subsequent attempts to pull themselves level were so feeble as to not be worth mentioning.
One area where Luton did achieve some measure of success was in curtailing the influence of Darius Henderson. Predictably enough he received rather more focused physical attention at the start of the second half, being picked up now by Markus Heikkinen who trod a very fine line in wedging his body wherever Henderson might not want it with only occasional interest in the flight of the ball. The tactic paid off when Henderson, frustrated by this close attention, pushed Heikkinen away in irritation picking a yellow card up for his trouble. His aggression and authority were noticeably lessened thereafter.
Ben Foster was the first of several players to receive treatment, and whilst Newell's frustration at the interruption to his side's attempts to get back in the game in the immediate aftermath of events is perhaps understandable, he really ought to have taken a dispassionate look at proceedings before making a fool of himself on the radio. Foster's injury, for one thing, looked genuine; certainly Alec Chamberlain had been warming up for a good five minutes before Foster received any treatment. Newell's assertion that he had an "honest bunch of players" might also have had more credibility had Al Bangura not been left flat out by an off-the-ball incident... a smack in the face from the charming Steve Howard according to 3CR, the same honest player who conned a penalty out of Stoke City the week before Christmas.
Meanwhile, another mistake by Chambers had let in Rowan Vine; the break came to nothing, as you'll have deduced, but this proved to be Chambers' last contribution at left back, perhaps for the foreseeable future; Jordan Stewart entered the fray at the expense of the academic McNamee and contributed his most positive half-hour in a yellow shirt to date. Chambers moved to the right of midfield with Young switching to the left. Luton, meanwhile, introduced the colossal Enoch Showumni to the left flank.
Ashley Young is the next to go off for treatment, causing momentary disquiet in the away end by clutching his leg, before limping off and jogging back on to the obvious and understandable irritation of Luton fans and players. Luton right-back Kevin Foley appears to take particular exception, using the earliest opportunity to come through the back of Young. Referee Williamson produces a yellow card for Foley and, unheralded by appeals from players or crowd, a straight red for Young.
Without a great view of the incident it was difficult to make a judgment at the time; certainly initial confusion subsided when reports reached us after the game that Aidy Boothroyd thought that Young deserved the red and wouldn't appeal. On having seen the TV pictures I'm still at a bit of a loss however; one possibility is that this is a diplomatic acceptance of the inevitable from Betty, rather than a balanced judgment as Young's retaliation appears to be some distance short of violent conduct.
Marlon King drops back into midfield to fill the gap vacated by Young. Five minutes later Jay Demerit is introduced at right back to counter the aerial threat provided by Showumni down the left; Lloyd Doyley moves across to a now much more effectively defended left flank with Jordan Stewart pushed up into midfield and King moving across to the right. Within minutes Matthew Spring makes his awaited entrance to a predictable response from both sets of fans as Al Bangura leaves the field in some discomfort.
As far as the timewasting goes... having been frustrated by Crystal Palace's similar activities on Saturday it wouldn't be terribly even handed to not criticise the Hornets for the same. It must be said, though, that being a man down can certainly be cited in our defence, and that the home side don't really help themselves by kicking players up in the air rather more frequently than is necessary - Bangura in particular, and not for the first time in recent matches, having been singled out for treatment. A seventeen year-old midfield general is going to get a bit of that, I suppose, but he won't half be a player when he develops physically. Kevin Foley is also fortunate to escape a second yellow for a nasty stab at Jordan Stewart, who limps through the rest of the game.
In any event, the re-jigged and re-organised formation looks a whole lot more solid than what had gone before it. Luton's attacks in the final twenty-five minutes amount to a free kick delivered from the right across the face of goal and a pitiful penalty appeal that speaks volumes about how Luton rate their chances of pulling level. Perhaps sensing the inevitability of proceedings Williamson allows scant injury time to further displeasure from the stands, but not since Howard's header a good forty minutes earlier have Luton looked like scoring.
We sing our goodbyes to the departing home fans before, as promised, being allowed back onto the coaches after a ten minute wait. Truth be told, we barely see a Luton shirt outside of the stadium, the policing and ferrying arrangements being as well managed as those three years ago were inadequate. Those few individuals that we do see on the way out of Luton respond to the convoy with a wide range of hand gestures, both amicable and, more entertainingly, less so.
The costs to be counted include suspensions incurred by Young and Carlisle, plus the knocks picked up by Stewart, Foster and, particularly, Bangura. Nonetheless this is a huge win, in the context of our season as much as in winning a local derby, and ultimately achieved more comfortably than Luton's early season form and home record might have lead us to expect.
That's eleven years since they beat us in the league, by the way.