Relegation to League One, administration, Kevin Blackwell – Luton and Leeds share quite a lot. So why not add the points, too, when the teams meet at a packed-out if still fairly charmless Kenilworth Road, asks Neil Rose
There is something exciting about having Leeds United in town. Irritating though the whole concept of clubs being “big” or “small” is, there is no denying that Leeds have an aura about them. It’s an aura that attracts by far the largest league crowd of the season to Luton, as well as more police than every other home game combined. It generates an edgy atmosphere at times, punctuated by the odd, quickly subdued fight at both ends.
Perhaps it’s all about nostalgia. Leeds make me think of the 1970s. Thirty minutes before kick-off, I stand at the top of Oak Road, the narrow street of shabby terraced houses out of which the away end at Luton is carved, watching coaches disgorge hundreds of Leeds fans. And it feels like the footballing equivalent of Life on Mars. Later, when the players run out in those yellow shirts and a full away end starts baying and singing arrogant songs of former triumphs, I’m transported back to the days when they were any good and I half-expect Billy Bremner to be leading the way.
Today, of course, they are stuck in a particularly mediocre League One, unaware their manager is about to walk out on them to spend quality time discussing reporting lines with Kevin Keegan, to be replaced by a figurehead of more recent glory. Luton fans, meanwhile, have in part turned out to welcome the latest return of Mick Harford, this time as manager until the end of the season. Harford is Ashes to Ashes, harking back to Luton’s golden age of the 1980s.
Like Keegan (and this is about as far as the analogy goes), Harford is clearly no believer in the notion that you should never go back. Two playing spells and now three times on the managerial staff make you wonder if he just likes milking the applause at Kenilworth Road, of which there is a great deal when he follows his team on to the pitch. For such a big man, known for his uncompromising style, he cuts a surprisingly shambling figure in his tracksuit. But then he did once complain that playing on the old plastic pitch had knackered his ankles, so maybe his continued employment is some form of compensation.
The man known simply as God became less of a deity to some the last time he left, joining Joe Kinnear on an ill-fated sojourn at Nottingham Forest. More recently he even coached at much despised QPR. But that, plus the feeling that Harford’s record hints at him being a better number two than number one, has all been forgotten. There’s too much history with Big Mick, too much hope that the returning hero could revive a side that no newspaper can now refer to without the prefix “crisis club”.
Mike Newell’s sacking in March and the relegation in May, followed by administration, a record number of FA charges, a player fire sale and Kevin Blackwell’s resignation – not to mention some sterile football – have all combined to make it a year of toil even by Luton’s standards. This is the third time on the brink of bankruptcy in eight years, but the ten-point deduction has placed them firmly in League One’s bottom four.
Adversity, however, has done its usual trick, as it did for Leeds earlier in the season, and things have picked up in recent weeks. Not paying players appears to motivate them. That and Blackwell finally recognising the need to ditch his tedious strategy of playing one up front, even at home. Liverpool should have been dispatched in an FA Cup game that had the old place rocking and reinvigorated a crowd subdued into bored silence earlier in the season. No one much cared about the subsequent thrashing at Anfield, the money generated from those two televised matches helping to stave off further player sales by the administrator. (Although was I the only one who squirmed as Richard Keys proclaimed Sky’s pride at the help their money would be? Why does he think clubs like Luton and Leeds overstretched themselves in the first place?)
Curiously, these two very different clubs have had much in common of late – not least Blackwell and the same administrator, the bouffant Brendan Guilfoyle, who appears to have rather enjoyed his time in the spotlight to judge by his appearances on Sky and elsewhere, and sits at the rear of the directors’ box (and in front of me) looking very much like he owns the place – an attitude displayed not least in the way in which he fired Blackwell ahead of his stated leaving day and parachuted in Harford.
Waiting in the wings at Kenilworth Road, however, is not cuddly Ken but morning TV giant Nick Owen, the front-man for the LTFC2020 consortium, whose long association with the club is marked by the bar under the main stand that bears his name. These English and American businessmen, who also recall happier days by having iconic former skipper Steve Foster on board, have been given “preferred bidder” status by Guilfoyle. The consortium’s name refers to the long-term view they are taking and more than a few dark hints have been dropped of things having to get worse before they can get any better. For some it’s hard to imagine how much worse they could get, especially with Richard Jackson’s season-long performance of comedy defending to add to the mix, but most see relegation as a small price to pay for survival.
Despite four straight defeats, during which 14 goals have been shipped – a run that followed the sale of club captain and centre-back Chris Coyne, leaving the ageing Chris Perry as the only recognised stopper – Luton start brightly and are quickly at Leeds, with midfield linchpin Matthew Spring prominent. Spring is playing like a man with something to prove to a club where he once had an unsuccessful, injury-hit spell; a trademark long-range shot in the first minute takes a big deflection and spins just wide to get the momentum going.
The game is tight and compressed, with the flag going up regularly at both ends. It is not long before a Leeds defender manages to clear the “Dreyer net”, which hangs above the infamous executive boxes to stop the constant loss of balls and is nicknamed affectionately after John, a stalwart 1990s defender. Leeds’ tactics are not hard to fathom and do not waver throughout: organised and committed in defence, lump the ball over the top for the front two to chase, and make the best of set pieces. It’s not exactly total football, but midway through the half it does the job. A well rehearsed free-kick sees Paul Huntington steam into the area at an angle and head inside the left post from 12 yards, before needlessly riling the Kenilworth Road End with his celebrations.
Luton rally well without seriously testing Casper Ankergren in the Leeds goal – his main contribution to the game is his unerring ability to boot the ball straight out of play. They go in at half time unlucky to be behind – they are trying to win, while Leeds are trying not to lose. And the second half follows a similar pattern of Luton pressure punctuated by Leeds strikers Jermaine Beckford and Tresor Kandol, who came through the ranks at Luton, doing their best to unsettle a home defence short on speed and simply short – with Coyne gone, no defender is taller than 5ft 9in. The Dreyer net already ticked off, Beckford manages to send one shot over the Oak Road Stand; in their current state, Luton really cannot afford to lose so many balls. But the sight of Kandol blasting over when through cheers everyone up.
The game ticks on and Luton seem to be losing their drive. Harford brings on Dean Morgan – who inexplicably turned down a move to Leeds a couple of weeks ago – and the winger, the very model of an inconsistent talent, helps turn the heat up again with some good work down the left. Ankergren is booked for time-wasting, seemingly at the behest of an irritated home end.
With 15 minutes to go, Harford throws on Sam Parkin, last season’s great white hope but who has spent most of the 18 months he’s been at the club injured. This is his first game for ages and he immediately starts to put himself about.
Leeds are defending well, throwing their bodies in bravely, and as the game moves into four minutes of stoppage time it looks as if they will hold on. But I’m a firm believer that you always get at least one good chance in the last ten minutes of any game where you’re a goal behind, and that comes two minutes into injury time, when a wonderful cross from Morgan is met by Paul Furlong. He heads just wide of the far post when he should have scored, though, and that is surely it. But then, at a time the papers would print as 90+4, left-back Alan Goodall swings in an almost identical cross and Parkin rises hugely to glance into the corner that Furlong so agonisingly missed.
Kenilworth Road may be one of the worst grounds in the country, and half of its atmosphere may, along with the balls, disappear over those ridiculous boxes that line one side of the pitch, but it can still generate a hell of a racket and the place explodes as the ball hits the net. Parkin, his injury frustrations almost visibly pouring out of him, celebrates like a lunatic and the Leeds fans, at long last, are very, very quiet. After a season when their team have made a habit of scoring last-minute goals, they suddenly remember how sickening it is to be on the receiving end.
There is still time for one last Luton corner. My mind goes back to Harford’s first return in 1991, when he scored twice in the last five minutes to snatch an unlikely victory, and 10,000 people gloriously lost it. Could it happen again today? It doesn’t, of course, but a draw is the least we deserve.
The last time this fixture was played, in October 2006, a post-Blackwell, pre-Wise Leeds were pulverised 5-1, and Luton went fifth in the Championship, with dreams of going higher still. They won just four more league games the rest of the season as they followed Leeds down and almost out of business. Today, however, honour is satisfied. Leeds may be better equipped for the future than Luton, but for both these clubs it is going to be a long way back from the shadows of the past.
From WSC 253 March 2008