Wednesday 18 February ~
Last night Luton Town reached the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final, giving their fans something to cheer after the trials of a season that started on minus 30 points. They dropped out of the top division the year before the Premier League began – we look back on a turning point in that season, New Year's Day 1992. From WSC 122 (April 1997)
Des Walker has played over 500 games in his League career. He has scored just one goal. I saw it. I hate him for it. 1991-92 was Luton Town’s tenth season in the old first division and, with the Premier League looming, survival for an 11th was vital: David Pleat was back as manager after Jim Ryan was rewarded for somehow avoiding relegation the previous season by getting the sack.
t took the Town five games just to score, and by the Christmas programme they had managed a meagre two wins, both at home, leaving them with the weight of the division firmly on their shoulders. Aside from the odd hammering, the boys would compete equally for 80 minutes and then fall to pieces.
Seeking an experienced backbone to his team, Pleat scoured the league for cheap war-horses: Trevor Peake, now reserve-team coach and still emergency centre-half at 40; Chris Kamara, who lumbered around midfield, hacking down opponents every four minutes (I know because I used to time him); Mick “God” Harford, back to universal adoration for his second spell with the club; and one-time hero Brian Stein, back but so far past it he made Kamara look pacey. Later on Pleat proved his complete lack of confidence in goalie Alec Chamberlain, when along came the grey-haired, bequiffed and splendidly useless Mervyn Day.
But someone up there decided to give Pleaty’s battlers a chance, handing them three consecutive home games over Christmas. First Coventry fell to the kind of defensive chaos we jealously thought the preserve of Captain Peakey and his band, and then Arsenal and Chelsea shrivelled before the Kenilworth roar.
Off the bottom for the first time in ages and with real optimism in the air, the New Year’s Day game at Nottingham Forest seemed the ideal time to register our first away win of the season. And when Mark Pembridge scored after just 33 seconds, the country’s first goal of the year, our dreams of shoving those predictions up some very dark places came a little closer to reality.
For the next 92-and-a-half minutes, Luton defended stoutly as the Forest fans began to get on their team’s back, as ever shouting the ridiculous “Come on you Tricky Trees” without a trace of embarrassment. Then, deep into injury time, Des Walker picked up a long clearance inside his own half. The referee was still showing an inexplicable lack of interest in his watch. Des began to run down the left wing. It was when he made it over the halfway line, smashing through that glass wall that everyone assumed divided him from the opposition half, that I started to worry.
To a man, the Luton team just stood in disbelief, as if a spaceship had landed in the centre circle and a Watford player run out. On Des galloped, conspicuously unimpeded by Luton challenges. He raced into the area and faced up to our keeper, Steve Sutton.
By a cruel irony, our last line of defence turned out to be our worst. On loan from Forest, Sutton clearly had trouble recognizing Des from the front and, as he racked his brain for a name, also stood rooted as the ball rocketed into the top corner, a good two or three millimetres to his right. If Sutton had just wiggled his ears, he would have touched it over the bar. But, even today, I can still see that net bulge.
Time stopped for a moment. Then there was a loud slapping noise as Luton heads were collectively buried in hands and Walker sprinted, yelling and waving, back to the half of the pitch he called home, pursued by the whole Forest team. Shame he didn’t show such a turn of speed when chasing that Norwegian in the World Cup qualifier in Oslo 18 months later.
In the bedlam that followed, Walker was tottering around the centre spot, seemingly on the verge of collapse, arms outstretched in supplication. The Forest fans danced with delight and amazement once they finally believed the evidence of their own eyes. Little did they know it, but they were also dancing on our First Division grave.
Luton Town never did win an away game that season. Late collapses destroyed them time and again. On their next two trips, they were 1-0 up at Anfield with five minutes to go and 2-1 up at Hillsborough with ten on the clock. They lost 2-1 and 3-2 respectively.
Even then they could have stayed up with a last day win at bottom club Notts County. But, despite taking the lead in front of 5,000 unjustifiably optimistic Hatters fans, Alec Chamberlain’s notorious fear of far post crosses (a phobia I shared after his first few games) made Luton one of three unique teams to be relegated from Division One to Division One. (County and West Ham were the others, trivia buffs.)
And it’s all Des Walker’s fault. If he’d stayed in the half he’s spent the whole of his career before and after that game patrolling, we’d have had four wins on the trot, our first away win and a place out of the relegation zone.
As I trek to footballing outposts such as Rotherham, Plymouth and Watford, do you think I’m mean enough to take comfort and even a measure of revenge in Des Walker’s subsequent fall from grace? You bet I am. Neil Rose