Prayers are answered if you ask nicely..

Nigel Henderson recants the moment that AFC Wimbledon completed their remarkable rise up the non league ladder.

On Saturday evening, about 20 minutes before the world was due to end according to a well-publicised American preacher, I lifted my eyes up to the greying sky above the City of Manchester Stadium and asked the Man Upstairs for one last favour.

As Danny Kedwell, the AFC Wimbledon captain, lined up the final of his team’s five penalties – one that would, should he score, clinch a “return” to the Football League for a club at least moulded in the Dons’ image, I realised that I wanted this more than anything. More than world peace, more than a successful and contented professional life, more even than dinner with Jennifer Aniston and whatever might follow over coffee at her Hollywood mansion – and even if it did mean eternal damnation.

Coming to a League Two ground near you soon

Kedwell did the job – as you knew the 25-goal striker just might – smashing the ball to the right of Mark Tyler, the Luton goalkeeper – and set off on a sprint of delight in front of the seating where the bulk of his team’s fans were massed. If the promised Rapture was not about to arrive for the world’s faithful, it had certainly arrived for the Wimbledon one.

It was a pinch-yourself moment. I turned to my friend Kev, and we hugged in disbelieving joy. Kev is a Derby County fan but had been at my side at Wembley in 1988 when the “original” Wimbledon had beaten extraordinary odds and a Double-chasing Liverpool team to add an FA Cup victory to their meteoric rise from non-League in 1977 to the top flight. He had also been present at Bottom Meadow, when AFC Wimbledon had played their first competitive game against Sandhurst Town in the lowest league of senior football. Continue reading

Monster Muncher

The Monster Muncher

One of the classic adverts of the 1980’s was surely the Monster Muncher who was not satisfied by the Taj Mahal, The Leaning Tower of Pisa and The Empire State Building before he came across a packet of Chewits.  As the credits rolled, the ad stated that “Chewits were chewier that Barrow-in-Furness bus depot”.  (for a view of the ad click here).  The Ad put Barrow on the map, just like Lorraine Chase did for Luton Airport, or Ian Rush did for Accrington Stanley.  Ironically enough Barrow didn’t have a Bus Depot (it does now apparently)…but it does have a football team, which can claim to be one of the most northerly in English football.

Shadow encroachment

Barrow AFC have made a nice little home for themselves in the Blue Square Premier.  They have actually quite a heritage in the Football League, gracing the old Third Division North in 1921 and then continuing in the leagues for a further fifty one years.  In 1970 the club finished in 8th place in the third tier of English football, but the two following seasons saw the club slip down the leagues until they finished in third from last place in May 1972.  This was the time of the Football League closed shop so there wasn’t any automatic promotion or relegation to the non-leagues.  Barrow applied for re-election, and were pitted against Hereford United from the Southern League.  Perhaps a few clubs were fed up with the long trawl up to Cumbria and that may be the reason why after a second ballot, Hereford were elected into the league at Barrow’s expense.

The club continued to play at the highest levels of the non-league game, and were one of the founder members of the Alliance Conference in 1979.  In 1990 they went to Wembley for the first time, winning the FA Trophy against Leek Town.  After a brief spell in the Unibond League, the club returned to the Blue Square Premier in 2008.  Last season they made waves in the FA Cup, beating Brentford at home in front of the TV cameras and then narrowly losing to Middlesborough at The Riverside where their 7,000 travelling fans almost doubled the fickle Boro fans.

This season it has been more of the same really.  At the end of January the club were in the lower reaches of the Conference, but with games in hand on all those around them.  Another run to the FA Cup third round saw them again travel to the North East, this time at the Stadium of Light where Sunderland beat them 3-0.

The club have a large catchment area with only really Carlisle United and Workington (another old league club now in Blue Square North) to compete with.  The club’s average attendance of 1,290 was slightly above average in the league, but they had started a campaign to raise this to 2,010 for the final ten games of the season…And first up was Luton Town, a club who would certainly bring a few hundred fans.

So why, you may ask was the TBIR extended team out for this game in Cumbria?  Well, at the start of this season I vowed to CMF that I would do “all Blue Square Premier and South clubs this season”.  The only one I didn’t get to last year was in fact Barrow in the top league.  This season they have been joined by Hayes & Yeading (less than 20 miles from TBIR Towers and Gateshead) so it was always one I wanted to visit.  Of course, Football Jo has a few “links” with Luton Town (see Taking The Mike), so we planned to use that as an excuse for a visit “up north”.  Not fancying doing this one in a day (only a 645 mile round trip), I came up with the cunning idea of selling it as a “family” weekend away, and booked Centerparcs some 70 miles away in Whinfell.  This would mean taking the girls out of school for a day (so teachers close your eyes now) but I figured that the school will close for the elections in May as its a Polling Day and so they would owe us a day.

Big Mick and part of the TBIR team

Now Luton Town.  Hmmm.  I was quite outspoken back in October about Mick Harford’s removal (see here), based on the club’s position and the high expectations set by fans and the owners alike.  so when he left the team sat in 6th place, a point outside the play off zone.  Coming into this game the club were in 7th place, a point outside the play off zone.  New boss Richard Money had delivered some improvements, but I think the club, and the fans under estimated how difficult this league would be.  Oxford appeared to be running away with it initially, but Stevenage had now almost matched them result for result, and York with one man goal machine Richard Brodie had opened up a big gap in the top three so in order to stay within touching distance of the Playoffs they would need a result “up north”.

Saturday morning dawned with beautiful sunshine.  Bloody freezing, but a crisp sunny winter’s day.   After a game of Adventure Golf (what happened to the words “Crazy Golf”?  I assume they felt that  it discriminated against those with mental problems.  There is no adventure in slotting a ball  between the legs of a concrete Roman soldier anyway) where Littlest Fuller had a huge tantrum,  resulting in a slamming-down-of-her-golf-club sort of action after she took 3 shots at the third  hole we headed off towards Barrow-in-Furness.  Now we had the “fast” route (69 miles and around 70  minutes down the M6) or the “scenic” route (65 miles or 125 minutes).  On the advice of Stuey  Nichols, one of Barrow’s top chaps, we plumpted for the latter, not having been in this area of  the world before.  So after a brief stop at the most scenic ground in England, Penrith FC’s new  Frenchfields stadium (what other grounds can claim to be bordered by a stream, a 11th century  castle, hills full of sheep and snow capped hills) we headed west past mountain, fell,glen, lake  and all.


After two hours of driving up hill, down dale and along the lakes of Thirlmere, Gramere, Coniston  and Windermere, we decamped next to Barrow AFC’s Holker Street ground and not a moment too soon.   The countryside is beautiful up here but after avoiding walkers, sheep and dry stone walls for the  hundreth time you get a bit bored and long for some litter, grafetti and traffic lights, so the  run down council estates was a welcome site as we entered Barrow.  After a mile or so the huge  floodlights towered over the landscape – Welcome to Holker Street!

And what a proper ground it was too….ancient toilets, turnstile operators willing to give you  “the wink” on Lolly’s age, decent terraces and lovely big floodlights.  Luton’s originally  expected 700+ fans had somehow shrank in the wash and around 300 had made the 283 mile trip  northwards in time for Kevin Nichols to lead the Hatters out.  Many Luton fans I knew who had made  the trip, including Football Jo still had the memories of Wembley still fresh in their minds from  last April.  Opponents on that day, Scunthorpe United were entertaining Crystal Palace today.  Football can be a cruel game.

Barrow 0 Luton Town 1 – Holker Street – Saturday 6th February 2010
Barrow have quite a passionate following.  They have their own Ultras group – Ultras Barrovia, who  more recently had run into problems with the police and stewarding at the ground as it appeared  that the local authorities did not want to see football fans acting like, well, football fans  supporting their team.  Now this is not a story for today (although it we have a deeper look into  it soon) but it was interesting to see the fans holding up a banner before the game highlighting  that passionately supporting your team is not a crime.  Luton, on the other hand had left any  vocal element of their support back down the A590, M6 (Toll) and M1 by the sound of it.  They did  start the brighter team though with Newton making use of some space on the right, but time and  time again his final ball into Craddock and Hatch was poor.

Hatch got himself in the home team’s bad books in the tenth minute when his aerial challenge on  Barrow’s Phil Bolland left the defender with a head wound that ended his game.  Tempers were fraid  for awhile, not helped by Mr Curry in the middle failing to show any consistency, Tikka’ing off  players who should be booked and giving plenty of Korma’s when they should have been goal kicks  (OK that’s my limit – I’m not as creative as Mr Last).

Sponsor my

Football Jo, our “nanny” for our trip away, has a bit of inside knowledge into the Luton team due  to her “contacts” in the game (which I would say have “allegedly” proved right in the case of Mr  Grant at Portsmouth in the case of his relaxation methods most recently) and spent the first half  analysing the play, complete with one of the most shocking handbags ever seen at a football match.   Barrow’s keeper, Tim Deasy provided the most amusement in the half, dribbling the ball around the  on rushing Liam Hatch and essentially taking the piss whenever he had the ball.  At one point he  bent down in front of us to expose his “” advertising on his bum.  Surely a  missed opportunity for a company such as “Peachy Cabs”, “The Bottom Line” or even “Talk Sport”.

If truth be told, as Nessa would say, it was a poor half and when the referee finally blew the  whistle for the break, we headed upstairs to the Cross Bar for a swift pint and a chat to the  locals.  Jo had to admit defeat in her search for husband material, with none of the locals up to  her high standards (Does he have two eyes – check, is he breathing – check, does he own his own  gimp mask – check). Now earlier in the day we had been listening to Liverpool v Everton from  Anfield where a “Sea Fret” had been causing problems for the watching millions on TV.  I had never  head of such a thing, but apparently in the North West of England such fast moving and enveloping  fog was common.

And lo and behold fifteen minutes later when we returned to the terraces we could  hardly see a thing.  The fog had rolled in and for all intense and purposes the Luton fans could  have buggered off home as they couldn’t be seen as well as heard, and quite frankly a draw would  have been a fair result with Carlos Logan and  Nick Chadwick going close for Barrow, and Liam Hatch missing a good chance for Luton.

Neither team would have been too sad if the game would have been abandoned as soon as it hit the  magic game deciding 76th minute (why is this the cut off?  Surely it would make sense for it to be  the 3/4rds mark at 67.5 minutes?) but the referee didn’t see a problem, although for all he could  see either goalkeeper could have walked off and we wouldn’t have noticed.

Luton take the lead....apparently

And where was the  yellow ball?  A white ball is hardly sensible in such conditions but Mr Curry didn’t feel it was  an issue but then again he did not see most of the other contentious decisions all day so at least  in that way he was consistent.  With seven minutes to go the deadlock was broken, we believe.   Apparently Liam Hatch headed in from a Kevin Nichols corner to give the visitors the lead when we  head a muffled cheer and saw the players regroup for a kick off again after a minute or so.

The  temperature had dropped to almost freezing point and we took our leave with injury time being  played out, and after a final experience in the toilets of Calcutta for the girls (I laughed later  when one of the Directors, Neil Chalker wrote in the programme that “we do understand that some of  the toilet facilities are out of date” having seen them with my own eyes) we headed back to the  car and up the road to the biosphere (Centerparcs) where CMF and Littlest Fuller were blissfully  unaware of the Fretting we had experienced.

So another win on the road for Luton, which put the pressure back on the Play off teams, but more  worryingly for Barrow extended their winless home record into a fourth month (the last league home  win was on the 17th October versus Ebbsfleet).  It is a shame that such a proper non-league club  were being dragged into the relegation zone.  The crowd was just over 1,500 which was some 600  short of their 2,010 that they had publically declared as their required average for the final ten  games of the season.  The worrying aspect here is that Luton would have been seen as one of a few  teams who should have boosted the attendance to close to the required level. I cannot see the  likes of Kettering, Crawley Town, Salisbury City or Histon bringing more than a couple of dozen  all of the way here, so the focus must be on incentives to get more locals to attend.  On a day  that Mansfield Town annouced their “pay what you want” incentive for their home game with  Gateshead and got more than 7,000 surely clubs have to wise up to some fresh ideas about how to  engage with the locals.

So in summary…Barrow-in-Furness.  No bus depot, sitting in the middle of some of Europe’s most  unspoilt countryside, a bloody long way from home but decent fans, a decent non-league ground and  its own weather system that can fool the best adventurer in the world.  We salute you.

About Holker Street
Holker Street, whilst being home to the club since 1909 has also played host to Speedway and Rugby League.  The ground has remained unchanged since the redevelopment of the main stand in the mid 1990s. Described as having “a traditional, old fashioned feel”, the ground has three sides of terracing and one all-seater Main Stand, the latter with a capacity of around 1,000.

The Main Stand, backing onto Ray Wilkie Road is raised above the central portion of the pitch, with flat standing on either side. The Popular Side now has the only covered terracing, opposite the Main Stand. The Holker Street end is the traditional base of the home support, though it is now uncovered and thus open to the weather which comes in off Walney Channel; this end is now sometimes given to away fans. Otherwise, away fans are usually accommodated at the steelworks end, which has the smallest and least used terracing. The only seating in this area is a small wooden bench. This end is dominated by the CrossBar which houses the club’s offices.

Holker Street’s facilities are rather spartan, and the ground would probably not be suitable for Football League Two, the level above which Barrow AFC currently play. Stadium share proposals with Barrow Raiders rugby league club are often mooted. The most recent plan was for the two clubs to share a stadium in Barrow’s redeveloped dockland, though no significant plans have ever been made and the Barrow AFC board currently appears to favour further improvement and development of Holker Street.

A little known fact is that after bomb damage in the Second World War, the main stand was repaired using reclaimed wood from unseaworthy ships found in the Irish Sea!

How to find Holker Street
By road: M6 Junction to junction 36, then onto A590 signposted Barrow. Follow A590 all the way to the outskirts of Barrow, entering via industrial route towards the Town Centre. Passing the fire station on the right, take the next left into Wilkie Road. The ground is on the right hand side. Post code for Sat-Nav is LA14 5UW.

The nearest Station is Barrow-in-Furness. On leaving the station, exit onto Holker Street. Turn right and ground is approximately ½ mile on the left.

How to get a ticket for Holker Street
Despite the club’s desire to double attendances to over 2,000, there are still plenty of tickets available on a matchday.  Tickets can be bought in advance from the club in person or by phone – 01229 823061.  Ticket prices for this season are Terracing £13 (concessions £10 – £3), Stand £14 (concessions £11 – £3).

Bloody English weather….

This morning was supposed to be all about Maidstone United…They were playing Histon in the FA Trophy in potentially their biggest game in their history…but the rain started falling and at 2pm the game was off.  With no time to implement plan B I had to endure a shopping trip and Radio 5Live as one of the most predictable results of the season filtered through my head (Birmingham City 1 West Ham United 0, scorer Lee Bowyer @ 40-1). Very disappointing indeed as I had travelled back from my Christmas party and awards ceremony in Copenhagen still wearing by black tie for the occasion.

So not wanting to leave you all hanging, and still finishing off a couple of other blog posts I thought I would do a quick update on a couple of our featured teams this season from the blog..

HB Køge
Our friends from the south of Copenhagen’s season didn’t improve much from when we was there two months ago (see here for our trip).  After their home defeat to the mighty FC Copenhagen in October they drew two and lost four games, leaving them in bottom place with 8 points at the Christmas break.  However, their defensive issues have been sorted and each game as been close with all four defeats being by a single goal.  But there is a bit of good news on the horizon.  Due to a fortunate draw they do have a chance of glory still in the Ekstra Danish Cup.  A couple of wins against lower league teams have put them into the quarter-finals where they will be playing OB in April.  With Brondby and FCK out, they are only two wins off a spot in the Europa League.

Odense BK
Our other featured Danish team continues to impress though.  As well as making it through to the quarter finals of the cup they went into the long winter break still top of the league, leading FCK by a single point.  With Roy Carroll still inspiring them in goal and Peter Utaka heading the scoring charts in the league, Fionia Park is not a place many teams want to visit.  We did, back in October and we loved it!
Since then the club have won four and drawn two goals, but did lose their last game before the break to FCK.  Interesting times in the second half of the season we think.

Bohemian FC
When we were in Dublin for their game against Drogheda United, Bo’s trailed Shamrock Rovers by a couple of points having just lost to them.  After the game lady luck played her hand, and whilst Shamrock faltered, Bo’s form was top draw, winning four and drawing one game to take the title by four points.
Our friends from Drogheda also found some form in the end and stayed up as Bray were relegated.

Durham City
Played 17 lost 17 was the story last month for Durham City in the Northern (Unibond) First Division.  It is now played 20 lost 20 and the team followed up their 11-0 defeat to the now (defunct) Kings Lynn, with a 7-0, a 7-1 and a 4-0 defeat.  However, they did run Frickley Athletic close with a 3-2 two weeks ago.  The players continue to play with spirit and professionalism that is earning them praise from all querters.

Brimsdown Rovers
Despite exiting the FA Cup in the qualifying stages, the team from north London continues its journey to Wembley on another front as they are now in the last 32 of the FA Vase where they will host Daventry Town in January.

And finally, we covered some of the bigger teams in our domestic leagues.  West Ham United is a constant source of jokes and we are almost certain to go into Christmas in the relegation zone and with Dean Ashton, our great white hope having announced his retirement from the game.  Lewes FC go from strength to strength on and off the pitch.  Another fine performance away in the FA Trophy to Hampton & Richmond sees them in the draw (albeit with a replay) for the 2nd round and one defeat in seven has seen the team start to climb the table with the tax man once again satisfied with the financial situation.  Luton Town continue to flounder after the sacking of Big Mick Harford back in September and despite still being in the FA Cup, they are outside the playoff zone in the Blue Square Premier and out of the FA Trophy.

So there we have it – a quick fill in post thanks to the weather!

Keeping the faith?

Preparing the half time rant

Preparing the half time rant

Just over a week ago Luton Town came from two nil down, with ten men, away from home, to beat one of the strongest teams in the league. Lets just repeat that, two nil down, one less man, at the home of one of the strongest teams in the league and they won. Everyone would be delighted yes? Well no. In fact when seventy-two hours later they lost at home to a team ABOVE them in the league the manager paid the ultimate price. “Mutual consent” was the official line, but everyone in football knows that mutual consent simply means, “We want to get rid of you and here is a pay off – do you want it?”.

After the game against Cambridge I managed to grab 10 minutes with Mick Harford.  I had met him before at Morecambe last season and on both occasions he was more than willing to talk and take time out to pose for pictures.  Having got used to being blanked or ignored by players and managers in the course of my writing it made a refreshing change.  And that is why I still cannot understand the reasons behind his removal as manager.  Sure, I am no Luton die-hard but I know enough about football and business as a whole to recognise a decision based on logic and commercial sense, and one made without any assessment of the opportunity costs.

Let me take you back to January 2008. Luton Town, under Kevin Blackwell travel to Anfield for the FA Cup Third round replay against a weakened Liverpool team. The club are in 21st place in League One and are still under the control of am administrator. The club are still being investigated after comments made by previous manager Mike Newell who was hell bent to criticising everything to do with the way the club and football in general was run. The result was unsurprisingly a 5-0 defeat despite holding out for 45 minutes before conceding. A week later Blackwell announced he was going to leave the club in February, citing “financial instability” and the fact that the administrators had simply set up a fire sale to rid the club of some of their best players irrespective of their true value. The Administrators had other ideas and sacked Blackwell just days after the Anfield defeat.

With the club being purchased by a consortium led by Nick Owen, Mick Harford was appointed as caretaker manager, with a brief to try and keep them up. This was Harford’s second spell on the coaching staff at Luton, having previously been part of the successful Joe Kinnear era. Try as he could Harford could not keep the club up, but set about the difficult tasks of reducing the wage bill and getting the team in place and prepared for their first season at this level for eight years. He trimmed the wage bill significantly and said goodbye to many players.

As the club were preparing for a campaign where they felt they could reach the play offs at least, The FA announced that they would start with a ten point penalty relating to “irregular” payments made to agents under the previous administration. A situation similar to giving a speeding fine to a driver of a car that occurred when someone else owned it. Worse was to come as the club then had a further 20 points taken off them relating to the way they came out of administration. So essentially they were fined for keeping the club alive. There was no right to appeal either as the Football League said if they did they would withdraw their “share” essentially relegating them into the non-leagues. So Harford had to start with a young squad, a thirty point penalty and because the club were in Administration, no way to sign anyone new.

The fight went on long into the season but it was inevitable that 30 points was a bridge too far. Without the penalty it wouldn’t have just resulted in a mid table finish, but the club would have been able to attract better players, without the fear of relegation. The club did win its first cup final since Harford himself had inspired the club to a League Cup win in 1988 when they beat Championship bound Scunthorpe United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley.

So the club faced life in the Blue Square Premier. Twenty years ago when automatically promotion/relegation was introduced it was almost a given that the team coming down would bounce straight back up. Lincoln City, Colchester United and Darlington all proved that playing the Football League way was the way to success. But then teams started getting better, more traditional league sides slipped down the league and two clubs were relegated as of 2003.

So what did this all mean? Well as Luton entered the Blue Square Premier for the first time they had to prepare to meet eight other ex-league clubs. One can hardly say that Mansfield Town, Oxford United and Wrexham were small clubs but they had gone through the pain of relegation and set realistic expectations for their return. The passion of their fans had not diminished during their enforced exile but they had all endured the “big club syndrome” which essentially meant that most teams viewed their games against them as cup finals.

So day one came around on a sunny Saturday in August and Luton were drawn to play away at new boys AFC Wimbledon, another team creaking under expectation. Harford had retained many of the players who had vainly fought against relegation and they counted themselves desperately unlucky to get a point from the game after a late AFC penalty squared the score. Ten points from their next three games saw them top the table with Oxford United as of the end of August but from the three games so far at Kenilworth Road it was obvious that teams had come there to simply put ten men behind the ball.

September started with a three nil win at home to Crawley that lifted the club back into the playoff spots and keeping the pressure on leaders Oxford United who had started off as they left off last season. A draw away at surprise package Salisbury was not a bad result, but was then followed by defeats to league leaders Oxford United, and Wrexham before the epic victory against Cambridge United.

So going into the game with Stevenage Borough, The Hatters had won six, drawn four and lost two. Twenty-two points from twelve games. Pro-rata that out through the season and you would get to eighty four points, which has been the better than the amount of points needed to reach the play offs in every season since promotion to the Football League started. Stevenage arrived, parked their bus in the penalty area and scored on the counter attack with five minutes to go. Sure it was a local derby but was the abuse rained down on the manager necessary? Stevenage came into this game on higher in the table and just one defeat to their name (against leaders Oxford), having continued their play off form from last season. They are a good team at this level. Luton dominated the game but failed to put away any chances, a story that was similar to the games against Kettering Town, Chester City and AFC Wimbledon.

So why was it necessary to fire the manager? What did the fans and the board expect to happen? Interestingly enough a few days later a win at home to Tamworth took them back into the play off spaces. Did the team play any different? No – same players, same formation, same style of opposition but a little bit of luck saw them through.

The Blue Square Premier (Football Conference etc) is a difficult league to get out of. For a start only one team is guaranteed an automatic way out. It has been twenty years since Darlington bounced straight back up as champions to the Football League after being relegated out the season before. A few teams had gone up via the play offs after just one year including Shrewsbury Town and Carlisle United and surely that had to be the benchmark for this season? Sacking a manager when you are two points off this position (with a game in hand) smacks of a knee jerk reaction to me.

Harford had been in charge at Luton for essentially a season and a half. During that period the club had been relegated twice, but had also suffered over a year in administration (meaning no players could be signed and the most valuable ones would be sold). They had been docked a total of forty points yet still kept on fighting. They had been to Wembley, and won in front of an estimated thirty thousand Luton fans, yet where were they for the first home game against Mansfield Town in August?

The fickle foot of fate?

The fickle foot of fate?

Football is a fickle friend and very few decisions are made with long-term logic. Of course the club will say the acted in the “best interests of the fans” but what happens next? A new man is appointed, demands a transfer kitty of his own and needs “time to bed in his team” which essentially means if they miss the playoffs at the end of the season “it’s not my fault”. And if that happens? Well the club has to be prepared for two strong teams entering the league next season, fresh from the Football League and the whole process starts again.

Football defies all logic. In a business world, expectations in terms of success are set realistically, but also take account of externalities. Companies rarely change their day-to-day management because of one bad month (and that is what Luton had in September). They review at the end of the year. In a time when Football likes to think it is a commercial organisation decisions like this hardly give external stakeholders faith in how clubs are run and the long term viability of their investments. Perhaps I am too logical or have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

Taking the Mick – one last time….

A change in format this weekend….A match report first, followed by an exclusive chat with Luton Town’s Mick Harford in his last ever public interview as the Hatters Manager, the newest fan of the Blog.  And what a game it was.  Seven goals, appalling refereeing, a sending off, the first appearance of the season of the riot police, Football Jo on her best behaviour for some reason and a reality TV star…not often you can say you see all of that in 90 minutes of Indian Summer.  All that was missing was my EFW logo…Please forgive me Danny…

Cambridge United 3 Luton Town 4 – The Abbey Stadium -Saturday 26th September 2009

The start of the comeback

The start of the comeback

Forty three minutes into this game Liam Hatch needlessly challenged late for the ball in no-mans land near the Cambridge by line and was shown a second yellow card.  Luton were 2-0 down, playing against Cambridge and a referee who seemed to be blind to what had gone on before, and coming on the back of some important defeats on the road recently, had nearly two thousand away fans baying for blood.

The game had started well for the Hatters.  They passed the ball well, creating some early chances for Hatch and Gallen up front.  But in the twentieth minute it was the home team who took the lead against the run of play as Courtney Pitt turned in the ball from close range after Mark Beesley had squared the ball.  One became two thirteen minutes later when the referee saw a challenge in the box Anthony Tonkins that nobody else in the stadium saw and he awarded a penalty.  Liam Hatch protested too much and was booked for his haranguing of the official.  Holroyd made no mistake from the spot, and it looked all over for the visitors.  After recent away defeats at Oxford and Wrexham many of the fans had come expecting a better performance, and despite the efforts of the players, they had been done up like a kipper by the officials.  The away fans occupying the terrace along the side of the pitch let their feelings be known and some over zealous policing took a manageable situation to the brink of all out hostility.

On the other side of the pitch in the Main Stand the non-playing Luton Town players had had enough of the abuse being levelled at them, and led by Kevin Nicholls they attempted to head to the South Stand, only to be blocked by the police who insisted they went down the tunnel instead.  Harford looked in disbelief as Hatch picked up his second yellow and stayed behind on the edge of the tunnel to have “a word” with the referee, knowing that public opinion was definitely swinging against him.

What was said at half time will remain a mystery (we did ask him afterwards) but whatever it was it deserves to be up their with Al Pacino’s speech in The Whole Nine Yards. Three minutes were on the clock when the veteran Kevin Gallen turned the ball in from close range after the keeper had made a great save.  Luton went on the attack immediately afterwards, coming close to an equaliser before five second half minutes were on the clock.  They did have to wait though until the 60th minute for that.  Gallen picked up a loose ball outside the penalty area and squared it to Ross Jarvis who picked his spot and gave the Cambridge keeper no chance.  The fans went wild, quite unsure as to what they were seeing on the pitch.  The local police took the jubilation for some sort of mass violence and went into the crowd to try and remove a few of the most “boisterous” fans.  A minute later it was 3-2 to Luton as Kevin Gallen found himself one on one with the keeper, and despite his effort being saved, Jake Howells was on had to complete a remarkable recovering.  In the ensuing celebrations Howells hurt his leg and another twist to this amazing game took place as he could take no further part.

So three goals in eighteen second half minutes had left the home teams and fans stunned.  Martin Ling made a tactical change, and for the first time in the half Cambridge launched an attack against the ten men.  Two minutes after Luton had taken the lead it was 3-3 as the impressive Tyler in the Luton goal made a great save from Hatswell’s header only for Holroyd to smash the ball home form the equaliser.

Five minutes later Cambridge almost took the lead as another Tyler save rolled along the goal line just needing a touch from anyone.  The crowd were then treated to ten minutes to relative calm until the referee decided to take centre stage, awarding a penalty to Luton after some pushing and shoving in the area by Brian Saah, who in fairness had actually been booked for a similar offence a few minutes before.  Harsh, but equalling up the decision from the first half.  Up stepped Gallen and it was 4-3 to Luton.

Five minutes of injury time proved too much for many fans who could not watch, but the final whistle was greeted by jubilation from the 1,700 away fans (including Cerys Matthews from Catatonia), although the scenes of Riot Police on the field, police dogs outside the gates and a police helicopter flying overhead was hardly what you expect from Blue Square football.  Game of the season so far and a win that took Luton shooting back up the table.

The team here at The Ball is Round pride ourselves on our contacts within the game.  After a year of working with Danny Last and his magnificent Logo gallery with all of the good and famous in Non-League football, I though it was time I delivered a big fish of my own. After all it’s not what you know but what you know about someone else that you can use to your advantage that matters.  Now I am not revealing any of my sources, but when I approached Mick Harford, current manager of Luton Town and generally all round nice guy, he agreed to a chat within seconds after the game versus Cambridge United with Football Jo, Lolly and myself.

Harford build a reputation through his career as a no-nonsense type of centre forward.  Blessed with height and more than a match for most centre backs, he played for ten clubs over a career that spanned over 20 years, 600 matches and nearly 200 goals.  A goal every 3 games is a decent return in anyone’s book and coming in a time when the Premier League was at an embryonic stage and the foreign invasion had not yet started you can only wonder was he would have achieved in the modern game where training regimes would have strengthened his game, and the quality of the ball into the box would have been so much better for him to get on the end of.

He was also known as someone not to mess with.  Legend goes that when he joined Wimbledon in 1994 he was spared the usual new signing initiation ritual for the other squad members fear of reprisal – and this included a squad including shrinking violets such as Vinnie Jones, Robbie Earle and Marcus Gayle.  He stayed on at Wimbledon after his playing career ended at the grand old age of 38 and picked up his coaching badges, and working with Joe Kinnear.  When Kinnear went onto Luton a few years later Mick went with him and masterminded their promotion season in 2001/02.  Spells at Nottingham Forest, Colchester United, Rotherham United and Queens Park Rangers followed before the opportunity arose to return to Luton Town in February 2008.  He joined a club in turmoil from the previous management and coaching staff, a club destined for relegation and being investigated by the Football League for all sorts of “irregularities” he inherited.  Try as he could the club could not avoid Administration and the ten point penalty that went with it effectively ended all hope long before the final ball was kicked.

Happy with the interview

Happy with the interview

Worse was to follow in the summer when the club were hit with a massive 30 point penalty for various reasons by the Football League, including exiting Administration – which for some reason the footballing authorities deemed twice the sin as entering it in the first place.  Harford vowed the club would try to survive against all the odds, and pulled off a remarkable achievement in guiding the club to the Johnstones Paint Trophy Final at Wembley, and then beating Championship bound Scunthorpe United in extra time.  Without that penalty the club would have finished in 15th place in the division – justice? I don’t think so.

At what point last season did you realise all of your hard effort was in vain?
When I was told that we had been relegated after the match at home with Chesterfield in April.   Whilst we came away with a 0-0 draw from that game Grimsby Town’s 2-0 defeat of Notts County meant it was mathematically impossible with just four games left.

What did you say to the team when relegation was confirmed in the dressing room?
There wasn’t alot of talking going on but after a while when the players had realised the situation I said “Look at the clock and remember this time and date. This is the new beginning of Luton Town FC. Thanks for all your efforts and I’m sorry it was all in vain.”

For the final four games when you knew you were going to be playing in the Blue Square Premier, how did you motivate yourself and the team?
Motivation to go out on the field and play our best was never an issue because we are professionals and we had a responsibility to the fans and the other teams in the league who still had something to play for.

Turning the attention to this season, what will you class “success” in May?
Promotion.  Simple as that.  Getting Luton Town back into the Football League.


Preparing the half time rant

Preparing the half time rant

Tuesday 11th August 2009.  First home game at this level in front of an impressive 7,000+ crowd at Kenilworth Road.  Eighteen minutes on the clock and Mansfield take the lead. What went through your mind?
Here we go again! But the plan worked over the ninety minutes and a 4-1 victory was a fair reflection on the chances we created.

How much homework have you done on the division as a whole?
A lot and it’s an ongoing process.  There are quite a few teams we have never come up against and so homework is vital –  Watching games, speaking to other managers and players.  We only have one objective this season – Promotion.  That is what I will use as the yardstick for success.  In the first few weeks of the season it is obvious from the teams we have played (such as Forest Green, Gateshead, Kettering Town, etc) that they raise their game against us.  We are a big scalp for them, and for many it is their Cup Final.  The one game I am looking forward to is the one that wins us promotion.

Luton+Town+v+Scunthorpe+United+Johnstones+3VUvK3cbpY_lAfter your success in winning the JPT at Wembley Stadium last year, what about a nice cup run?
Of course I wouldn’t say know but the league is the priority.  If I had a hand in the draw I’d love to get Watford or Millwall – that would be quite an atmosphere!

 So was that final the highpoint of your career in football?
As a manager definitely.  Not many managers these days can say they have won a cup at Wembley.  I have been very fortunate to win one both as a player and a manager but the win last season was special as being a manager means you are responsible for so much more.  
My highpoint as a player was my second cap for England against Denmark at Wembley in 1989.  One of the lowpoints was the moment I realised that I couldn’t carry on playing.  After Wimbledon played Aston Villa in 1998 I damaged by Achilles again and realised that I would need an operation.  At the age of 38 1/2 I felt that was a step too far.

So you played for England under the late Sir Bobby Robson.  How did you find out you had been called up into the squad?
At the time I was playing at Luton Town, and we were on a great run (it was the year that we went on to beat Arsenal at Wembley in the League Cup Final).  England had a friendly coming up away to Israel in Tel Aviv.  I found out I had been selected for the squad after the FA sent a letter to the Club, and the manager Ray Harford (no relation I should add!) called me into his office and told me.  I made my debut in the second half when I came on for Clive Allen.  The game ended up 0-0.

So some of the best moments of your career have come at Luton
Yes.  Both as a player and a manager.  And that is why it was so disappointing to be relegated last season because even with the 30 penalty point I thought we could get out of it.  I had a great time with the club as a player and settled in the area.  My son was born in Luton, I have so many friends in the area and have built a strong affiliation with the people at the club.

Who inspired you as a player, and as a manager?
I was a Sunderland fan from boyhood and was greatly inspired to become a player by Bob Stokoes team that beat the great Leeds United team in the 1973 FA Cup Final.  Brian Clough stands out as a great inspiration as a manager – he wanted his team to play good football and never wavered or compromised.


Lolly and big Mick

Lolly and big Mick

Looking back on your career which I believe covered nearly 600 games for 10 different clubs, what stadiums stand out?
As a player I thoroughly enjoyed playing at Wembley obviously, as well as Old Trafford.  As a manager I remember going to West Ham’s Upton Park at Christmas in 2004 when I was at Nottingham Forest and that was one of the most hostile places I had been – no Christmas cheer for us there!

Best player you played with?
Chris Waddle without a doubt!  I was a strong, abrasive and technical player, and he was cultured and skillful.  What a combination!

 So lets turn our attention to the game today.  What do you think about the events at Manchester City and Real Madrid in the past few months?
Good luck to them!  But in the longer term it will push English players further down the ladder at Manchester City and could weaken our national side.  In terms of the whole Ronaldo saga I am not sure whether they wanted the player or the brand.  Either way £80million is a hell of a lot of money to spend on one person.

Talk us through some of your matchday preparations
I have a Lucky Suit that has seen me through some good times.  After the game I will sit down and watch the video of the game, look at the components of the team and individuals and plan some ways to improve and ways to eliminate the mistakes.  I then translate these into plans for training.  Alas my knee is too sore for me to take part myself! I do make a habit of never listening to the football phone ins!

So there we have it.  Mick has promised to give us more during the season, and we wish them well and officially appoint Luton Town our “Football Friend” of the Blue Square Premier League this season, and Mick an honorary member into the TBIR Hall of Fame.