Sigh. The pattern of this match followed closely that of so many achingly dismal Tiger efforts in recent weeks. More familiar torment. We played with a frothy sense of fun in the early stages until Luton scored their first goal. At that moment, which arrived roughly mid-way through the first half, our entire team adopted its usual posture of sullen resignation, sulky despair and introspective gloom. No one in our ranks insisted on renewed vigour. No one demanded defiance. We folded.
Collapsing into the void of the humdrum middle of the Fourth Division were:
Well, something like that, anyway. A diamond formation, perhaps - which is to say no more than it was in the shape of a diamond: not, then, "diamond" as in "geezer". Petty and Sneekes were handed the mission of constructing a solid platform in central midfield, which is certainly a worthy ambition and something we have sorely neglected all season. That it didn't come off against Luton doesn't mean Mr Molby isn't on the right lines for the future. Williams was asked to buzz around in midfield, playing more adventurously than his normal right-wing berth permits. Again, I couldn't say it was successful yesterday. But it is encouraging to witness our new manager trying to pep up the dormant Williams. Then, up front, Bradshaw played left side and Lightbourne right, allowing plenty of space ahead of them for the hard-running Alexander. This too didn't work, and I entertain some suspicions it never will.
And so off we went on a delightfully sunny afternoon, with a large Danish flag cheerfully brandished behind the Bunkers goal we were defending. An early Tiger free-kick twenty-five yards from the Luton goal was nudged by Van Blerk into the path of Sneekes and his excellent low shot was beaten away at a stretch by the keeper diving to his right. Then, up at the other end, tricky Frenchmen Valois stumbled through a couple of feeble tackles more by luck than judgement and, off balance, scuffed his shot into Musselwhite's pouch.
A bright beginning began to tarnish. And it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the players' instinctive response to a formation that located Alexander as a lone target man was simply to hoof it long in the general direction of our leading scorer, and hope for the best. It wasn't pretty, and against a wholly composed Luton defence, it wasn't remotely successful either. Lightbourne saw a little of the ball out on the right, but threatened not at all, while poor old Bradshaw was in danger of winning the Ray Daniel memorial award for "playing for the longest period wide on the left without ever getting a pass". Our liveliest moment arrived from a corner, which Mike Edwards headed goalwards only to see his effort parried on the line, but the game was short of attacking rhythm.
Whereupon, just as the Kempton jury began to wonder if Luton really are as good as their recent 93-match winning run claims they are, they helped us to decide by brandishing a piece of compelling evidence. Valois stroked a refined pass into space down the left, a well-judged cross flew directly on to the forehead of the giant centre-forward Howard, who, unmarked eight yards from goal, nodded the ball eagerly past Musselwhite, and it was 1-0.
Well, it wasn't quite that simple, of course. Lightbourne slipped a neat pass into Alexander's path, and the moment was briefly threatening. But Luton stifled the danger. Then a couple of deft touches by Sneekes allowed Williams a surge. But he too was halted by attentive defending. The Tiger heart was pierced, though. When we concede a goal, we don't come roaring back. That's been true for a very long time. And it was true yesterday.
All the more plainly once Luton made it two. Mohan made a horrible mess of an attempt to tackle Spring as the Luton midfielder glided clear of our defence, and our man must have been surprised, and highly relieved, to scramble to his feet to discover that the referee had awarded a free-kick in his favour. But the respite was short-lived. A looping ball soared beyond our defence. Our players watched askance, with Musselwhite particularly culpable for dawdling instead of acting. By the time the ball fell to earth a Luton foot was in control of it, it was duly whisked round the belated advance of Musselwhite, and tucked into our net in front of a slumping Bunkers. Tiger abuse rained down on the linesman, but no offside flag was on show, and we were 2-0 down. Which was the state in which we tottered in at half-time.
As a Tigers fan aware of our descent into feebletude, you might have been expecting a second 45 featuring negligible effort and a general yearning for the summer holidays. And, appropriately enough, given the warming sunshine, that is what you got. It was terribly flat stuff.
Luton, however, are now over almost all their hurdles. And what a very sleek thoroughbred they look. Valois, the floppy-haired Frenchman, catches the eye as an imaginative and skilful footballer and much of Luton's most fluent moves involved his contribution down the left, where he was ably supported by the super-charged left wing-back, Taylor. Howard, a strong but mobile front man, is far too good for this Division, but the pick of the visitors was undoubtedly Matthew Spring. His upright running in midfield reminds me of the qualities of Brian McGinty, but, can you believe it, Spring is actually even more gifted than the sublime Scot. His box-to-box running was exemplary; he never wasted the ball when he had possession; and when we had the ball, he led the chase to recover it for his team. He looks the best player I've seen in the Division this year. The Luton support, which must have been close to 2,000, was in understandably jubilant voice too. I especially enjoyed the home-crayoned "Top Hatters" banner, an effort of the type typically seen at FA Cup Finals in the 1950s, or Shandforth's "Leg Bye" banner.
By the way, I don't draw any parallels between this cuffing and the resolute display we unveiled at Kenilworth Road in November. Luton looked a decent bet for promotion judged by their performance that night. And so it has proved. I say no more than that. City? It's all got too painful.
The second-half, in brief. Whitmore and Holt replaced Williams and Bradshaw, and neither did anything of value. Later on, Norris came on for Lightbourne, and it was Chuck who had what may well have been - my memory is already wiping this game from its files - our only shot of the half. It flew high over the crossbar into Bunkers.
Luton, with points safely bundled up, were perfectly content to participate in a kickaround in the sun and enjoy the relaxed mood. But briefly they chose to remind us who was in charge. Valois, giving Mike Edwards his most torrid afternoon of the campaign, sliced through towards the by-line and fired a vicious cross-shot which Musselwhite palmed away for a corner. And then, shortly afterwards, Luton skated down their left once again, the ball was served up to Howard hulking near the penalty-spot and he struck a confident half-volley firmly past Musselwhite to make it three.
Dismal stuff, and as if to emphasise the point that we had been lacerated beyond hope of recovery, the visitors chose to withdraw the elegant Valois, and play out time at half-pace. Even then there was an opportunity right at the end for Howard to ease through our defence and evade Musselwhite with a deft feint, worn lightly by such a big man, before stroking the ball into our net to complete an impressive hat-trick.
4-0 it finished, and you'll get no complaints from me about that score. The gulf between the sides was every bit as wide as four clear goals and, in fact, given that it was painfully obvious that Luton slipped into top gear only relatively briefly, you might even think we got off lightly. Confidence counts for a lot, but so does a well-chosen and practised system, and Luton are a model of a proper promotion side. They have good players too. So do we. Though, again, you wouldn't have believed it on yesterday's evidence. Sneekes doesn't give the ball away, and for that alone the Dutchman was our best player yesterday. Of the rest, most were ordinary-to-poor, with our nervy goalkeeper a little below even that standard and the deeply disappointing Petty the frailest of the lot. A special word too for our "competitive Aussie", Jason van Blerk, whose desire to contest every single decision with referee and linesman instead of getting back to defend leaves him out of position far too frequently.
As I mooched out of the emptying Kempton at the end of this match, I chanced across a tousled, wild-eyed individual who was declaiming to no one in particular, "Bloody players! Didn't even stop to applaud us at the end! Where's their loyalty?". Recognising him as one of a large group who had been standing behind me, I observed, "Well, what do you expect? You and your mates have just spent most of the second half bawling at the team that they're not fit to wear the shirt, and chanting What a Load of Rubbish, do you think they're going to come over at the end and thank you for it?" The pallid youth to whom I was speaking paused in momentary confusion, before replying "Look mate, I don't exist, as you know fine well, you've just made me up so you can make a point in your match report." I nodded sheepishly as he melted away, but I continued to ponder on just how bad an impression the restless, angry Kempton must have made on our new manager yesterday afternoon. Mr Molby is off to a hammeringly bad start and must know now just how much work is to be done as he, a starry-eyed foreign coaching magician, seeks to make a success of his dream job. In that respect, the only crumb of comfort on which I can feast is that Hull City's traditional connection with the Scottish national team has lately been pulled yet closer.
Report by: Steve Weatherill
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