Andrew Bennett, author of 'Newmarket Road Roughs' (Celery & Coconuts Vol.1) - available to pre-order now - endures 'Derby Day' at the Cambs Glass (Abbey) Stadium:
(Photograph c/o Simon Lankester Photography)
29th December 2001. That was the last time United played a proper local derby against Peterborough United, a goalless draw in front of 5,665 at the Abbey on their way to relegation from the Second Division. The U’s fielded a side with characters like Lionel Perez, Paul Wanless, Tom Youngs, Shane Tudor and Luke Guttridge, while the Posh’s team included such luminaries as Jimmy Bullard, Leon McKenzie, Marc Joseph, David Oldfield and our nemesis, Mark Tyler. Goodies versus Baddies.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s we enjoyed our purest derbies against Cambridge City, bitter and passionate affairs between the snooty club from north of the Cam and the upstarts they dubbed the ‘Bread and Dripping Boys’ from south of the river.
That rivalry was suspended when City were relegated in 1968 and killed off when United were elected to the Football League two years later. They were then replaced by the Posh, supplying a satisfyingly chippy enmity which gave us pantomime villains to boo like Ken Charlery and Mick Halsall. But relegation, and subsequent demotion to the Grimpen Mire of the Conference, presented us with a procession of inadequate stand-ins.
Southend? Too far away. Orient? The ‘M11 derby’? Pur-leeze. Rushden & Diamonds? A cheap prefab of a club built of soggy cardboard. Stevenage? A club and town which are the very epitome of ‘meh,’ although we did have some pleasingly acrimonious encounters for a short while. Braintree? Oh come on, they play in a swamp. Histon? An Icarus of a club that is now plummeting back down to its natural level, the Eastern Counties League. Their team now consists of a gaggle of bewildered children and they lost 5-0 at home today in front of a crowd of 154 and are bottom of their division with one point and one goal from five matches.
So that only leaves Luton Town. Their traditional rivals are Watford, but they are as likely to play them in a League match any time soon as they are to winning the Champions League. We have been in the same division as each other now for eight seasons, have enjoyed some fairly interesting contests, got promoted together and have seen players and officials move between the clubs to sometimes hostile reactions. It’s not the same, no, but I guess it will just have to do for now. And I can say entirely objectively that their ground, and their town, are not the most pleasant places to have to visit. I am sure they will agree that we all need something – and someone – to dislike of a fairly local nature to bring a bit of colour and vim to our season. We almost need each other. I said almost.
For our last five seasons in the Conference, United’s largest away attendance of the season was at Kenilworth Road, while four out of five of United’s best home crowds of those seasons were against Luton. The rivalry has cooled a little now we are amongst the big beasts of the Football League, but a decent crowd of 5,606 was in attendance today, a little down on the last few seasons but not helped by the game’s all-ticket status and still being during the summer holidays. The weather was suitably humid with a hint of tepid rain in the air, and the alcohol bar behind the Habbin was closed, presumably because the sight of a Luton shirt is like the full moon to United fans and a glass of beer turns them into psychotic maniacs. The ground staff were at least allowed to use their forks on the pitch after the laughable bans of previous years. One day all football fans will be treated like grown-ups.
Both clubs have now jettisoned the veteran managers who got them out of non-League’s clammy clutches, and under Nathan Jones the visitors have made a supremely good start to the season, not that you would know it from the matchday programme because there was no league table in it. The dreaded Mark Tyler has now returned to London Road, but their team included one familiar face in former U’s loanee Cameron McGeehan, a Little Lord Fauntleroy lookalike with the curliest hair in the League.
United line-up: Norris; Taylor, Legge, Coulson, Adams; Mingoia, Dunne, Clark, Berry; Melito, Williamson
On the bench: Gregory, Long, Dallison, Gosling, Newton, Pigott, Ikpeazu
Shaun Derry selected the same starting XI which performed so creditably at Wolves on Tuesday in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Medy Elito supporting Ben Williamson up front, while there was a new name amongst the substitutes, imposing striker Uche Ikpeazu, a big lad with a build pleasingly reminiscent of Trevor Benjamin.
Over 1,600 fans made the short journey from Bedfordshire and their presence seemed to inspire the Corona, both ends making plenty of noise and creating a splendid derby-ish atmosphere from the off. Both teams responded and went at each other with pace and commitment, and within four minutes the woodwork had taken a jolt when Stephen O’Donnell’s cross was punched away under pressure by Will Norris and Jordan Cook volleyed it spectacularly against the left-hand post from 20 yards.
United responded well. Not possessing a tall target man, they were compelled to play the ball through midfield and Piero Mingoia set up Luke Berry for a header and a shot within the following three minutes which were both saved by keeper Christian Walton.
It was an entertaining encounter between two teams playing positive attacking football with no quarter given or expected. On the quarter hour O’Donnell crossed, Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu dummied and Jack Marriott blasted a tremendous 25-yarder which was tipped over the bar by Norris, and five minutes later Luton really should have been ahead when Mpanzu played a one-two with Danny Hylton to dance through the middle of the United defence, but with the goal at his mercy he slid his shot wide from near the penalty spot.
Again the U’s fought back. Elito slid a ball through for Mingoia to scamper down the middle, he found Berry arriving from the left but the skipper’s shot was beaten away by Walton, then Leon Legge blasted over following a free-kick into the box and Max Clark had a shot blocked.
United came their closest yet on 26 when Williamson crossed for Elito in the middle, but his low shot from close range was kept out by a superb reaction save from Walton on his line. Two minutes later Clark crossed for Williamson to head wide. At this stage Mingoia, Clark, Berry and James Dunne were bossing the midfield, and before the half-hour was up Luton decided to make a tactical change to counteract them, withdrawing Olly Lee from their midfield, pushing Glen Rea into the holding role from centre-back, and introducing captain Scott Cuthbert into his place in the back four.
Dunne then advanced and shot wildly over, while McGeehan countered with a run from deep which culminated in an equally inaccurate pot at goal on 33. A minute later Clark was yellow-carded for a foul on Cook, followed into the book six minutes later by O’Donnell for handball. Williamson had a shot blocked, and a breathless first half ended goalless but full of entertainment. United had shaded it territorially, but Luton had created the best chances. Now could the teams keep up the pace after the break?
It certainly looked that way once battle recommenced. Four minutes after the restart Mingoia darted through the Luton lines from deep then found Elito, whose flick ran wide of the far post, but he was in any case given offside. Two minutes later Mingoia’s free-kick found the head of Berry, and his effort was clutched by Walton, but United still looked the likeliest to score at this stage.
Rea was booked on the hour for a foul on Mingoia, and two minutes later Blair Adams conceded an unnecessary free-kick out on the left flank. Cook swung it into the area, Rea won a header unchallenged and somehow it bounced across the United six-yard box past a cluster of amber shirts and nestled inside the unguarded far post for the softest of goals. 1-0.
For some reason it was credited to Josh Coulson as an own goal, but the video seems to show Rea getting a clean contact well above the United defender.
Within a minute United’s afternoon came crashing down upon them. Marriott chased a ball down the Luton left with Adams way out of position upfield. Coulson got back to cover, but then allowed the Luton striker to cut inside him, affording him far too much space, and he took full advantage by lashing a thunderous strike past Norris, who perhaps should have done better as it was more or less straight at him. Two minutes, two goals: 2-0.
It was a shattering blow for the hosts. Derry had already been preparing a double substitution and now went for it, withdrawing Clark and Williamson for Ikpeazu and Joe Pigott and switching to an orthodox 4-4-2 with Elito wide left. As a plan B it was not exactly subtle – bring on the big lads – but it was different.
Ikpeazu, without a club this summer, was clearly some way from full match fitness, but he swiftly demonstrated that he knew how to use his sizeable frame to shield the ball and went on to win a number of useful free-kicks. Berry crossed for Legge to draw a catch from Walton on 68, while Mingoia had a shot blocked by a sea of white-clad bodies five minutes later, but now United’s play seemed to lack the fluency and belief of the first hour and Luton appeared content to sit on their lead, waste time where they could and catch United on the break.
On 76 Mpanzu nutmegged Adams on the right byline after appearing to lose his footing, hared into the box and set up O’Donnell for a shot across goal that flew just wide of the far post, while up the other end Ikpeazu made room for a shot but it was blocked by Pigott, an inevitable result of the two never having played together before; indeed, they had barely met.
With ten minutes to go Derry went for (even more) broke by introducing Jake Gosling for Adams and going to a back three, but it all seemed a bit desperate and unconvincing. Legge and Hylton had a flare-up in which the latter seemed to be the aggressor, but he avoided a card from timid referee Webb, and on 83 Legge won a free-kick on the edge of the Luton box from the same opponent.
Webb paced out the requisite ten yards, but the Luton wall retreated no more than eight or nine at best, and in an astonishing display of feebleness the referee just gave up and drew his line of silly string in front of the Hatters players’ boots where they stood. Berry’s free-kick was aimed over the wall for the corner but sailed lamely over the bar to sum up a disappointing second half for the United skipper.
Hylton was finally awarded the yellow card he had been spoiling for on 86 for a foul on Gosling, then Jonathan Smith replaced Mpanzu to eat up some more time. Mingoia blazed a hopeful shot over the top, then United were caught on the break when Cook slalomed into their box, but Norris blocked well with his legs, Hylton’s follow-up was blocked then McGeehan hammered over the top.
McGeehan’s next action was to instigate a head-to-head argument with a United player to whom he appeared to raise his hands, but ref Mr Feeble kept his cards to himself and contented himself with an unconvincing lecture like Mr Barrowclough in Porridge. Five minutes added time was announced, but all belief had long since left a dispirited U’s side. Isaac Vassell replaced Marriott to waste more time, and the icing on the cack came right at the end when Berry hopelessly misjudged a pass on halfway, Snith easily intercepted, sprinted half the length of the field then pulled it across the box for the arriving Hylton to slide it into the corner from ten yards for the coup de grace. 3-0.
There was barely time to kick off again before the final whistle went and Luton celebrated gleefully. On the balance of play 3-0 was a terribly harsh scoreline on United, particularly on the general standard of their play for the first hour, but any team which cannot score at one end and keeps letting in soft goals at the other can expect nothing better.
So where do we go from here? Is it down to the lake, I fear? The players’ confidence seems to be dropping game by game and for all the manager’s efforts he does not appear to have any answers. The rot must be stopped quickly, for all that it is early in the season, and September looks like another difficult month in terms of fixtures. Derry must know that if his team are still at the bottom in a few weeks’ time his position will be close to untenable. Perhaps he can turn it around; let us hope so. Perhaps the injured players will suddenly come back and transform the team’s fortunes. We would like to think so. The alternative, a “local derby” next season with Boreham Wood, is just too horrific to even contemplate…
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