The FA Cup, then, will reach one hundred straight years without a non-league club reaching its quarter-finals. It was in 1914 that Queens Park Rangers, then of the Southern League, made it that far before losing by two goals to one against Liverpool at Anfield. Much has changed since then, but there was a feeling in the air that perhaps, just perhaps, Luton Town, who had already beaten Championship and Premier League opponents in this year’s competition in the form of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Norwich City, could equal them. This afternoon at Kenilworth Road, however, Millwall were too strong, too economical and too professional for them, and it is the club from the Football League Championship that has filled the first place in this year’s FA Cup quarter-final draw.
Since the draw was made, of course, much has been made of the 1985 FA Cup quarter-final match between the two sides that ended in a pitched battle between the police in front of the television cameras of the BBC and resulted in the much-hated – and eventually rejected, apart from at Luton, where the club’s Tory MP owner introduced it anyway – proposal of ID card membership scheme for supporters. Never mind the fact that the two clubs had played each other fourteen times since then without any significant incidents occurring. The world, if you believed some columnists, was going to end in Bedfordshire this afternoon. This didn’t happen today, though, and the sensationalists were left disappointed. What were left with was a competitive match in which Luton played a full part, and if it hadn’t been for some catastrophic first half defending and an excellent performance from the Millwall goalkeeper David Forde the final scoreline might even have been somewhat It took just twelve minutes for the home defence to implode. A header back from Ronnie Henry should have made for a comfortable clearance, but his team-mate Janos Kovacs was taking a moment out from the match to practice his best thousand yard stare, and James Henry nipped in, ran the ball around goalkeeper Mark Tyler and into an empty net.
Luton, however, were farfrom out of the game at this point, and had Arnaud Mendy’s close-range shot not been brilliantly blocked by Forde there might have been cause for Millwall to start getting the jitters. As it turned out, however, for all of Luton’s possession – it would have been exceptionally difficult for an outsider to pick out that one of these sides was three divisions below the other – the scares for the Millwall defence became fewer and further between, and with nine minutes of the half left to play the Luton defence failed to clear a cross and Rob Hulse looped the ball over Tyler and in from an improbable angle. Millwall’s half-time lead was scarcely deserved. Luton had created the better chances and matched Millwall in every department apart from defensive composure. That single difference, however, was enough for the visitors to go in at half-time with one foot already in the next round of the competition.
As the second half wore on, Luton finally started to run out of steam and there was an air of the perfunctory about the third goal, scored by substitute Dany N’Guessan with four minutes left to play. The final score of three-nil was harsh on Luton Town, who had played a full part in a match which felt tighter than that score might suggest, but the margins between victory and defeat in football are frequently slender and while we might feel a degree of sympathy for Luton over the extent of the final score, it might just as easily be argued that Millwall seldom put a foot wrong all afternoon. Manager Kenny Jackett had his team well-prepared and they did everything that they needed to do in order to get through to the next round. It’s the first time that Millwall have got this far in the FA Cup since 2004, when they got all the way to the final before losing to Manchester United in Cardiff. For them, a first ever trip to Wembley for the final of a major competition – and no, we’re not classing the 1999 Football League Trophy as a “major competition” – is now potentially just two matches away.
For Luton Town, meanwhile, getting a place back in the Football League returns to the top of the club’s agenda. The team’s form since winning at Norwich City in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup has been dreadful, with just one draw, at home against Forest Green Rovers, and three defeats, against Grimsby Town in the FA Trophy as well as Barrow and Dartford in the league. Paul Buckle’s team sits in seventh place in the Blue Square Bet Premier, and the fourteen points between them and league leaders Grimsby Town may already too big a gap to bridge, even if there is still more than a third of the season left to play and Luton have two or three games in hand on most of the sides above them. They are, however, just six points off the play-off places and whether Paul Buckle lasts the summer at Kenilworth Road may well come to depend on whether he can drag the team up a couple of places in the table. Luton Town will now be playing to set straight the injustice of the mismanagement of their club which led – with swingeing points deductions – to their exit form the Football League in the first place. This afternoon, however, they were beaten fair and square.
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