Luton Town, it’s probably fair to say, go into this evening’s FA Cup Second Round match against Charlton Athletic with a point to prove. It’s not so long ago that the likes of Charlton were the meat and bread of Luton, but the last couple of years have been harsh on the club, a points deduction that was in itself enough to secure relegation into non-league football for the first time since 1920. Their first season in the Blue Square Premier ended in a play-off defeat at the hands of York City amid ugly scenes at Kenilworth Road last season and this season sees them in third place in the table, two points from the leaders, Wimbledon, but with no guarantees of a return to the Football League at the end of this season.
If this evening’s match proves anything, it proves that the blurring of the lines between the lower reaches of the Football League and the top of the Blue Square Premier is real, rather than imagined. Charlton Athletic have also suffered a fall from grace of sorts, from the Premier League to League One, but they are also in the midst of a promotion battle to start something approaching a return to happier days. They, however, may look upon this match with a degree of trepidation. They lost at Northwich Victoria in the First Round last year and were matched ball for ball in the first match against Luton at The Valley just over a week and a half ago. This may be Non-League vs League, but it is also a match between two professional clubs, with the reward of a trip to White Hart Lane to play Tottenham Hotspur at stake.
If nothing else, it’s a colourful evening at Kenilworth Road. Those amongst us that pay no heed to the non-league game may be surprised to see that Luton changed their colours to orange and white upon relegation (as part of a sponsorship deal with Easyjet), while Charlton Athletic are similarly peacock-like in their change kit of sky blue and navy blue. First, though, a minute of applause and reflection for the former Luton defender Wally Shanks, who died last weekend. Warmly observed on a cold evening, it’s an appropriate tribute to a man that served his club for more than a decade.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a cold evening, the match starts at a frantic pace, and Luton look up to the job. They’re tight, reasonably well organised and only somewhat over-reliant on that curse of modern lower-league football, the diagonal cross into the penalty area. Charlton feel out of sorts, and Luton almost grab an early lead with chances for Zdenek Kroca and Amari Morgan-Smith. It takes, however, a long time for them to break the Charlton Athletic defence down, but they manage it with seven minutes to play of the half, with Kroca turning in a corner from the right-hand side. The goal proves to be a turning point in the match, but possibly not quite in the way that Luton may have hoped. As if awoken from their slumber, Charlton finally manage to rouse themselves from their slumber and a minute from half-time Simon Francis crosses from the right-hand side and Scott Wagstaff turns the ball tidily past the Luton goalkeeper Tyler.
The scores, then, are level at half-time and this is a little harsh on Luton, but they start the second half encouragingly, although chances are even thinner on the ground for them than they were in the first half. As time wears on, however, Charlton start to exert their authority, and mid-way through the half they grab the lead. It’s a goal which combines a touch of luck with some outstanding skill and brilliant improvisation. Johnnie Jackson shoots from an angle, and Joe Anyinsah reacts like lightning to flick the ball wide of Tyler and into the corner of the net. It’s tough on Luton, and a mark of the quality of player that Charlton have at their disposal that such a moment turns the game upon its head.
Chasing the game doesn’t really seem to suit Luton, and the furious pace with which they started the game seems to catch up with them as we enter the closing stages. Charlton are, by the final ten minutes, largely controlling things, but the third goal that they add with five minutes left to play – a free-kick from Johnnie Jackson which takes a colossal deflection and spins into the corner of the net – has more than a hint of luck about it. With that, Luton’s chances of a visit to White Hart Lane evaporates completely. They can feel a little hard done by the two goal margin of defeat, but the Charlton equaliser right on half-time seemed to take the wind from their sales and, although they began the second half with the wind still seemingly in their sails, their performance after the interval seemed more disjointed than they managed up until Charlton levelled things up.
This particular FA Cup replay week hasn’t been a great week for the giant-killers. Luton were out-muscled, FC United of Manchester missed a couple of chances but were ultimately out-classed and Leyton Orient went beserk in extra-time against Droylsden. The only surprise of the week was Crawley Town’s win at Swindon Town on Tuesday night, but Crawley’s largesse has been such that their result was largely greeted with the sound of tumbleweed. Luton Town will get on with the prosaic business of winning back the Football League place that was pulled from under their feet two years ago and if they can manage that, tonight’s loss will be swiftly erased from the memory. Charlton Athletic, meanwhile, may find memories of their own happier days stirred by a trip to White Hart Lane in January.
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