We have three Matches Of The Week for you this week. Tomorrow night, it’s England vs Croatia in the World Cup qualifiers and on Thursday night the England Ladies Team take on Germany in the final of the European Women’s Championship in Helsinki. Tonight, though, we kick off with Oxford United vs Luton Town in the Blue Square Premier.
Oxford United and Luton Town met this evening as non-league clubs for the first time, and it was an event. The two clubs were both in the First Division during the 1980s, and their subsequent relegation from the Football League have been the result of neglect on the parts of the people that owned their clubs. This is Oxford’s fourth season in the Blue Square Premier. They led the table for much of their first season before tailing off and losing in the play-off semi-finals against Exeter City. The following year they stayed in mid-table for much of the season and eventually settled in eleventh place, and last season finished just outside of the play-off places, four points off a play-off place after they were deducted five points for fielding an ineligible player.
Luton Town started this season as the favourites to win the Blue Square Premier title, but things haven’t gone their way so far and the pressure is already starting to build upon manager Mick Harford. Their biggest single problem so far has been their form away from home. Prior to this match, they had drawn three of their four league matches. They are in third place in the table, but this is not necessarily where they expected to be at this stage in the season. Their team has been booed off the pitch a couple of times this season already (notably in an away match against Kettering Town after a 0-0 draw). Expectations are high at Kenilworth Road this season, and Mick Harford’s legendary status will probably count for little if he can’t keep his club in touch with the likes of Oxford United at the top of the table.
Kick-off is fifteen minutes late. No surprise there. This was always going to be a big match, and over 10,000 people have packed into The Kassam Stadium this evening. You can only imagine what it must be like for the players, sitting in the dressing room in their full kit, waiting for the referee’s signal and knowing only that the crowd is swelling and swelling. We could be forgiven for thinking that Oxford’s players, top of the table and with the weight of expectation that comes with three years’ underachievement, might not enjoy the extra time to contemplate the importance of this evening’s match, but they come haring out of the traps and have a penalty within three minutes when James Constable is shoved to the ground by George Pilkington. There’s no hesitation from the referee in pointing to the spot, but Constable’s penalty is well saved by Mark Tyler.
Oxford only have to wait a minute for the opening goal of the evening, and Constable earns himself hasty redemption with Matthew Green crossing from the right for Constable to score from close range. Luton are shell-shocked, and it only takes until just over a quarter of an hour in for Oxford to double their lead. Their second goal is the goal of a homecoming hero. Jamie Cook was born in nearby Witney, and played seventy-seven games for Oxford between 1997 and 2001 before leaving to join Boston United in 2001. In the intervening eight years, he has played for Boston, Stevenage Borough, Bath City, Witney United, Rushden & Diamonds and Crawley Town but, at the end of the transfer window he rejoined Oxford after a venture set up by Oxford fans called “The 12th Man” raised £5,000 to bring him back to the club. Luton failed to clear a corner successfully and Cook, twenty-five yards out, controlled a difficult ball, dragged it back an curled the ball into the top corner of the net.
Luton have been a little unlucky. Between the two goals, Alan Hall’s header had been cleared off the line by Mark Creighton but, as things settle down, Luton’s lack of penetration becomes more and more apparent. They have plenty of possession in the middle of the pitch, but are frequently let down by the final ball in the middle of the pitch and they manage just two clear cut chances in the remainder of the half when Alan White shoots over from eight yards out and when Damian Batt’s skin is saved by goalkeeper Ryan Clarke with Luton’s Tom Craddock bearing down. Oxford have a comfortable two goal advantage.
Eleven minutes into the second half, the match effectively ends as a contest with a red card. Matthew Green earns a little space on the right hand side and is manhandled to the ground by Luton’s captain Kevin Nicholls. On another day, Nicholls may only have only been penalised with a yellow card, but tonight wasn’t to be Luton’s night. Luton did continue to press on – Clarke made a double save from Freddie Murray and Tom Craddock. By now, though, time is slipping away from Luton and, in the closing minutes, Oxford look as much like adding a third goal as Luton. At one end, Clarke saves well again, this time from George Donnelly, while at the other Tyler saves just as well from Adam Chapman.
The Kassam Stadium erupts at the final whistle. This is a big, big result for Oxford United. A 3-1 defeat for Mansfield Town has put them five points clear at the top of the table and they are playing like a team full of confidence. However, they were doing this for the first half of the 2006/07 season, and ended up missing out that time. Complacency can be the undoing of the best of teams. For Luton, this is a result that will sting, but there was enough in their performance this evening to suggest that they can, if they don’t make any knee-jerk decisions and overcome the pressure that they are undeniably under to get back into the Football League quickly, mount a serious bid for the BSP championship this season. In a forty-six match season, there is a little room for mistakes to be made as long they are not repeated. Luton aren’t out of the race yet – how they react to tonight’s defeat, however, may determine whether they lose touch or not.