It was in March 1983 that I first went to Kenilworth Road. Parents of the children junior school that I had starting attending had recently knitted what they believed to be the world’s longest ever football scarf and we were invited to show it off on the pitch before Luton’s First Division match against West Bromwich Albion, which then featured on Anglia Television’s “Match Of The Week” (from which this weekly article takes its name) that evening. Somehow, I managed to cope with the ensuing celebrity. A lot has changed in the intervening twenty-seven years. Luton are a non-league club now and this brings with it a different set of pressures to those that David Pleat was under during the early 1980s. Every single dropped point layers another heap of pressure upon their manager, Richard Money, and there will no respite from this for Money until the club is back in the Football League.
St Albans City sit a division below Luton Town, but these are two clubs that inhabit different universes. While Luton are playing for a place back in the top ninety-two, the Saints are struggling to keep their place in the Blue Square South this season, a job made that may be made that much more difficult if they are docked points by the FA after a recent investigation into financial irregularities. With just one win from their opening eleven league matches, manager Steve Castle is also starting to come under pressure – the club hasn’t played below Step Two since 1986. Crowds have slumped to just over 300, and a state of Cold War now exists between many of the club’s supporters and chairman John Gibson. It is difficult to imagine a way in which the club’s current travails will end happily. Even if this match ends in a draw, the replay will also be held at Kenilworth Road on police advice, which seems like a peculiar decision to make before the first match has been played and does somewhat prejudice St Albans City should they somehow force a draw today.
Today, though, is a day to temporarily set the day to day realities of the game to one side. St Albans City manage today to bring a reasonably sizeable support out of the woodwork to travel the twelve miles north to Kenilworth Road today and we get to sample the pleasures of the Oak Road End, a seated stand from the old school with seats that cause legroom issues for anyone over 5’7″ tall. Still, the stewards are excellent – good humoured and chatty yet authorative – and the atmosphere is good-humoured, even if the away support doesn’t have much cause for optimism this afternoon. Castle had decided to play the majority of his first team in a reserve match during the week to try and boost confidence after a run of poor results, but they could only manage a draw and, as such, the ploy could – at the very least – be described as having backfired.
By half-time, the game is over as a contest. St Albans manage one effort on goal, a long range shot from the extravagantly-named loanee Harry Beautyman, but this is a mere pin prick against a torrent of Luton pressure. It takes the home side twenty minutes to really kick into gear, but when they do it is with such effiency that they manage to they kill the game stone dead within twenty-five minutes. Midway through the half, Claude Gnapka’s swirling crosss from the right-hand side stretched the St Albans goalkeeper Paul Bastock, and his touch helped the ball onto the foot of Amari Morgan-Smith, who reacts quickly and stabs ball in off the post. Within ten minutes, any realistic chance of St Albans managing to snatch anything from the match is dead in the water when a shot from Danny Crow evades Bastock’s dive and doubles their lead and then, with six minutes to play of the half, Matthew Barnes-Homer’s cross to the far post is headed by Morgan-Smith. Three goals in sixteen minutes have cut through the St Albans defence like a hot knife through butter and half-time can’t quite come quickly enough for the visitors.
The second half gives St Albans a chance to at least rescue a little dignity from the occasion, but the chances continue to come for Luton. Crow’s close range shot is blocked and his long-range shot beats Bastock but hits the underside of the crossbar. Gnakpa hits the post. It’s one way traffic, but Luton’s luck in front of goal has run out for the time being and St Albans even manage a couple of half-chances of their own, with Jean-Michel Sigere winning himself a bit of space on the left-hand side and shooting across the face of goal and wide. With six minutes left to play, Morgan-Smith adds the icing to the cake of a good day’s work for Luton with a sumptuous twenty-five yard lob over Bastock that drops under the crossbar and in to complete his hat-trick. It’s nothing less than Luton deserve for their absolute domination, and at full time they completely deserve their place in the next round of the competition.
The draw for the First Round sends Luton on a short trip to Northamptonshire to play Corby Town of the Blue Square North, though the FA Cup remains in clear second place in their list priorities for this season behind getting back their Football League status. St Albans City, meanwhile, return to the grim slog of a battle to avoid relegation from the Blue Square South, a task which will become that much more difficult should they be deducted points over their maladminstration. This match may have been a somewhat lucrative one for them – a crowd of 4,100 plus prize money could have been worth as much as £30,000 to them – but their uphill battle is only just beginning.