The Thursday Preview: Luton Vs Cheltenham
Relegation to the Conference really is frightening. Though coverage is limited in the Football League’s nethers and supporters of the PL rarely look below 20th place in the pyramid, it just doesn’t compare to the vacuum of non-league.
Take, for instance, Luton Town. Three seasons ago, they were on my radar. That 30 point deduction; Chris Martin on loan; Mike Newell; a fresh start with Nick Owen et al at the helm. I could hold a conversation about the club without looking silly (or have I got that the wrong way around?).
I couldn’t tell you diddly, now that they’ve fallen out of the league. Indeed, until I researched this piece at lunch earlier today, I don’t think I could have even come up with the Hatters’ play-off final appearance in May against Wimbledon. Few people remember the runners-up, after all.
Compare that to their opponents in the second round of the Cup on Saturday, Cheltenham. I’ve seen them play already this season and know full-well that they’re on a streak. I can recall from the recesses of my football-addled brain that they’ve extended deals for a couple of youthful full-backs, and I’m aware that Daryl Duffy (I call him Skeletor) has bagged a few.
Granted, my team are in the same league so there’s a vestedness here, but the point still stands. Whatever your team does, or however it fares from week-to-week, relegation to the Conference would be a very bad thing for its profile.
That’s because no one much cares about the Conference; at least until its showpiece final game that is. It merely being a holding pen for clubs that are either too big or small to be there, the division’s only TV coverage comes via Premier Sports, where the Blue Square rubs shoulders with the Airtricity League. Me neither.
So this weekend’s game against a bright and hungry Football League side should be a contest to savour for the Luton faithful, then. Or is it? Perhaps not, if you’re reading between the lines of the latest reports coming out of Bedfordshire.
After coming through the side-door following Richard Money’s departure in March, former Assistant Manager Gary Brabin — a man of many journeys — is struggling to convince the mob of his suitability for the job. Having failed to lead the Hatters back to the 72 last year, the second time in which he’s taken a side to the play-off final only to miss out (the other being Cambridge United), anything less than a 100% record this season was always going to cause upset given Luton’s clout in the fifth tier.
Brabin’s side opened strongly this term, but a spate of disappointing home defeats to three of the four teams who currently lie ahead of them in the table, York, Fleetwood and Wrexham, partnered with a seeming inability to fix on a settled side has agitated what is already a restless fanbase.
“I want the lads to relax and play their football and play positively on the front foot,” Brabin said recently. But, as Steve Bruce discovered earlier this week, it’s a hell of a task to make a comeback once you’ve lost the majority of your fans’ support.
Looking at the group of players on whom Brabin’s fate rests, it’s difficult to pick out the kind of quality that last term’s side possessed. Stuart Fleetwood is proven at Conference level, and names like Keith Keane and Danny Crow are instantly recognisable, but otherwise it looks and sounds like Luton lack a leading player or talisman of real quality. Whereas last season’s side included the likes of Jason Walker, scorer of 15 in 20 at York this term, Claude Gnakpa and ZdenÄ›k KroÄa, now of Walsall and Kilmarnock respectively, the current side looks pretty pedestrian in comparison.
In a league where there’s only one automatic promotion slot, that could prove an issue, as it has done for the past two seasons, but the Cup’s another story. Luton overcame Gary Johnson’s Northampton Town by a single goal in the first round, although given the Cobblers’ woeful past few weeks that result tells us very little.
What I can say with a little more certainty is that the Hatters will almost definitely face a more rigorous test against Cheltenham. Though there may perhaps be a question mark over the inflammability of a centre back pairing of Steve Elliott and Alan Bennett, the Robins are oozing verve in attack. The little-heralded Marlon Pack is the kind of biblical sower of passes that would rival Grant McCann at target practice, and he will surely be turning up at a Championship ground near you in the next season or two. He’s backed up by the steady effectiveness of Luke Summerfield and Josh Low, while attacking midfielder Kaid Mohamed offers a range of unpredictable qualities that his team have been missing for the past few years.
All things considered, it could really be a good match if both sides fancy it. But I’ll stick with form. Cheltenham are on a great run and, although Luton has never been an easy place to go, it sounds as though some blood needs to be let at Kenilworth and that Brabin’s days might just be numbered. I’ve been wrong many a time before though, of course…