Hard Knocks and Turning Clocks
OUR man CHARLIE HEMPSTEAD counts up the miles and the injuries from an afternoon that saw Argyle prevail over Luton 2-1, via a stoppage time winner...
The official Football League stats show that the total distance travelled by a Luton fan attending every away match this season will be 5,522 miles. Of course, this is based on the mileage from ground to ground, so it assumes that the fans actually live at the stadium, which of course they don’t.
Unless you live in Oak Road, Luton, where it is no exaggeration to say that the stadium is literally in your back garden.
Entering through an archway in a long terrace of houses, away fans walk between gardens and up a staircase directly into the stand, which forms the largest garden fence you will see anywhere.
Not even the most devoted Argyle fan actually lives at Home Park, but if one were to set up a bivouac in Central Park, then the official travelling distance to watch the Greens on all 23 away days would be almost exactly double that of the Oak Road resident, amounting to a staggering 11,022 miles.
For the Luton fan, the average round trip is 240 miles, and half the grounds in League Two are within a two-hour drive. What would the fan in the bivouac give for that luxury?
As ever, though, the Green Army were undaunted by the 506 miles to Luton and back, with an impressive turnout of 745 packed into the away end.
The large travelling support may have something to do with the history between the clubs. Memories of Argyle’s 2001-02 title-winning season, which was a two-horse race with Luton for much of the year, are still fresh in the minds of many, and the antagonism that existed then still simmers now.
Of course, few of the players on the pitch have any connection with those days, so the competitive nature of the match had nothing to do with old rivalries and everything to do with the desire of two big clubs to start climbing the divisions again after too long a time in the lower reaches.
While no quarter was asked or given, it was by no means a dirty match. In fact, the foul count was the lowest of any League 2 match played on Saturday, which makes it all the more surprising that there were times when it looked as though the result would hinge on how many players each side had left standing.
The first to succumb was Luton left-back Dan Potts, who tweaked a hamstring midway through the first period and had to be replaced by Alex Lawless, a right-sided midfielder. In the reshuffle that followed, right-back Sean Long switched flanks, with Lawless slotting into his place.
With two full-backs playing out of position, you could almost see Craig Tanner and Gregg Wylde licking their lips in anticipation.
Both Luton centre-backs then required treatment in quick succession, each time following collisions with Ryan Brunt. Luke Wilkinson was the first to hit the deck, but he was able to continue following treatment.
When his central defensive partner, Scott Cuthbert, went down shortly afterwards, there was sufficient concern that what appeared to be half the Bedfordshire Ambulance service came onto the field to attend to him. One by one, the medical staff left the scene, and eventually Cuthbert continued. They breed them tough in the Trumpton fire brigade.
Half-time was reached without further injury mishap, and the sides separated only by Carl McHugh’s neat glancing header, although Argyle would have felt that their dominance was worthy of a greater margin on the scoresheet.
Part of the reason was the form of Luton’s 38-year old goalkeeper, Mark Tyler, the only player on the pitch who knows what it was like to have played in the 2001-02 season, as he was already in his eighth season as a professional with Peterborough by then.
One of Tyler’s saves from a Graham Carey rasper rebounded to Hiram Boateng, whose shot cleared the bar. Had he managed to put the ball in the net, H would have achieved the unlikely feat of scoring past a goalkeeper who was already playing professional football before he himself was born.
When the teams re-emerged for the second half, Long had been replaced at left back by Ryan Hall, who thus became Tanner’s third opponent of the afternoon.
Within two minutes, Pelly Rudduck Mpanzu had limped out of the fray, meaning that Luton had used all their substitutes by the 48th minute.
If they had been allowed a fourth, they would have had to use him in the 65th minute, when Jack Marriott pulled up, apparently also suffering from a hamstring problem. Despite being badly hampered by the injury, he gamely soldiered on to the end.
The gods then attempted to even things up by picking on Peter Hartley to be the next victim of the tight hamstring, and within minutes Luton were level, Josh McQuoid benefiting from a couple of lucky ricochets and nodding the simplest of goals into the open net.
With six minutes left on the clock, Jonathan Smith became the home side’s fourth left-back of the day after Hall was shown a second yellow card for kicking the ball away after he had been pulled up for a foul on the irrepressible Tanner.
Argyle’s own left-back, Gary Sawyer, then came off worse in a collision with Luke Guttridge and looked as though he would not be able to continue, but eventually, if rather gingerly, he did return to the fray.
After all the injuries, it was no surprise that five minutes’ stoppage time was added, to go with the three minutes tacked onto the end of the first half.
It was just as well, because Argyle needed every one of them.
Brunt’s close-range finish from Oscar Threlkeld’s cross, after the substitute had been released by Tanner’s magnificent pass, did not quite surpass Steve Adams 97th-minute goal in 2004 as the latest Argyle have scored on this ground, but it came far enough beyond the 90th minute that Trotman Time now deserves to be renamed Brunty Time.
‘We’re top of the league’, sang the jubilant Green Army. It’s not a song that they’ve had much chance to sing since 2004, but they’ve picked up the lyrics quickly enough – not that they are hard to learn.
For those who don’t know them yet, here they are – you may be needing them:
We’re top of the league,
We’re top of the league,
We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.
(Repeat till fade).