25/04/09; Luton Town v Rochdale, at Kenilworth Road, Luton :: League Two
You see Kenilworth Road miles before you can actually reach it by coach. Past the suburbial affluency and B&Q outlets of the perimeter, following the dual-carriageway beside the disused rail track, Kenilworth Road stands hemmed in and intertwined with the adjacent buildings of Luton’s centre – shops, railway bridges, terraced housing. But the dual-carriageway is not linked to Kenilworth Road itself, and you have to reach the next junction, and make Luton’s ground out-of-sight again, before U-turning yourself onto the high-street and past the hundred or so Asian grocers shops and fashion stores. “House of Fabrics”, “Madina Worldwide Foods”. Then what follows is the frenetic, and unsuccessful search for a road that doesn’t have a “No Left Turn” sign. And in our case – eventually – a police escort which brings you right outside an unassuming front-door of a terraced house. Actually, no, wait, just next to that; the away entrance to the ground itself.
“Have you ever been escorted before, madam?”
Inside the ground is best described as full of character, which is a journalistic turn-of-phrase meaning old. That is meant in a negative light either; Kenilworth Road, with it’s 60s-style cantilever rooves, backless seats and dugouts placed precariously close to the pitch, is a welcome refrain from the identikit theatres of Shrewsbury Town and the like. Give me Kenilworth over Stadium:MK any day.
The Dale started this quest for a point with Frankie Fielding in net, and in front of him a back-four of Ramsden, McArdle, Stanton and Kennedy. Keltie, Toner and the cheery Gary Jones filled out the midfield (in all sense of the word) whilst Adam le Fondre and Chris Dagnall played either side of the Thorpedo up front. One of those formations which lies somewhere between 4-3-3 and 4-5-1. Sammy Russell, Joey T, Adam Rundle, Will Buckley, and the Curse of Tom Newey sat on the bench, roughly 4 inches back from the touchline.
Plenty of Lutoners turned up, 7,000 or so, but they were quiet as lambs until after about fifteen minutes, when a long and indecipherable chant started up somewhere in the upper area of the main stand. “Something something something cup, something something straight back up”, it went, which perfectly sums up Luton Town’s season and outlook without actually containing any sentences. Well the chant seemed to work, and Luton were by far the best team in the first period. Rochdale were limp, Luton were lively; orchestrated by the tough-tackling Keith Keane and the wily Kevin Gallen. In comparison, the three midfielders of Dale struggled to complete even the simplest of passes. Clark Keltie in particular looked bereft of ideas, skill and effort. “If Toner’s there, Jonah’s there, where am I supposed to be?” asked the open-mouthed Keltie silently.
It was Luton got the first goal, after half an hour or so. A ball was lofted into the box towards the head of Chris Martin, but a combination of McArdle and Stanton eased him away from the ball. Eased; as in, you know, kind of nudged but not really. Perfectly legal stuff in most games, and in most referee’s eyes. But – alas – not Mr. Linington’s. The pratt blew his whistle and awarded Luton the softest of soft penalties, and Tom Craddock fired down the middle to give the southerner’s the lead. Never, ever a penalty, but Luton, after the season they’ve had, would argue it was the first gift they’ve had in years. 1-0 Town.
Still Dale refused to get into the game. Thorpedo, it seemed, had an exclusion area of 20 metres around him, which prevented any Rochdale player from going anywhere near him or the goal. Imagine a circle with Lee Thorpe at the centre and five other characters pootling about on the circumference, unable to enter said circle. Bizarre. Gary Jones, though always a tryer, looked off the pace, but given his lack of any recent game-time it is understandable. But Clark Keltie… a man who’s contract is up at the end of the season… he just looked asleep.
Half-time then, and with the Luton tannoy declining to announce the scores of the Shrewsbury and Dagenham matches, the fifteen minutes was filled with more fret and anxiety than it should have been. Indeed, more fret and anxiety than most Dale fans would like to admit to. Aeroplanes of a closer-than-usual proximity to ground headed off to Malaga, Nice and Turin in the piece of sky between the opposite stand and the roof above us, and not a single one went by without a Dale fan thinking “Ooh, that looks enticing”.
It did look enticing. Luton were playing us off the park. The three pronged midfield was ineffective. The home fans were still singing that song. Soccer Saturday was on the telly.
But half-time can be a wonderful reset button, and a wonderful reset-button it was. Adam Rundle and Joey Thompson came on for the woeful Keltie and the under-serviced Dagnall. 4-4-2, like normal. It worked from the very first minute. Luton, when pressed, required the smallest effort to negate their lead. Rundle crossed, and Adam le Fondre had our first shot on target of the match with a header which bobbled past Dean Brill’s arms and into the trench between pitch and seating. Already more product in one second-half minute than the forty-five preceding it.
And ten minutes later, after more Dale pressure and Luton nervousness, Joey Thompson squared the ball into Luton’s penalty area and Rundle controlled before biffing it into the net in front of the travelling fans. 1-1 now. One point theoretically gained. Just a couple of moments later, le Fondre broke into the area and scruffed it over the bar when Luton decided not to tackle him. A wise decision it seems, le Fondre would’ve fallen over otherwise. Thorpedo, soon after, had an easy chance of his own but he volleyed plane-ward from a crowded penalty box. Wasteful. Or unlucky, if you’re more forgiving.
After this long-waited Dale flurry, the game floated snuggly into a pleasing rut of back-and-forthity. Neither side had to win. And neither wanted to lose. Football can be so predictable. Luton started a conga. The Police stopped it off. That was it. 1-1 at the whistle. A match without much merit but with considerable significance.
And so, the point which guaranteed our second-successive playoff semi appearance was gained only after making the match ridiculously hard-work. We could see that single point was easily available as early as last Wednesday, but Dale made a meal of it. We’re in the play-offs again! And we though Kenilworth Road was hard to get to…
Written by Matt Boothman on 26th April 2009