Luton Town versus Leeds United should be a Premier League fixture. It was in my childhood, when Leeds United won the league, another thing that should happen more often.
Those memories of Rod Wallace and Gary Speed springing the ball against Luton’s nets, and John Lukic in long trousers on the ‘plastic’ astroturf pitch, fix the top flight association in my mind. But the nostalgia extends beyond my own memories. Luton are like Leeds in that both clubs have been outside the Premier League for so long they haven’t been constrained by the bland uniformity of modern football, settling into the category of clubs that soccer romantics feel would add something to the Premier League that it has lost the ability to create.
Elland Road and Kenilworth Road are both old school grounds, although Luton takes the charm so far they’re like an old ham laying the music hall routine too thick. It’s enough to bend the corrugated sheets of your stands to fit a space better suited to a communal garage block; you don’t need to put the turnstiles through terraced houses as well. But one day, when all this is swept away, it will be missed. Who even knows why.
In a division and a season when all of Leeds United’s games have the desperation of cup ties, Luton away delivered what Reading away will not. With stands so low that Kiko Casilla could and did chip a football over them without much effort, and fans so close to the touchlines that Pat Bamford could hear them from the penalty spot and blush through every joke at his butler’s expense, the seasons obliged by shrouding the game in the dark frost of the FA Cup third round, and all that let the day down was the grass. It would have been nice to have the old plastic back with its unpredictable bounce, because nothing else this season will catch Ben White out.
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Leeds United entered into the spirit of things by throwing themselves upon Luton’s deep block with their own cup tie urgency. They were so desperate to take a first half lead that, with only half an hour gone, Mateusz Klich was sprinting to place the ball for Luton’s goal kicks as if time was almost up. United’s players carry out Marcelo Bielsa’s instructions with such alacrity that we can read them; their lack of early goals this season looks like a subject of much discussion over the international break.
Klich was placing the ball that time after his own shot had gone just wide and thumped against the advertising hoardings. A minute later Luke Ayling shot just wide too. A minute after that Klich shot wide again, and two minutes later Bamford’s header was saved. It took four more minutes for a move that started with Casilla sending the ball left took it to Pablo Hernandez on the right, and from his sharp cutback Tyler Roberts’ shot was tipped onto the post by James Shea.
One minute before any of that happened Bamford had come closest to scoring; Gaetano Berardi passed long into the penalty area, Roberts demurred, and Bamford slapped his shot against the bar. From the rebound Kalvin Phillips drove into the box and shot; the rebound from Shea’s save was just kept away from Jack Harrison. Leeds United were relentless. The score at half-time was inevitably nil.
If this had been a cup tie, James Shea in Luton’s goal was auditioning as its hero; Izzy Brown aimed for villain. Five minutes into the second half he moaned for a foul on him by Phillips on the edge of United’s box, while Ben White sped upfield with the ball and played the kind of through ball we’d hoped to see Brown play when he was on loan at Leeds last season, but that he couldn’t even pull off in the Under-23s. Bamford’s run was smart, and his first touch was unorthodox but calculated; he doesn’t mind a tight shooting angle as long as it’s on his left foot, and seemed to relish the chance to smash the ball in off Shea at his near post. He definitely enjoyed having the Luton fans so near for his post-goal shushes and ear wiggles.
The problem was the Town fans were not hushed by the goal. The injustice they felt on Brown’s behalf carried their team through an equaliser, James Collins heading in Izzy Brown’s cross, and a second goal that was disallowed, but not before it, like the first, was celebrated to the utmost by Brown in front of the Leeds fans. Leeds hadn’t just lost the lead; they were losing control. You know the feeling. You’ve felt it at Hereford and Histon, Rochdale and Sutton and Newport.
Control is never far from Bielsa’s Leeds, though, especially when Pablo Hernandez is on the pitch. He moved centrally in the later stages, from where be built moves for the wings with the new help of Helder Costa and long lost Jack Clarke, and with clockwork regularity. The atmosphere had stoked the Luton players so they wanted at least a draw. But Leeds, who have been more willing this season to fold their hands and take a wise point, were just as intent on a win.
Among the many advantages of Bielsa’s coaching are fitness, endurance and rigorous commitment, that together create an almost eerie stubborn belief in the way they play. Even in defeat Leeds will wring every last drop of effort from their gameplan. Pat Bamford’s stoppage time winner was the reward their uncompromising attacking deserved.
Like those old goals by Bielsa’s Chile that can be overlaid onto a goal by Leeds, here in stoppage time was something we’ve seen before: a chip from Ayling into the box and towards the byline for Klich, who crossed to the near post, where Bamford was sniffing a chance and forced the ball into the net.
That late winner might, in its way, be Bamford’s best moment in a Leeds shirt so far. And it’s typical of his Leeds career so far that it should be written down as an own goal by Matthew Pearson. The stage of the game, the points it won, the commitment and intelligence it took to be in position to score, all deserved a better reward than ‘Anyone But Bamford, O.G.’ in the record books forever. But football’s meritocracy is a greasy ladder, even for those with a silver spoon. I’d gladly strike Bamford a gold medal for this game.
This game might be that important. All those ingredients that make me value Luton’s presence in the top divisions, the tiny ground that creates an old school cup tie atmosphere when the Peacocks visit in winter, are also the ingredients usually laid inside traps that catch Leeds United. A last-minute own-goal scored for Luton might have been typical Leeds; instead, Leeds won three points that will be valuable in our quest to douse our soul in the blander confinement of the Premier League. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)