Sunday, 13 January 2013

Luton Town 2 Skelmersdale United 0

Every season has one. A bunch of postmen and shopkeepers, mechanics and factory workers from some non-league outpost nobody has heard of or wants to go to, making the headlines for a month or too as they humiliate the great and the good of the game. 

Skelmersdale isn’t exactly the most likely of settings for a fairytale - a sixties new town designed to accommodate the overspill of Liverpool and famous for over-sized roundabouts and being the UK manufacturing centre for Turtle Wax - but they have been creating waves this season for their FA Trophy exploits. 

Most painfully, this included knocking Boston United out a few rounds back in a replay on a bitterly cold Tuesday night in November - a wholly predictable 2-0 win considering our dismal record against lower leaguers. Sometimes in these unedifying moments, you just have to admit you were beaten by a team at the same time lesser, but better, than you. 

And, what do you know, they are pretty decent. For every minute they held Conference Premier Luton Town on this piss-steamer of a January afternoon, I felt slightly better that Boston had been eliminated by them. Organised, committed and backed by what seemed like the whole town in the away end, Skem were more than a match for opponents three leagues higher than them. 

In the end, as is often the case, they were left heartbroken. A row of blue shirts bent double in sheer exhaustion were strewn across the penalty box when, with just six minutes to play, Adam Watkins finally found a way through their defiant defensive stand. They were visibly devastated, mentally and physically deplete.  

I’d come up to Luton mainly to see if Skem, who also happen to be still unbeaten in the Evo-Stik Division One North and doubtless have a million games in hand, were capable of causing another colossal upset. It was nice to visit Kenilworth Road of course but it’s not a place to write home about.

Crumbling and creaking, it’s a place that stopped being loved a long time ago and a fitting monument to a team that over the quarter-century have suffered an almighty decline. My seat in the main stand was essentially a plastic bucket with leg room a hobbit would struggle with. It was the worst i’ve experienced at a football match and I was doubled up in pain, particularly as Luton offered very little to stand up about. 

The place was scarcely a quarter-full, this third round tie failing to capture the imagination of a town which, from what I saw, needs a bit of T.L.C. like many others across the nation. From my seat, I could see rows and rows of gloomy looking houses, a couple of mosques and rolling hills beyond. It was behind a most unusual stand of glass-fronted executive boxes, scarcely occupied and bearing the orange of Easyjet, which seemed to be there in lieu of a stand.

Over to my left, beyond one of the many obstructionist pillars, was an away end full of a couple of hundred very vocal Skem fans who were clearly enjoying their day out and had clearly been on the lash for a number of hours.

And quite rightly - for the whole 90 minutes their team did them proud and for 85 minutes they were heading back for a replay at their curiously-named West Lancashire College Stadium. Comfortable in possession, strong in the challenge and not unduly troubled for long periods, Skem would have been good value to do it all again. 

Luton, fifth in the Blue Square Bet Premier, were missing a few regulars but struggled to create anything at all, to the increasing annoyance of those who had bothered to turn out around me. “Come on Lu-on” they shouted with rising vehemence. 

Jake Howells had perhaps their best chance of the first-half, glancing a header wide from an Alex Lawless delivery, while Skem weren’t afraid to have a go from long range, even if most of them landed in the banks of empty seats. 

As the second-half lumbered on and the day grew colder, Luton threw on some more regular strikers and one of those, Andre Gray, skied a fantastic opening from practically underneath the crossbar. The ground groaned collectively. 

At the other end, Skem were growing in confidence and were far from the standard issue “underdog plucky”. Mark Jackson had an effort from close range which was grabbed by the Luton goalkeeper and Jake Howells hacked another loose ball off the line. 

With five minutes to play, and the Hatters hardcore starting to look up where Skelmersdale was on a map, Watkins drove forward, cut inside from the right and fired left-footed into the bottom corner with pin-point accuracy. The ground got up and cheered almost in embarrassment. The defence collapsed to the floor, disbelieving, and it was impossible not to feel a bit sorry for them.

In stoppage time, Luton countered and Stuart Fleetwood rolled the ball across to Gray to double the lead and shoot down the Skem dream once and for all. But after their adventure, they deserved every single hand clap that came their way at the end. 

Next Match: FA Cup third round replay action on Tuesday as Brentford play Southend United.