Luton Town 1 Stoke City 1: Final word on how history might judge defender and his team-mates


Luton Town 1, Stoke City 1

Collins (pen,90); Vokes (9)

The cynics will say that Michael O’Neill defended his players a little better than they defended their goal when it mattered most.

Not least when the heat was on at the end and they conceded a 90th minute penalty to deprive them of two simply crucial points.

A little harsh, surely, and hopefully those Stoke fans forgivably throwing their head into their hands (and maybe their beer on the floor) behind Jack Butland’s goal when that penalty was conceded and scored, will agree after a couple of days to calm their growing nerves.

Stoke had battled hard for their goalless draw at Blackburn, and just as hard for what should have been a second successive clean sheet at Luton, but sadly they, or the footballing Gods, seem determined to take their relegation battle to the final game of the season.

Seeing those two points slip through their grasp so late in the day was cruel reward for the efforts of most of their players and hugely destructive to their immediate plans for bidding farewell to the relegation zone.

But while the past week has reminded us that they remain in the thick of it, with a lingering tendency to shoot themselves in the foot now and again, it has also taught us that these players are playing for those supporters who were put through the mill once more at Kenilworth Road.

The finger will be pointed at their defending in the 90th minute, not least James Chester’s decision to dangle his leg out into mid air in such precarious circumstances and with someone so evidently crafty as Callum McManaman lurking nearby.

But the greater underlying fault was Stoke’s failure to create more chances, take those they did create and to command more of the play at 1-0 in the second half.

Michael O’Neill put that down to fatigue at the end of a three-game week which had seen back-to-back away games while Luton were enjoying successive home games and an extra day’s recovery ahead of Stoke’s visit.

We can only hope there is some merit to his argument otherwise we may have even more to worry about than we already think.

For Luton had relatively little to offer on the day and were certainly there for the taking.

Not least after Stoke enjoyed the considerable tonic of a goal inside the first 10 minutes to settle nerves among the players and excite emotions among their fans.

Under pressure… Tom Ince at Kenilworth Road

It was no coincidence that the move preceding their breakthrough should start with a midfield block by Jordan Cousins on his return to the defensive midfield role.

And then it was eventually Tommy Smith, whose improvement in recent weeks seems to have silenced the right-back debate for now, shooting goalwards and seeing Sam Vokes divert the ball past the Luton goalkeeper.

If there was a rat to be smelt, our nostrils were first tickled just five minutes later when Tom Ince spurned the chance to recoup some affection from fans behind the goal after suddenly finding himself momentarily free just right of goal.

He was forced to shoot first time, however, and saw the keeper’s outstretched leg deflect his goalbound effort aside and that was as close as Stoke came to a second goal all afternoon.

Ince just failed to make serious contact with a low cross from Nick Powell just after the half-hour, while within two minutes of the restart a Sam Clucas pass deserved better reward than the sight of Ince seemingly hesitating and slipping as he shot too tamely to worry the keeper.

If there was a turning point in proceedings it was probably the collective effect of the respective substitutes, which Luton won hands down, as theirs injected pace and a renewed belief into their efforts.

Indeed, they thought they had equalised on 70 when sub George Moncur’s shot was parried by Butland for Harry Cornick to bulge the roof of the net, but an offside flag offered a reprieve which Stoke looked like exploiting as the game crept towards the 90-minute mark with no such further alarms.

But then Luton’s pace down their right stretched Stoke so uncomfortably that their box was piled high with bodies and you just prayed there wouldn’t be the kind of rash challenge for which Chester was to stand accused.

To be fair, later replays suggested he was far less culpable than he had appeared at the time, but a dangling foot is manna from heaven for the likes of McManaman who, with the instincts of someone eyeing the chance of a late penalty, cut across Chester and ensured there was contact before indulging in some kind of triple salchow.

Tommy Smith celebrates Sam Vokes’s opener.

His dramatic flight to ground would have given many a referee excuse to assume the worst of McManaman, but Andy Woolmer bought his squeals and James Collins sent Jack Butland the wrong way from the penalty spot.

Somewhat ironic, perhaps, given Stoke’s last visit to Kenilworth Road four-and-a-half years ago had ended in a penalty shootout victory in the League Cup.

There were three divisions between the two clubs back then, but quite how many, if any, remains between the two clubs by the end of this season is frankly anyone’s guess.

But you would surely get long odds on both surviving.





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