Tales From The Oak Road End

Luton Town vs. Chelsea : 2 March 2022.

On returning home from London after the Plymouth Argyle FA Cup match, I mentioned to the lads that I fancied Luton Town away in the Fifth Round. The very next morning, Luton were the first name out of the hat and we were the second.

Luton Town vs. Chelsea it was.

Although my head was full of Abu Dhabi stresses, I had a quiet chuckle to myself. At last, a draw that I was happy with.

Let me explain. There are some stadia that I never visited and never will; Ayresome Park, Roker Park and Burnden Park are three such examples. These are stadia that are long gone, but for whatever reason will remain without a tick against them in my list of football grounds that I have been lucky enough to visit. There are stadia that I have visited, but only after significant upgrades have taken place; Ewood Park, The Valley and Carrow Road come to mind. I never visited the original incarnations of these ones. Lastly, there are a few relatively famous stadia that I have never ever visited; Kenilworth Road, Portman Road and Meadow Lane head that list. I hope to eventually tick these, and others, off but time is running out. Additionally, there are plans for Luton to move out of their fabled old stadium too, so this was just right.

So, a new ground, a new away end, a new experience. I was genuinely looking forward to this one in a way that probably warranted me to sit myself down, pour myself a cup of tea and have a serious look at myself.

Those ground hopper genes keep rising to the surface and there’s not much I can do about it now.

Gulp.

PD had battled rotten weather and heavy traffic on the M25 and we had parked up in a tight terraced street around half a mile to the west of Kenilworth Road. The pre-paid parking space for six hours was less than a fiver. This gives a solid indication, I feel, of the area around the stadium. It’s decidedly low rent. More Old Kent Road than Mayfair. The journey had taken around three hours. It was 5pm. The kick-off was at 7.15pm. We wasted no time and set off by foot in the cold and in the drizzle.

Twenty minutes later, my coat rather wet, we arrived to see “Road Closed” signs at one end of the fabled Oak Road, home to the most idiosyncratic away turnstiles in the United Kingdom. A few Chelsea were milling about outside the entrance, a few stewards, a few policemen and policewomen. I shot off to take a few photographs of an alternative entrance.

Last year in the FA Cup, we played the same team at home in the same competition – a 3-1 win at home – but it would be Frank Lampard’s last match in charge. In the previous round, we had defeated Morecambe. And here I was, at Luton Town the following year, and taking a photograph of the Eric Morecambe Suite. The much-loved comedian, born Eric Bartholomew but named after his home town, was a big fan of Luton Town. I remembered with pleasure how he used to shoe-horn Luton Town gags into sketches.

Luton Town were a decent team at times in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. I used to love their orange, black and white colours. The kit with the vertical panels from the mid-‘seventies used to remind me of a “Liquorice Allsort”. The white Adidas kit of the early-‘eighties was a cracker too. There was a famous promotion campaign in 1981/82 in the old Second Division – when we watched from a distant mid-table position – that involved Luton Town and their local rivals Watford. This involved a definite difference in style between the two teams. Watford was “route one” under Graham Taylor, Luton were more entertaining and skilful under David Pleat. Luton prevailed as Champions, Watford came second.

In our last home game of that season, I travelled up to London and watched from The Shed as Luton Town beat us 2-1 in front of 15,044. It is memorable in my eyes, for two things.

Ken Bates had taken over from the Mears family the previous month and had decided to have some sort of “fun day” planned for this last game. From memory, this involved two things but there may have been more. Firstly, hundreds and hundreds of blue and white balloons were set off into the air before the game. It was quite a sight, but all a bit pathetic at the same time.

Balloons?

The sixteen-year-old me surely muttered “fackinell.”

Don’t ask me why, but the other item chosen to entertain us was…wait for it, wait for it…an electronic bull that was positioned in front of The Shed and spectators were invited to sit on and attempt to ride it. The rodeo had hit SW6. I can’t honestly remember if many took up the challenge. But one fan – a skinhead in T-shirt, jeans and DMs – kept us entertained for a few seconds before being thrown off at a very scary angle.

In 1981/82, this is how Chelsea entertained us.

You can add your own fucking punchline.

The other memorable thing from that game almost forty years ago – 1982 was a good year for me, lots more independent trips to Chelsea, the World Cup in Spain, my first-ever girlfriend – was the home debut of Paul Canoville. I had not been present at the infamous debut at Selhurst Park, but I was in The Shed as he came on in the closing moments of the game. I always remember his first-touch as if it was yesterday; a magnificent piece of ball control and spin that bamboozled his marker, and probably confused a few knuckle-draggers in The Shed who were probably about to pounce on him should the substitute err in any small way.

In 1987/88, Luton Town won their only silverware, beating Arsenal in the League Cup Final at Wembley. For that alone, I will always be grateful.

Believe it or not, the only other time that I have seen my club play Luton Town was in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley in 1994. For many years, I simply couldn’t afford too many Chelsea games every season. And Luton were never high up on the pecking order. That was a cracking day out. Loads of Chelsea at Wembley. King Kerry being serenaded by us. Two Gavin Peacock goals. Bosh. Our first FA Cup Final in twenty-three years was on the cards, and with it – so important, this – the promise of a European adventure the following season since the other finalists Manchester United were to take place in the Champions League.

Of all the Chelsea summers, 1994 was absolutely one of the best.

Back to the 2022 FA Cup, and the ridiculous throw-back that is the Oak Road away end at Kenilworth Road. The two away entrances are positioned between houses on the terraced street. It’s an unbelievable set up. At Highbury, there was something similar, but much more grand. Outside we chatted to Adam from Norfolk, Tommie from Gwynedd, Charlotte and Paul from Somerset. The Chelsea support from the capital and the outlying counties had headed to Bedfordshire. There would be around 1,500 of us in deepest Luton on this rainy old evening.

The gates opened at 5.45pm and we were straight in. We navigated a set of steep steps and reached a platform that took us into the back of the stand, but firstly afforded views of terraced houses’ back gardens. And possibly a little more. Ahem. Was that someone’s bathroom?

“Do you have a vacancy for a back scrubber?”

Once inside, my camera went into overdrive. There was a mist in the air and I didn’t think that the floodlighting was particularly bright. It undoubtedly added to the atmosphere. It was odd to be finally inside a ground that I first became aware of in the mid-‘seventies. In previous visits – our last was in 1990/91 – the away support was based at the other end. As I scanned the ground, I could not help but see hundreds of Millwall fans invading the pitch, seats in hand, running at the police, the home fans, the whole bloody world. I loved the slightly cranked section of seats in the main stand that overlooked the away end, picked out in orange, adorned with flags, a few remembering Luton Town fans no longer alive. There was a Joy Division flag too.

I have only ever met one Luton Town fan. Atop the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Rob and I were sightseeing in Turin after our game in 2009. We felt on top of the world, in more ways than one. We got chatting to a guy from England, a Luton fan, but one who was visibly upset with the club’s recent fate. They had been relegated below the Football League in 2008 after administration. I genuinely felt for the bloke. I thought of him on this night in Luton and wondered if he would be in the 10,000 attendance.

The stands were slowly filling. The rain still fell.

The night was about to take a turn in another direction.

I popped into the ridiculously cramped “away bar”, tucked down some stairs in a corner, and joined up with “The Bristol Lot”; Julie, Tim, Brian, Kevin and Pete. Parky was there too; what a surprise. He was talking to Mark from Westbury.

The news broke.

On the official Chelsea website, it was announced that Roman Abramovich was to sell the club.

I don’t remember what I was doing in July 2003 when Roman bought the club, but I will always remember where I was when I heard this news.

Luton.

It has to be famous for something I suppose.

The news wasn’t a surprise to me nor, I am sure, to many.

I spoke to Tim.

“I think, deep down, I have been fearing this moment for almost twenty years. Of course we will never exactly know how Roman accumulated his wealth, not his friendships along the way, but this has been gnawing away at me – on and off – for too many years. In the current climate, this comes as no surprise at all.”

There was a real sense of pride that all profits from the eventual sale would go towards the victims of the war in Ukraine.

I was pretty emotional when I read that Roman hoped, one day, to be able to visit Stamford Bridge once again.

Back up in the seats – blue and white, an echo of when the club decided to jettison their more famous colours in the ‘nineties – the Chelsea support was filling up the slight terrace. Seats had been bolted to the old terraces, with no re-profiling; the result was far from ideal.

With a quarter of an hour to go, there were chants for Roman Abramovich from us. I joined in. It was a natural reaction to say a simple “thanks.” I certainly did not mean to be inflammatory or confrontational.

Kick-off approached. The two mascots appeared out of nowhere and took an unsurprising amount of abuse.

The teams appeared.

A couple of flags for Ukraine were dotted about.

I didn’t think the home fans were particularly noisy. I was crammed into my row, with Chelsea fans tight alongside me. Of course everyone was stood. My view of the pitch was again poor.

The team?

Kepa

Rudiger – Loftus-Cheek – Sarr

Hudson-Odoi – Jorginho – Saul – Kenedy

Werner – Lukaku – Mount

There were a few talking points here. Ruben at centre-back? Interesting. Kenedy at left-back? I have no idea when I last saw him play for us. From Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro to Chelsea at Luton is some journey. Lukaku starting? Goals please.

Interestingly, Luton Town stood, arms linked, and didn’t take the knee.

The rain still fell. It was a dark night.

The game was only two minutes old when the whole evening took a nosedive. A corner from their left and a header from a player at the near post. I didn’t see the ball go in. I certainly saw the reaction. Kenilworth Road erupted.

I groaned. On a night when this game was live on BBC1, just after the news about Roman Abramovich, the knives were being sharpened.

I heard Eric Morecambe’s voice.

“What do you think of it so far?”

In my head : “rubbish.”

And although the first-half wasn’t too special, I enjoyed in some bizarre way. The noise from the away support was certainly loud and constant. That always helps the “us against them” vibe. Sarr attempted a few balls inside their full back for Timo Werner. Mason Mount was a bundle of energy on the other side. It took a while for Ruben to settle. Despite their early goal, the game soon developed a pattern of Chelsea possession.

Luton swapped ‘keepers after an injury.

There was a header from Saul but little else in the opening quarter of the match. His effort stirred those nearby :

“If Saul scores, we’re on the pitch.”

Lo-and-behold, a run from Mount opened up the game and he passed to a raiding Werner. He miss-controlled but the ball ran to Saul on the edge of the box. I was right behind the course of the ball as his sweet right-footed strike curled low into the goal.

Get in.

I suggested a new song :

“If Saul scores, we’re on the piss.”

There was a third effort from Saul not long after, but this was tucked just wide of the near post, again after good work from Mount. A real dinger from Kenedy at an angle forced a save at full stretch from the Luton ‘keeper Isted.

On thirty-one minutes, the ground applauded the memory of local man, and Chelsea supporter, Jamal Edwards. The atmosphere had been rather feisty with name calling and jabs from both sections of support. Talk of rent boys, of Luton being – um – far from a pleasant place to live, the usual schoolyard stuff.

Mason played in Lukaku, on the edge of the Luton box, but his swipe was well saved by Isted at his near stick.

Despite our possession, we were hit just before the break. We were pushing up and Luton caught us on the hop. They cut through our midfield with a couple of quick passes, though when the final ball was pushed through to Harry Connick Junior, we all yelled “offside”. Alas, no flag was raised, and the American crooner coolly slotted past Kepa.

He raced off in celebration towards the noisy corner.

The lino on our left – running the line in front of a line of executive boxes, how horrible – then took tons of abuse. At half-time, we could hardly believe that the decision, reported back via text messages, had been correct. To be honest, it had been an exceptional decision. A speciality from Jorginho – “giving the ball away, almost the last man” – set up another Luton chance but a shot was weak and at Kepa.

One final effort in the first-half fell to Rudiger whose blast deflected off Lukaku but dropped tantalisingly over the bar.

At half-time, we were 1-2 down and it seemed like Pure ‘Eighties Chelsea.

Into the second-half, effort number four from Saul from distance but straight at the ‘keeper. From a corner, effort number five and a Zola flick at the near post that flew over. There was more and more Chelsea possession but, despite our domination, Luton were proving to be a tough nut to crack and other clichés.

On the hour a double-substitution.

Harvey Vale for Hudson-Odoi

Christian Pulisic for Kenedy

Saul trotted over to left-back.

Not long after, a magnificent ball from deep from the foot of Loftus-Cheek picked out the run of Werner in the inside-left channel. He brought the ball down well, and calmly slotted home. I have to admit to being lost in my own little world of wonder and worry about the club at that exact moment in time and hardly celebrated at all. There was deep relief though.

Get in.

We were halfway through the second-half.

“Cracking cup tie?”

You bet.

We went all Depeche Mode, never a bad move.

“Scoring in the Harding and scoring in The Shed.”

The noise was ramped up further. Songs for everyone. This was turning into a corker of a night out. But among all of the noise, there were some utterly crap chants too.

“Heathrow! Heathrow! Heathrow! Heathrow!”

Good grief.

And…ugh.

“You’re just a small town in Watford.”

I felt like going all Peter Kay.

“Town?”

“In Watford?”

Ruben was now settled in his new position and was often able to dribble, unhindered, out of defence. I prayed for a late winner. I didn’t fancy extra-time.

I joked to the bloke to my left : “if it goes to penalties, bring on Mendy.”

A shot from Vale was at Isted.

A lovely welcome accompanied the reappearance of Reece James who replaced Jorginho with fifteen minutes remaining. On seventy-eight minutes, a patient and precise move in front of me on our right eventually found Werner. A quick low cross. I saw nothing, but Lukaku had pounced.

Mayhem in the Oak Road.

Get in you bastard.

Roars from the Chelsea contingent. Limbs everywhere. I slid to my left and tried to get a few good photos of the celebrations. When I returned to my place, my camera bag, spare lens and glass case were loose on the terraces. I gathered them and re-joined Parky.

“Wondered where you got to.”

Thankfully we saw the game off, and slotted into the FA Cup Quarter Finals.

Again.

We walked slowly back to the car. Luton is surprisingly hilly. We bumped into Skippy from Brisbane, Martin from Gloucester, Ryan and Carl from Stoke.

Everybody there. Everybody unable to resist.

It had been a good night.

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