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Magnificent Cards stun league leaders

Brian Caffarey - 18th March 2014

Magnificent Cards stun league leaders Luton Town 0 Woking 1
The Skrill Premier
17 March 2014

What a magnificent performance from Garry Hill’s side! The message from inside the Woking camp before the game was that the Cards ‘would go for it’ against the league leaders – and that’s exactly what they did, taking the game to the Hatters right from the off and completely dominating proceedings in the first half. They had to ride their luck a little in the second period but were still very much in contention – before Gez Sole rounded off a perfect evening in front of the BT cameras, nodding home in the 87th minute after Keiran Murtagh’s volley had struck the bar.

Woking lined up as expected in an attacking 4-4-2 formation, fielding the same side that had recorded wins at Barnet and at home to Southport. Luton, while possessing a tremendous home record, went into the game on a bit of a blip, having played below their best in draws at Salisbury and Cambridge United – a loss of form which Woking exploited fully on the night. Every Woking outfield player performed out of their skin – Aaron Howe, in goal, didn’t have to, being forced to produce only one ‘top drawer’ save, although the woodwork twice came to his aid in the second half. In defence Joe McNerney, winning almost everything in the air, and Mark Ricketts were wonderfully solid, while John Nutter and Adam Newton rarely allowed anything past them, and even more rarely, allowed any crosses in. The Woking midfield, marshalled by ‘man of the match’ Josh Payne, was simply superb. Josh and Keiran Murtagh bossed the central midfield, whilst Kevin Betsy, hugging the right touchline, provided a constant outlet, tormenting the Luton defence as the Cards frequently made good progress down that side. The hard-working John Goddard not only provided an outlet on the left flank but popped up all over the pitch, even to be found supporting Kevin on the opposite flank. Up front, Scott Rendell, enjoying his return to Kenilworth Road, worked his socks off, winning a lot of useful balls, and Jack Marriott, up against Luton’s very effective ‘man mountain’ Steve McNulty, always presented a threat.

The Cards were quickly into their stride, setting the pattern for the half as they moved the ball around intelligently, keeping possession well and stretching the Luton defence. The attacking intent was evident straightaway as Marriott hit the penalty area in the 3rd minute, with his shot blocked, followed by Payne trying a volley from distance. More Woking pressure followed as Betsy and Goddard fired in efforts.

The Cards came agonisingly close to taking the lead in the 8th minute when a piledriver from Payne crashed against the angle of bar and post – a fantastic strike which deserved a goal.

Luton’s only threat at this stage came from a couple of corners, which were capably defended and which were quickly turned into counter-attacks as Betsy forced the Luton keeper into a save at his near post and then cut back a dangerous cross from the bye-line. Yet another quick break saw Betsy, Goddard and Rendell combine sweetly to win another corner, with Betsy testing the keeper again on a subsequent break out of defence.

On 29 minutes Luton finally mounted an attack of note. Predictably, it was the quicksilver Andre Gray who threatened, latching onto a through ball. He managed to lift the ball over the onrushing Howe but also over the bar.

The familiar pattern resumed, though, as Payne went close at the end of a nicely-worked Woking move, side-footing just past the post.

Luton threatened again in the 34th minute when Howe was only able to half-punch clear from a corner before his defenders completed the job. Once more Woking took the game to the hosts, with Betsy continuing to bemuse the Luton defence. Marriott’s persistence nearly paid off as he managed to get his toe onto a ball which was being ushered back to the Luton keeper. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to take advantage of his enterprise as the keeper was able to gain possession.

In the 41st minute Woking finally got the ball in the net from a free-kick but Rendell was judged to be marginally offside: a decision which was apparently confirmed by the TV cameras.

As the Cards left the pitch at the interval after a brilliant first half the only regret was that they hadn’t been able to establish the lead that their excellent football had deserved, especially since Luton would surely come into the game more after the break.

Half-time: Luton Town 0 Woking 0

There was no sign of this, however, in the opening phases of the second half as the Cards continued to look the more dangerous side, with Goddard hitting a volley into the ground after another fine move, and with the defence dealing comfortably with sporadic Luton attacks. John Still, presumably taking the same view, started to ring the changes as early as the 56th minute.

Almost inevitably, the home side, roared on by a passionate crowd, began to produce chances. A cross-cum-shot from Jake Howells out on the Luton left curled in wickedly over Howe and off the inside of the far post before being hacked clear off the line. Gray was beginning to look lively and was most aggrieved when he went down on the edge of the area under the attentions of two Woking defenders – but the referee waved play on. A couple of minutes later he nearly profited from a ball chipped through to him but the Woking defence managed to smuggle it away to safety before he could shoot.

Woking continued to see a good deal of the ball but attacks at this stage tended to break down as balls directed towards Rendell and Marriott were over-hit or intercepted. The most promising opportunity arose when Murtagh burst forward, slipping the ball left into Marriott’s path, but the move broke down disappointingly with a misunderstanding between the two.

Luton came to life again in the 72nd minute when Howe was forced to tip a 25-yarder from Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu over his bar.

As the game moved into the final ten minutes of normal time the Cards continued to look comfortably set for a draw but were nearly undone when an Alex Lawless cross hit the post with the rebound being blocked by Nutter – to cries for a penalty from the Luton fans.

Just as we wondered whether the Cards could safely see the game out for a highly commendable draw Garry Hill’s side produced a final twist with three minutes to go. Murtagh won a crucial tackle to set up an attack and was in the box when Betsy’s pass reached him. His volley struck the bar but there was Gez Sole, only just on as a substitute, to nod home from close range to put the Cards in front.

The four minutes of added time saw Woking mount several useful attacks, including an enterprising Murtagh sally along the Luton bye-line, but also saw a dangerous shot by Benson blocked and the ball skied over the bar from a corner before the referee blew time and the Cards’ celebrations could begin.

All credit to those Luton fans who, at the end, though disappointed by their own side’s below-par performance, applauded the Woking players off the pitch, recognising that this was an outstanding display from a part-time side who came to Luton with the intention of outplaying the league leaders and duly did so. Luton will undoubtedly deservedly gain promotion but, on this night, were second best to a side on top form.

The Cards now find themselves only six points off the play-off places, although that gap will widen before they take the field again at home to Wrexham on 29 March. Had Garry Hill been able to assemble this side at the beginning of the campaign, the Cards would surely be among the play-off places but who’s to say a late charge is out of the question?

Woking: Aaron Howe, Adam Newton, John Nutter, Mark Ricketts, Joe McNerney, Kevin Betsy, Josh Payne, Keiran Murtagh, John Goddard (Joey Jones 89), Scott Rendell, Jack Marriott (Giuseppe Sole 85)

Unused subs: Sam Beasant, Mike Cestor, Reece Beckles

Cautions: Josh Payne

My MOTM: Josh Payne (pictured): another commanding display from the midfield maestro

Luton: Mark Tyler, Fraser Franks, Steve McNulty, Alex Lawless, Jake Howells (Andy Parry 61), Scott Griffiths, Cameron McGeehan (Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu 56) , Matt Robinson (Mark Cullen 74), Ronnie Henry, Paul Benson, Andre Gray

Unused subs: Elliot Justham, Jon Shaw

Cautions: Scott Griffiths

Attendance: 6683
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