Norwich City 0 Luton Town 1: FA Cup 4th Round 2012/12
The last non-league side to take a top-flight scalp was Sutton Utd, who beat Coventry City 2-1 in the 3rd round of the 1989 FA Cup. In the 4th round Sutton played Norwich City at Carrow Road. Buoyed by beating the 1987 winners, Sutton went into the Norwich match full of confidence, with hero left-back Tony Rains stopping just short of guaranteeing a repeat victory. Tony Rains is best remembered by Norwich fans for diving with the grace of a pot-bellied pig in a vain attempt to prevent the second goal. Norwich scored another six.
So, while driving to Norwich through the snow-dusted flatlands, my ears pricked-up when I heard Luton players and management expressing Sutton Utd levels of confidence in the big match build-up. Would Luton suffer the same humiliation that Sutton did in 1989? Of course not.
1989 was different. That was an era when fielding a weakened side was a betrayal. That was an era when table-topping Liverpool were content to play three third round replays, fielding their first team every time, because winning the FA Cup meant everything. That was an era long before the biggest team in the country elected not to enter the competition at all. And that was an era (just) before Hillsborough when men were content to stand up for their entertainment, happy to have change from a tenner for a couple of post-match pints.
Arriving a couple of minutes before kick-off I took my seat and like the rest of the 22,000 Norwich fans I sat in silence waiting for the entertainment to begin. The old Norfolk “bore” in front of me turned and said “i hoope ez nart tha sayme scaw az ‘59”. He was referring to Norwich’s famous 1959 FA Cup run when, as a third division south outfit, they’d turned over the mighty Spurs, thrashed the Busby Babes and dispatched hated rivals Ipswich on the way to the semi-final. Ultimately, top-flight Luton were too strong and prevailed 1-0 in a replay. A prescient old fella he proved to be for it soon became obvious to anyone who has watched football over the years that the “shock” was ‘on’.
Were Delia to write the recipe for a “shock” she’d throw in one club in freefall, a manager hopelessly distracted by transfer window shenanigans and a second eleven comprising callow youth, players desperately out of form and fatted calves. Meanwhile, Luton, the biggest fish in the non-league pond, had prepared properly. Working their nuts off, closing down and going about their business with chisel-jawed determination were givens but they got the tactics spot-on too. Defend deep, stay solid in the middle and look to counter. Allow the Norwich centre halves to have the ball and invite them to do something with it. They couldn’t do anything with it because Premiership centre-halves tend not to be very good at passing. Or defending. Eventually the ball became an object of fear and loathing: “you have it!”; “no, I don’t want it … but I can’t go long cos that will be beneath us … OK, back to the goalkeeper … oh damn I’ve got it again … now what? … ah shit, I’ve given it away on the edge of my own area”.
The inevitable goal, when it came, resulted from a well-worked counter. It was a microcosm of the game itself. Midfielder J J O’Donnell began a lung-bursting, off-the-ball run from a central position deep in his own half. Analysis later showed that O’Donnell started 8 yards behind prancing show-dog Norwich midfielder, David Fox. By the time O’Donnell collected an accurate pass in acres of space on the left-edge of the Norwich box, he as 18 yards ahead of Fox. O’Donnell bided his time and waited for Luton substitute, Scott Rendell, to make a routine near post run that proved more than adequate for hapless £3m defender Ryan Bennett. The finish was precise, as you’d expect from a professional player at that level.
By any objective analysis Norwich should have won. They should have been awarded a goal for a ball that crossed the line and were not given a clear penalty in the dying moments. In between, four gilt-edged chances were spurned. Grant Holt, given his humble past, at least played like he cared when he entered the fray for the second half. But the very qualities that so discombobulate Premiership defenders had little impact. Defenders at Luton’s level are well used to stray elbows to the ribs and flailing fingers calculated to poke eyes. The bully was repelled.
But the details are of little importance. Days like this are pre-ordained. And thank god they are because the FA Cup is bigger than passing fads like the Premiership and its bloated pretensions. Putting aside any allegiances I applaud this result in the same way that I applaud those achieved by MK Dons, Oldham, Millwall and all the others over the years that serve to put the Prem back in its glittering, hollow box.
I left London a Norwich fan. I left Carrow Road an FA Cup fan, full of admiration for its enduring power to humble and humiliate those who toy with its history.
Words: Bruno Sheldon