Forgiveness #2: Jason Walker

Image: Bandidge

Image: Bandidge

Hyde 0 - 1 Luton Town

(Originally Published in May 2014.)

A lot has happened since we last finished our season in Manchester.

The empires of Gary Brabin and Paul Buckle have both risen and crumbled since the Town lost on penalties in the Conference Play-Off Final of 2011, but under the philosophy of a 64-year-old former car salesman from West Ham, English football’s most wounded animal has at last begun to heal.

As the Luton juggernaut rolled its way into Hyde for the final game of a momentous season, the trip to Ewen Fields provided a portion of the Town’s 2,000+ travelling supporters the chance to make it a hat-trick of pitch invasions. For a happy few, their trainers had begun to stain from a familiarity of freshly cut grass and the unbridled joy of Luton’s long-awaited non-league escape act.

The game, however, was relatively forgettable. For all of the spirited endeavour shown by the long-since relegated Hyde - Played 46, Won 1, Drawn 7, Lost 38; Twitter followers: 30,000 – it only took one move by a jaded Town side to finish the game.

Alex Wall’s 70th minute finish from Andre Gray’s flick-on was enough for Luton to move on to 101 points, leaving second-placed Cambridge a record-breaking 19 points behind the Town as the regular season concluded.

Those in attendance could forgive the performance – playing three games in seven days coupled with Monday’s championship party would’ve sent lesser mortals to their chambers – as memorable celebrations in the stands took precedent.

And while it paled greatly in comparison to the likes of Argentina 1978, the plethora of inflatables that had ball boys regularly removing them from the pitch; the ingenious chants, fancy-dress costumes and unceremonious acts of throwing friends over the pitchside advertising boards were all thoroughly daft, but completely good natured – even an assistant referee gave a cheery salute to the Hatters faithful before the restart - as the end-of-season bonhomie blossomed with one last moment of joy.

The final-minute return of Jonathan Smith, just four months to the day since his horrific leg break at Barnet on Boxing Day, was the closing moment of glory from a tremendous footballing year. Upon the sounding of the final whistle soon after, the Preston-born powerhouse was duly mobbed by elated Town fans who spilled out onto the pitch to celebrate his miraculously swift return.

The jaded celebrations that soon unfolded in front of Hyde’s sunbathed Main Stand were symptomatic of a set of supporters who already had their eyes optimistically trained on August. Our triumphant season had reached its conclusion, but there was no place we’d rather be.

(Sidenote: With this in mind, it’s only right to single out the fantastic work of Hyde’s staff, officials and supporters who not only made Ewen Fields a home-from-home for the late afternoon, but dealt with the majority of silly nonsense with good humour and common sense throughout. As we return to the Football League, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to replicate days like these without fears of repercussion.)

Our time in Tameside was in stark contrast to 2011. As the Hatters rolled up to the City of Manchester Stadium three years’ ago, optimism amongst Town fans was seen as a fatalistic curse. Following years’ of agonising debacles on and off the pitch, Luton’s demise from the Championship to the depths of non-league had left many of us regularly expecting the worst:

“Oh well – what will be will be,” sighed a man close-by as Luton’s two-hour emotional rollercoaster versus AFC Wimbledon ebbed toward the inevitable penalty shoot-out. His tone admitted resignation. In his heart, he was already travelling toward the M6; soon after, the majority of our 12,000 dejected followers were doing the same.

On the journey up to Manchester, the motorway signs heralded giddy heights of what could be in store for us. One more good game from our 62-match season could see us grab a game against Walsall in the next League Cup draw, a return to Bury, Crewe or Port Vale - even a local game at Northampton.

Instead, those locations were preceded by the disappointed tones of Bullseye’s Jim Bowen as we headed south. For us, the towns of Telford, Tamworth and Stockport were to be our booby-prizes for the 2011-12 season - spotting stadium:mk as we neared home was the ultimate insult.

On reflection, Seb Brown’s save from Jason Walker’s terribly chipped penalty was symptomatic of the team Walker played for at the time. Just like his Forest Green team-mates that fell by the wayside on Bank Holiday Monday, ‘Team Luton’ in 2011 looked like a collective of expensive individuals held together by a tissue-thin team ethic.

Even though his departure from Kenilworth Road a month later was said to be the result of his family being unsettled in Bedfordshire, Walker’s text message to then-manager Gary Brabin informing of his desire to leave for York hardly enhanced his character amongst Town fans – but the worst was yet to come.

Following their contentious 2-1 play-off final victory against the Hatters in the 2011-12 season, Walker was caught parading an ‘RIP Luton’ sign on an open-top bus during the Minstermen’s victory parade 24 hours after the final. Walker later apologised for his behaviour via Twitter, but the damage was done.

Predictably, with memories (and a lingering whiff of vengeance) still fresh in the mind, there were a number of signs on show for Walker’s disenchanted return to Bedfordshire on Monday afternoon:

WALK ON:  An ‘RIP Jason Walker’ poster stuck above the bar in the Nick Owen Lounge on Monday.  (Image: Bandidge)

WALK ON: An ‘RIP Jason Walker’ poster stuck above the bar in the Nick Owen Lounge on Monday. (Image: Bandidge)

With news of Walker’s release from FGR coming through today, it’s possible that, just like Richard Brodie, his role as pantomime villain/hate figure during Luton’s non-league foray into the abyss won’t earn a reprise at Football League level.

Admittedly, Walker may still end up at a Football League club, as Shrewsbury and Tranmere are reportedly showing interest in him – but just like referee Jeremy Simpson, his significance in the weekly trappings of football folklore have been laid to rest; our return to League football means there are bigger wrongs to right.

For many, finishing above (and beating) Stevenage in League Two will be a good start. Upon hearing of their relegation to League Two on Monday afternoon, the news in the Bobbers didn’t appear to be greeted with joviality or schadenfreude; in a number of cases, it was heralding a call to the natural order of things, piece by piece, like the ingredients of John Still’s cake.

But the potential humbling of a modestly-sized football club from Hertfordshire is small change compared to other moralistic (and financial) issues housed within the top tiers of the English game, including the continental ‘feeder club’ loan system that our ‘friends’ from Vicarage Road have 'utilised' throughout the current season, and the absurd notion that charging £90 and £60 for an England shirt that’ll be worn no more than three times during the 2014 World Cup is an acceptable way to treat followers of the national side.

In their defence, the FA have said that their policy “…is to avoid any involvement with how its partners/licensees set their prices, so as to avoid any risk of or implications of price fixing,” which is a feeble excuse; but for those with deep pockets, they too will be able to experience the feeling of being an expensive failure with the real England squad by the 25th of June.

Although it’s incredibly fanciful to believe that our club alone could break the financial hierarchy of the Premier League and FA for the greater good, hopefully, (as time progresses) Luton can be a part of a greater footballing community that looks to promote English football for reasons other than greed.

Our time in non-league football has further highlighted the need for English football to reject idiotic ‘B-Team’ proposals and instead look to invest in decent facilities and footballing philosophies at youth football, as well as promoting fan-lead boardrooms and safe standing on terraces.

Locally, it needs to encourage greater co-operation with local trades and businesses to showcase our provincial towns and cities as beacons of pride and aspiration for residents and supporters alike, with our clubs playing a valuable part of our daily lives.

Fortunately for us, we currently have a group of supporters at the helm who understand this tribal, emotionally unstable and frighteningly irrational pastime better than anyone else. Following decades of tales regarding away fans’ bans, administrations and plastic pitches, things look to be heading toward a lengthy spell of stability and common sense in our corner of Bedfordshire.

And as we headed back along the M1 from Manchester, the prospects of returning to Sheffield, Barnsley, Mansfield and Chesterfield before the year 2020 looked all the more alluring.