Luton came into this match having failed to beat QPR in 15 outings since 1988. QPR were in a better run of form than the Town, but from the start of the match Luton took the game to their opponents. Dan S**ttu introduced himself to Steve Howard, in the time honoured fashion, straight through the back of his legs, as early as the 57th second, and paved the way for an interesting tussle between them that lasted for the whole game. In the 4th minute Foley got a good shot away, but it deflected from a defender and grazed the woodwork. Three minutes later, a dubious free kick, awarded when, for me, Cook went down too easily, was saved well by Beresford. QPR were fighting back against Luton?s opening supremacy, and Ainsworth fired over the bar when well placed. Luton rallied and came forward in waves, with some nice interplay between the midfielders, and in the 13th minute a corner from Nicholls saw Coyne head back from the far post and eventually Underwood headed goalwards. Heikkinen headed it on into the net. It was no more than Luton deserved.
20 minutes in, Lee Cook shot too early from distance hooking it wide of the post, and five minutes later Showunmi shot wide with a glancing header from a corner. Showunmi, who had looked a fish out of water in a midfield role at Molineux, last week, was looking at home in the position today, and his surging runs and large physique were causing problems for QPR?s beleaguered defence. Luton were enjoying the lion?s share of the possession and playing flowing football, and reducing QPR?s efforts to long distance strikes which were not troubling Beresford. Four minutes from half time, Marcus Bignot struck the latest of these straight at the Luton keeper from 25 yards. As the half drew to a close, The hard-working Rowan Vine broke free and made a pinpoint cross to the edge of the six?yard area where Howard saw off a desperate challenge by keeper Simon Royce, to head the ball home and wheeled away in celebration, only for Referee Richard Beeby to respond to the beaten keeper?s pleas, and inexplicably, award a free kick against Howard. The Luton faithful were unamused and, when the half time whistle blew, gave the referee an idea of their displeasure with boos and whistles of derision.
The second half began with QPR a different team. Luton seemed lethargic compared to the first half and their opponents began the half with a sustained period of pressure, resulting in successive corners cleared by Heikkinen and Nicholls respectively. Next, Ainsworth placed a cross right on the head of Paul Furlong on the six-yard line, who headed over the bar when it appeared easier to score, then repeated the error on 55 minutes from another QPR corner kick. S**ttu, who had been ?putting himself about a bit? all game, cynically felled Rowan Vine and earned the game?s first yellow card, which was the most predictable event in the match. Ainsworth cleared from Nicholls? free kick. Steve Howard had been the most fouled player of the match and did well in not responding, and Luton were struggling to find the momentum of the first half while QPR were enjoying a similar amount of possession in the second half to Luton?s possession advantage in the first. The introduction of Nygaard at half time seemed to be the difference.
Panic pervaded the Luton defence from a corner kick awarded when Beresford caught the ball behind the goal line from an innocuous cross, and the assistant referee got involved unnecessarily, to rule that the keeper carried it over the line. However, after some desperate defending, finally Beresford gathered the ball in. Throughout all the QPR pressure, the Luton goalscorer Heikkinen was resolute cutting out numerous through passes while rarely placing a pass out of place himself. QPR?s pressure continued but on the counter attack, on 61 minutes, Vine shot wide from the edge of the box.
After 64 minutes, Mike Newell made his first substitution, appearing to bring on Barnett for Showunmi, to allow Heikkinen to push into midfield. However, it was defender Barnett who took the midfield role. Also, the usual Feeney for Vine substitution was made and Feeney was quickly into the action to slide the ball into the net after Edwards and Howard had shots blocked. Feeney appeared to be onside when the previous shot was made, but for the second time the officials ruled out a Luton goal. Feeney ?explained? the error to the Assistant Referee who promptly summoned the Referee to point out the error of Feeney, and issue him the Yellow Card.
In the 72nd minute, a flicked header from Feeney went just wide as Luton picked up their momentum at last. Luton were again enjoying more possession and Feeney again went close with a cross shot, which went just wide. Luton were once again looking comfortable and in control and Heikkinen and Nicholls were stroking the ball around nonchalantly as time ticked away. However, as we Luton fans are all too well aware, that is a dangerous game, and Luton rarely keep a clean sheet, so 1-0 is always precarious.
We need not have worried. Heikkinen capped a man of the match performance with a superb pass to set Edwards running at the QPR defence. He rode two tackles then crossed for Howard to strike the ball goalwards. It hit a defender, but still bounced into the net for a 2-0 lead. Luton defended well and ran down the clock for their first victory of 2006!
Mike Newell – Strange decision, on the face of it, to play Barnett as substitute midfielder, but it turned out to have been very effective in stemming the QPR tide. 8
Ian Holloway – Half time talk must have been inspiring as QPR were a different prospect in the second half. Not the most liked opposition manager after his antics in a match when Joe Kinnear was manager, but perhaps has endeared himself somewhat to town fans in his honesty in stading up to be counted to substantiate Mike Newell’s claims of inducements by agents. 8
Richard Beeby – Northamptonshire – An erratic performance and got the biggest decision of the day wrong in my opinion. 7