Luton find pride and a payday as Liverpool's dip turns into a slump
By Dominic Fifield at Kenilworth Road
Administration hangs heavily over Luton Town, yet this was an occasion to allow those racked with worry to forget. For a while yesterday this crammed arena shook in deafening celebration just as it had in the giddy top-flight days of the late 1980s when the Hatters terrorised loftier opponents on their plastic pitch. Liverpool grew to loathe this club's artificial pitch back then. Confronted by a feverish team that has not been paid for over two months here, they found the current set-up just as inhospitable.
The sigh of relief which greeted the final whistle might have emanated from the Hatters' administrator, Brendan Guilfoyle, as he awaits today's 5pm deadline for potential suitors to declare their bids for the club, but it could easily have come from the visitors' dug-out.
Luton will earn an estimated £500,000 through the replay at Anfield next Tuesday. Liverpool can be happy to have a second chance to see off pesky League One opponents at all. "We made a good Premier League side look poor," said the Town manager Kevin Blackwell. It says everything that any frustration that lingered at the draw was Luton's.
They earned that by recovering from the concession of the game's opening goal to equalise within three minutes. Drew Talbot, a livewire throughout, tore at the befuddled Steve Finnan down the left flank and conjured a wonderful cross which John Arne Riise, panicked by the excellent David Edwards at his back, turned from thigh to arm with the loose ball dribbling into the corner of the net. The ground erupted, the visitors wilted and the FA Cup had a moment in which to thrill. The watching Fabio Capello must have been impressed.
What made this result all the more remarkable was the home side's predicament. This is a team whose players have not been paid fully since October 27, the two-and-a-half weeks' wages handed over last month granted solely with the guaranteed £350,000 television monies from this match in mind. Three interested parties - one of which is fronted by the television presenter, Nick Owen - are expected to submit plans to buy the club by today's deadline though, whichever is pursued by the administrator, the uncertainty will drag on towards the end of the transfer window. Blackwell may have to sell key members of this side even before the replay takes place next week.
"It's a club worth saving, but people have got to get off their backsides and do something," said the beleaguered manager. "It may need £5m or £8m to make it work. But a performance like that has to help. We had to try and make this look an attractive proposition for interested buyers, and I think we've done that. Surely anyone who saw that would appreciate that we've got something going here. To out-play and out-pass Liverpool ..."
That was no exaggeration. Rafael Benítez arrived here without the injured Steven Gerrard and the rested Fernando Torres and, had he stuck by his plan to rest Jamie Carragher as well, he would surely be out of this competition this morning. As it was his side faded after 45 seconds, when Ryan Babel was denied by Dean Brill, and did not recover until Peter Crouch speared them ahead late on after mistakes from Chris Coyne and Chris Perry.
The Spaniard had apparently been shocked by morning newspaper reports that he expected to be sacked at the end of the season, stories born of his clearly strained relationship with the club's US owners. He struck upon a new mantra in the aftermath. Where once he was "focused only on training", now it was: "I love the club, I love the fans, I'm really happy here. I want to stay for a long time." He offered that up three times, his mood increasingly infuriated.
His future will be clarified over the next few months, though Luton's will be clearer by this evening. The home side were magnificent here, reflecting form which has seen them lose only once in 13 matches as their fortunes off the pitch plummeted. "It's galvanised the squad," said Coyne. "It's a weird time, but it helps when your mates are pulling all together."
They tore illustrious visitors apart at times here, unsettling their rhythm and thrusting them back. Calvin Andrew's spring unnerved Sami Hyypia, with Edwards constantly sprinting forward to threaten as Liverpool's midfield laboured. Talbot was a blur of energy, though his bite in front of goal was as gummy as you would expect from a striker who has scored only once in the league all season. He planted his best opportunity, from Darren Currie's cross, over the bar. Edwards, too, might have plundered only for Charles Itandje to block his early chance with his knee.
"There was heart, running, endeavour, everything I'd looked for from my team," added Blackwell. The club will return to the PFA this week hoping to have been given the green light to use the money to be generated from the replay to pay the players some of their outstanding wages. "Time's running out but, in terms of this club's survival, this is a magnificent result."
Man of the match: David Edwards (Luton Town)
Copyright - The Guardian