MUCH is made in the modern era of the money shelled out by football clubs on their players.
But, at Luton Town on Saturday, the tables were turned when York City winger Matty Blair earned his employers £175,000 with one header.
It might be an amount that only equates to a single week’s salary for Chelsea’s Fernando Torres – a striker incidentally who has netted twice in 25 games – but, for the Minstermen, Blair’s 90th-minute FA Trophy semi-final winning goal significantly eases the financial burden on a club that loses about £300,000 a year existing in their current home and division.
Going into the second leg clash at Kenilworth Road, both sides had pocketed £26,000 for reaching the last four but the visitors’ 2-1 aggregate win secured another £16,000 in prize money for Gary Mills’ men and the North Yorkshire outfit can expect to reap at least ten times that figure from a May 12 final meeting at Wembley with Newport County.
The national stadium may conjure up painful memories for many City fans following comprehensive defeats under the arch in consecutive years to Stevenage in the 2009 Trophy final and Oxford 12 months later in a Blue Square Bet Premier play-off decider.
Mills’ class of 2012 deserve the opportunity to exorcise both of those ghosts with attention now switching to the quest for play-off success.
Luton, currently fourth in the Blue Square Bet Premier standings, will certainly be hoping to avoid the Minstermen in the four-way end-of-season promotion fight.
Saturday’s result means the Hatters have now beaten City only once in ten attempts as a non-League club, including an abandoned fixture that was called off after 60 minutes with the score 1-1.
The Bedfordshire club’s sole victory came when Michael Ingham was sent off after 15 minutes and, with no substitute ’keeper, Chris Smith disastrously donned the gloves before being replaced between the sticks by Greg Young.
Luton’s inability to beat their North Yorkshire nemesis in the big matches – Saturday’s aggregate win following on from City’s two-legged 2010 Conference play-off conquest – must be taking a psychological toll.
Trailing 1-0 after the first leg, the hosts were, however, the better side for the first 45 minutes of the return match, with the Minstermen conservative in their attacking intent and seemingly adopting a policy of slowing the game down whenever possible.
Such an approach did not play to the visitors’ strengths and, in one sense, Luton’s late first-half goal – to level the tie overall – probably worked in City’s favour.
It certainly meant Mills’ team had to force the issue more after the restart and, when they did, Luton started to look vulnerable.
Earlier, Gary Brabin’s team, buoyed by a loud home crowd, went close on five minutes when Stuart Fleetwood fired across the face of goal after collecting Alex Lawless’ ball through the right channel and being played onside by City full-back Jon Challinor.
Moments later, George Pilkington’s header from a Jake Howells corner was punched away by Ingham and Lawless’ follow-up effort was charged down. The City ’keeper then threw out his right arm to keep out Danny Crow’s edge-of-the-box shot on the turn and Fleetwood curled high and wide from a promising position.
Mills was also dealt a severe blow midway through the first half when inspirational midfielder Scott Kerr could not continue with a knee injury he had suffered following a hefty Keith Keane challenge.
But Scott Brown, his replacement, played with determination and fired the visitors’ first attempt of the match over from the edge of the box on 28 minutes.
Willmott, though, drove wide from 25 yards before breaking the deadlock in the 43rd minute. City centre-back Daniel Parslow allowed Janos Kovacs’ long ball forward to bounce under his weaker left foot.
Crow’s cross from the right was then dispatched by Willmott from seven yards as Ingham raced off his line to meet him.
For the second half, Mills replaced Jason Walker with Jamie Reed in the lone central striker role and hailed Ashley Chambers from the bench. Chambers’ introduction meant the Minstermen suddenly had pacy outlets down both flanks and the tide of the tie began to turn.
A curling 20-yard effort from Chambers narrowly cleared Mark Tyler’s crossbar on 48 minutes and the same player then volleyed weakly wide as the ball dropped.
Moments later, Reed went close with a curling free-kick before Chambers’ strong diagonal run saw the goal open up in front of him before he dragged his ten-yard shot wastefully wide.
Jamal Fyfield, growing in confidence at left-back, also began to maraud forward to good effect and, just past the hour, exhanged passes with James Meredith but scuffed a right-footed effort at Tyler.
The Hatters briefly rallied and, when the visitors conceded two needless free-kicks, Willmott forced a low save from Ingham before Kovacs’ stooping header cleared the crossbar from Keane’s delivery.
Willmott then curled wide after drifting inside from the left flank but, at the other end, Pilkington just did enough to take the sting out of Reed’s six-yard shot following Blair’s raid down the right.
After Crow’s volley was deflected over for Luton, though, with extra-time looming it was left to Blair to settle matters. Chambers laid the ball back to Fyfield on the left flank and his first-time, inch-perfect cross picked out Blair on the far post, who found Tyler’s bottom left-hand corner with his head.
It was the first goal Luton had conceded at home in ten matches stretching back to the beginning of December.
Four minutes of stoppage time were signalled seconds afterwards and, in the fifth necessitated by Mills’ substitution of Reed for Matthew Blinkhorn, home midfielder Adam Watkins tumbled theatrically under a Brown challenge in the box.
But experienced Northampton referee Andy Woolmer was not swayed and the frenzied celebrations in the Oak Road stand got under way while Luton fans vented their anger and frustration at an under-pressure Brabin rather than towards City’s jubilant supporters.
Luton Town 1 (Willmott 43), York City 1 (Blair 90)
(City win 2-1 on aggregate)
York City: Michael Ingham 7, Jon Challinor 7, Chris Smith 9, Daniel Parslow 7, Jamal Fyfield 8, Paddy McLaughlin 8, Scott Kerr 7, James Meredith 7, Matty Blair 8, Jason Walker 6, Jamie Reed 7.
Subs: Scott Brown 7 (for Kerr, 24), Ashley Chambers 8 (for Walker, 46), Matthew Blinkhorn (for Reed, 90).
Not used: Musselwhite, Doig.
Key: 10 – Faultless; 9 – Outstanding; 8 – Excellent; 7 – Good; 6 – Average; 5 – Below par; 4 – Poor; 3 – Dud; 2 – Hopeless; 1 – Retire.
Star man: Smith – another whole-hearted display from City’s skipper, who barked out orders throughout.
Luton: Mark Tyler, Curtis Osano, Janos Kovacs, George Pilkington, Greg Taylor, Robbie Willmott, Keith Keane, Alex Lawless, Jake Howells, Stuart Fleetwood (Adam Watkins, 65), Danny Crow. Subs not used: Shane Blackett, Aaron O’Connor, Charlie Henry, Jake Woolley.
Booked: Blair 23, Fyfield 68, Willmott 76, Reed 80.
Shots on target: Luton 5, City 3.
Shots off target: Luton 10, City 5.
Corners: Luton 10, City 1.
Offsides: Luton 5, City 3.
Fouls conceded: Luton 16, City 17.
Referee: Andy Woolmer (Northampton). Rating: pretty competent and unflustered.
Attendance: 5,796 (400 from City).
Miss of the match: Chambers should have at least hit the target in the second-half.
Cross of the match: Fyfield’s curling delivery for the crucial goal.