Where did it all go, the flowing football that defined Luton’s goodbye kiss to non-league football? The swagger. The goals. Was it really all down to Andre Gray? Were we that much of a one man team? Maybe. Or maybe, part of the answer at least, was just a week away...
When Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu arrived on loan from West Ham in late 2013 it was hard to know what he was doing here.
The 20 year old had a good reputation as a Centre Half at Upton Park and the Hammers first team were short on defenders. It appeared as though Ruddock was being sent to the Conference to recover from an injury in the safe hands of Irons supporter and all-round Turbo Cockney John Still. Once he’d got some game time under his belt, the defender would be returned safely to Newham to continue with his life, as would we.
It soon became clear however that Still had other ideas, and before Pelly had the chance to control his first controllable he’d been converted into a skilful, powerful box to box midfielder.
Mpanzu had three names. Three names of the sort that Championship Manager 1 may have thrown together for a West Ham youth player in the distant future season of 2013/14 when it first came out. Three wonderful disparate names that made about as much sense together as Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee.
But once young Pelly took to the Luton midfield, just as it no doubt did the night the millionaire Paul Daniels first romanced Debbie, he was barely seconds into it before the magic began to flow.
Once Pelly returned to Town on a permanent deal, the like of which perhaps only Still could have pulled off, he picked up where he left off flying through defences like they were mere children. The Town were flying too. This was the year.
Cut to 2015. Many of the players remained, but the magic had all but gone.
Perhaps an obvious conclusion to draw was that 30 goal striker Andre Gray had packed up the team’s mojo and taken it to West London. But if you looked past his goals, Andre was far from the finished article that season. One of the striking differences in the football from then to now is that passing moves used to flow out of defence on the deck and through the midfield before they reached Andre’s feet. Willing runners flooded boxes like Yorkshire rivers. We chalked up 102 goals in all. There had to have been more to it.
When Pelly plucked Paddy McCourt’s speculative cross out of the air last week before shifting it in one movement and breaking a Mansfield hoodoo as old as time itself, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the nostalgic tingle of Mpanzu magic that we’d forgotten we’d missed, or feared we might never see again.
Unlike Andre in 2014, Pelly’s game has the power to drag others along with it. His directness, skill and energy bubble throughout the midfield like the Clap in a Magaluf hotel.
For the past year, Pelly’s recovery had been reportedly, repeatedly, “a week away”. Each week that passed saw *the actual week* move on a week more; nudged tantalisingly out of reach, ever further into the distance until eventually we resigned ourselves to a life of run of the mill two-named players once more. Or boring three-named ones with mundane “Craigs” or “Smiths” in them.
Whether Pelly has finally banished his injury curse remains to be seen, but if he can stay fit he could be a one man remedy for this Town malaise.