Football / FA Cup Countdown: Pleat keeps fantasy in perspective: Luton manager dons dancing shoes for tonight's replay. Trevor Haylett reports

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The Independent Online
THE ever-smiling Eric Morecambe peers down from photographs adorning the walls of the suite named after him, while David Pleat is explaining why there can be sunshine and laughter again at Luton Town. The bottom half of the First Division might not be all that funny but 16th is the best they have known for two years and the joke could be on Newcastle tonight if the underdogs complete the job they began at St James' Park.

Like their late president, Pleat is not slow to turn the humour on himself. A manager brave enough to pull on his best suit and shoes circa 1983 so that national television could replay that memorable, delirious jig of his across the Maine Road turf when Luton stayed up and Manchester City went down, cannot be anything else.

Out came that suit and those shoes and that dance for BBC2's Fantasy Football last Friday. Great fun, even if there was some ribbing to come in the dressing-room the next day. 'I just think that if you enter into the spirit of these things people are less likely to take the mick,' Pleat said by way of explanation. 'I knew I had kept the shoes but I was surprised to find I could still fit into the suit.'

From fantasy to reality and the FA Cup fourth-round replay with the Toon Army. A big game to fill Luton's tight stadium and a welcome cash sweetener for a club and a manager who for more seasons than they care to remember have had to scrimp, save and still sacrifice their star players because of the follies of the past.

They were so close to the dream scenario first time when Tony Thorpe marked his first full appearance with the goal that was winning the tie before Peter Beardsley won Newcastle a late penalty-saver. The 19- year-old, who followed Pleat to Luton from Leicester, also scored against Oxford at the weekend but may have to wait his chance on the bench tonight.

'He had a very difficult upbringing and at Leicester he hardly had a shirt to put on his back but he is blessed with the ability to sidestep defenders and sniff out space in attacking areas. Raddy Antic was a marvellous man and the scorer of that winning goal at Maine Road, yet I used to leave him out quite a bit and when I did he would come knocking at my door, gently reminding me that he would always score or make a goal. He was right and Thorpe seems to have that same knack.'

There are others coming through and showing promise; John Hartson, a strapping centre-forward who looks certain to carry the threat to the Premiership side because Kerry Dixon has a sore ankle; David Greene, a stopper with the Republic of Ireland Under-21s, to name but two. 'At some clubs it's all about today, whereas my philosophy is that if I can survive today I will look towards tomorrow,' Pleat said. 'I could write down my projected line-up for 1998 and it would fill me with hope and expectation.'

On their own, the young set would not get near Newcastle. Alongside Pleat's 'pensioners' they have a chance. Trevor Peake (37 tomorrow) has had a 'second coming' and has done marvellously well 'to keep his pecker up considering we have been in a losing situation for most of his time here'. Howard Kendall is owed a favour for recommending Alan Harper, who sits in the middle of midfield and directs operations, while at 32 and at his home town club Dixon still enjoys the thrill of hitting the net.

Victory provides a ticket to the fifth round, a visit to Second Division Cardiff and maybe even the key to a treasure trove. There is no immediate pressure to sell but when you have been shown the door at Tottenham just five months after a highly entertaining season and an appearance at Wembley in the FA Cup final Pleat has learned to count on nothing.

'We are unbeaten in nine games and seem to be sowing the seeds for success, and when you're doing well you tend not to think about the problems that exist. There has been talk of takeovers and you have to be aware that, around the corner, there might be another bill unpaid which might require you to sell again.'

It got so bad that David Kohler, the managing director with whom Pleat 'enjoys' a curious working relationship that just about holds together, once took him along to assure the VAT inspector that players, in this case Phillip Gray and Alec Chamberlain, were about to leave for sizeable sums.

It is a bizarre situation you could not imagine Kevin Keegan becoming involved in. 'Kevin is very talented, has great charisma, handles the media well and, just as importantly, is lucky, too. Lucky because he did not have to begin managing at Scunthorpe and lucky that, because of who he is, he can persuade his club to invest in the team in spite of huge debts.

''He has bought well. I remember a conversation with him last season when we were comparing different goalscorers. It was before he signed Andy Cole and you knew that, despite what people were telling him - that the player could not do this or that - he was single-minded about him because he knew what he could do for them.

'Nobody has given me more enjoyment this season and that includes Manchester United. Newcastle pass the ball better than anyone and they are all comfortable on the ball so you don't have to find room for a ball-winner. They have given me splendid armchair entertainment. They were playing so well at Oldham, and deserving a goal, and when it came it got me out of my seat and on to my feet cheering, and that does not happen very often.'

It did at Maine Road 11 years ago and, who knows, it might just happen again at Kenilworth Road tonight.

(Photograph omitted)