Football: Gray revives Luton memories

Luton Town 1 Barnsley 0
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TEN YEARS after winning the Worthington Cup's previous incarnation, the Littlewoods Cup, Luton Town are dreaming improbable dreams once again.

A goal nine minutes from time by top scorer Phil Gray assured the Second Division side of a place in today's quarter-final draw. It also confirmed Barnsley as the latest victims of an inspired run which had already put paid to two other First Division sides, Oxford United and Ipswich Town, as well as Coventry City from the Premiership.

The odds are overwhelming that Luton, who were their division's sole representatives in the fourth round, will have to defeat another Premiership opponent to progress. But Lennie Lawrence, their manager, could afford to be light-hearted about his side's prospects after their industrious performance last night. "The chairman will be hoping for Manchester United," he said. "But I don't care who we get as long as it's a home draw."

Gray's decisive intervention, which finally gave form to a frantic and incoherent evening of activity, puts Luton just three matches away from Wembley. Theoretically. His right-foot drive crept inside Tony Bullock's left-hand post after taking a slight deflection off the Barnsley full- back, Chris Morgan. The chance was created by a first-time ball forward from Paul McLaren, a 56th-minute substitute who made a telling impact on this tie.

With his first touch, he met Graham Alexander's corner with a powerful header that was cleared off the line by Matty Appleby. Six minutes later McLaren performed the same defensive duty as Appleby to head clear a shot from Ashley Ward. The Barnsley forward was seeking to make amends for missing his side's best chance of the night nine minutes earlier, when a neat pass from his forward partner Jan Aage Fjortoft sent him into the box with a clear run on goal. But Ward pushed the ball too close to the oncoming keeper and was forced to snatch at a shot which sailed over the bar. Well might he have held his head in his hands.

There was a historical curiosity in the pairing of these two sides in that Barnsley's manager, John Hendrie, played for Lawrence when he took Middlesbrough to the semi-final of this competition in 1991.

It was Lawrence who left Kenilworth Road with a spring in his step last night, although the manner of his side's victory was more mechanical than magical. Six bookings, four of them for the visiting side, testified to a match that was fitful and scrappy.

Lawrence had told his players beforehand that they had to be at their very best and hope that the opposition were not. "If we do not play to the best of our ability, we will struggle," he said. In fact, the home side began at a level which looked well below peak efficiency but their fortunes took an upturn midway through the first half thanks to a surge of commitment from Stuart Douglas which culminated in a shot on the half hour which Bullock did well to parry.

But Luton are unlikely to give it another thought. "We created as many chances as Barnsley and we had to ride our luck at times," Lawrence said. "But I think we deserved to win."

Luton Town (4-4-2): K Davis; Alexander, S Davis, Johnson, McGowan; Evers, Spring, McKinnon (McLaren, 56), McIndoe (Nyama, 56); Gray, Douglas (White, 81). Substitutes not used: Abbey (gk), Scarlett.

Barnsley (4-4-2): T Bullock; De Zeeuw, Morgan, Tinkler (McClare, 4), Jones; M Bullock (Hendrie, 87), M Appleby, Sheridan, Barnard; Fjortoft, Ward. Substitutes not used: Leese (gk), Moses, Eaden.

Referee: S Bennett (Orpington).