FA Cup Flashback: Three Steps to Heaven (1993/94)

The FA Cup Quarter-Finals beckon, and now just eight teams remain with a chance of lifting this season’s trophy. To celebrate this season’s competition we’re looking back on some of the great cup ties from years gone by. Not necessarily the biggest shocks (like Sunderland beating Leeds back in 1973 – hard to imagine these days), nor even the most entertaining games (we’d love to talk about Manchester City 11-4 Crystal Palace, but unfortunately there’s no YouTube highlights overdubbed with terrible techno music, on account of it having taken place in 1926), but matches that offer a reminder of why the FA Cup remains one of the most storied competitions in the world. We’re back on the giantkillings again this time out, as Division One Luton Town, managed by David Pleat, welcomed West Ham United to Kenilworth Road for a  Sixth Round Replay on a Wednesday night back in March 1994. Good evening, everybody. 

To call Luton Town’s cup run in the 1993/94 season the stuff of giantkilling folklore seems a touch disingenuous. It wasn’t quite third tier Wigan Athletic’s run to the quarter-finals last year, as a side gunning for promotion knocked Premier League teams out two rounds in a row, including the supposedly unstoppable Manchester City, but given how fallow subsequent seasons have been for the Hatters, it stands out as a last hurrah for a team that had become a household name during the 1980s. Best remembered for their plastic pitch, uncompromising playing style, and David Pleat’s gallop across the Maine Road turf following Raddy Antic’s goal that kept them in the top flight, Luton Town had become mainstays in the old Division One right up until the inaugural season of the Premier League.

Pleat returned following relegation, finding a squad stripped bare of the assets that had made his side so formidable just a few years earlier. The uncompromising strikeforce of Mick Harford and Brian Stein had both departed, the creative spark of Roy Wegerle had moved on to Queens Park Rangers, and seasoned pros such as Les Sealey and Danny Wilson had also moved on. Left in their place were a collection of misfits and journeymen, supplemented by a crop of talented but untested youngsters. A battle against relegation in Pleat’s first season back was eventually won, but a difficult start to the 1993/94 season promised a similar fight to the death.

Finally hitting form at the turn of the year, a seven game unbeaten run in the league was punctuated by a narrow victory over Southend United in the third round of the FA Cup thanks to a goal from Paul Telfer. A product of Luton’s youth system, Scottish winger Telfer had established himself in the first team at the tail-end of the 80s, and by the time Pleat had returned to Kenilworth Road, he’d become one of the first names on the teamsheet. A speedy wide-man who liked to drift inside, the winner against Southend was Telfer’s third of six goals that season, and he would go on to enjoy a solid Premier League career with Coventry City.

A fortnight later Luton travelled to the north-east to take on Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, for whom Andy Cole and Peter Beardsley had established one of the top flight’s most ruthless strike partnerships. A first half goal from teenage striker Tony Thorpe, who Keegan would later sign as Director of Football at Fulham, had put the Hatters on their way to an upset before Beardsley’s second half penalty forced a replay. On a cold Bedfordshire night, it was Thorpe’s striker partner and fellow youth-team graduate John Hartson that opened the scoring in a 2-0 victory for the underdogs. Hartson had only made his debut for the Hatters a few months earlier in a League Cup defeat at Cambridge United, but his performances in the cup had made English football’s great and good take notice, with Arsenal eventually splashing out £2.5m in January 1995 to make him Britain’s most expensive teenager.

Cardiff City were dispatched in round five, before the second tier side were drawn against newly promoted Premier League opposition again, in the shape of West Ham United. The Hammers had achieved automatic promotion the previous season thanks to a late run of five wins in their last six games. The only defeat of that run came at Kenilworth Road, in a result that helped Luton retain their Division One status. With his team comfortably midtable, manager Billy Bonds might have fancied taking West Ham all the way to Wembley, but a stalemate at Upton Park meant they’d have to do it the hard way; another night under the floodlights at Luton beckoned.

Combining youth and experience, Pleat named four academy graduates in his starting line-up, alongside former cup winners Trevor Peake and Alan Harper, with veteran Kerry Dixon preferred to Hartson up front. It would be youngster Scott Oakes that stole the headlines however. Oakes had come through the ranks at Leicester City before being used as a makeweight in the deal that saw midfielder Steve Thompson head to Filbert Street. Fleet-footed, and with an eye for goal, Oakes had already made his name in the cup run thanks to his performance against Newcastle that perhaps still gives Barry Venison nightmares. Before Luton’s cup run, his greatest claim to fame was being the son of Showaddywaddy guitarist Trevor Oakes, but that was all about to change.

Bonds meanwhile called on the experience of Trevor Morley and Lee Chapman up front in a bid to get the job done. In fact, it was "Mad Dog" Martin Allen that opened the scoring for the visitors, sauntering into the penalty area unmarked before prodding beyond Juergen Sommer. The lead wouldn’t last long however and, after an accidental one-two with Dixon, Oakes brought Luton level. Buoyed by the noise from the home supporters, Pleat’s team emerged from half-time looking to take the game to their visitors. Seconds after the restart, it was Dixon and Oakes who combined again, the latter met the former’s knockdown with a driven volley that bobbled along the floor and outfoxed Ludo Miklosko in the West Ham goal.

Rather than rest on their lead, Luton pushed forward in search of a decisive third, and found their naivety punished. Breaking at pace, Ian Bishop received the ball on the left hand side of the penalty area and slid it into the opposite corner to bring parity. Oakes, though, refused to cede the limelight, showing dogged determination to rob Steve Potts in the centre circle before striding clean through on goal. The picture of composure, the 21 year old lifted the ball over Mikloso to spark jubilant celebrations and seal a place in the semi-finals for Luton Town.

The Hatters would get their day at Wembley, a fourth in six years thanks to success in the League Cup and Simod Cup, in the semi-final against Chelsea, but a brace from Gavin Peacock ensured the dream of lifting the FA Cup would end there. Within two years Pleat and his collection of starlets had all departed, with Oakes joining his erstwhile manager at Sheffield Wednesday. Since that famous cup run, Luton Town’s best performance has been a solitary fifth round appearance in 2013, though they now look on course for promotion back to the second tier after a twelve year absence.

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