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Relive the season that ended in top-flight survival at Derby from 8pm

5 May 2020

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Club News


Relive the season that ended in top-flight survival at Derby from 8pm

5 May 2020

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Thirty years ago today, the Hatters pulled off the most unlikely of Great Escapes from relegation from the First Division when they headed to Derby County's old Baseball Ground backed by 5,000 travelling Town fans. Read club historian Roger Wash's account of how that season ended below and have a flick through the pictures in the gallery of that day at Derby, before watching the club end-of-season review video on iFollow Hatters FREEVIEW from 8pm...

With only three games to go at the end of the 1989/90 campaign the Town looked certain to lose the top flight place that they had clung on to since winning promotion in glorious style in 1982. With only nine points to play for and six points from the safety spot of fourth from bottom it looked a hopeless task.

Of the three remaining games two were at home with, first up, previous season’s champions, Arsenal.  Manager Jim Ryan had a simple message for the players telling them that they must win at all costs and hope that somehow fourth from bottom Sheffield Wednesday would slip up along the way.

Supporters would have expected the players to be jittery but they came out full of self belief and tore into the Gunners from the start and it was no surprise when Iain Dowie fired the Town into the lead after Arsenal full-back, Nigel Winterburn, failed to control a ball in the area.

The Town’s second goal came just before the hour and was set up by some brilliant play from Tim Breacker.  Surging down the wing, Breacker cleverly beat Arsenal’s Tony Adams before playing a wall pass with Danny Wilson and then putting in a low cross that was converted by Kingsley Black.

After the players trooped off they learnt that Sheffield Wednesday had lost 0-1 at QPR and the gap at the bottom had therefore narrowed to three points.

Wednesday were due to be playing already relegated Charlton at Selhurst Park on the following Saturday while the Town were down to meet FA Cup finalists Crystal Palace at Kenilworth Road.

Palace had recently confirmed a safe spot just above Wednesday and with one eye turned towards their forthcoming trip to Wembley, decided to close the game down against the Town.  To be honest, it was tedious stuff but the Town players, to their credit, refused to panic and kept on trying to football their way through the packed Palace rearguard.

The fans all thought that it was not going to be the Town’s day when Danny Wilson hit a post with a rocket drive with the rebound falling to Jason Rees, whose shot was brilliantly saved by Nigel Martyn.

News started to filter through that Wednesday were leading at Selhurst Park and as the final seconds ticked away relegation stared the Hatters in the face.  The breakthrough goal was timed at 89 minutes 6 seconds and came in true ‘Roy of the Rovers’ fashion off the shin of Iain Dowie.  Wilson had started the move with an excellent cross-field pass to Rees, who hammered over a low cross that was met at the far post by Dowie who was instantly submerged by his team-mates.

The situation was now set for a final day show down.  The Town were to play at Derby while Sheffield Wednesday were at home to Nottingham Forest.  The Town had to win and Wednesday had to lose, it was as simple as that!

Throughout the week leading up to the game many thoughts went through the minds of the average Luton supporter.  Would the Town be able to win at Derby having won only once away all season? The Rams were safe but they still boasted Peter Shilton, Mark Wright, Dean Saunders and a certain Mick Harford in their side, who certainly did not know how to take things easy.  Sheffield Wednesday had a good home record but would Forest manager, Brian Clough, allow any of his players to roll over and die.

Despite the agonising, over 5,000 sleepless Luton supporters converged on the Baseball Ground on a glorious sunny day to see the Town take the lead in sensational fashion after only 66 seconds.

Ignoring all the set piece routines drummed into him, full-back Tim Breacker cracked the ball into the net from a free-kick taken fully 30 yards out.  This was followed by a cool Kingsley Black finish to a Wilson cross after 18 minutes, and with news filtering through that Forest were winning at Hillsborough, the Baseball Ground became the place to be.

Unfortunately this feeling of euphoria was not allowed to last as by half-time Derby had pulled back the two goal deficit through goals from Wright and Paul Williams and only brilliant goalkeeping from Alec Chamberlain prevented the Rams from moving into the lead.

The supporters all feared that the Town would cave in but to their surprise the players completely dominated the second half with a brand of attacking football that had Derby on the back foot throughout.  Despite all the attacking, the winning goal would not come and with the minutes ticking away those on the terraces were chewing their fingernails down to the knuckle.

The winner finally came from local boy Kingsley Black with 16 minutes remaining after his shot rebounded off a wall of defenders back to him when he gratefully thumped the ball home with his ‘wrong’ foot.

The players then sensibly shut up shop, and the abiding memory is of hard man midfielder, Mick Kennedy, setting off on a tremendous jinking run to nowhere in particular and eventually ending up at the corner flag where his bulk shielded the ball for a few more valuable seconds.

By the time of the final whistle everyone knew that Wednesday had lost 0-3 to Forest and after the most improbable and impossible of escapes the celebrations went on long into the night.

To read what TIM BREACKER recalls of the Great Escape at Derby, click HERE for Mike Simmonds' interview with the former Hatters full-back on the Luton News website today.

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