Luton on the ball, not the balloon

LUTON Shelton has already left Manchester City deflated once. Tomorrow night, he will get the chance to do it again.

Shelton was the Sheffield United striker who scored the infamous balloon-assisted goal that helped knock City out of last season’s FA Cup.

It was a goal so bizarre, that even the normally-unflappable Sven-Goran Eriksson was bewildered by it.

(But then, City have never had much luck against opponents called Luton, as Raddy Antic and David Pleat will tell you.)

Fourteen months on, Shelton finds himself lining up against City again, this time in the UEFA Cup, for Danish club Aalborg.

“People remember my goal against City, although I always joke that it was actually a goal scored by some balloons,” Shelton said as he took a look around the City of Manchester Stadium this evening.

Just in case you have forgotten about the goal – the first in Sheffield United’s 2-1 win that day – let me remind you what happened.

City’s fans had released hundreds of sky blue balloons into the air when the teams came out on to the pitch.

Unfortunately, they cluttered up the goalmouth and weren’t cleared before the game kicked off.

A couple of minutes in, Lee Martin hit a low cross which struck a stray balloon and left City full-back Michael Ball kicking at air, allowing Shelton to tap in from six yards.

“I still laugh at it now,” said the Jamaican. “I haven’t got it on tape, but I want to see it on YouTube!

“Sometimes I feel embarrassed about the goal, but really, it’s not my problem.

“My job is to put the ball into the net. I don’t care what gets said or written about it in the media. The goal is in my name. That’s all that counts.”

That the goal was scored by Shelton did get a little lost amid its sheer weirdness.

The City fan responsible for bringing the balloons to the game was tracked down – he was a Sheffield-based season-ticket holder called Barry Hatch – and duly expressed his remorse.

Eriksson and his team, meanwhile, were mocked for losing to a Championship side in such a strange fashion. It was, as more than one commentator remarked, typical City. Only the Blues, it was suggested, could find such a novel way to shoot themselves in the foot.

City and Shelton have taken very different paths since then, but those paths will converge tomorrow.

While the Blues have changed their manager, the owner, broken the British transfer record and continued to be on a high one moment, and a low the next, Shelton has continued his nomadic trek around Europe. He is only 23, but has already played in five countries.

He left Sheffield United for Norwegian club Valerenga last summer, but failed to settle, and moved to Denmark to join Aalborg on loan in January.

“I haven’t decided what is happening at the end of the season yet,” Shelton said. “It’s up to the club.

“I’m enjoying it so far. The agreement is until the end of the season, and we’ll see what happens after that.

“I find this challenge more interesting, because more people watch the UEFA Cup than the Championship.

“I wanted to stay in England, but I had to make choices in my life, because I want to play football.”

Shelton has started well. He scored in his second game, helping Aalborg to a 3-1 UEFA Cup win over Deportivo La Coruna in Spain last month, which sealed a 6-1 aggregate victory and set up tomorrow’s tie.

He has also done his bit to help Aalborg notch up a 16-match unbeaten run, which has included a Champions League draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford and a victory which dumped Celtic out of Europe altogether.

It is proof that the Danish side are getting their act together after a turbulent start. About time, some would say. Last season’s Danish champions are on their third coach of the season, and it has been a rough ride at times.

Former Bolton and Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch started the season in charge, but was sacked in October, after just four months in the job, with the club second from bottom of the Danish Superliga.

Assistant boss Allen Kuhn took temporary charge, and led the side on a 12-match unbeaten streak, which included the win over Celtic and the draw at Old Trafford.

So the decision to bring in 33-year-old Swede Magnus Pehrsson in January did not meet with universal approval in the Danish press – with one sports editor even going as far as to say: ‘Sack the Swede!’

Pehrsson, who spent his entire playing career in Sweden save for a brief and not particularly successful loan spell at Bradford in 1996, has won the fans and the media over by adding another four games to that unbeaten run, including home and away victories over Deportivo.

“He’s a good coach,” Shelton said. “He sticks to his game plan and it always works, so I think he’s a good manager.”

Aalborg need to succeed in the UEFA Cup – as winning it is their only realistic chance of returning to European competition next season. They lie fifth in the Danish Superliga, and only the top three qualify for Europe.

“The UEFA Cup is very important to everyone at Aalborg,” Shelton added. “They didn’t start the league so well but we’re working hard to get back up there.”

Shelton will look to do his bit to help them, starting against City tomorrow night – balloons or no balloons.

So what chance another goal, Luton?

“We’ll see,” he smiled. “If I get the chance, I’ll try to put it away.”

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