Luton Town Football Club recently suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the League Two promotion playoffs, conceding an injury-time goal against Blackpool to deprive the club of a trip to Wembley for the playoff decider, and consign them to another campaign in the fourth tier.
To downplay the devastation of the Luton players, management and supporters at the final whistle, after wholehearted exertions in a typically gruelling 46-game league marathon – 48 including both legs of the play-off semi-final – would be deeply discourteous to all concerned with the fortunes of the Bedfordshire outfit, especially as it was the concession of a cruel own goal that eventually sealed their fate. While losing in the lottery of the playoffs, after playing consistently well all season, is hard to take at the best of times, to see the campaign ended in such a painful way makes it even more difficult to digest.
Yet still, as the clouds begin to lift and plans unfurl for next season, there remains an awful lot for the Hatters to be comforted by.
Despite the harshness of the recent disappointment, it must be recalled that this is a proud old club, founded in 1885 and which entered in the Football League, initially, 12 years later (financial problems saw the club withdraw from the League three years later before returning in 1920). It must also be recalled, as the hurt of the playoffs slowly ebb away, that Luton has, in its own understated way, managed to climb away from possible extinction in recent years. Ten years ago the club went into administration and almost out of existence due to crippling debts until a consortium including renowned television presenter Nick Owen – who was invited to the board as a non-executive chairman – a lifelong fan, purchased the club and gradually dragged the club back to an even keel.
And so, this is not the story of missed opportunities – at one stage in the playoff semi, Luton boasted a 5-4 aggregate lead – or of dwelling on the pain of defeat at the hands of Gary Bowyer’s Tangerines, who sealed promotion by winning the final against Exeter. Instead, it is the tale of a hearty small club that has always been closely knit and well supported, and which plays a prominent role in the heart of its community. It is also a club that flourished in the 1980s, battling it out for a decade with the cream of the crop in the English top-flight, and lifting coveted silverware on the famous steps of Wembley.
While those heady days of the 1980s – when the Kenilworth Road side competed in the top division for 10 successive seasons and famously won the League Cup in 1988 – seem unlikely to return anytime soon, there is genuine hope for a bright future. Central to that hope, and to the optimism that Luton could soon charge up the divisions, are interesting plans to construct a new stadium to take them out of the renowned yet very dated Kenilworth Road, where they have resided since 1905.
Late last year, the club and its sister company 2020 Developments were able to confirm the purchase of the freehold for Power Court, a long-time unused plot of land near the town’s railway station. According to the 2020 Developments’ official website that heavily champions the club’s proposed move, a new football stadium is not all the locality will get from the potential project.
Read | The fans finding their voices against oppressive ownership
As well as creating 10,000 jobs in the area through construction and beyond, the overall plan includes the club funding the new facility by developing a nearby site it currently owns by building, among other things, a 25,500 sq ft supermarket, medium size hotel and banqueting venue, around 500 residential apartments, and approximately 50,000 sq ft of bars, restaurants, lifestyle retail units and a small niche cinema along with a new 1,800-capacity live venue.
These are ambitious plans for a club that spent much of the last decade in non-league football. Equally, though, the club appears driven to get the job done and Gary Sweet, the Chief Executive Officer, has described both facets of the overall development as vital for the regeneration of a historic part of Luton town centre. Just as importantly, the club vehemently believes in the project, insisting that it can transform Power Court from ‘a post-industrial problem site into a dynamic and aesthetically appealing environment’.
Meanwhile, the first-team manager Nathan Jones, in charge since early 2016, has been fully supportive of the cause having been involved at Brighton & Hove Albion when they moved to a spanking new stadium in 2011: “What we’re looking to do is take this club forward. We want to take it forward on the pitch, but to do that it’s essential that we keep pace off the pitch. There’s a wonderful proposal going in to get a new stadium and a development that will not only take the football club forward but will take the whole area forward; Luton, Bedfordshire, everything,” the youthful and promising manager told the Bedfordshire News.
It seems that even people outside the region are excited about Luton’s plans after the scheme was awarded a global architectural award at the Architectural Review’s MIPIM Future Projects Awards. And yet, as is often the case with such grandiose projects, there remains some opposition, despite the estimation that the buildings, if carried through, could be worth around £250 million annually to the local economy.
A company called Capital and Regional, the owners of the existing mall in Luton’s town centre, are bidding for an urban park – instead of a football stadium and its proposed ancillary facilities – to be built at Power Court. That counter-bid, if you like, has led to Luton supporters’ groups coming together to see if they can help, in a positive way, to convince locals that building a new football stadium is the way forward for the area, while around 11,000 people have written to Luton Borough Council in support of the club’s plans.
In that respect, you could say that the club, which has always been close to the hearts and minds of the town’s inhabitants, is being somewhat reimbursed, in a roundabout, emotional way, by the very people it endeavoured to stay in touch with over the years; a fact summed up by the ongoing charitable work carried out by club’s Community Trust, which through the powerful medium of football continually endeavours to positively impact the local community in the areas of sports participation, education, health and social cohesion and inclusion.
For example, just a day after Luton suffered the devastation of losing in the playoff semis, almost 4,500 people attended at Kenilworth Road for the Trust’s Big Stadium Community Weekend, which was not only the stage for the hosting of the annual Hatters Cup Tournament for young locals, but also the staging of an eight-team Schools Disability Tournament for the Every Player Counts Trophy, training sessions for the club’s various men’s disability teams, and a competition called the Integration Cup, which involves input from the Bedfordshire Police Cohesion Team and sees around 200 local boys from various backgrounds competing for honours in a competition designed to get young people together and active in an organised and safe setting while breaking down some of the barriers that can exist between different sections of a town renowned for its diverse ethnic mix.
The club is also hell-bent on keeping up appearances in the community and regularly sends delegations of first-team players to local schools and communities for training sessions and positive interaction.
Read | Recapturing Blackburn Rovers, a club spiralling into the abyss
On these levels, it’s very hard to argue against Luton trying to better themselves in a brand new stadium and therefore positively impacting on the wider Luton and Bedfordshire area. And still, it doesn’t seem a given that the move will go-ahead, with Luton Borough Council chief executive Trevor Holden only telling the local media, “What’s really good for the town is that Power Court has not been developed for 10 years plus, and now we’ve got two competing developers saying they want to do something with the site.”
For Luton Town, such guarded political comments are something they will have to get used to, as such developments are usually paved with copious amounts of red tape and troublesome stumbling blocks. For the future sake of the club, though, one imagines the potential move is vitally important and if and when constructed, it’s likely that the stadium would give the club a new lease of life. The proposed capacity will be for 17,500, a significant increase on Kenilworth Road’s limited ceiling of 10,000, theoretically providing the club with far greater revenue streams and, one imagines, larger lodgements in the manager’s future transfer kitty.
The players would benefit too, for as with most new grounds, the playing surface would likely be immaculate, at first; a far cry from when Luton turned-out on a much derided plastic pitch from 1985 to 1991.
Back then, teams would dread going to Kenilworth Road, finding the surface hard on the limbs and the unpredictability and speed of the bounce of the ball a nightmare to deal with. Finding your touch on the surface could be remarkably difficult for some players and completely impossible for others, while Luton, it seemed, revelled in the discomfort it caused opponents.
In fact, Luton lost only nine home matches in the first three seasons on the plastic pitch, including just twice in the 1986/87 campaign as former club defender John Moore, who had replaced David Pleat after his departure to Tottenham Hotspur, steered the Hatters to a highest ever finish in the top-flight of seventh.
It was during the 1986/87 season that question marks began to surface about the suitability of the plastic playing surface, as many of English football’s elite started coming unstuck on it. Speaking at a BBC Three Counties’ Breakfast Show event to mark 21 years since Luton’s final game on plastic, club historian Roger Wash said there had been little criticism of the surface until they started beating the likes of Everton and Liverpool there: “They were the top two teams at the time, and Kenny Dalglish and Howard Kendall started moaning about it. Suddenly we were pariahs,” he said.
Eventually, the old plastic pitches were phased out by the Football Association and Luton used it for the final time in 1991. They were relegated to the second tier a year later after 10 seasons in the old First Division, bringing an end to the most remarkable and successful era for the club, which peaked when Luton won its first major domestic honour, the League Cup, at the climax to a whirlwind 1987/88 season that saw them play three times at Wembley. They also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup that year, but lost out to Wimbledon.
Read | Jobs for the boys: the rampant cronyism within the English game
That League Cup win, though, a dramatic 3-2 victory against Arsenal, more than made up for an underserved FA Cup semi-final loss against a brilliant Everton side three years earlier, and for the FA Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of Wimbledon. The manner in which Luton defeated the Gunners, scoring twice in the last eight minutes, perhaps epitomised the wonderful spirit that grew in the club during a glorious spell at the top-end of English football.
A year later, Luton returned to Wembley to defend the trophy but were defeated in the final by Nottingham Forest. Still, those mesmeric Cup runs, coupled with some very reasonable league showings between 1982 and their eventual relegation from the top-tier in 1992, proved that Luton Town, particularly in the late 1980s, became much more than just a team that made life difficult for more renowned opponents on a dodgy plastic pitch.
The fact of the matter was that Luton boasted some outstanding players during that period. They could play good football, for sure. Just ask the fans of Southampton, for example, whose team were twice annihilated at Kenilworth Road – 7-0 and 6-1 – in the space of four seasons in the mid to late 1980s. Furthermore, they had a number of players who spent lengthy chunks of their careers at the club, thus enabling and promoting the concept of continuity in the playing squad from one season to the next.
Club legends Mal Donaghy (later of Manchester United), Ricky Hill, and Brian Stein (whose brother Mark also served the club well) made more than 400 appearances for Luton. Midfielder David Preece played only slightly fewer games in over a decade of service starting in 1984, while Tim Breacker and the late Les Sealey broke the 200 appearance milestone. You also had stalwarts such as Steve Foster, who lifted the League Cup in 1988, bruising centre-forward Mick Hartford, and classy midfielders David Oldfield and Danny Wilson, who all provided sterling service over many years. Before their time, Kenilworth Road was also graced by players like Brian Horton, Malcolm Macdonald and Bruce Rioch, while the future Real Madrid manager Radomir Antić donned club colours for four seasons in the early 1980s.
However, the club’s glory years couldn’t last forever and despite surprisingly reaching the FA Cup semi-finals in 1994 – with a young John Hartson up front – Luton had, by 1995, dropped to the third tier for the first time since 1970. In 2009, their 89-year stay in the Football League ended after relegation to non-league; a fate hardly surprising given that Luton started the 2008/09 season with a 30 point deduction for financial irregularities. They did manage to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy that same year, as over 40,000 Luton fans descended on Wembley to see them beat Scunthorpe United; a defiant cry, perhaps, from lifelong supporters and the community of Bedfordshire that they still firmly loved the club despite the off-field mismanagement, brushes with administration and financial difficulties suffered in preceding years.
While leaving behind league football was hard to take, it coincided with the emergence of the new owners, the Luton Town 2020 consortium, which included, amongst others, former club captain Steve Foster. And the demotion, however difficult to accept, presented the club with a perfect setting in which to regroup and stabilise matters. In some ways, it was like starting all over again.
With a buoyant new board at the helm the club set about the testing task of reclaiming its rightful place in the Football League, an achievement that after a few near misses finally came to pass in 2014 under the shrewd guidance of John Still, who was last year replaced in the dug-out by Nathan Jones.
The Welsh-born manager has since blooded a number of promising young players, including homegrown product James Justin, and Jack Senior, who has flourished under Jones having failed to make the grade at Huddersfield Town. Other young players like Cameron McGeehan and Pelly Ruddock have also shown up well and when they mixed with more established performers, like captain Scott Cuthbert, striker Danny Hylton and Irish defender Alan Sheehan, Luton seemed to have the right recipe for promotion from League 2 – until that devastating playoff defeat against Blackpool.
That Jones was unable to guide the team back to the third-tier in his first full season as manager shouldn’t deflate an over-riding sense of optimism currently attached to supporting Luton’s fortunes. In the long-term, with a new stadium possibly ushering in a new dawn for the Hatters, perhaps these are merely the early days of a proper resurgence under Jones’ watch. And although the days of Foster, Harford, Hill and Stein might never return, surely that thought gives Luton followers plenty to work with in the coming years
By Kevin O’Neill @Kevoneillwriter