Luton Town fans could have been forgiven for deciding to give this season a miss. At the start of the season they were docked 30 points due to financial irregularities in regards to the club’s payment of agents via a third party and their inability to agree to a Company Voluntary Agreement (CVA) to exit administration, a punishment that went way beyond the crime, and forced the club to put a squad together from scratch. If League survival looked unlikely at the start of the season, it now looks like a near certainty following their defeat at the weekend.
Yet the club’s supporters are still turning out in the thousands and, despite relegation to the Conference being a sure-fire bet before a ball had been kicked at the start of the season, they’ve still managed to set up a date at Wembley and make life as difficult as possible for other teams in the divisions.
Indeed, the Hatters can take heart from their opponents at the weekend, Exeter City, and the likes of Doncaster Rovers in the championship. Both of these sides appeared dead and buried when they dropped out of the League. Luton are a lot more stable than either of these teams were and may find relegation strengthens the club next season.
A bygone era in a modern world
Luton have been on the crisis club list for many years now, and probably on few visiting fans’ Christmas card lists before that. Older supporters will probably remember the infamous fight on the pitch between Luton and Millwall supporters in 1985, which lead to then chairman David Evans – later to become a Tory MP – to ban opposition fans from Kenilworth Road until 1991.
The now-deceased Evans also managed to drain significant parts of goodwill from the footballing community with various other acts, such as replacing the turf with a hated artificial pitch. He also demolished the Bobbers Stand and replaced it with a row of executive boxes.
These boxes, which resemble a run-down cut-price conservatory showroom, still stand today and neatly illustrate the problems Luton face now and in the future. It would be perhaps a bit harsh to place the blame on Evans for all the club’s current woes, but his ‘vision’ for Kenilworth Road in the 80s hardly helped a club that has spent much of the last 20 years battling to survive.
Kenilworth Road may hold over 10,000 but the club have been reporting losses there since the 1980s. The facilities are somewhat run-down even by lower league standards. Some home supporters view the games from wooden painted chairs that look like they’ve been salvaged from a dilapidated seaside funfair. Away supporters walk underneath a terraced house to get to the Oak Road stand.
In short, it is a stadium that desperately needs replacing, yet finding a replacement site and the money to build a new ground has been a problem since the mid-1990s. One saving grace is that the local council own the ground and don’t charge the Hatters rent, although they’ve hardly helped when it comes to finding a new site.
Yet still thousands make their way through the rabbit warren-like streets and back alleys around Kenilworth Road each week, despite the club’s troubles over the years. They’ve seen false dawn after false dawn – usually promised by a succession of less than whiter-than-white owners – followed by the inevitable collapse afterwards.
Under the 2020 consortium, headed by newsreader Nick Owen, matters off the pitch have picked up insofar as the club isn’t in immediate danger of collapsing and should be in a reasonably decent position to challenge for the Conference title next season. They’ve also injected some much needed transparency into a boardroom more used to silence or bluster from former directors.
And this stability has transferred, somewhat, to on the pitch. Luton have a half-decent squad that is capable of upsetting better opposition and, were it not for the points deduction, would site comfortably in 14th with 40 points. Even if they’d received a 17 point deduction, the same as Rotherham and Bournemouth, the Hatters would be in with a fighting chance at the bottom of the team, three points behind Grimsby.
On the pitch, on the pitch, on the pitch
The silver lining for Luton’s annulus horribilis is their forthcoming trip to Wembley when they take on Scunthorpe in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final in April.
While this piece of silverware is much maligned in some quarters, it also provides an opportunity for clubs who normally won’t get near Wembley to have their day in the sun. It even provided Luton’s near neighbours, the MK Dons, an unwelcome spot of public rehabilitation among the more fickle football supporters and journalists (although most neutrals were, as likely, willing on Grimsby).
When Luton beat Brighton and Hove Albion in the Southern final last month, supporters streamed onto the pitch a Kenilworth Road in a mixture of celebration in reaching the final and anger at the way their club has been treated by the authorities over the past 12 months. It is inevitable Hatters fans will use their appearance in North London to protest against the FA.
It may be this sense of defiance that saw just shy of six thousand turn up for their home game against Exeter on Saturday. The Grecians are an example of hope to all clubs that find themselves in Luton’s position. Nearly six years ago they were Conference-bound and bust. Now they are a Trust-owned club that turns in an operating profit and are pushing hard for their second promotion in as many seasons.
Exeter, and other former league clubs such as York, Oxford, Torquay and Cambridge, will testify that non-league’s top flight is a difficult league to get out of. But it can also bring a sense of pride and excitement back to teams who’ve been used to struggling at the wrong end of the table.
On Saturday, though, any party that was getting started in the home stands was quickly damped after just three minutes when Exeter’s teenage wing-back Liam Sercombe produced a peach of a cross that Adam Stansfield headed home.
Further misery was then heaped on the home support when, after a sustained period of Exeter pressure, Alex Russell’s cross-cum-shot found its way to an unmarked Sercombe who smashed home from close range.
At this stage it seemed the Westcountry side would run away with the match, such was the slickness of their passing and nervousness in the Hatters’ defence. But Luton have spent the season defying those who’ve written them off at an early stage and, with half-time approaching, a series of slick passes cut open the Exeter defence giving Tom Craddock the opportunity to calmly slot home and reduce the deficit by one goal.
Despite plenty of second half pressure from Luton, Exeter tightened up their defence and the Hatters found it hard to get a final ball near the Grecians’ penalty area, bar a late flurry of wide shots. The 2-1 defeat put Exeter one point off automatic promotion while putting another nail in the nearly-completed coffin for Luton’s League status.
Yet the game can be seen as an encapsulation of Luton’s season so far. Even when the situation has looked hopeless, they still battle on against the odds and refuse to go down without a fight.
Even though their Wembley opponents, Scunthorpe, are a division above them, don’t be surprised to see Luton walk away with some silverware before their near-inevitable relegation.