I read an article in an old Football Monthly that talked of the disgraceful lack of support for a go-ahead club that surely deserved more from its public. The time was the late 1950s and the club was Luton Town, who had just reached the FA Cup final.
That same argument has been tabled on many occasions over the years and Luton have always had the view that it would be “jam tomorrow” when the club moves to a new stadium. Kenilworth Road is hampered by its location and has problems attracting support from a huge immigrant population that has little interest in the club. Luton have also been badly managed for some years, hence the drop from the top level of the Football League to almost-Non-League obscurity.
How many times have Luton been on the verge of collapse? Quite a few in the past two decades and although many people felt they were harshly treated over the points deduction issue – I actually don’t – the club has been in decay for years. And the rise of well-run neighbours Stevenage has put the team that used to rub shoulders with Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal in the shadows.
Luton lost in the play-offs to York City and missed out on promotion back to the Football League for the third consecutive year. The Hatters’ long-suffering fans must be wondering what they have to do to get back to the promised land. But the Conference – let’s use its proper title – is a tough place to navigate today. Of the 24 clubs that will take part in 2012-13, 14 have Football League experience and it’s starting to become very cluttered with ambitious teams desperate to return to more fertile pastures.
Luton are no longer big guns waiting to regain their rightful place. Three years in the Conference have eroded their edge and their advantage. Just consider – 2nd in 2009-10, 3rd in 2010-11 and 5th in 2011-12. They have steadily declined over the three years, losing each time in the play-offs. And as each season passes, new Football League clubs come down – Macclesfield and Hereford are the latest – who benefit from “parachute payments” and the eagerness to go back first time.
Despite their fall from grace, Luton fans have been remarkably loyal. Kenilworth Road gates averaged over 7,500 in 2011-12, a figure not tipped since 2006. It shows that a winning team can bring in the crowds.
Those fans will see a very different Luton side from the one that finished at Wembley in May. Keith Keane and Curtis Osano have moved to Football League clubs and a gaggle of other players have been released. Manager Paul Buckle, who did well to get Luton to Wembley for the play-offs, has had to reduce what he called “an inflated squad” and has promised many changes.
But Buckle is the fifth manager since the start of 2009-10 to attempt a renaissance at Luton – Mick Harford, Alan Neilson, Richard Money and Gary Brabin have all tried their luck. If Buckle fails in 2012-13, Luton may just find they have adjusted a little too much to their surroundings.