Luton Town may be struggling on the field, but they’re back where they belong

THE CHAMPIONSHIP may yet prove to be a step too soon for Luton Town after their rise from non-league to the second tier of the English game in a relatively short timeframe. On the evidence of the first few weeks of the 2019-20 campaign, this won’t be an easy season for the Hatters, so if they survive, they will probably consider it an acceptable achievement. They’re going to have to work hard for the privilege, but after the decade they’ve endured, Luton Town and the Kenilworth Road regulars will settle for that.

Luton Town have enjoyed 16 seasons in the top flight, dating back to the 1950s, and let’s not forget that in 1987-88, they won the Football League Cup. The club also gave us some fine moments, with players like Ricky Hill making Luton Town, under David Pleat, one of the most entertaining teams around.

In truth, Luton are not a natural Premier League club, but the Championship should do nicely for them, although the world has changed significantly since they were last members of the division. The financial stakes are huge and the Championship is one of the top leagues in Europe, a place where clubs spend too much money in order to chase the dream of Premier status. One wonders how Luton will cope with a competition that has a wage to income ratio above 100%.

Backdrop

Luton, as a town, has a population of over 200,000 people. It’s a place that has been over-dependent on car construction. In the 1960s, around 40,000 people were employed in that sector, but the figure is far, far lower today. It has the visible scars of what happens when industrial over-concentration and an over-heated property market leads to a slump when social dynamics change.

It was also the centre of the straw hat-making industry, hence the club’s nickname of “the hatters”. Today, with the airport growing substantially, the economics of Luton are changing and property experts are calling the town “a hidden gem” of value, given its transport links and proximity to London. Luton has recently been exposed to the big screen with the film, Blinded by the Light, a tale of a young lad growing up there, inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.

As far as football is concerned, the fans have had to deal with the club’s fall from grace, its mismanagement, rebirth and recent ascendancy back to “where we belong”. There’s still a great deal of bitterness about the way the club was allowed to fall so rapidly and suffer drastic points penalties as one regime replaced another. The banner at one end of the ground, “betrayed by the FA in 2008”, tells you that the Luton loyal have not forgotten – and will not forget.

Conspiracy aside, Luton fans have been able to conduct their own survey on the state of the game, having played in the National League, League Two, League One and now the Championship in the space of around half a dozen years. Until now, they have enjoyed the club winning more often than it has in the recent past, but now comes the big challenge.

“We’ve sold out every game and the atmosphere at the ground has been buzzing,” said the club’s head of media, Stuart Hammonds, before the game, reflecting on the opening weeks of the season. The personable Hammonds joined Luton from the Non-League Paper where he was editor and also had a very credible career as a centre-half for a list of clubs outside the Football League, including Sutton United, Hitchin Town and Ware.

Future-proofing

Kenilworth Road has been on the endangered list for many years, the club has been talking, on and off, about a new stadium for decades. Indeed, an old copy of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly from the late 1950s talks of the need for Luton to move. It’s one of those old-school grounds that has gradually got more and more hemmed-in as time has passed. Uncomfortably perched between mature housing, main roads, a busway and commercial units, the capacity is a little over 10,000 and there’s not any apparent way they could expand it. A new stadium, with more breathing space, could transform and future-proof Luton Town Football Club.

Inside, Kenilworth Road is compactly homely and when the stadium is full, there’s an old-time vibe that evokes Bovril, wooden rattles and the jaunty tune of Sports Report. Beneath the stands, there’s a hive of activity including hospitality, catering, dressing rooms – all the usual functions you get at the traditional type of arena.

When the time comes, which it surely will, when all our stadiums are white, nautical-looking structures on the fringe of retail park Britain, somebody has to preserve one of these football grounds as a reminder of football’s role in society. It won’t be Kenilworth Road because property developers will already have their eyes fixed upon it, but Edwardian football infrastructure is as important to the social history of Britain as music halls and cinemas.

If all goes to plan, Luton Town will soon have a very 21stcentury replacement for their long-time home, and it won’t be too far away in terms of distance. The new stadium is poised to be on the site of a former power station, hence the 23,000-seater ground will be called Power Court. When the plans were approved, Gary Sweet, the club’s CEO, outlined what it would mean for Luton: “It would instantly elevate our footballing ambition to another level. If Leicester City in a new surrounding can win the Premier League, then so can we, it will increase our support base and make sure Luton Town are permanently financially viable going forward.”

That may be some way off, for on the field, Luton’s current squad and management are still on something of a learning curve. Before meeting Hull City at home on September 21, Luton were in 16thspot and had won just two of their seven games, while Hull had won just once. Luton added to their squad after winning promotion from League One, making a number of permanent acquisitions, including Croatian goalkeeper Simon Sluga from Rijeka and midfielder Ryan Tunniclife from Everton. They also brought in some loan players, including Luke Bolton from Manchester City and Izzy Brown of Chelsea.

Luton Town’s Izzy Brown (right) and Hull City’s Kevin Stewart (left)

A 1-0 game?

Brown, still only 22 despite being a serial loanee for some years, didn’t seem to be too popular with the Luton regulars. “He plays like he doesn’t really want to be here,” said one regular. At times, though, Brown looked good, but all too often, his passing was poor and his thrusts forward came to nothing. That wasn’t Luton’s only problem, and after a first half in which they could have been in front, things turned a little sour in the second period.

Hull took the lead after 63 minutes, Kevin Stewart volleying home after the ball was played back by Josh Magennis. Luton had chances to level, Tunnicliffe’s well placed shot being deflected for a corner and then a header from James Bree was turned against the post by George Long and Matty Pearson failed to connect properly from the rebound. Hull added two more late on, the first in the 87thminute from the impressive Polish winger Kamil Grosicki, who cut inside and shot in off Sluga, and then in added time, Jarrod Bowen’s trickling effort was turned over the line by the sprawling Dan Potts. The scoreline, 3-0, was a little flattering for Hull City, but richly welcomed by the 1,000 travelling fans.

Luton manager Graeme Jones, speaking after the game, said he was pleased with his team’s first half performance, but admitted the players couldn’t sustain it. He also suggested the scoreline was deceiving. “The second goal’s a long ball, it’s individual errors, and the third goal is comical. It was really a 1-0 game.”

It may have been a disappointing afternoon, but the mood was far from black. Luton’s fans, still optimistic, seem to realise they’ve come a long way since the dark days. Clichés like “consolidation”, “keeping away from the drop” and “adjusting to a higher level” could be heard as the fans filed out of Kenilworth Road. Despite the scoreline, you sensed there’s plenty to look forward to at Luton Town over the next few years. Their recovery should be a source of inspiration for clubs that have fallen on difficult times. With the right management on and off the pitch and a very clear vision, clubs can rise from the dead. It’s very hard not to wish them well.

 

@GameofthePeople

 

Photos: PA

 

To Hull and back

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WE are told, all too frequently, that the English Premier League is the best of its kind in the world. It’s in your face, day-in, day-out and you cannot get away from it. But there is a tendency for English football to believe its own hype, something that loses credibility when the national team under-performs in yet another major competition, or the nation’s clubs fall short in the UEFA Champions League.

We headed for Hull just a few days after a mixed week for English clubs in Europe – Arsenal had ponced a draw with PSG, City had drawn in Germany and Tottenham had gone out of the Champions League cheaply. Only Leicester City had won in Europe’s major competition. The Premier League still has a point to prove.

What could Hull City and West Bromwich Albion do to show us that the Premier was alive and well and strong in depth? We were ready to be entertained, but expectation had to be tempered.

Albion had just beaten Burnley 4-0, their second successive win, and their fans were crowing about centre forward Salomon Rondon, who had scored one of the goals. “Who’s the best striker in the Premier League….do do Rondon, do do Rondon”, a rendition that would have gladdened Phil Spector.

That win took Albion, led by Tony Pulis, up to ninth in the Premier. There’s a big difference between where teams like Albion are and the top clubs, the Premier is a two-speed league and the best that most can hope for is to stay away from the drop zone.

Hull City will be hoping to do just that in their first season back after relegation. So far, the signs are that 2016-17 might be a tough one for the club. Despite winning promotion at the first attempt, these are slightly troubling times for Hull. Their owner, Assem Allam, wanted to change the club’s name and branding, which did not go down well with the locals. Since then, he has been in talks to sell the club to Chinese investors. When we arrived at the ground, the KCOM Stadium, a helicopter hovered overhead. “It’s the new owners,” said one Hull fan, perhaps thinking wishfully.

The KCOM is certainly an improvement on Boothferry Park, which acquired the air of Reginald Perrin’s Sunshine Desserts in its later years, the missing illuminated letters of its signage resulting in “Fer Ark” or “Bothferry”. The new site, initially called the KC (Kingston Communications) Stadium, was funded by the council and the sale of a stake in Kingston Communications, and was opened in October 2002.

The relocation acted as a rebirth for Hull and by 2008, they were in the Premier, ending the old claim that Hull was the biggest town/city not to have hosted top flight football. This is Hull’s third spell in the Premier and the novelty may have worn off somewhat. Average crowds have declined every season, from the 24,816 recorded in 2008-09 to the 22,348 figure so far in 2016-17. The last two crowds before meeting WBA were sub-20,000 – the Guardian said on the morning of the match that they had been “hampered by injuries and beset by supporter unrest”.

They had won just twice at home in the Premier, but to be fair to the Tigers, they had already met Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea at the KCOM. After playing WBA, they could look forward to a Football League Cup quarter-final against resurgent Newcastle United.

The season had started quite encouragingly, however. After mysteriously losing manager Steve Bruce in the summer, Mike Phelan, another of Sir Alex Ferguson’s acolytes, was appointed caretaker boss. Hull began with two straight wins, including the opener against champions Leicester, but won just once more after those successes.

West Bromwich Albion’s season looked to have turned around with two successive victories, 2-1 at Leicester and that 4-0 drubbing of Burnley. This had, apparently, quietened the Hawthorns regulars, although they seemed pretty noisy on the train into Hull!

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And so, the game itself. A catalogue of misplaced passes and aimless crosses characterised the first period. We had to remind ourselves that this was the Premier League, for the quality was that low. Hull’s fans were fantastic, though, getting behind their team for the entire game. There was some irony in their backing, such as over-enthusiastic celebration of a tackle being won, a clearance or an attempt on goal: “We’ve had a shot on goal…we’ve had a shot on goal.”

West Bromwich Albion, who dominated possession in the first half, took the lead on 34 minutes when Gareth McAuley headed home from a corner. It all looked too easy.

But Hull were much better in the second half and levelled with 18 minutes to go, skipper Michael Dawson shooting into the net after Robert Snodgrass’ free kick was knocked down by Congolese forward Dieumerci Mbokani. A point apiece from a poor game.

Walking back from the ground was all very Lowryesque, a human tide edging across the railway bridge and towards town. The jaunty and optimistic sound of Sports Report could be heard from someone’s kitchen or car – a few years back, everyone would be straining their ears to hear the scores, but the age of instant media has taken away the exclusivity of the eager fan with a transistor radio clamped to the ear. With collars up and hands in pockets, all you could hear were the mumblings acknowledging that Hull had saved a valuable point. It’s probably going to be like that all season at the KCOM.

www.gameofthepeople.com