Non-League: Time used wisely – transforming a football ground

LATER in the evening, football was supposed to be coming home, and indeed it did to some extent. While towns like Hitchin became transformed into melting pots of drunk fans wearing England shirts, there was a chance to remind people the local non-league club was alive and kicking and was staggering out of the bunker to open their doors once more.

Behind the scenes at Hitchin, activity has been intense during the past few months. At long last, the wooden terracing that provided ice-skating for beginners in the wet and winter, became a victim of ground-grading requirements and the need to move on from an age when safety standards began and ended with extinguishing stray cigarette butts. It had to go if the club was to keep its ground grading.

Top Field looks incredibly healthier for it, even though new metal terracing is poised to be installed before the new season starts proper to complete the task. Not everyone was pleased to see the end of the wooden planks, but removal of the Heath Robinson-designed terracing (which were originally installed as a temporary measure for a cup tie in the 1930s) meant the club got a big tick from the men in bowler hats.

The ground, which was mockingly called “the wood yard” by some opposing fans, divides opinion and always has. Traditionalists and nostalgists love and yearn for its its olde-worlde charm, but pragmatists and modernists see it as an obstacle.

The terracing is only part of the story. The ground has never looked smarter in the past 30 years, although it is clearly a work in progress. Thanks to the public appeal for money that raised a remarkable £ 60,000, the club was able to ensure the work was funded.

The catering facilities are a massive improvement and no longer fulfil basic requirements but offer choice and a degree of quality. The days of china cups from the top tea bar have long gone, but these new caterers have “barista” coffee available, which may break new ground in Southern League circles. Certainly, the upgrade is clear recognition that customers demand better quality from event catering these days.

The club has also made the ground more secure with proper, security-minded fencing, which is a huge improvement from the days of painted fibreboard. And there’s a new fixture board to replace the forlorn structure that soldiered on bravely far longer than expected.

But there’s something else stirring at Hitchin which may surprise one or two people. There is just a hint of the hipster to be found about the place, which suggests younger fans are getting a taste for the club and even becoming involved. At the Luton game, there was even a bearded fan with a St. Pauli t-shirt, the club whose fans are renowned for left-wing politics and causes, but he was actually a Luton fan, not a new recruit for Hitchin Town. The club has long needed an influx of younger fans and it does seem as though it might be slowly getting it. You get the feeling that the decision to adjust the club’s visual identity may have been aimed at future generations.

Luton won easily 7-0, not unsurprisingly given they are a Championship side. Hitchin’s willing youngsters looked slower, less physical and a little tired. The game itself wasn’t that important, the 1,200 crowd was, though.

The real winner was the new-look Top Field, which when completed will make the ground a much better, more comfortable and secure place. Football actually came home several hours before the Lightning Seeds got an airing across the pubs of Hitchin.

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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