Luton's Kenilworth Road ground - sandwiched tightly in a residential area - an old-school football ground.
Photo © 2016 Ciderspace.
Luton Town and Yeovil Town have two things in common of great significance. The first is their nickname. Just as the Glovers got their name from the glove-making industry in the town, so Luton got their nickname from the hat-making industry. Secondly, the modern day club was formed from a merger - Luton Wanderers and Luton Excelsior - in 1885. Nine years later they became founder members of the Southern League, and the first professional club in Southern England.
They had a brief three year membership of the Football League between 1897 and 1900, before resigning and rejoining the Southern League. When the Southern League top division became part of Football League Division Three at the end of World War I, Luton moved back into the fold, where they have remained ever since.
The club have spent most of their history between the second and third tiers of English football, with four key exceptions. In 1954-55 they gained promotion to the First Division where they spent five seasons, reaching their peak in 1959 when they got into the FA Cup Final, losing to Nottingham Forest.
What happened thereafter was spectacular - Luton went from the First Division and Wembley Stadium in 1959, to 17th in Division Four in the 1966-67. They had a further single-season blip in 2000-01, but up until the sudden crash that greeted them in the late 2000s that saw them plummet out of the Football League (more about that shortly) their fans knew very little about fourth tier football apart from these years.
Luton's finest era came in the mid-1980s, when promotion back to the top tier was gained, albeit with controversy surrounding both their plastic pitch and their away fan ban after a riot involving Millwall fans - something that saw them expelled from the League Cup in 1986-87 after refusing to allow Cardiff City fans to buy tickets for a semi-final match.
They reached their league peak in 1986-87 as well. Was that achieved under David Pleat, who went on to manage Tottenham Hotspur? Or perhaps the highly respected Ray Harford? No, in fact it was achieved by the far more anonymous John Moore - a first team coach who held the reins when Pleat disappeared to Spurs. Harford came in for Moore and the success continued, with the League Cup being won 3-2 against Arsenal at Wembley.
The plastic pitch got ripped up in 1991 and perhaps not by coincidence, this signalled Luton's decline again and they were relegated the following season, despite Pleat having returned to Bedfordshire. Thereafter things began to go from bad to worse, with financial woes turning Luton into a selling club as they attempted to move away from the crumbling wreck that is Kenilworth.
The Main Stand at Luton's Kenilworth Road ground - side facing.
Photo © 2016 Ciderspace.
They've gone into administration three times, all in the last 20 years. The first came when plans for a multi-purpose sports complex dubbed the 'KohlerDome' collapsed. They were pulled out of administration on the eve of the 1999-2000 season, but the damage off the field saw them relegated back to the fourth tier at the end of 2000-01. Former Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear and Mick Harford masterminded an instant promotion, but financial woes and meddling from Chairmen were to see Luton come off the rails once again.
This takes us on to the time when the Glovers played Luton in the League Cup, just after we'd entered the Football League. John Gurney was the Luton Chairman, taking over the club in May 2003, and if you recall, one of first things he did was to sack Kinnear and Harford and to set up a phone vote to let the fans decide whether Kinnear should be reappointed or whether Mike Newell should come in as the next manager.
Yep, you heard right, a phone vote. Luton fans were given the opportunity to place their votes in a Stars-In-Their-Eyes
style phone-in, where you could dial a different number for a different manager, that
way you'd be certain that the new man had the full backing of the supporters. That's the theory anyway. In practice the slight flaw in Gurney's thinking was that
the phone-vote was open to all, meaning that even hated rivals Watford could have their
supporters register their vote to ... errr, influence ... what sort of manager they felt
they would prefer their dearly despised neighbours to have.
So would you prefer former Wimbledon veteran Joe Kinnear, a highly respected manager with
an excellent track record, who had only just guided Luton into a healthy 9th place
finish in Division Two (third tier)? Or would you prefer Mike Newell, a former Luton
Town player who as a manager had
managed one of the greatest "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" achievements of the 2002-03
season when he took over a Hartlepool United side steaming away at the top of the Third Division, only to hand the title to Rushden by May. Newell had 'celebrated' promotion with Hartlepool
by seeing his crumbling side lose 4-0, hear chants for his head ringing around the ground, and
by collecting his P45 shortly afterwards. You would think that Kinnear would have won the vote by a country mile, but in this case
Watford Luton fans cast their vote towards Mike Newell, and so the former Doncaster
Rovers player came into the club over the summer of 2003.
With John Gurney seemingly on a suicide
mission, the (Mad) Hatters spiralled into administration. Normally a club going into administration
is bad news, but Luton fans saw this as a lifesaver as it meant that Gurney was forced out and
an Administrator, Barry Ward, was appointed to untangle the mess that Gurney had left
behind. It later transpired that Luton's Supporters Trust - Trust In Luton - had rather cunningly acquired shares in the club's major creditors, Hatters Holdings, and in doing so had deliberately forced the club into administration to get rid of Gurney. Rather clever if you can do that without tipping the club over the precipice in the process. Mick Harford was reappointed as Director of Football as the fans got back the man they wanted probably in the first place.
To be fair to Newell, he did surprisingly well, even if some of his remarks made to the press at times would cause controversy, and in the end be the spark that damaged Luton even further. In March 2007, he personally wrote to his own board of directors demanding to know the answer to certain questions, including the exact financial breakdown of the sale of five of his first team players. He also told journalists after a match against Hull City that they should be conducting an investigation into the financial dealings at Kenilworth Road. Two days later, Newell was fired by two directors for "gross misconduct" for speaking out against his employers. The decision to sack Newell, saw one director - Martin King - walk, claiming that he shared Newell's concerns and disagreed with the decision.
A month later, Chairman Bill Tomlins was forced to resign when the FA announced they were investigating irregular payments made by Luton's parent company J10, which he also resigned from, and Tomlin admitted that these payments related to money handed over to incoming players' agents - he was to be banned from football for five years for his involvement in the situation. Various parties, including the six agents involved, were hit with a total of over 50 charges by the FA. Luton were charged with 17 of them. Whilst they managed to defend themselves on a few of the charges, the FA found that there was a case to answer on many of the others, and the fallout was a £50,000 fine and a 10 point deduction for the 2008-09 season. The Hatters had already been relegated from League One, with their relegation induced partly by a massive sell-off of players and partly by a 10 point deduction for entering administration, and so this was the second season in a row that they'd suffer such a punishment. But worse was to come when they failed to exit administration properly - the Football League added a further 20 point deduction to that 2008-09 season total.
That meant that Luton faced the prospect of trying to avoid a third successive relegation whilst starting on minus 30 points. Despite clocking up 13 wins and 17 draws, which normally would have given a club a midtable finish, the two punishments were enough for the Hatters to head out of the Football League - a plummet from Championship football in 2006-07 to Conference football by the summer of 2009. At present Luton are the only club to have been relegated out of the Football League via a triple relegation.
Given the state that Luton entered non-league football, even a club their size was going to find it tough turning that around quickly. In the end it took them five seasons to gain promotion back into the Football League - finishes of 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 7th made them perennial bridesmaids via the play-offs, until John Still came in as first team manager, and his experience of guiding clubs out of non-league football proved crucial as they won the Conference title in 2013-14 to take them back into the Football League. Their first season back saw them finish just outside the play-offs, in 8th position, but with the Hatters starting the 2015-16 season poorly, Still was shown the door, and Nathan Jones - once of this parish - entered the building on January 6th 2016, in his first front line position. During his first full season, they reached the play-offs which was probably their main target, but unfortunately - and not for the first time in Nathan's career - he got done over by Blackpool. This season their hope will be that they can avoid all that play-off fuss entirely.
The Kenilworth Stand - situated at the opposite end to the away section of the ground.
Photo © 2016 Ciderspace.
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