Millwall in the FA Cup means some bad memories but Luton looking forward
Reaching the last eight rather than the 1985 riot is main concern for club seeking League return
The Eric Morecambe Suite was something to behold, a bland expanse of stained wood and photographic tributes to a comic long gone, rescued from aesthetic oblivion by a silver pot stationed in a corner. One of three replicas in circulation, this particular FA Cup found its way to Kenilworth Road courtesy of Scott Rendell's late winner at Carrow Road in the fourth round.
Most would agree that romance and Luton are concepts not easily linked. Rendell's goal against Norwich sealed the first victory by a non-League club at a top-tier team in more than 20 years, and the first since Yeovil in 1949 to do so beyond the third round.
None has ever progressed to the quarter-finals.
That historic titbit is enough to bring into sharper relief today's fifth-round encounter against Millwall, not quite the reward providence promised the Conference club, but sufficient to land the early-kick-off slot for the television cameras. "You want the easiest team at home or the biggest away, but we got neither," said Gary Sweet, the Luton chief executive.
"From the football perspective it is good because it's winnable. From the operational point of view it's more challenging."
And we all knew what that means. Sweet was a 21-year-old Hatters season-ticket holder when Millwall last visited Luton in the FA Cup, 28 years ago. The day ended with 47 people needing medical treatment, most of them policeman, and 31 arrests. The episode became a cause celebre for a right-leaning political class under Margaret Thatcher keen to pin ID cards on the football masses. The great unwashed resisted that initiative, but no visiting fan passed through a Kenilworth turnstile in the next four years.
"I understand that this is big because of the history," Sweet said. "You can't be annoyed at that. I was there in 1985. It is very much a part of my memories and I can't forget it. I don't see why the media should either. But we have moved on and this match gives us an opportunity to show that.
"It was a great game, which we won, but it did have its moments beforehand. My hair was standing on end and I was probably in the safest part of the ground.
"We didn't quite realise the scale of the event until the days that followed and the political fallout. That was one of the events that year that created a lot of attention. There were other matches that arguably had bigger trouble but did not attract the same attention. It became a political pawn. And that is not dumbing it down. The fact that it was the FA Cup probably had something to do with it."
Millwall's return to Luton co-incides with another grim example of the social dysfunction that so readily attaches to the Championship club. The Sky-instigated investigation launched into racism claims made against Millwall following incidents at the home game with Leeds last November contrasts with the outreach work in which Luton are engaged in a community as racially diverse as any in Britain. Inevitably it has had an impact on today's engagement.
"We have had a meeting with local community , police and council members to make sure they understand our arrangements," Sweet said. "It is often the perception rather than the reality which causes people concern so I think we have eased concerns there.
"The fact that there is a perception now that there is a racist element within the Millwall community could heighten the nervousness within the local community and we wanted to stem that. We have been going to huge lengths with lots of initiatives to engage the local community. We have a huge eastern European contingent, too, and let's not forget the Lutonians who have been with us for generations. We are getting more Asians following the club now. It makes you proud when you see these initiatives coming to fruition."
Luton, a club that loses close to £2million a year, will not retrieve even a quarter of that from this Cup run should it end today. The real value is in the projection, a reminder that this was once a substantial institution that carved its own identity with an attractive brand of expansive football, led by David Pleat in the days when beige suits and tan shoes were all the rage, and of course, that pioneering plastic pitch.
Successive relegations and multiple penalties for financial irregularities saw Luton cast out of the Football League into the bear pit that is the Blue Square Premier. Plotting a route out of that has been complicated by this Cup run, during which Luton have taken only one point from nine.
Nevertheless , the experience gained against Premier League and Championship (Wolves) opposition en route, and the tension around this tie, has propelled the players into a spotlight they have never known.
Hungarian defender Janos Kovacs, in his second spell at the club, openly concedes this is the biggest weekend of his career. "This match is massive. I love this club, I always tell people it is the biggest club that I have ever played for. I want to give something back. If we could make the quarter finals it would be amazing.
"This past few days, this match has been my sole focus. I had a few days like this before the play-off final, but to get into the fifth round is already a great achievement. I'm really buzzing about it. It is a massive contrast to the league, and it has caused us a few problems with league form. We have to be honest and say we have not been good enough recently."
The sense of occasion is felt equally by Rendell, the hero of Carrow Road. "The results we have had in the Cup have made people sit up and realise that we are a good side," he said. "A few fans were chanting my name at Dartford on Tuesday. That is always appreciated. We didn't get the right result at Dartford but this is a different game and I am hoping we will be able to kick on. After the win at Norwich we travelled back and it was really surreal watching the news coming up on the bus TV and all the boys giving interviews.
"You get into your car to drive home and it starts sinking in a little bit that we have actually done something really special.
"Come Saturday Kenilworth Road will be rocking and that will help the boys. I thought getting tickets for the game would be a lot worse than what it was, I managed to get a few and there have been no arguments about who gets them. My family are coming from Basingstoke. I'm not looking for anything spectacular against Millwall. I will take a scruffy one off my backside and if it's the winner again, all the more sweet."
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