Simon Hart: Luton rise again as John Still brings back the team that time forgot
Life Beyond the Premier League: The manager has turned to 'hungry, ambitious' players and also won over a crowd whose mood soured after two Conference play-off final defeats
Wednesday 09 April 2014
Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night had the feel of a time warp. Luton Town's stadium is almost unchanged from their days as a top-flight club – right down to the peculiar row of small 1980s executive boxes running down one side of the pitch, framed by terraced houses behind.
The old ground may look a little tired but Conference leaders Luton are a club, in the words of their chairman, Nick Owen, "alive with excitement and anticipation". Tuesday's 2-0 victory over Tamworth means that their five-year absence from the Football League will end either tomorrow night, if Cambridge United lose at Woking, or on Saturday with a home win over Braintree Town.
Owen, the BBC TV presenter who fronts the fans' consortium which bought the Bedfordshire club in 2008, believes promotion would rank as a finer moment than even their 1988 League Cup final triumph over Arsenal.
"I have seen 16 promotions and relegations," the lifelong supporter tells The Independent. "In many ways this means more [than the final] because it comes after such a long time of decline."
Luton were in the Championship in 2007 and for Owen the lowest point came when they began the 2008-09 League Two campaign with a "gut-wrenching", unprecedented 30-point penalty. On top of 20 points for failing to exit their third administration in a decade, the Football Association deducted an extra 10 for paying agents through a holding company. Bitterness is still evident as fans sing: "Fuck the FA, we're on our way back."
Manager John Still began mapping the way back in February 2013 after nine years with Dagenham & Redbridge, a club he took from the Conference to League One. He led Luton to a 27-match unbeaten league run between September and March, and has turned to "hungry, ambitious" players such as academy graduate Jake Howells, Norwich loanee Cameron McGeehan and ex-West Ham trainee Pelly Ruddock. "It takes a certain type of character to deal with the expectation of 8,500 people," he explains.
Still has also won over a frustrated crowd whose mood soured after two Conference play-off final defeats. "This is a different club than when I came. This is 'new Luton'. Away teams would keep the crowd quiet for 20 minutes and they would get on [our] backs; they cheer louder now."
There were 8,554 at the Tamworth game and Still invited a couple of spectators to join his squad's post-match huddle. "We do it every game," he says.
One pivotal incident last September helped transform the mood. After a 3-2 comeback win over Lincoln, captain Ronnie Henry responded to half-time abuse from one fan with a few angry words at the end. "A lot of people have said it has made a difference," says Henry. "It was very negative and we all had to be in it together."
This togetherness is illustrated by the Supporters of Luton Youth Development, a fans' group which raised £75,000 to keep the club's academy going without Football League funding. Luton continue to nurture talent – £400,000 Cauley Woodrow has just made his Fulham debut – as they did in the 1980s when they produced England internationals Ricky Hill and Brian Stein.
The sight of Stein, the 1988 Wembley match-winner, in the press room recalls those halcyon days but, happily for Luton fans, a fresh celebration is just around the corner.
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