The Hatters' final stand: Johnstone's Paint Trophy a glorious afternoon's diversion

Once in the top flight, Luton are heading out of the Football League – but not before 40,000 fans see them go for silverware at Wembley
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On Sunday, Brooksbank, 50, will be at Wembley with around 40,000 kindred spirits who, for reasons various, have caught the Luton bug. No other club has taken so many supporters to the revamped national stadium, and still the demand for tickets has not been satisfied. It promises to be an extraordinary show of solidarity for a team that faces the prospect of becoming the first club to lift a Wembley trophy and be relegated from the Football League the same season.

This cruel paradox, half a century since the Hatters first made it to Wembley to contest the FA Cup final with Nottingham Forest, means the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final against Scunthorpe United amounts to a glorious afternoon's diversion from the more serious business of Luton's increasingly desperate struggle to maintain their 89-year-old League status.

The whole business is given added poignancy by the pre-season imposition by the Football League and the Football Association of an unprecedented 30-point deduction over breaches of insolvency rules and payments made to agents. Should Luton overcome this swingeing penalty, on their shoestring budget, it will be an achievement to rank alongside their 3-2 victory over Arsenal in the 1988 League Cup final, the club's crowning moment.

That task became much more difficult on Tuesday evening, when the Hatters were rolled over 4-2 by a Rotherham United side that deployed a direct and physical style of football far better suited to League Two. Luton's neat approach play, and two excellent goals that would have graced the Championship, were inconsequential in the face of Rotherham's efficient exploitation of a brittle back line.

Among nearly 6,000 hardy souls, Brooksbank was there to see it all. After the game he headed back, by train and Tube, to London's Victoria coach station, in order to take the overnight service back to Merseyside in time to start work at 8am. To get to Kenilworth Road, where he has a season ticket, he left Liverpool at 2.30pm, heading off to a town best known as a hub for low-budget air travel.

Luton is a mix of Victorian terraces and brutal concrete. It is currently receiving dubious exposure from the film biopic on its most notorious son, the violent jail inmate Charles Bronson, and merits mentions in the gloomy sitcom One Foot in the Grave, which seems apposite in the light of the perilous position of the Hatters. The millinery industry that gave the football club their nickname has gone. The large Vauxhall car plant closed seven years ago. But there is a pride in Luton, which has been heightened by the adversity heaped on the boys from Kenilworth Road, where Town have played their football since 1905, in spite of a long-held ambition to find somewhere new.

Ahead of Tuesday's game, there was a brisk sale in straw boaters, which will be much in evidence at Wembley on Sunday, as they were in 1959. In a room underneath the main stand, Gary Sweet, the managing director of new owners Luton Town Football Club 2020, a consortium fronted by the television presenter Nick Owen, can barely contain his sense of injustice at the club's plight. He talks regretfully of the "mismanagement" of the previous regime – the club were relegated from League One last season, also after a 10-point deduction – and the pressures on the manager Mick Harford (who featured in the League Cup-winning team in 1988), having to incorporate 16 new players at the start of the season and deal with the anxieties of the passionate Luton following. "If any football club had lived through what we have lived through over the last year, then we should have known better, but no football club has," says Sweet, taking heart from the team's recent form of three successive wins ahead of last Tuesday's game.

In the match-day programme an orange line traverses the League table, at the mid-division point where Luton would be with 30 more points. Sweet believes that without the tension of a relegation battle, the players are good enough to be "in the top two or three". Teams visiting Kenilworth Road seem to agree, often coming for a draw rather than looking for easy pickings.

The management have brought in former player John Faulkner, a sports psychologist, as a match conditioning coach. "He's been going through visualisation programmes – they've enjoyed having him around," Sweet says. Another former player, Alan West, is club chaplain.

Sweet believes the players will draw immense benefit from their experiences this season. "If we do stay up, woe betide League Two next season," he says. Luton may be 11 points adrift of safety with six games to go but their chances are – ironically – improved by the prospect of rivals suffering a 10-point deduction for going into administration. The club would prefer to stay up by winning games, though.

Relegation to the Blue Square Premier League would not mean the end of Luton – "we have to cut our cloth accordingly" – but Sweet's worry would be the possible threat to their youth policy, which still produces outstanding talent such as the England centre-back Matthew Upson.

On the office desk is an unwashed coffee cup carrying a picture of the late Eric Morecambe, a former Luton director, and the club could do with the comedian's humour now. There is still bitterness over the severity of Luton's treatment in comparison to the mere fine handed to Premier League West Ham United over serious irregularities – "there's a huge distinction between the penalties to big and small clubs," claims Sweet – but the new consortium running the club has a long-term vision. "Most businesses name themselves after the year of their birth," he says. "By the year 2020 we want to be reborn where we belong in football, which is not in League Two or in the Blue Square Premier but in the upper echelons of the Championship."

The same defiance is there in the stands. "Thirty points – who gives a fuck? We're Luton Town and we're staying up," goes a current chant. "We're still angry," says Mike Nunley, 45, from Raunds, Northamptonshire, a supporter for 26 years. "I think there will be lots of protests at Wembley." After years of poor management, supporters seem to think the club is now being better run. Young fans can redeem Wembley ticket stubs for £20 season tickets for next season. For Phil Morphew, a computer technician from East Sussex, Sunday's cup final is "a massive party and two fingers up to the authorities".

As for Brooksbank, he no longer feels sorry for Luton Town. Should they go down to the Blue Square Premier he will remain loyal ("of course I will be there"). That doesn't stop him looking forward to Wembley: "It will be nice to show the Football League what they might be getting rid of."

Highs and lows: How the mighty fell

1983 Luton avoid relegation from the old First Division, winning 1-0 at Manchester City on the last day of the season to send City down, as manager David Pleat dances across the pitch.

1988 The Hatters surprise holders Arsenal at Wembley to win the League Cup and lift their first major trophy.

1989 Luton again reach the League Cup final, but go down 3-1 to Nottingham Forest.

1992 They are relegated from the top tier, missing out on the start of the Premiership.

2005 After sinking to the Third Division in 2002, Luton charge back to the Championship under Mike Newell, winning League One by 12 points.

2006 Newell speaks out about transfer "bungs" but relegation, administration and points penalties rock the club.

2008 Back in League Two with a 30-point penalty.


Matches it took Luton to reach one point after the 30-point penalty imposed at the start of the season.