As the dust settles on the domestic season, we can reflect on 2018/19 as the year of remarkable football comebacks. Liverpool overcame a daunting 3-0 deficit against a Barcelona side spearheaded by the majestic Lionel Messi to set up a Champions League final with Tottenham, who themselves had trialled 3-0 on aggregate with just 45 minutes left in the tie, the talismanic Harry Kane watching on helplessly from the stands. Incredible, unbelievable, extraordinary. So how have these astonishing achievements been eclipsed by a small club from Bedfordshire wearing EasyJet orange?
A proud club steeped in history; Luton Town are renowned for yo-yo-ing between divisions. The Hatters have made various cameos in each of English football’s top five leagues over the course of their 134-year history. However, their recent past is littered with financial turmoil.
Luton Town’s financial plight can be traced back to the 2002/03 season. The Hatters had just been relegated to the Third Division; the lowest Luton had sunk on the footballing ladder in nearly forty years. Joe Kinnear was on hand to lift the Hatters out of the gutter, gaining promotion back to the Second Division at the first time of asking. Despite success on the pitch, financially, Luton were struggling. But in swanned John Gurney, the face of a “mysterious” and “secret” consortium, to save the day. Unfortunately, “mysterious” and “secret” tends to translate as shadowy and suspicious.
Gurney stamps his authority
Gurney instantly endeared himself to fans by dismissing the universally popular Joe Kinnear within three days of arriving in Bedfordshire. What ensued was complete carnage.
Gurney proposed “manager idol” in order to fill the vacant managerial position, where fans voted for who the club should appoint as the next Luton Town boss. Mike Newell (a man whose 2006 comments about assistant referee Amy Rayner makes Andy Gray and Richard Keys look like raging radical feminists) was eventually given the job; not because he was the favoured candidate, simply because front-runners Steve Cotterill and Joe Kinnear no longer seemed to want it.
Gurney’s maverick suggestions didn’t stop there. He planned to change the club’s name to London-Luton Football Club, in order to tie in with the local airport. Gurney sure did have his finger on the pulse of everything a British football fan desired. It begged the question why there is currently no Heathrow Terminal 2 FC strutting their stuff in the football league.
Further ideas from Gurney’s brainstorming session included building a 70,000-seater stadium (Luton’s average attendance for the 2002/03 season was 6,746), with a Formula One track circling the pitch (because athletics tracks always go down a treat at football grounds, so going one further was nothing short of genius.) Ooh, the Luton grand prix. Doesn’t that sound illustrious?
He also proposed merging with AFC Wimbledon. With the rich history of their club hanging in the balance, fans boycotted season tickets, the club was placed into administration and Gurney was eventually forced out. He took it well though.
The post-Gurney years
In 2005, with brand new owners, Luton raced to the League One league title. However, their stint in the second tier was not to be a long and fruitful one, with another relegation and return to League One in 2007.
Things went from bad to worse, as the club were dealt a 10-point deduction in November of 2007 after falling into administration. Luton Town 2020, a consortium consisting of Hatters supporters, were named as the new owners, and Luton were led out of administration. However, with the points penalty heavily weighing them down, they were relegated to the bottom rung of the football league.
To add insult to injury, Luton would start the League 2 season on a staggering minus 30 points. This extortionate punishment, 10 points for misconduct charges and a further 20 for failure to comply with the League’s insolvency rules, was the largest the Football League had ever dished out. The club were left feeling scapegoated, abandoned and betrayed by the Football Association. Unsurprisingly, they were relegated to the Conference, bringing their 89-year residency in the football league to an end. Three administrations in nine years and a hattrick of consecutive relegations; things were looking bleak in Bedfordshire.
With just one automatic promotion place, the Conference is a notoriously difficult league to escape. Luton would go on to suffer three bouts of playoff heartache in three years. They fell at the semi-final stage in 2009/10, before losing back to back finals in the two seasons that followed. Despite enjoying an FA Cup run in 2014/15, Luton failed to reach the playoffs, meaning the Hatters were consigned to another season outside of the football league.
Success at last
The following season Luton racked up a mammoth 101 points and 103 goals en route to the Conference title. After a hellish eight years, Luton fans were finally rewarded for their unwavering support.
Promotion to League One followed in 2017/18. Luton entered the 2018/19 season tipped as dark horses to go up. However, with the likes of Sunderland, Portsmouth and Charlton also in League One, securing consecutive promotions was going to be no mean feat.
Despite the fierce competition, the Hatters strung together a remarkable 28-game unbeaten league streak between October and April to seal promotion back to the Championship.
A managerial spanner in the works
In typical Luton fashion, promotion was never simple. Manager Nathan Jones, the brains behind their success in League Two, left for the bright lights of Stoke in January. He was replaced by caretaker boss Mick Harford. The former Luton player and assistant manager under Joe Kinnear made it perfectly clear he had no intention of taking the job full-time. With plenty of football still to play, this could have easily derailed their promotion push. But Harford confirmed his status as club legend, picking up from where Jones left off to complete Luton’s climb from the basement of English football back to the Championship. It has been a remarkable resurrection.
Eleven years ago, Luton were a club on the brink. Mercilessly deserted by the Football Association, riddled with financial worries, staring at the inevitability of three relegations on the bounce, with the potential to fade into footballing obscurity. Just five years ago, Luton were still welcoming Welling United, Nuneaton Town and Tamworth to Kenilworth Road. Now, they are waving to Ipswich Town and Bolton Wanderers, two stalwarts of English football, as they pass each other in their opposite directions. Visits Nottingham Forrest, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United await.
How have they done it?
Luton have rebuilt with intelligence and style. They have had a shrewd transfer and scouting policy, with the likes of Andre Gray and Jack Marriot gracing the Kenilworth Road turf before being sold for considerable profit. They have won with flair, scoring a colossal 94 league goals during their League Two promotion success of 2017/18 (only Manchester City outscored them in England’s top five divisions). And Luton have completed this comeback with an understated hero at the helm in the shape of Mick Harford.
Although the 2019 season will be remembered for the dominance of Manchester City, and the extraordinary European nights at Anfield and the Johan Cruyff Arena, do not forget the story of Luton Town. A small club in Bedfordshire, staring into the footballing abyss, who managed to pull off the remarkable.
The future is looking bright for Luton. West Brom assistant coach Graeme Jones was recently named as their new permanent manager. They have also had plans for a brand new 17,500 capacity stadium approved. But alas, no Formula One track.