Heroic Hatters: The inspirational rebirth of Luton Town

Luton were crowned champions of League 1 on Saturday and their return from the depths of non-league football has been just remarkable.

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Even its proudest citizen would not flinch at Luton being described as an unlovely town.

The rough diamond of Bedfordshire has been blighted by the repeated economic downturns of the last few decades, and has struggled to recover from each of them.

With Eric Morecambe long departed, the most famous Lutonian is now Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the far-right activist and all-around dunderhead seen this week being doused by a pair flying milkshakes in Bury and Warrington.

Yaxley-Lennon, the former tanning salon manager turned man of the Paypal, funded by donations from those of a similar political bent, pinched his “Tommy Robinson” pseudonym from his support for Luton Town FC.

The original Tommy Robinson is a notorious Luton hooligan with a long service in the MIG (Men In Gear) firm.

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Such associations are not particularly helpful to a club that crashed right down to the lowest ebb in its history at the end of the 2000s, spending five years in non-league football after financial problems took Town to the edge of extinction.

Madness long reigned at the Hatters.

The club was handed two points deductions for irregularities, being docked 10 points in 2007-08 and 30 points the following season. It had been a disastrous fall since relegation from the old First Division in 1992, right on the very eve of the Premier League’s launch but Luton is a club now climbing its way back up.

Like Notts County, also relegated in 1992 and who last weekend suffered their own relegation to non-league, Luton never got to play “a whole new ball game”, as the Sky advert of the time labelled the breakaway cartel.

Missing out on the big bucks began a slide that started slowly, but gained a momentum that reached an almost terminal velocity. The club last played in the second tier as long ago as 2007, so this week’s promotion from League One marks a significant step in the club’s return from the brink.

On Saturday evening, the League One title was confirmed as George Moncur sealed a 3-1 win over Oxford United to get the party started. An open-top bus parade through the town centre followed on Sunday.

That Luton have been managed by Mick Harford since January is a neat piece of symmetry, a reminder of the club’s heyday under David Pleat and Ray Harford (no relation), when the 1988 League Cup was won and then lost in the final the following year.

Harford, who played in both of those matches at Wembley over three decades ago, is one of the players to readily spring to mind when recalling Luton’s 11-year spell in the top tier from 1981 to that untimely 1992 relegation.

He was a true dreadnought of a striker, feared by defenders for his aggression and brute strength, and someone that Alex Ferguson once considered might be a solution to Manchester United’s repeated failure to win the league.

Harford’s role at Luton was that of caretaker manager but now he steps aside, having righted the wrongs of a decade ago when, despite winning the FA Trophy, he was a casualty of the club’s crisis and walked away in October 2009 after 20 tough months in charge.

The reins for next season have been taken by Graeme Jones, long-time right-hand man to Roberto Martinez, and who worked with the Belgium squad that came third at last year’s World Cup.

That appointment was planned as far back as February, but Jones has been kept in the background after losing his previous role working with Darren Moore at West Brom as Harford was allowed to get on with the job of sealing promotion.

Harford was already the most indelible of club legends, but in stepping to take over from Nathan Jones, tempted by Stoke’s Premier League parachute payments to the Championship, he has only enhanced that legend.

Jones had taken Luton up from League Two the previous season and had marked himself out as a manager to watch for clubs in the higher tiers. But, now he will be coming up against his former club next season.

A six-month 28-game unbeaten run set the foundations for Luton’s promotion, secured on Tuesday as Portsmouth and Sunderland lost their games and hopes of going up automatically. The club now seeks to modernise in a fashion beyond the realms of possibility during those decades of neglect.

Since the club’s near-extinction, a regeneration process has been in place. Enough proved enough for a group of fans. Luton Town 2020 was formed in the aftermath of that 20-point deduction, and was a consortium of fans attempting to repeat the success that clubs like Swansea once enjoyed in working together to harness civic pride towards a shared goal of progression and lifting the local community.

Kenilworth Road has a reputation among away supporters as the most inhospitable ground in the country, a relic from another century, entered through a turnstile between two houses down an alleyway, with toilet facilities definitely not for fainthearted.

The home fans hardly receive much more in the way of luxury, and the 2020 groups plans for a new 23,000 stadium away from the tight streets that have prevented Kenilworth Road’s redevelopment are widely welcomed since the old place has until recently not held much in the way of happy memories to anyone younger than 40 years old.

In the January club statement that announced the new premises at Power Court, near the centre of the town, had received approval, it was noted that “this momentous decision ends almost 70 years of waiting for the Club who have been trying to relocate since the 1950s”.

The Championship, from which Sheffield United have been promoted this season, to follow Huddersfield, Bournemouth, and the likes of Wigan and Blackpool in the not so distant past, offers an enticing glimpse of the Premier League and beyond. And ambitions do not stop there.

“If Leicester City in a new surrounding can win the Premier League, then so can we,” said chief exec Gary Sweet on the day of that announcement. “It will increase our support base and make sure Luton Town are permanently financially viable going forward.”

That is big talk, and tinged with not a little hubris but it does point to a club of ambitions and one planning to put what was a quarter of a century of decay into the past, to restore pride to a place that would like to be known for much more than urban deterioration and being Yaxley-Lennon’s home town.

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