Moping around isn’t something Luton does. Sent to purgatory for financial worries, still in the fifth division in 2014, the Bedfordshire club faces Huddersfield on Friday in the semi-finals of the play-offs for the Premier League. Three decades after leaving the top flight, Luton and its 200,000 inhabitants are on the verge of the greatest comeback in English football. It will pass through a molten Kenilworth Road. The enclosure of another time, limited to 10,000 places, has become a beacon of groundhoppersa haunt for a city that was just begging to relive football.
Ernest has the wisdom of the elders and the look of a kid from Bedfordshire. That of a retiree viscerally linked to his Kenilworth Road headquarters for 55 years. With a stroke of a pencil, the septuagenarian unfolds his philosophy: “Here, there are only two periods in the year. That of the football season and that where we are waiting for the start of the next one. » Around him, metal beams, bleachers of wood and concrete and 10,000 pairs of eyes riveted on a den of a bygone era. In the entrails, mind your head remind every 10 meters that it is better to be short on legs at the risk of eating a wooden beam on the muzzle.
“Honestly, we never get bored. Either we play the maintenance, or the descent, the normal season does not exist. » Steve, supporter entertainer
Access turnstiles creak, some spoiled entry are nested between two dwellings. To reach the Oak Road Stand from Kenilworth Road, there is nothing but an intriguing passage by day, breathtaking by night, with the stadium on one side and the neighbour’s living room on the other. So much for the painting, fifty miles north of London. In this former working-class city, until the closure of the Vauxhall car factory (2,000 employees) in 2002, “We are alone on Earth” joke Steve, fine geographer. “If you look at the map of Bedfordshire, Luton are the only pro team. In London, you have at least fifteen. Lots of guys from Luton support Arsenal, Tottenham or West Ham. But if you were born here, you have to come to this stadium and it’s the team you care about the most. And frankly, we never get bored. Either we play the maintenance, or the descent, the normal season does not exist. »
The cardiologists of this epicenter of the hat industry in the XXand century – hence the nickname hatters (Hatters) – have been busy over the past fifteen years. Nor the elevator companies. Between 2007 and today, Luton went from the Championship (second division) to the National League (fifth) before doing the reverse. “We were at the bottom of the hole, everyone thought we were dead” insists Steve.
-30 points in the face
It is that in the spring of 2009, the hatters must digest a third descent in as many seasons and abandon the pro world that they had familiarized with for more than a century. The main reason ? The famous nerve of war, money. Others ? The ITV Digital broadcaster fiasco in the early 2000s that led to many clubs overpaying players, executives drowning in Football Association shenanigans and relentlessness, say fans whose banner “Betrayed by the FA” has since stuck at the stadium.
In the fall of 2007, the English federation imposed 10 penalty points for insolvency (the third in eight years and 6 million euros in debt), and the club was placed in receivership. The maintenance operation in League One was over, and the following summer, the FA continued to hit hard. This time Luton start the season with 30 penalty points, 20 for failing to reach a company voluntary agreement as part of their turnaround, another 10 for the role played by six agents and former managers as part of transfers. Commissions were paid to agents by a holding company of the club. “Never has a club been so sanctionedSteve still plagues. The FA did everything to destroy us. » Luton denounces relentlessness, compares itself to other less sanctioned entities and especially regrets the collective condemnation for administrators who had taken off when the tide began to turn. More than a decade later, Ernest has not forgotten “That day when we joined the fifth division. A woman, a few rows away from me, burst into tears. It was terrible, for everyone. Everything had to be rebuilt. »
Faith well anchored
First the administration with Gary Sweet, general manager since 2008 and a consortium of supporters, the Luton Town Supporters’ Trust, 50,000 shares in the club. Then the sportsman, with John Still who manages – after five attempts – to bring Luton back to the pros in 2014 – then Nathan Jones, a former member of the house who had not had his chance on the meadow, but seized it on the bench. The 48-year-old Welshman with 488 pro games arrives with his possession principles drawn from his Spanish experience (passage to Badajoz and Numancia in the 1990s, editor’s note) and a strong faith. He could have taken orders, he opted for football. “I did everything with Godhe explained in March 2018 to Inews. I followed his word. Other people will say that I followed my instinct, but I believe that it guided me and blessed me with so many things. »
“Keeping a group of 27 selfish, testosterone-filled players happy is next to impossible. (…) Christianity allows me to be honest and to have a balance. » Nathan Jones, Luton coach
A rise to League One in 2018 already, then to the Championship in 2019. After a disastrous interlude at Stoke City, the coach returned home in the spring of 2020 to save the club in the Championship in extremis. Hyperactive on his bench, he learned that “Keeping a group of 27 selfish, testosterone-filled players happy is next to impossible. I have to stay focused to keep their respect. If I treat a player unfairly, I can’t ask him to answer, because I’m wrong. Christianity allows me to be honest and to have a balance” . Having become Luton’s compass, Jones also knows that he is not at Croesus’. In 18 years, the biggest transfer is named Simon Sluga, a Croatian doorman locked up for 1.5 million euros. That is to say the room for manoeuvre. In Luton, we opt for loans, good end-of-career plans and an ultra-efficient recruitment unit when we know that the behemoths of London are an hour’s drive away. All while ruling out sponsorship contracts with sports betting companies. Third lowest budget in the Championship, Luton is only “not an Eldorado for dough” Steeve swears to support it. “There are not a slew of VIP boxes. Players who come here for the money are not smart. (Laughs.) We really have guys fighting for the jersey. »
Home to the most profitable football league in the world, Luton stands out. And advances, accompanied by 19 clean sheets in 46 regular season games, towards play-offs which could erase three decades of absence in the elite. Well, erase, not really. “What happened to us in 2008, this punishment we had, also makes us who we are todayassures Derrick in his iconic orange Luton tunic. We have rebuilt ourselves with owners who have not dangled mountains and wonders. I dare not imagine that we could end up in the Premier League after all that we have been through. » ” We’re not there yetwarned Nathan Jones, last Saturday, after the success against Reading confirming the qualification in the play-offs. When you see the budget of the top five in the championship and ours, I can only be proud of what we have done. We cannot minimize. But we are not at the top yet. » Kenilworth Road in the middle of the Premier League cadors, what would it look like?
“We won’t win every game obviously, but it will be extremely complicated to come and win here. This stadium is so compact, the pressure will be strong. We’re gonna freak them out. » Ruppert, supporter
“To a fortresspromises Steve. We have a plastic lawn, nobody likes us. » For Ruppert, in his sixties and a few teeth left on the way, “We obviously won’t win every game, but it will be extremely complicated to come and win here. This stadium is so compact, the pressure will be strong. We’re gonna freak them out. » Even if a new setting of 23,000 places takes shape a few kilometers away, Luton could, in the event of a climb, play one more season at Kenilworth Road, as since… 1905. Ernest is already jubilant: “This stadium does not embody the Premier League, it does not fit into the mould. And then it will be impossible to get places. »
But still possible to rekindle the memories when Liverpool perhaps land in Luton. “In January 1987Ernest replays, we had drawn against them in the cup, under the snow. A few days later, we beat them 3-0, it was magic. » “We beat them regularlyfinishes Steve. It was the great era. » A time not so distant now: “The FA did not know how to destroy us, we are still alive. We survived and we will be the first team in history to have known the first division, then the fifth before returning to the top. This is Luton. »
By Florent Caffery, in Luton
All comments collected by FC except Nathan Jones.