THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Two years ago Luton teetered between farce and oblivion, with a new manager ‘elected’ by a dubious poll. Now, as Neil Rose reports, Mike Newell’s side are firmly on the up

You could tell it was a special day. Luton fans could not really bring themselves to hate the Milton Keynes Dons – and they have more reason than most.

Beyond the usual Franchise FC distaste is the real fear of a well resourced rival 20-odd miles up the road. The Dons, for the time being at least, are not a rival in the footballing sense. But their new stadium – designed by the architects behind Wembley and Ashburton Grove – began rising from the Denbigh mud in February, 18 months after moving to a city where they have been welcomed with open arms. There’s also an indoor arena, all backed up financially by the presence of Ikea and Asda. It is everything Luton want.

But the Hatters’ planned new home by junction 10 of the M1 has been stuck fast for more years than anyone can remember. The countless schemes, ranging from the sensible to, more often, the hare-brained (such as the indoor stadium on stilts with a Formula One track running through it) have one thing in common: they’ve got nowhere. The current owners keep making positive noises, but Luton fans will only believe it when they’re wedged in their new plastic bucket seats.

Kenilworth Road was named the second worst ground in the country by the Observer last year, the only surprise being that Priestfield topped it. There is a well of affection for the old place, but leaving it cannot come soon enough. The council, who own it, is desperate to regenerate the whole depressing area and needs the club to move, while the 9,500 capacity is a good few thousand short of how many people the club need through the turnstiles to break even – although the empty terrace at the top of the Kenilworth Road End will finally have seats put in this summer.

Thus the spectre of Luton moving to Milton Keynes has been raised regularly over the years, but the opposition of either the fans (vehement) or the Football League (ironic, given that it was on the basis of a club moving out of its area) always came to the rescue. But what if the MK Dons experiment continues to fail as miserably as it has thus far on the pitch? Pete Winkelman needs to fill those 30,000 seats – or at least a few of them – somehow.

Some activist Hatters called for a boycott of the game at the National Hockey Stadium earlier in the season and, while a handful forewent the 4-1 away win so as to demonstrate against franchising, more than 3,000 could not resist. It is hard to stand up for principle during your best season in years.

Because today, of all days, Luton fans could not care less about the politics of football. It is four days after Tranmere’s defeat at Brentford confirmed Luton’s elevation to the Championship, after a decade away from that level. A second promotion in four years means no more LDV Vans Trophy to slip out of with embarrassing ease – one measly southern area semi-final in ten years; no more first-round banana skins in the FA Cup attracting Sky’s cameras; no more Watford superiority. For all the efforts over the years to build up local rivalry with Northampton, Wycombe, Rushden, Peterborough and now Milton Keynes, it will only ever be Watford, hence the Dons’ Dean Lewington receiving 90 minutes of abuse for having the misfortune of being the son of their recent boss.

As if to emphasise the gulf between the two clubs, it is a double celebration as the home team are also marking their 120th anniversary. The Dons won’t get there until 2123. Luton fans chant “You’ve got no history”, followed up by the odd burst of “AFC Wimbledon”, at the 800 silent away fans. Maybe they haven’t worked out yet what their retaliatory songs should be, but never have so many people made so little noise in the away end of a football ground.

So, to mark both occasions, it is Hatters day. There are lots of boaters, the traditional Luton headwear, many bearing witness to the fact that their owners were at Wembley in 1988 for the high point of those 120 years, the Littlewoods Cup win against Arsenal. For those without, the pre-paid boater collection point outside is doing a roaring trade, while the promotion T-shirts are flying off hastily assembled tables. Robbie Earle is there for ITV, the place is a virtual sell-out and all is right with the world.

And it is the MK Dons’ link to that glorious 1988 day that provides the other reason we don’t hate them as much as we should – their manager, Danny Wilson, revered as a member of the sainted team and applauded on to the pitch. But despite a revival since his appointment, nobody seriously expects Wilson’s players to detain Luton unduly on the way to what would be only the fourth league title in their history.

It gives the last four games meaning and so Luton get off to their usual fast start. Waves of white shirts flow at the Dons, playing the attractive football that has been Mike Newell’s hallmark in his two years in charge. The passes are short and sharp, the movement fluid, with the full-backs overlapping with gusto and the midfielders given licence to roam, often ahead of strikers Steve Howard and on-loan Rowan Vine, who spends much of his time on the flanks anyway, masking woeful finishing with lung-bursting effort.

Within three minutes, perennial top scorer Howard has headed against the bar. The Dons are fouling with determination, virtually every whistle going Luton’s way. From behind me, someone suggests that the Sikh referee has some friends in the town – but if he does, they are probably not fans; despite Luton’s large ethnic minority population, there are relatively few Asian supporters in the crowd.

After four minutes, this season’s main anthem rings out, combining the pontiff being rude to Watford in a distinctly unholy manner – we assume Benedict XVI will carry on the tradition – and some unkind suggestions about Tony Thorpe’s mother, because we still cannot forgive her previously idolised son for jumping ship during 2003’s summer of madness which almost saw the Town go under.

Of course, that summer brought Newell in its wake, so the ludicrous Pop Idol-style vote that saw him replace Joe Kinnear turned out rather well, as did the year in administration. Under owners who care and buoyed by spending virtually the whole season clear at the top, the club are now in better shape than for years, which in modern lower-league football seems to mean that the losses are merely appalling, not obscene.

Yet even today, despite the remarkable success he has engineered, I don’t get the sense that Newell is loved. Respected, yes. Admired, certainly. But it took results to get the fans to chant his name. As a player he was never the heart and soul of the club like Brian Stein or Mick Harford, in particular the latter – but Harford, then Newell’s right-hand man, jumped ship earlier this season from the club he professes to love to follow Kinnear to Forest, where both soon reached a sticky end and Harford headed for Rotherham.

His departure did a great deal for Newell’s reputation. There was a sneaky suspicion that it was Harford who was behind the team’s success; that it continued unaffected after he left proved that the credit belongs to Newell, along with Stein, now first-team coach.

Newell has Kinnear to thank for bequeathing a strong core, but he has not shown his predecessor’s aversion to throwing in youngsters, such as pacy centre-back Curtis Davies, who could yet bear out comparisons with a young Rio. He has shown an eye for signings, as well as a real Midas touch, turning the base metal of the likes of left-back Sol Davis and right midfielder Ahmet Brkovic (whose nickname, the Croatian Sensation, is no longer ironic after 15 goals) into golden members of the squad.

None the less, after the initial gale fails to blow the Dons’ house down, Luton’s play starts to get scrappy and the away team finally proves that they are not on a bet to see if it can spend 90 minutes playing in just one half of the pitch. Perhaps as a result of their slight adventure, the only goal of the game suddenly arrives after half an hour. Luton’s right-back Kevin Foley whips a dangerous cross into the six-yard box, where it skims off a diving defender’s head and in. Two minutes later, a ball into the Luton box is headed towards the top corner, but Marlon Beresford somehow claws it away.

And that, pretty much, is that for the football. The Dons are surprisingly useless given their recent form and need for points and in the second half Luton, despite creating the odd chance, aren’t much better. But then you don’t need promotion form after you’ve been promoted and a crowd that may have got restless in other circumstances watches on indulgently. Perhaps it’s a joke, or perhaps it’s a reflection of a game light on serious incident, but Beresford is named man of the match, that save being one of the few touches of the ball he’s had in 90 minutes.

The celebrations – with some supporters generously donating their new £10 boaters to the players to wear as they leave the pitch – are far more energising than the game. More than anything, they are an expression of massive relief. Not over the promotion as such, but that the season-long fear that the lads will find a way to bugger it up has finally passed.

Hull’s draw puts the Hatters five points clear of a team with infinitely more money, while Torquay’s victory draws them level with the Dons for the last relegation spot. A week later, Luton are champions and the Dons deeper in the doo-doo.

Going to Kenilworth Road will not be a pleasant experience next season for fancy-dan Championship clubs – you hope because the home team will have enough about them to put up a decent showing, but mainly because of the antiquated surrounds. But for Luton fans, going to Milton Keynes – even if you could pick up some nifty Swedish furniture after the game – would be far, far worse.

From WSC 220 June 2005. What was happening this month

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