Wednesday 30 September ~
As a Luton fan living in the heart of Spurs/Arsenal territory, you get used to being patronised: "Here’s a tenner, buy the club"; "If I came with you, would that double the attendance?"; that kind of thing. So it’s been novel playing the role of big fish in the small pond of the Blue Square Premier, outnumbering the home support at some away games and running sweepstakes on how few fans Gateshead would bring (it was 48 – but their team didn’t deserve to lose).
It has, in truth, engendered a certain arrogance that we should easily be beating the likes of Kettering, Salisbury and Stevenage – after all, the argument goes, we were only relegated last year because of the unjust 30-point deduction, not because we were the worst team in League Two, and the much-respected consortium that now runs the club not only kept all the best players but added a raft of good new ones too over the summer.
This is all true enough, but the reality of life in the BSP has not proven so simple. Though at the start of the season some mouthed the platitude that this is not an easy league to get out of, few really believed it. A strong squad, a relatively big fanbase (8,223 at last night’s home game against Stevenage) and just the fact that we are Luton was seen – and still is seen – to be enough, hence the growing if reluctant calls for Mick Harford’s head.
Kettering, Salisbury and Stevenage, among others, have not done the decent thing and refused to roll over as they were meant to, helped by generally clueless performances from a hideously underperforming Luton team. The quality of opposition has been variable – Crawley, for example, were genuinely outclassed in a way I have not seen before – but in general the other teams have been organised. The main difference between this league and the two above seems to be in the ability to take your chances. It’s no surprise to me that some teams make rapid progression through the lower reaches (look at Doncaster) – the standard is not that different.
Nonetheless, given Luton’s recent history, the belief that we are meant for higher things is hard to shake and I cannot help but feel that this league is there for the taking if only we could play somewhere near our potential – the opposition may be perfectly competent, but it’s not particularly good. All the while, Oxford seem to have finally got the hang of the BSP after three years of being the big fish themselves and have a 13-point lead over us already. I hope it doesn’t take us as long as it’s taken them.
There has been some enjoyment in discovering new grounds, and pictures of Histon’s somewhat small and basic away end have been doing the rounds – although the riot police at Cambridge last Saturday were just a bit over the top, belying the image of how away fan-friendly the BSP is. But our benevolence is on the basis that we’re only going to be visiting them the once, so it’s like a footballing gap year, not a permanent relocation. Much of this inability to cope with the reality of our new status is down to a dizzying freefall that has been hard to comprehend – just three years ago, nearly to the day, we were fifth in the Championship. And that is where most fans think we belong. The harsh truth, however, is that this arrogance belongs to the past.
The one good thing has been to see first-hand the amazing depth of English football. Is there any other country in the world where a fifth-division, non-League match (Oxford v Luton) could attract a crowd of over 10,500? That, at least, is something to be proud of. Neil Rose