After their rapid rise and even quicker fall Kenilworth Road is a happy place again, with owners who have a strong long-term vision
1 February ~ Imagine a world where football supporters were so content that there was no need for 6.06 and Robbie Savage yelping “’Ang on a minute” at callers. It is a heady thought, but surely impossible.
Yet a corner of Bedfordshire is radiating happiness right now. Life is good at Kenilworth Road – about the worst that can be said is that boss Nathan Jones has an inexplicable belief that serial underachiever Jordan Cook will eventually come good, while others wait for even half of the opportunities the ex-Walsall man has had.
Off the pitch, the love-in with the owners continues and we wait for news from the council on the long-hoped-for new stadium in the centre of town. On the pitch, the team are top of the table and scoring goals like a poor man’s Manchester City. It initially felt that it could only be downhill from the euphoria of winning 8-2 at home to Yeovil on the opening day (a dispiriting 1-0 loss at Barnet followed), but after early wobbles, we’ve since seen a 7-1 beating of local rivals Stevenage and a 7-0 demolition of Cambridge – the first Football League team to score seven three times before Christmas.
The last time things seemed to be going this well, in 2005 when Mike Newell’s team stormed League One, off-field shenanigans led to the widely documented points deductions and three successive relegations out of the League. The injustice of the 30-point deduction that doomed the club to five years in the National League still burns, commemorated by a rude chant about the FA and a massive flag that hangs at the end of the Main Stand, recording that the club were established in 1885 and “betrayed by the FA” in 2008.
I think it’s time to move on from the wearying conspiracy theories whenever a referee has a bad game, and bring the flag down. I remain surprised that the club allow it to stay there. That it does reflects the close relationship these open and committed owners have built with the fans – back in 2014, for example, they gave the supporters’ trust the legal right to veto any changes to the club name, kit colours, crest and mascot identity, an important symbolic decision given past talk of moving to Milton Keynes or becoming “London Luton” like the airport.
The owners, who took over when things reached rock bottom with a clear long-term vision for the future, have proven shrewd in the transfer market too. Strategic sales have both steadied the ship financially (after add-ons and sell-ons, Andre Gray alone netted them around £2.5 million) and allowed rookie manager Jones to build a squad that at last looks capable of reaching League One with style.
Having had the money to pick off other League Two teams’ best players, such as Crawley’s James Collins and Cambridge’s Luke Berry, the former Brighton coach seems to have got it right after a season and a half in charge. Led by talisman striker Danny Hylton – that player you hate when he’s on the other side, but love when he’s on yours – he now has good quality all over the pitch, although the summer influx does seem to have stunted the exciting progress of the youngsters who reached the FA Youth Cup quarter-final a couple of years ago.
We even have the novelty of Rob Lee’s two boys, Olly and Elliot, playing together, the former setting up the latter to score number eight in the Yeovil win. Against Cambridge, Elliot’s two brilliant strikes were eclipsed by Olly’s extraordinary goal from 70 yards – a real “I was there” moment. Which Rob wasn’t. Serves him right for choosing to miss his first home game and watch egg-chasing at Twickenham instead.
The fans are coming (averaging over 8,000) and there are large and loud followings swamping away games. The best moment of the season to date has not been the thrashings, but the 98th-minute goal to steal an undeserved win at Wycombe Wanderers. I have rarely witnessed such pandemonium.
So there really isn’t anything to complain about. It won’t last, because nothing does at our level. Jones will be poached, so will players. But as I tell my ten-year-old son, for whom following Luton has not been the easiest when all his friends support Arsenal, Chelsea and the rest, you have to enjoy the good times when they come. And that is exactly what we’re doing. Neil Rose
Photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photos: A Luton Town fan shows his loyalty at Kenilworth Road