As a Luton Town supporter, John Earls knows a thing or two about heavy defeats

Anyone like me who grew up learning to read mainly from football books will probably have gone through a phase of reading too many Rothmans Football Yearbooks, and actually become briefly interested in the game’s statistics. Mine came when I first started going to watch Luton’s games during our 1981-82 promotion season and – subconsciously needing to prepare myself for the grim years ahead – I cooled down after 3-2 wins over QPR by learning as much as I could about the club’s history.

There was one era that seemed as magical to me as Narnia: having lost the FA Cup final to Forest in 1959 we then plummeted to the Fourth Division within a decade. Now, it stands to reason that a decade is a lifetime to a 10-year-old. But I was still aware that clubs shouldn’t get that bad that quickly.

With the onset of puberty and annual relegation battles, I learned the reasons behind Luton’s terrible 1960s (an aging team allowed to grow too old together and eventually replaced by poor buys if anyone’s interested). Yes, they were dark days, but they seemed about as terrifying and as relevant as Steve Hillage’s Gong: never again.

Inevitably, as Hillage became revered as an ambient music guru when The Orb were popular so Luton repeated their mistakes with a vengeance. It’s been surprisingly relaxing for the most part. I reasoned sensibly that Luton were in truth a decent middling First Division side. Excitements either way were going to be saved for cup runs such as our 1994 FA Cup semi-final. Even another relegation seemed merely a warning against complacency. Then, while we lost badly in last season’s play-offs, I still felt we’d proved too good for the rest of the riff-raff. But now... this.

To be fair, It was our bad injury run that started our slide to the bottom four. There were two slapstick highlights for neutrals – a 4-0 home defeat by Watford which gave the filth their first derby victory in ten years, and a 3-0 loss at Bristol City. We’d had 14 players out for that one and asked the league to call it off. They left it up to City, a recent bogey team, to decide. You can imagine the discussions: ‘Shall we give one of the pre-season favourites time to regroup? Or shall we stroll around against some 12-year-olds?” Then came the real humiliation: four home games in a row. One of the few joys in watching a home drubbing is saying “I’ve never seen such rubbish” and reminiscing about past comedy teams.

Such chuckles are made redundant when you know that deep down you really never have witnessed such tat – and the statistics back you up. We lost 3-2 to Burnley, 3-1 to Preston, 1-0 to Walsall... oh, and after Preston came the minor matter of losing in the first round of the FA Cup for the first time since 1930, 1-0 against Torquay. Thirty years down the line, there’ll probably be a speccy ten-year-old poring over Luton’s history and thinking “How the hell did that happen?”

The answer sadly lies largely in some mad decisions from boss Lennie Lawrence. There’ve been times recently when l’ve looked towards the dugout and expected to see Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlon gazing blankly back at me. Against Torquay, with the crowd baying for a substitution, Lawrence obliged by bringing off ancient Gary Waddock (“Oh right, Ted, fair enough”) and bringing on... right-back Darren Patterson for his first game of the season (“Ted, I’m in tremendous pain.”)

A week later, after Walsall scored on the hour, Lawrence decreed things must be done. So winger Simon Davies, finally having a decent game for the first time since his close-season transfer from Manchester United, was duly taken off and has been consigned to the subs’ bench ever since. Unsurprisingly, two away games then brought a win and a draw and I missed the home game which ended the losing sequence – a 2-2 against Gillingham. But I was back for the 4-2 defeat by Bristol Rovers. On Boxing Day I watched as a dubious penalty and the kind of headed own-goal so beloved of those “Wahey! Up The Backpass!” videos presented by Nick Hancock had Northampton 2-0 up after 12 minutes. This, I said to a mate at half-time, was the biggest load of rubbish I’d ever seen.

Then, in the second half, something inexplicable happened: our notoriously grumbling crowd suddenly got happy. The team weren’t playing any better, but after 10 minutes the chants for Lawrence to be replaced by old favourite Mick Harford stopped. “Come on you Hatters” was being chanted without irony. The team, who could have been bemused by this sudden infusion of atmosphere, actually rallied to draw 2-2. God knows what caused it. Late Christmas present or early Happy New Year? Belated hysteria at the size of our 6’ 7” goalie Ian Feuer’s shorts? Whatever, things surely can’t get that bad again for Luton. Not now that we’ve got more home games left than away ones, at any rate...

From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month

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