Luton Town: from non-league to the brink of a Premier League fairytale
Nathan Jones’s side take on Huddersfield in the Championship playoff first leg on Friday with an unlikely promotion in sight
It is eight years since Luton Town returned to the Football League, a title-winning campaign under John Still in which they racked up 101 points and rattled in 102 goals culminating at Hyde, and a look at the direction of the travel of the two teams helps paint the picture of a quite extraordinary rise. Hyde have just finished 18th in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, the seventh tier, while Luton are two games from a Championship playoff final and three from discovering the glitz of the Premier League, 30 years on from last tasting the top flight.
The backbone of the club from those days in non-league remains, from the kit man, Darren Cook, to the goalkeeping coach, Kevin Dearden, the midfielder Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, the legendary chief recruitment officer and assistant manager, Mick Harford, the chairman, David Wilkinson, and the chief executive, Gary Sweet. A series of financial setbacks saw the club deducted 10 points in 2007-08 and a record 30 points by the Football League the following season after entering administration for the third time in nine years.
The Championship was the aim when the club was bound for the fifth tier and the target spelled out in the name of the consortium that rescued the club: Luton Town 2020. They arrived at that destination a few months early, helped over the line by Harford after Nathan Jones, who returned as manager two years ago, left for Stoke. From that moment they have pushed to complete the set but they are way ahead of schedule.
Sweet acknowledges there is “a comedy factor” around the prospect of the creaking and charismatic Kenilworth Road hosting Premier League matches. If they were promoted, much of the off-season would be spent making their stadium compliant. “The old girl hasn’t got much life left in her now but we dearly wish she can entertain top-flight football before she finally expires,” he says. “In the Conference, many thought I had lost my marbles when we spoke about the Premier League being our target. Why not? If you don’t reach for the top how do you know how far you’ve travelled?”
Jones has a tight-knit bond with his players and a togetherness runs through the club. There is a determination to grasp their chance. “They always believed they would get back to the Championship,” says Still, who left the club midway through 2015-16, Jones his permanent successor.
“I always felt they believed that was where they belonged. It is fantastic for the club, who felt they were wronged many years ago when they got bombed out of the league and I think responded in the only way you can respond, which is on the pitch. They could be sitting halfway down the league [Championship] and going: ‘Well, we’ve done the job we set out to do.’ But all of a sudden there’s a bigger thing tapping them on the shoulder and I’m not sure they would have believed they would be doing that.”
Luton’s achievement is all the more remarkable given their modest resources. Their recruitment has been shrewd. They have a bottom-three budget smaller than some of the teams chugging along in League One, and their squad was assembled for less than £1.5m. Kal Naismith, Reece Burke, Jordan Clark and Gabriel Osho are among those who have thrived since arriving on frees. Elijah Adebayo, signed from Walsall last year, and Harry Cornick, who joined from Bournemouth in 2017, have impressed in attack.
“Recruitment doesn’t start with the players, it starts with recruiting the right people to attract the right players,” Sweet says. “Nathan is clearly vital to this, and very good at it, but I’d argue that it’s the wider team of great people we have working in every office, every changing room, every kitchen and around every square inch of the club that attracted him back home. Our environment starts with the kit man and the maintenance guy or the team in the shop or ticket office. Without them, we’re nothing.”
It is a similar story at Huddersfield, the visitors in the playoff first leg on Friday, whose squad cost about £2.3m. Both have defied the notion that financial muscle is the only way to compete. Mpanzu could make history by becoming the first player to represent the same club in every division from non-league to the Premier League. Dan Potts, who Still signed in League Two, also remains.
“While other clubs trade in pounds as their only currency to gain points and silverware, we know that while it’s our desire to run a sustainable model, we can’t compete with that so we create different currencies that we believe are just as important as money,” Sweet says.
The club is in rude health compared with the one the consortium of Luton supporters inherited in 2008. They hope to move into a new stadium, Power Court, in three years, with detailed plans set to be submitted to local planning officers.
“It is every credit to everyone who stuck with the club through very dark days,” Still says. “They’re just poking their heads through now to find the proper sunshine of the Premier League. Whether they do it or not is immaterial. The progress they have made so far is brilliant and if it doesn’t happen this time, who’s to say it won’t happen next year? If they manage to do it and someone wrote a film about it, they’d say: ‘Mmm, yeah, that’s got to be fiction.’ It is fairytale stuff, isn’t it?”