IIt’s been eight years since Luton Town returned to the Football League, a victorious campaign under John Still in which they racked up 101 points and scored a culminating 102 goals at Hyde, and insight into the direction of the two teams’ journey helps paint the picture of a quite extraordinary ascent. Hyde has just finished 18th in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, the seventh tier, while Luton are two games away from a Championship playoff final and three from discovering Premier League pomp, 30 years after the last tasting of the elite.
The backbone of the club from those non-league days remains, from man to kit Darren Cook, goalkeeping coach Kevin Dearden, midfielder Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, legendary scouting director and Deputy Director, Mick Harford, President, David Wilkinson, and Managing Director, Gary Sweet. A series of financial setbacks saw the club deduct 10 points in 2007-08 and a Football League record 30 points the following season after entering administration for the third time in nine years.
The Championship was the goal as the club headed to the fifth tier and the goal stated on behalf of the consortium that saved the club: Luton Town 2020. They arrived at that destination a few months earlier, helped by Harford. after Nathan Jones, who returned as manager two years ago, left for Stoke. From then on they pushed to finish the set, but they are well ahead of schedule.
Sweet acknowledges there is “a comedy factor” around the prospect of the creaky, charismatic Kenilworth Road hosting Premier League matches. If promoted, much of the offseason would be spent bringing their stadium into compliance. “The old girl doesn’t have much life left in her now, but we sincerely wish she could entertain top-flight football before she finally expires,” he said. “Many in the Conference thought I had lost my marbles when we talked about the Premier League as our target. Why not? If you don’t get to the top, how do you know how far you’ve travelled?”
Jones has a close bond with his players and a solidarity runs through the club. There is a will to seize their chance. “They always believed they would return 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’s fantastic for the club, who felt wronged many years ago when they were bombarded with the league and I think he answered in the only way possible and that is on the pitch They could be sitting half way through the league [Championship] and saying, “Well, we’ve done the job that we set out to do.” But all of a sudden there’s something bigger tapping them on the shoulder and I’m not sure they would have thought they would do this.
Luton’s achievement is all the more remarkable given its modest resources. Their recruitment was judicious. They have a lower bottom three budget than some of the League One sides, and their squad was put together for less than £1.5m. Kal Naismith, Reece Burke, Jordan Clark and Gabriel Osho are among those who have thrived since coming free. Elijah Adebayo, signed from Walsall last year, and Harry Cornick, who joined Bournemouth in 2017, impressed in attack.
“Recruiting doesn’t start with the players, it starts with recruiting the right people to attract the right players,” says Sweet. “Nathan is clearly vital to that, and very good at it, but I would say it’s the wider team of great people that we have working in every office, every locker room, every kitchen and around every square inch of the club that brought him home. Our environment starts with the kit man and the maintenance guy or the store team or the ticket office. Without them, we are nothing.
It’s a similar story at Huddersfield, the first leg visitors of the playoffs on Friday, whose side cost around £2.3million. Both have challenged the idea that financial muscle is the only way to compete. Mpanzu could make history by becoming the first player to represent the same club in all divisions, from non-league to Premier League. Dan Potts, who signed again in Ligue 2, is also staying.
“While other clubs trade in pounds as the only currency to earn points and silverware, we know that although we want to run a sustainable model, we cannot compete with that, so we are creating different currencies which, we think are just as important as money,” says Sweet.
The club are in poor health compared to the one the Luton supporters consortium inherited in 2008. They hope to move into a new stadium, Power Court, in three years, with detailed plans to be submitted to local planning officials .
“It’s a credit to everyone who stayed with the club through very dark days,” Still said. “They are just poking their heads around now to find the right Premier League sunshine. Whether they do or not is irrelevant. The progress they’ve 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 did that and someone wrote a movie about it, they’d be like, “Mmm, yeah, that must be fiction.” It’s a fairy tale thing, isn’t it? »