‘Erling Haaland? We’ve got a special s--- entrance for him’ – Luton gear up for Premier League
Every Luton Town home match, 12-year-old Ahmad stands outside his terraced house in Ivy Road waiting for bounty to land from the sky.
“I pick up the balls that get kicked over that stand,” he says, pointing at the dilapidated rear wall of the Kenilworth Road stadium that abuts the family home. “I’m getting 20 quid a time off of eBay. When they get in the Premier League and that ball’s been kicked by Man United or Arsenal, I’m going to be getting a lot more than that.”
When the Luton chief executive Gary Sweet talks of the economic benefit that could arrive should his club win Saturday’s Championship play-off final against Coventry, he probably has something more elevated in mind than Ahmad’s internet trading. Because this, he suggests, is 90 minutes that could transform Luton.
“It’s called the richest club game for a reason,” says Sweet, as he sits in the Eric Morecambe Suite, the Kenilworth Road hospitality room dedicated to the memory of Luton’s most renowned supporter. “Not just for us as a club, it would be worth dozens of millions to the town. The economic impact of Brighton being in the Premier League is over £500 million to the locality. Why should we think any differently?”
Ten years ago such talk would have been dismissed as the most absurd fantasy. Back then Luton Town were a non-League club, battered by a combination of asset-stripping owners and draconian punishment from the football authorities for their underhand financial dealings. A decade on, thanks to the work of a succession of fine managers in John Still, Nathan Jones and now Rob Edwards, they are perched on the very lip of the big time. This is less a renaissance than a resurrection.
“It’s crazy,” says Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, the Luton midfielder who, should things go his way on Saturday, would become the first player ever to compete in the top five divisions of English football with the same club. “The lads ask me when they come here: ‘What was this place like back then?’ And I tell them: ‘This place was bonkers, man.’ But everything has gone up to the point where we are now.”
And elevation has come not through the standard method of upwardly mobile football success: Financial doping. There is no sugar daddy in Luton. It is not that kind of place. Rather, the advance up the table has been achieved while maintaining stringent monetary constraint.
As the club sank into the National League in 2009, a consortium of local businessmen, fans all, took on the battered finances. Control, realism, and never putting the future in jeopardy through overspending have been the board’s presiding dictums ever since.
Against all the assumptions of the modern game, Edwards has taken the club to the brink of the Premier League with the lowest playing budget in the Championship; more than half the managers in League One had more money to spend on players than he did this season.
“It shows you can get there this way,” says Edwards. “But you’ve got to have a plan, got to recruit well. You need to know what you are and try to be good at it.”
Luton know what they are all right. On Saturday, 35,000 supporters will make the short journey down the M1 to Wembley, united by the memory of how the club has been treated. Older fans can remember the times lifting the League Cup, with a team including Mick Harford, the uncompromising centre-forward who is these days the club’s head of recruitment.
But for most 1988 and all that is something from the history books. Far more pertinent is the 30-point deduction that saw them relegated to the fifth tier in 2009, and the five dispiriting years it took to emerge back into League football. This is a club whose spirit is forged by a siege mentality.
“It won’t be forgotten by me and certainly not by the supporters,” says Sweet. “I’m sure there are banners being prepared for Saturday. It was grotesque what happened. They tried to make an example of a football club and they picked the wrong one. Or maybe it was the right one. Maybe they knew we had the gusto and courage to come back in the way we have.”
Indeed, there are banners being readied for the Wembley outing. Kevin Harper, of the Luton Town Supporters Trust, will be taking the one that hangs in Kenilworth Road remembering the deduction. “Thanks for sweet FA” it reads.
“There’s a spirit within Luton,” he says. “When we were minus 30, I honestly believe most clubs would have folded. Everything since that day onwards has been a step-by-step way up. The more unlikely it is, the more Luton Town like it.”
Though should Luton succeed on Saturday and finally take their place in the Premier League 31 years after becoming founder members (they were relegated the season before it began), there is one thing that cannot be ignored: Their stadium. Kenilworth Road is not the San Siro. Those arriving to watch games there are invariably astonished by its condition.
Hemmed in on all sides by terrace housing (the entrance to the away stand is between two front doors) Kenilworth Road is tiny, crammed and ramshackle. The need for new premises was mooted as long ago as 1960. After endless false dawns since, planning permission for a 16,000-seat stadium at town centre site Power Court is finally under consideration. Until that is completed, however, the Hatters will continue to play at what those who follow the club call “The Old Girl”.
“We get the chants from away fans, Luton’s a s---hole, all of that. They sing about tin huts and cowsheds,” says Harper. “There’s no getting away from it: They’re absolutely right. But there’s something enchanting about this place. Come, experience it, it’s different, you’ll never forget Kenilworth Road.”
Or as Sweet puts it: “This is real life, real football, right here. This isn’t a sterile bowl where nothing goes on. This is lively, this is emotion. This is white knuckles, tears and joy. This is a cauldron. If you can’t embrace it, then you don’t love football.”
For the locals, knowing football will still be played here for a couple more years at least, things could be about to change dramatically. From next season it could be the Liverpool and Manchester City team buses failing to negotiate the tight bends hereabouts, it could be fans of Arsenal and Tottenham trying to park in the narrow streets.
“On social media, there is much mocking at the thought of Erling Haaland going through one of our s--- entrances, but of course he won’t have to,” says Sweet. “We’ve got a special s--- entrance for the visiting players.”
The nation’s focus could be about to turn on the club's neighbourhood. And it is a distinctive locale. Luton is one of only three towns in England where less than 50 per cent of the population is white.
And almost everyone living in the houses surrounding the stadium, their back yards shadowed by its decayed stands, is Asian. On Saturdays, when the noise of a goal being scored vibrates the walls, the locals have grown used to the disruption.
“It’s chaos round here, I have to shut the shop because no customers can get through the street closures,” says Faizal Ali, proprietor of the Bargain Furniture store that stands opposite the away entrance on Oak Road. “But I’m not complaining. I’ve been in this place since 1998, they’ve been here since 1905.”
Still, should the club get to the Premier League and put Luton on the map, could his business benefit from the economic resurgence?
“I don’t think so,” he smiles. “This is a furniture shop, mate. Have you ever seen someone go to a football match and then come out and buy a sofa? It isn’t going to happen. But good luck to them. They are this town.”