Shortly before 8pm last Tuesday, a remarkable act of transfiguration took place at Kenilworth Road. At that precise moment, Luton’s cramped and crumbling old stadium, with a capacity barely above 10,000, became a raging, roaring, hot-headed monster. The noise barely stopped for the next 90 minutes, at which point Luton’s players had seen off Sunderland and were heading to a playoff final at Wembley – and the jokes and sneers about their old ground had resurfaced again on social media.
Does Kenilworth Road deserve to grace the Premier League? If Luton can get past Coventry on Saturday, the only answer is a punchy and unqualified yes. Sure it is no looker. Unlike Craven Cottage, also built in 1905, it will never attract the love of the blue plaque heritage brigade. The wooden main stand is so tight in places that you have to duck your head when you go to the toilet, while the away fans’ entrance in the Oak Road End looks down on residents’ gardens. Yet give me it over any soulless, out-of-town ground any day.
Now Luton face their biggest sliding doors moment since being relegated on the eve of the Premier League in 1992. This, however, isn’t just a story of Luton Town but of Luton the town, too. For decades it has been a put‑down, a punchbag, a punchline to an easy joke. It is a perennial visitor to books like Crap Towns II and lists of the most awful places in the country. As someone who was born and raised in Luton, I know it has plenty of rough edges. But scratch a little deeper, amid its struggles and chronic lack of investment, and you find hope that Saturday could really transform the town as well as the club.
It boils down to football economics 101. Promotion to the Premier League remains the most valuable prize in the world game, the sporting equivalent of hitting the Euromillions jackpot, with around £170m on offer in broadcast revenue and parachute payments even if Luton go down after one season. Most of it would be spent on a new £100m stadium, slap-bang in the middle of the town centre. There is talk of an economic boost, regeneration, renewed optimism.
There is something else worth stating here. We hear a lot of gushing pronouncements about how much football clubs mean to their communities, especially in times of success or peril. Mostly, though, we are just guessing. But in Luton’s case we actually know. That’s because in 2009, the year the club tumbled out of the Football League, academics found that 47% of Luton residents believed their quality of life would be reduced if professional football in the town ceased.
That is a remarkably high figure given many people do not care that much for sport. What’s more, the academics found that 53.5% of respondents to a survey also said they would pay more in council tax to keep the club from going bust. “This tells you the community has a stake in the club too,” one of the report’s authors, David Forrest, told me. “It doesn’t just belong to the owners or the fans. It belongs to the town.”
What makes Luton’s story even more remarkable is that they often had to take the accountancy equivalent of smelling salts as they tumbled down the divisions. During their worst period of financial peril and strife they went into administration three times, had 40 points’ worth of deductions, and endured four relegations. Yet they have endured.
It helps, of course, that they are no longer a vessel for dreamers or mad-eyed schemers. Some fans still shudder at the mention of the former chairman John Gurney, who talked of building a 50,000-seat ground with a “Teflon roof kept up by air pressure” to host Formula One and NFL matches at the same time the club were crashing into administration. He also launched a “manager idol” telephone vote among fans, at 50p a pop, during his disastrous 55-day reign.
Before him there was David Kohler, who dreamed of a 20,000-capacity “Kohlerdome” by the M1 with a pitch placed on a hovercraft that would have been moved in and out of the stadium on match days, while Luton’s chairman in their glory days, David Evans, even called for cat-o’-nine-tails used on hooligans.
True, every club has its stories of misfortune and woe. But Luton’s have been so ridiculously farcical they could have been penned by Groucho Marx.
It was Evans who banned away supporters in the aftermath of Millwall fans tearing up the stadium in 1985. For decades that was the source of much of the antipathy towards Luton but, in a surprisingly sympathetic Guardian column at the time, David Lacey backed the club. As he pointed out, they were “trying to recreate an age” where it was safe to watch football – and fans could “wear their colours without fear of being abused or attacked, and if they were visiting supporters they were not marched to the ground by the police like prisoners-of-war”.
Times have changed. Attitudes towards Luton, too. But more than 35 years later, one thing has remained resolutely unchanged. As Simon Inglis put it in his 1987 edition of The Football Grounds of Great Britain: “Until you have been to Kenilworth Road you cannot appreciate how cramped is ‘cramped’.” That much is true. As, hopefully, Erling Haaland, Harry Kane and the rest of the Premier League’s biggest stars will soon find out.