Ghana's No. 1

'We were gone' - Luton's rise to play-off final

Published on: 26 May 2023

Coventry City v Luton Town: From non-league to potential Premier League promotionChampionship play-off final: Coventry City v Luton TownDate: Saturday, 27 May Venue: Wembley Kick-off: 16:45 BST Coverage: Live text commentary on BBC Sport website and app, live radio commentary on BBC CWR and BBC Three Counties Radio, updates on BBC Radio 5 Live

"This should have gone. It was gone."

To fully appreciate Luton Town's rise to the brink of Premier League football, you must first understand the gravity of their lowest ebb.

It is April 2009. The Hatters, having started the 2008-09 season with a huge points deduction handed down by the Football Association and Football League over financial infringements, finally succumb to relegation.

Eighty nine years in the Football League are over after three successive relegations.

The club's chief executive Gary Sweet likened their five years in non-league that followed to being "wrongfully imprisoned".

Less than 10 years after regaining their Football League place, they are 90 minutes from an unthinkable Premier League promotion.

    Listen on BBC Sounds: The remarkable rise of Luton Town

'I never thought we could make it back'Mick Harford could not save Luton from relegation after their 30 point deduction from the FA and Football League - but would later lead the club to promotion to the Championship

"I glanced at the clock and I said to them 'remember this time, it's 16:55 on the 13th April and this is a new era. The rebirth of Luton Town Football Club'."

Then manager Mick Harford's words to his players after a 0-0 draw at Chesterfield had just extinguished the Hatters' final hope of somehow staving off relegation from League Two.

But the resurgence was not instant. Harford left by mutual consent after a slow start to their debut season in the Conference Premier - now known as the National League - on 1 October 2009.

The club's next three managers, Richard Money, Gary Brabin and Paul Buckle would oversee three consecutive seasons of play-off heartbreak.

"I never thought we could make it back from where we came from," says Harford, now Luton's head of recruitment.

"Luton was the biggest club in the Conference. Every game we played was like an FA Cup tie."

By the time John Still arrived as manager in February 2013, fans of the Bedfordshire club were already braced for a fifth season outside the Football League.

Still arrived at Kenilworth Road with a reputation for promotion from non-league, having done so with Maidstone and Dagenham & Redbridge.

He had left the Daggers, then a League Two side and the club he supported, to attempt to complete a hat-trick of non-league escape acts. But why?

"I saw unbelievable potential, unbelievable potential," Still told BBC Look East.

Still sparks Luton resurgenceA banner hangs at Kenilworth Road as a reminder of Luton's punishment from the FA for financial infringements

The firework that would start Luton's rise to Saturday's Championship play-off final with Coventry City had been lit... but Still's spark was not immediate.

A slow end to 2012-13 meant a seventh place finish. It was Luton's lowest-ever placing in the football pyramid.

Still said: "When I went to Luton, if we weren't 1-0 up after 20 minutes, the supporters would have a little moan and get on the players' backs.

"After one game, a supporter had a little word to say, so we invited him down to the ground, had a chat with him, showed him what we do and how important everyone's support was. From that day it just flew."

Still's Luton discovered that to deliver on "unbelievable expectation", support was needed from everyone at the club.

"That's the kit man, the stewards, the fans, the ground staff," he said. "We had the ingredients, it was just putting them together."

They ended the 2013-14 campaign with 101 points, 102 goals and 19 points ahead of second-placed Cambridge United.

After the punishment that almost finished the club, they were back in League Two.

"I felt we were righting a wrong in terms of how our supporters looked at the way we'd been treated," said Still.

Jones continues Hatters rebuildJohn Still dropped from League Two to the Conference to take the Luton Town jobThe Hatters won promotion from the Conference Premier - now known as the National League - in 2014

Still was dismissed after a stagnant start to the club's second season back in the fourth tier and replaced by Nathan Jones.

After more Hatters heartbreak in the 2016-17 play-offs, the Welshman guided the club to a second-place finish and promotion in 2018.

A strong start to life in League One attracted Championship side Stoke City to recruit Luton's manager.

Ten years on from relegation to non-league at Chesterfield, Harford, returning as caretaker manager, guided the club to back-to-back promotions and a place in the second tier.

Luton Town: Premier League promotion would be 'monumental'

In the Championship they have remained ever since. First Luton established themselves in the division, before the high point of Jones' second spell as boss - a sixth-placed finish last season and subsequent play-off semi-final defeat by Huddersfield Town.

Luton's current boss Rob Edwards takes his side to Wembley on Saturday with the chance to deliver some happier play-off memories for Hatters fans.

While managers have changed during Luton's ascent, there have been many constants too.

Midfielder Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, 29, joined in 2013 and could become the first player to rise from non-league to the Premier League with the same club.

A flag at Kenilworth Road with his name reads: "Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu. Every juggernaut needs an engine. We've been through it all together."

Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu joined Luton in 2013 and could become the first player to win promotion from non-league to the Premier League with the same club'We get a chance to show how great Luton is'

From their fall to a potential return to England's top flight for the first time since 1992, Luton's fans have seen it all.

"We were founder members of the Premier League, but we're yet to set foot in it," said Kevin Harper, from the Luton Town Supporters' Trust.

"Luton wrongly gets written off, both the football club and the town.

"On Saturday we get a chance to show everyone how great Luton is as a football club. Then over the next year how great it is as a diverse multicultural town.

Hatters fan Kevin Harper believes promotion to the Premier League could help soften Luton's much-maligned image

Maqsood Anwar, a Luton fan for 40 years and worshipper at the Medina Masjid mosque - adjacent to Kenilworth Road - shares Harper's sentiment.

"We've been waiting a long, long time [for Premier League football]," he said.

"It's very important to have a sense of community.

"The mosque and the football club work really well together. They let us use their car park for Friday prayers, Ramadan and funerals. They also come to us to learn about Islam."

Maqsood Anwar says the club has a close relationship with the diverse community in which it is set

Coventry - exiled to play home games in Northampton and Birmingham in recent years - have their own redemption story to tell.

Indeed, both clubs were in League Two together just five years ago.

Luton Town chief executive Gary Sweet says Luton can serve as an inspiration to other clubs

Hatters chief executive Sweet wants his side to win, of course, but remembers when his Luton Town 2020 consortium bought the club in 2008.

"This should have gone. It was gone. It was close to being completely liquidated," he said.

"We can't forget those days and we shouldn't forget those days because it is a part of every single bit of spirit that drives us forward."

Sweet, who hopes to soon start work on moving Luton to a new ground in the centre of the town, added: "Luton has a beating heart like no other. Despite the critics, it's a perfect example of how diversity can come together.

"We sit here in an old stadium cramped in-between terraced houses accommodating Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and eastern Europeans. We get on great with them. We are proper neighbours.

"This [club] is an example. I know it is mocked, but let's embrace what we have here.

"This is real life, this is real football."

10,356 capacity Kenilworth Road has been Luton Town's home since 1905, but the club is set to move to a new purpose-built stadium in the town centre later this decade


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