An evening at Luton Town

A football ground on a warm spring evening can be a magical place. A deepening blue sky pierced with floodlights, the quiet of a day’s end usurped by the roar of a crowd. But most of tonight’s crowd are murmuring, the only noise and hope comes from the away end. This is Kenilworth Road, home of Luton Town, late of the football league.

The opponents are Wycombe Wanderers, eagerly pushing for promotion to Coca-Cola League One, a name which does nothing to disguise the fact that it is English football’s third tier. No such sneering in these parts, though: Luton were relegated from that division last season. That was just one moment in a litany of disaster. Mere statistics can only begin to describe the turmoil this club has experienced: In May 2006 they finished 10th in the Championship (second tier). They were relegated the following season. Then again last year. Now again. And yet in the midst of this they have held five-times champions of Europe Liverpool to a home draw in the FA Cup, and sent the largest-ever number of fans - 40,000 – to the new Wembley. Those hoards witnessed victory in the fabulously-named Johnstone’s Paint Trophy just two weeks ago. The following week, Luton were relegated. Tonight just 6,553 attend. No wonder there’s a sense of resigned bewilderment in the air.

On the pitch, Luton play some nice passes but never look dangerous. The only goal of the game comes when Wycombe’s John Akinde outpaces the faithful and fearless Sol Davis, then outclasses goalkeeper Dean Brill. It’s the kind of goal you shouldn’t concede but Luton do. Akinde is the night’s villain, having earlier slapped a Luton player out of the sight of the officials. But the real villains are not here tonight. They reside in Soho Square, in the headquarters of the Football Association. They it was who docked Luton an unprecedented 30 points at the start of this season for a variety of misdemeanours committed by the club’s previous owners. The Hatters never truly had a hope. A supporter has paid for a massive flag of protest: “Luton Town, established 1885, betrayed by the FA 2008”. He has also managed to raise £325, which he presents to the Managing Director on the pitch at half time. Such an amount would be funny if it were not so gratefully received.

On television screens in the Perspex-screened corporate boxes, another game is being played. It seems like another world. Liverpool and Arsenal of the Premiership (top tier), staffed by some of the world’s finest players, watched by supporters from all parts of the world, play out a thrilling 4-4 draw. The speed and quality of the football seems incongruous to what is being played on the pitch before us. The money is another matter, of course. Luton don’t need the transfer fees those players command, just a couple of their weeks’ wages. That Liverpool’s Anfield stadium is fenced in by terraced houses not unlike Kenilworth Road, that Liverpool have twice visited this arena and been sorely tested in recent years are just some of the bitter ironies burdening this club and its fans.

Is there any hope for Luton Town? For a football fan, there is always hope whilst there is next season. The ignominy of Conference (fifth tier, do keep up) football is still something to look forward to, to invest your money, time and emotion in. Between 6,000 and 40,000 people will do so. Even as we trudge from the ground, there is a queue of fans waiting to get their ticket to the next match.