Striker Stuart Fleetwood celebrates scoring for Luton in the 2-0 home leg at home to Wrexham (Image | Bedfordshire on Sunday)

It’s been a long and painful few years for Luton Town Football Club. The club’s recent history is well-known to football fans in the UK – the sexism scandals surrounding outspoken former manager Mike Newell, the three consecutive relegations (aided and abetted by an unprecedented total of 40 points deducted over two years for entering adminstration and allegedly paying third-party agents for transfers). For three years, now, the Hatters, who were in the Championship’s middle echelons as recently as 2006, have been in exile in the Blue Square Bet Premier, the top division of non-league football in the UK.

Luton’s fans have been there through many a recent tragedy for this football club. They have witnessed the turbulence and disappointments of the past couple of seasons – missing out twice on a return to the League through the BSBP’s notoriously difficult play-offs – and seen the team financially out-muscled in consecutive years by Crawley and Fleetwood.

Despite being arguably the ‘biggest’ team in the division, Town don’t have a backer with the millions to spend that can make all the difference at this level.

In 2009/10, their first season as low as the fifth tier of English football since joining the Football League in 1920, Town were beaten by York City in the semi-finals. Last season, they went a step further, but were eliminated on penalties in the final by AFC Wimbledon.

This season has been a microcosm of all that is typical of Luton’s recent history: a promising start was undermined by fundamental lack of confidence in manager Gary Brabin, whose shuffling of his team eventually caught him out. With the team risking losing out on the play-off places, Brabin was replaced in February by Paul  Buckle. Luton have revived their season since then – and a 3-2 aggregate semi-final win over Wrexham, who finished three places and 17 points above them in the BSBP table, has confirmed that.

With the club approaching the Play-Off Final on Sunday, a Wembley showdown with York City, The  Armchair Pundits decided to canvas opinion among some of the team’s fans about how they feel the season has gone, and their sentiments regarding the FA and the club’s former dizzying heights. Members of the fan forum Luton Outlaws reacted instantly to our call for volunteers, and the following five Hatters are answering our questions:

Paul Bellack

Paul Bellack is 56 and has been a Luton fan since 1969. He now lives over 100 miles from Kenilworth Road but still manages to get to at least ten games a season.

Adam Driscoll, 20, was born in Luton and raised in nearby Harpenden. He’s been supporting Luton Town since 1998 and is “officially hooked for life”.

Ronald Goddard is a 57 year old retired Vauxhall employee living in Leighton Buzzard. He has supported Luton Town since 1968, and served as a fan on the board in the early 1990s under the David Kholer regime.

Alexander Nyheim, 32 years old and from Norway, works as a quality supervisor at a market research company. He’s followed Luton since 1988; as a fan from abroad, Alex has had to follow the team mostly on TV, but has made it to the UK to attend matches in person on a few occasions.

Dave Smith

Dave Smith, 52, is a sales manager from Letchworth in Hertfordshire. Dave has supported Luton since 1970 and visited over 80 grounds following the Hatters as a member of Loyal Luton Supporters Group.

Here’s what our panel had to say on this season, the weekend’s game and their Luton memories…

The Armchair Pundits: What are your thoughts on this season as a whole?

Adam Driscoll: This season has probably been the most emotional since we joined the Blue Square Bet Premier. After two seasons of cementing a play-off place before April, going into the last game of the season at Fleetwood with nothing certain was frightening to say the least.

Ron Goddard: The disappointing aspect was the failure to get the best out of the squad, buying players and not playing them and continually playing out of form players. Fitness levels didn’t seem right either.  It was clear from as early as November we wouldn’t be challenging for top spot, once again the money men would win the league, this time disguised as Fleetwood Town.

Paul Bellack: I do feel we are in a better position now than we were back in August, with the appointment of Paul Buckle.

Ron Goddard

RG: The departure of Gary Brabin seemed to come too late, but Buckle has bought a magic wand!  I have never seen a bigger transformation in a group of players in such a short period of time.  Now the expectation is that we will win promotion.  I don’t think over the course of the season we deserve it, but sometimes things work in your favour.  Not before time in my opinion.

Alex Nyheim: The season as a whole has been very up and down, we’ve had some really good games, and then some real horrific games. Brabin frustrated me greatly as he kept mixing up the starting XI, and not playing a settled side, which meant the team would lack cohesion and flow. We never played a settled striker and we struggled to find our stride. When Brabin got sacked, Buckle made almost a complete turnaround. The signing of Andre Gray seems to have been the key to that transformation.

Dave Smith: Until the last few weeks it has been incredibly frustrating – as Ron said, the players appeared to lack fitness and the season was nose-diving towards disaster until the management change happened. We have finally started to see the effort and commitment that is demanded from those that wear the shirt. The team has finally gelled and offers real attacking threat.

Adam Driscoll

AD: If you had said to most Luton fans 3 months ago that we would be going to Wembley this weekend you would probably have been laughed at.

TAP: How have you found the experience of going for promotion this season, after coming up just short the last two years?

PB: To me, it felt like our success was more through luck than judgement until Buckle arrived. Now it’s exciting again, and for the first time, nerve-wracking.

RG: Very frustrating.  Luton are a club that should be challenging for the title, not scrapping around for a play-off place. We have underachieved for the third year in a row.

AD: I have found this season frustrating purely because I knew we would never be able to match Fleetwood financially. We found ourselves in the chasing pack before Christmas,
a similar story to the previous season. If last season’s play-offs taught us anything at all, it was probably how important the first leg of the play-offs is. Our 2-0 win at Wrexham booked us into Wembley before the second leg.

Alexander Nyheim

AN: I was really jaded after losing out to Wimbledon and struggled a lot to find enthusiasm for the team at the start of the season, our results didn’t help either. Drawing against Hayes & Yeading was something that I found completely insane. So in a way I am still pinching myself trying to actually realise we’re in the play-off final.

TAP: They say experience has to count for something – do you think Luton’s recent experiences of Playoff successes and failures will give them an edge over York?

AD: I honestly don’t think it will make a difference. We lost last season, York lost the season before. Both squads are very different and both clubs have new managers since those defeats so it will come down to 90 minutes on the pitch I believe.

RG: York will have more experience than us on the day having played at Wembley in the FA Trophy final the week before. Only three players remain on Luton’s books from our last visit to Wembley in the JPT in 2009, where we beat Scunthorpe 3-2.  We will have more desire though, I don’t doubt it. Oh, and of course, 40,000 fans!

AN: I think that the experience of losing out two years in a row has at least made the players aware of what losing it feels like, hopefully that will spur them on to fight for promotion. It will all come down to the performance on the day, though – those experiences count for little once the game begins.

DS: The failures hurt and I am sure we are all anxious to avoid another miss, but I don’t think the past counts for much on the day. We have lost play-off semi finals against Crewe and York in the past plus Wimbledon in the final last year – fourth time lucky, hopefully!

TAP: There’s quite a bit of recent history between these two teams, isn’t there? Could it be called a rivalry?

PB: No way. Watford, QPR – those are our rivals.

AD: It will be a rivalry whilst the teams are in the same league. I can’t see it being a rivalry in the longer term.

AN: Ever since York beat Luton at Kenilworth Road in the play-offs two years ago, there has been a huge animosity between the fans of Luton and a certain female director of York, who’s name shall not be mentioned. That said, I honestly don’t think the Luton or York fans really think that there is a rivalry between the two clubs – there has been a few incidents on and off the pitch, but not that same dislike as you get in a proper rivalry.

DS: We had one touchy game against them when the stakes were high and passions raised, but in all honesty they are nothing to me as a rival, they just happen to be in the same league as us at the moment.

RG: I don’t see York as anything special in the rivalry stakes.  The recent history in the play-offs won’t count at Wembley; neither will our dreadful record against them since we came into this division.  One win in 10 is not good!

DS: Rivalry is built over time, not a couple of seasons. For most of my life York City haven’t been on my radar as a football club.

TAP: Can this be called a successful year for Luton if promotion isn’t secured?

DS: Are you kidding?!

AN: Absolutely not.

PB: Not for me, eiither, although we now have a manager – something we obviously didn’t have before so we have progress regardless of Sunday’s result.

AD: I think what we’ve done as a club in the last 3 months has been a success, but I suppose when you’re so close to something so special and you don’t achieve it then you have failed. I would still hold out lots of hope for a title challenge next season should we fail, as we now have a manager who knows football.

Luton’s new manager, Paul Buckle, gets much praise from our panel for transforming the fortunes of the club in a short space of time (Image | Bedfordshire on Sunday)

RG: On paper it would look as if we did ok, FA trophy semi-final and Play off finalists.  But the season has been a disaster for us, losing at Braintree was without doubt a new low.  Our away record was truly dreadful this season, I felt embarrassed at times. Playing in front a few hundred fans?  This is NOT Luton Town.  The most positive thing to come out of season  has been the appointment of Paul Buckle.

DS: Disaster – exactly. Every year spent in this God-forsaken league is a total disaster. The level that we are used to playing at is way beyond the likes of Braintree and Ebbsfleet – the fixture list is totally depressing with very little to excite or inspire. The failure over the past two seasons to achieve promotion is hurting the club badly.

AN: Precisely – the team is too big for BSBP. It might sound like a cliché, and the league itself has become far more competitive in the last decade, but Luton Town is one of the founding members of the Premier League, we’ve won the League Cup and been losing finalist in the FA Cup, and if it hadn’t been for the EURO ban we would have been playing European Cup games in 1989.

TAP: Should there be three promotion places from the BSBP?

RG: Interesting question.  To be honest when I look at League 2 I see so many clubs that no one has ever heard of playing at places no one has ever been.  Adding to that would not be good, too many clubs with no real fan base already exist at that level.  Having said that there are good cases for some clubs in the BSP being promoted, Wrexham of course are a good case.

AD: Why should you have to win a league to get promoted? It doesn’t happen in the Championship, League One or League Two. You only have to look at Stevenage and Crawley going straight through League Two to see that the standard isn’t any greater than the BSP. We suffered this in 2009/10 and Wrexham have suffered
this season despite gaining 98 points!

DS: There are a lot of poor teams in this league, though, and if we get too many of them going up then the balance of the league could be adversely affected. It’s our fault if we can’t secure one of the two places available.

RG: Once Luton get promotion on May 20th I would cut it down to 1….

AN: I think, instead, that League 2 and BSBP should be merged and divided into two divisions, one north and one south. It would make the lower leagues more financially sound, and also more interesting and easier on the fans. League 1 can keep their 4 relegation spots, and one could have two promotion spots in each division.

TAP: Even as an outsider looking in, it’s been tough to watch what has happened to LTFC in the last five years. Are fans still upset over your treatment from the FA and the Football League?

AN: Yes!

RG: I don’t think the relationship with the FA and Football League will ever be the same.  Us fans suffered badly and the perpetrators got away with it. The actions against Luton were taken because they could get away with it, no appeals allowed.

DS: Absolutely – we went through the efforts of ridding our club of parasitic leeches and were rewarded by being punished for the crimes of others. It stank, and would never have happened to a Premier League club – think of West Ham when they breached league rules on payments and got away with it…

PB: But is it not best just to accept where we are rather than harp on about how we got there? Bitterness is not a good energy.

AD: I don’t think it will ever be forgotten but the level of bitterness may be reduced slightly if we get back into the Football League. We were made an example of despite the owners at fault leaving the club.

TAP: What is your fondest memory of supporting Luton?

PB: Beating Arsenal at Wembley, staying up at Maine Road, consistently beating the “Yellow Bellies” – take your pick.

RG: The league cup win against Arsenal in 1988, 3-2. Watching Mahwinney hand the JPT Trophy to us wasn’t bad either!  But the most significant was the win at Maine Road in 1983, as this led to all the great games – including that cup win.

DS: Easy – beating Arsenal 3-2 in the Littlewoods Cup final, 1988.

AN: My fondest memory of supporting Luton was back in 2009 when I got stranded at a Norwegian airport going to the Johnstone Paint Trophy Final due to fog. This was Easter, and there was no available cheap tickets, only business class tickets available, I had already travelled over for another game that same season and could not afford to buy business class tickets.

So there I was, stranded at the airport, with nothing but a choice to take a return train home, but then the clubs managing director Gary Sweet heard about my misfortune and decided to pay for my airfare, and the supporters all got together and chipped in to pay him back, all together the ticket cost around £750, and the fans collected over £1000 (the excess money was donated to the youth setup). The fact that so many nice people got together and helped me to get to that match still gives me a very warm feeling inside. This club cares about their fans, and the fans care about each others.

TAP: That’s a pretty impressive act of generosity…

AN: It was going to be my second trip that season, so I didn’t have that much money to spend on hotel and such, so I had decided to stay with a common user of the messageboard Luton Outlaws, and as I was stuck at the airport, there was some free internet computers there so I logged on, to write to him on the messageboard that I wasn’t going to be able to come.

This was read by someone who knows Gary, and the last time I had been over, I had met Gary for a few beers as we knew each other from the messageboard. So the person contacted him; Gary then got back in touch with me, and he sat up to 2am his time to sort out a plane ticket. It was more or less the last available ticket out of Norway that Saturday!

TAP: OK, a couple of quick one-word questions: White and black shirt, or orange and navy?

PB: I used to be a black-and-white man, but I’m converted to the orange now.

AD: Orange and navy.

RG: Black and white.

AN: White and black for me.

DS: Me too.

TAP: One player from the club’s past you’d love to have in Sunday’s game?

RG: Malcolm Macdonald.

PB: Super Mac too – or Bruce Rioch.

AD: I’ll take Steve Howard.

AN: Kingsley Black on the left wing would do it for me.

DS: Mick Harford – he would terrorise them!

Could Luton’s squad be celebrating again on Sunday? (Image | Bedfordshire on Sunday)

TAP: And finally, can we have some score predictions for the final on Sunday?

PB: Haha, no!

DS: 2-1 Luton.

AN: I’ll predict 2-0 to Luton.

RG: My thoughts exactly – 2-0.

AD: I knew I’d have to answer that last…. 2-0 to the Hatters!

Editor’s note: I’ve found this article enthralling to compose over the last week and my only disappointment is that I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask more questions, about the club’s achievements in reaching the Championship and some of the surely evocative memories of Luton’s spectacular and pitiable collapse. Nonetheless, I’d like to thank Adam, Alex, Dave, Paul and Ron immensely for their willingness to be involved and helpfulness in answering the questions so fully – a lot of material has been cut from this article! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed compiling it.

Robert Schatten

Tweet the author: @RobertSchatten

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