A Brief History of Luton Town FC
There's been ups, there's been downs - but it's never ever been dull.
There's been ups, there's been downs - but it's never ever been dull.
The Birth of LTFC
The birth of Luton Town Football Club was merger between local clubs, Wanderers and Excelsior, formally announced on April 11th 1885. Early games consisted of friendlies, and annual excursions into the English Cup. An ambitious committee soon saw the club attracting better fixtures and bigger support as industry grew in the town.
Into the League
Professionalism! The decision to pay three players was taken in 1890 with the remainder being included the following year. An invitation to become a founder member of the Southern League in 1894 was grabbed with both hands and in 1897 the club became members of the Football League Division Two. The pressures of playing in a largely Northern based league led to the Town re-joining the Southern League after three seasons.
1900 - 1939
Southern League Days
With the Southern League now much stronger, the Town did not manage to recreate their glory days of ten years before and were unable to make a challenge for the title. In fact, they suffered relegation to Division Two where they had to ply their trade against a string of Welsh sides for two seasons before fighting their way back just before the Great War, in 1913/14.
10 Goal Payne
After hostilities ceased, the Southern League became Division Three of the Football League. In the mid 30’s, with the population growth of the town and surrounding area, the board decided to make a concerted bid to achieve a higher status. Players were brought in and in 1936 they finished runners-up to Coventry, with Joe Payne scoring those famous 10 goals in a 12-0 Easter victory against Bristol Rovers. His 55 goals helped secure promotion to Division Two the next season.
Kenilworth Road extended
The Kenilworth Road ground, where the Town had moved in 1905, was extended to a supposed capacity of 34,000. In their second season in Division Two, a strong and settled squad, led from the front by local boy Hugh Billington, nearly achieved promotion to the top flight.
World War II
Over Easter 1939, a series of good results had taken the team into the promotion positions, but a draw and two defeats from the final three games meant that they missed out. Unfortunately, no-one will ever know how far this squad could have progressed as in September 1939, with the Town sitting proudly at the top of the table, war broke out.
1946 - 1960
Back to football
After a seven-year break, it was back to mid-table mediocrity and in 1950/51, the Town came close to relegation, only surviving with a three game winning run as the season drew to a close. Luckily this scare was not repeated as the Town's youth policy, nurtured by manager Dally Duncan, began to bear fruit. Future all-time leading scorer for the Hatters, Gordon Turner, learnt the ropes under the expert guidance of ex-England international Jesse Pye and, with a settled side, the Town just missed out on promotion in both 1953 and 1954.
Division One – and the Cup Final
Promotion to Division One came in 1954/55. The Town swept all before them early the following season beating Newcastle, Blackpool, Wolves and league leaders Sunderland by big scores in quick succession. The Hatters finished eighth in 1957/58 and early in 58/59 actually hit top spot. The same season cup euphoria struck in a big way with a record Kenilworth Road crowd of 30,069 turning out for the quarter-final replay against Blackpool and as many travelling to White Hart Lane for the semi-final v Norwich. The final was a disappointment, with ten man Nottingham Forest comfortably winning 2-1.
The decline begins
From that moment on, the Hatters' fortunes went into a steady decline. Manager Dally Duncan had left in the October before the Cup run started, and it was not until after the final that recently-retired captain and centre-half Syd Owen was appointed into the hot seat. Owen took over a side that was growing old together and the Town had a disastrous 1959/60 season, finishing bottom and relegated after five years at the top level.
1960 - 1966
Syd Owen was replaced by Sam Bartram, but the Town could not manage to finish in the top half of the table. The board were blamed by the supporters for allowing the money earned from the 1959 Cup run to be handed over to the tax man rather than be spent on players, but it was all now too late.
Managers come and go
There was a general feeling that Bartram was slowly turning the ship around after he finished the 1961/62 campaign in mid-table but he was not given a chance to regain past glories, being relieved of his duties 'by mutual consent'. His replacement was ex-Town coach Jack Crompton - but he changed his mind after a week in the post on medical grounds!
The decline continues
New manager Bill Harvey presided over another relegation campaign as the Town sank dismally to Division Three at the end of 1962/63. The team plunged headlong towards Division Four at an alarming rate, only saved by a nine game unbeaten run as the season drew to a close - but the stay of execution was only temporary as the Town, only six years from their FA Cup Final appearance, slumped to the football basement in 1965 amidst apathy and crowds of less than 3,000.
Under George Martin the Hatters made a good effort at escaping Division Four at the first attempt but were let down by rows over player bonuses as the season entered its final games. No money, all experienced players released due to the bonuses row and crowds at an all-time low led Martin to resign. He was replaced by Allan Brown, a star of the 1959 Cup run. Soon after he rejoined, with the team in second bottom position, they crashed 1-8 to bottom club Lincoln in November 1966- arguably the lowest spot in the club’s history.
1966 - 1974
During his first close season in charge Allan Brown lost no time in piecing together a squad that would take the Town back to where the supporters felt they belonged. The free-transfer signing of veteran centre-half Terry Branston welded together a mix of youth and experience and after the Town went to the top of the table in February 1968 they never looked back - and walked away with the title.
The revival continues
Buoyed by this success, along with the wealth of new directors Reggie Burr and Tony Hunt, owners of insurance giant Vehicle and General, the new season opened as the old one had finished, but the mid-season sacking of manager Allan Brown for 'disloyalty'- he applied for the Leicester job - shocked the football world.
The new man, Alec Stock, failed to make it two successive promotions but made no mistake in 1969/70 aided by the goalscoring exploits of a £17,500 signing from Fulham, Malcolm Macdonald.
At one time, the Hatters seemed capable of walking through Division Two back to a top flight they had left in 1960, but the March 1970 announcement of the collapse of Burr and Hunt's Vehicle and General and a disastrous Easter, when all three games were lost, meant that the meteoric rise came to an abrupt halt.
Sellers, not buyers
The Vehicle and General collapse reverberated around the corridors at Kenilworth Road for some time and regrettably made the club sellers, rather than buyers, once more. Macdonald was sold to Newcastle for a then massive £180,000 and without a proven goalscorer, the 1971/72 season was a complete anti-climax after the excitement of the previous four years.
Welcome to Happy Harry
A weary Alec Stock resigned at the season's end to be replaced by Harry Haslam, who had originally come to the club as promotions manager. The Town boasted an amazing away record in his first season in charge and reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for the first time since 1959 – but the home record was poor. This was put right, however, in 1973/74 when promotion from Division Two was achieved.
1974 - 1985
A brief stay at the top
Behind the scenes the directors felt that promotion had been won far too early and their fears were justified with the Town rock bottom at Christmas, but despite the introduction of youth and a spirited fight-back in the second half of the campaign unfortunately ended with relegation.
The brief stay at the top had its financial repercussions and by the middle of the following season only the eleventh-hour sale of Peter Anderson prevented the club from folding. Haslam departed in early 1978 for Sheffield United to be replaced by David Pleat - who had started the campaign as reserve team coach at Kenilworth Road.
Pleat works his magic
Pleat's first full season in control almost ended in relegation but his coaching skills and astute transfer dealings gradually came to the fore and after near misses in 1980 and 1981 promotion back to Division One came twelve months later in devastating fashion. The championship was won in great style with a brand of attacking football that was to become the Pleat hallmark.
The Great Escape
Goals flew in at both ends as the Town became the darlings of the television companies in 1982/83 but it still took a last gasp win at Manchester City to prevent a quick return to Division Two. Visions of David Pleat skipping across the Maine Road turf after the 1-0 victory remain some of television's enduring images.
Unfortunately the Hatters were unable to build on this narrow escape and by late autumn 1984 were once again struggling at the wrong end of the table. Boardroom reshuffles and the loosening of the purse strings for David Pleat enabled him to buy the players necessary for long term survival. Even though most of these new players were 'cup-tied' the Town amazingly fought through to the F.A. Cup semi-final where they were narrowly and unluckily beaten by Everton.
1985 - 1988
The plastic pitch era
The installation of an artificial pitch in the summer of 1985 was warmly greeted initially by the footballing press but gradually mutterings of discontent grew and by the time the Town went back to grass in 1991 they had reached a crescendo. Also unpopular was the decision to ban away supporters in the wake of damage caused by so-called Millwall supporters in an FA Cup match at Kenilworth Road.
Perversely, it was during this period that the Town enjoyed the most successful period in their history. A position of ninth in the table was reached in season 1985/86 at the end of which David Pleat found the call of Tottenham too great and he departed amid much acrimony.
7th in Division One
Pleat’s replacement, John Moore - a stalwart defender from the Fourth Division days - led the Town to their highest ever final placing, seventh in Division One, in1986/87. John then resigned due to his dislike of the high profile nature of the job. His assistant, Ray Harford, was next in line for the hot seat and he presided over a momentous 1987/88 season which included three trips to Wembley as well as another FA Cup semi-final, this time against Wimbledon.
Defeat in the Simod Cup final, the Mercantile Credit Centenary Tournament and the FA Cup semi-final appeared to signal a season of glorious failure but on 24th April 1988, an army of 35,000 Luton supporters saw the Hatters win their first ever major trophy. A last-minute strike from Brian Stein finally overcame Arsenal 3-2 at Wembley in a see-saw thriller in which Arsenal, leading 2-1, were awarded a penalty - brilliantly saved by Andy Dibble, before Town came storming back, with skipper Steve Foster lifting the Littlewoods Cup.
1988 - 2007
Another Cup Final
The Hatters reached the Littlewoods Cup final again the following year but went down 3-1 to Nottingham Forest as the era of success came to a gradual close. A last gasp home win over Norwich in 1989 saved the Town from relegation but was not enough to save Ray Harford, who was dismissed mid-way through the following campaign. Ex-Hatters star Jim Ryan took over to see the Town escape the drop at the last over the next two seasons before he was replaced by the returning David Pleat.
Back to Division Two
This time the Town had used up their nine lives and sank back down in 1992 after 10 years at the top. They did not find life much easier at the new level and struggled to adapt and almost dropped again in 1993.
And down again
Surprisingly, the Hatters fought through to the FA Cup semi-final again in 1994, seeing off Premiership high flyers Newcastle and West Ham along the way. Unfortunately, defeat by Chelsea at Wembley meant that all the Town had to look forward to was another fight against relegation. Pleat departed once more at the end of 1994/95 and his replacement, Terry Westley, was unable to prevent the team dropping to the foot of the table. After only a few months he was replaced by the experienced Lennie Lawrence – but to no avail. Down again.
Play off failure
Back in a division they last left in 1970, the Hatters took a little while to acclimatise but when sharpshooter Tony Thorpe got his eye in, the goals started to flow and by Christmas they had hit top spot. Unfortunately, a late season wobble with too many points dropped at home meant that the Hatters had to settle for third and a place in the play-offs where they were beaten by a superior Crewe.
Two administrations & a championship
The Town then failed to hit the heights for several seasons and even suffered two periods in the hands of receivers as well as a season in the football basement. That came to end in the summer of 2004 and with new owners in place – and manager Mike Newell led the Hatters to a fantastic start to the 2004/05 season, winning their first six games. The players never looked back. Records tumbled throughout the year as Luton ran away with the League One title, amassing 98 points and finishing 12 points clear of nearest rivals Hull City.
Selling again – and back down
The Hatters took the Championship by storm in 2005-06, surprising many pundits and finishing up in a creditable mid-table position. Sadly, finances dictated by a small, antiquated, low-capacity stadium meant that several players were then sold and not adequately replaced - leading to relegation at the end of the 2006-07 campaign.
2007 - TO DATE
A bright start
Kevin Blackwell signed eight players during the summer of 2007 in preparation for a tilt at promotion back to the Championship. During the first month of the season it seemed that the Hatters stood a decent chance of doing so, after four wins from their first five league and cup fixtures including a 3-0 victory over Premier League Sunderland at Kenilworth Road.
Administration, and -10 Points
However form began to tail off and worse news was to follow when the club were deducted 10 points for falling into administration in November. From being in a comfortable mid-table position the Hatters found themselves deep in a relegation battle.
8 man Luton
Results began to pick-up in December and a FA Cup second round replay victory over Nottingham Forest ensured the Hatters brought another cup clash with Liverpool at Kenilworth Road.
On Boxing Day the Hatters were involved in a highly-controversial match at Bristol Rovers where incredibly they held out to record a 1-1 draw despite having to play half the match with nine men and the last 13 minutes with only eight men on the pitch following three sending offs.
Sell, sell, sell
With the administrator in charge, the New Year saw the beginning of extensive player sales. But the club also hosted Liverpool at Kenilworth Road in the third round of the FA Cup and an exciting draw earned the Hatters a much needed money-spinning replay at Anfield. At this point the administrator had been working on cutting the spiralling wage bill, with Chris Coyne, David Edwards and loanee Jaroslaw Fojut all departing – and the Hatters unable to sign anybody while still in administration, leaving the squad decimated. Blackwell then decided to announce that he would quit following the replay at Liverpool.
2020 take over
Just before kick-off at the cup replay at Anfield the administrator declared Luton Town 2020 Ltd as preferred bidders to take over the club - a consortium headed by famous Hatters fan and TV presenter Nick Owen and including former Hatters Steve Foster and Godfrey Ingram as well as other influential businessmen, all Town supporters. The news made it an extra-special night at Anfield where almost 6,000 Luton fans out-sung the famous Kop for long periods despite a 5-0 defeat - Kevin Blackwell's last match, with the administrator moving quickly to install legend Mick Harford as his replacement.
With the team struggling to find any form and with young players low on confidence, relegation to League 2 was confirmed following the 2-1 home defeat to Brighton on 12th April. With the new owners set to take full control of the club the Hatters prepared themselves for beginning their League 2 campaign with 15 points deducted for failure to agree to a CVA (Company Voluntary Agreement). However the Football League decided that because the club had been in administration for the third time in nine years, they would punish them further by deducting a further five points.
But worse news followed. The club were still being investigated by the Football Association for the past financial irregularities made public two years previously. As a result the club had a further 10 points docked by the FA which meant starting the season with an incredible 30 point penalty.
Once the club was officially taken over a week before the season started, the club only had six professionals on the books leading up to the home game with Port Vale.
Victory at Wembley - but farewell Football League
Despite a slow start to the season the Hatters ended 2008 just one point away from wiping out the 30 point deficit and were only 15 points away from safety. The season was also brought to life by the club's run in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy which was won in superb style at Wembley with a 3-2 victory over Scunthorpe United in April with 42,000 Town fans in attendance. However, the points deductions proved too much and relegation out of the Football League was confirmed on Easter Monday.
The club started life in the Blue Square Premier in 2009/10 after 89 years in the Football League. In their first season the Town finished second behind champions Stevenage but lost in the play-off semi-finals to York City. During the campaign Richard Money took over from Mick Harford and the Town also reached the third round of the FA Cup. The Hatters again suffered play-off heartache in 2010/11 under Gary Brabin, losing on penalties to AFC Wimbledon in the Promotion Final at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Back to Wembley
That meant a third season in non-league football for the Hatters and hopes were high of a tilt at the title in 2011/12. Unfortunately for the Town inconsistency dogged the team throughout the campaign and Paul Buckle replaced Brabin – taking Luton into the play offs with a last-day victory at champions Fleetwood….and on to another play-off final, this time at Wembley against York City.
Third time unlucky
At Wembley 30,000 Hatters fans turned Wembley orange and were celebrating just two minutes in when Andre Gray fired them in front. But joy turned to despair as Ashley Chambers equalised for the Minstermen before a contentious winner ensured it was York - and not the Town - celebrating a return to the Football League.
Cup run glory
Once again there were high hopes at the beginning of the 2012/13 campaign. While the Hatters were challenging for a place in the top six all season, it was their run in the FA Cup that made the headlines most. Wins over Cambridge, Nuneaton and Dorchester were rewarded with a home third round tie with Wolves. An Alex Lawless strike was enough to beat the Championship side in front of a sell-out at Kenilworth Road.
Hatters make history
The fourth round pitted the Town against Premier League Norwich City at Carrow Road. On that day the Hatters would make history. A fine defensively display looked to have secured a replay but, with 10 minutes to go, substitute Scott Rendell met a JJ O'Donnell cross to win the tie for the Town - and with it create history by becoming the first non-league side to beat a Premier League side.
Enter John Still
The Hatters would fall at the fifth round following a home defeat to a Millwall side that would go onto reach the semi-finals. By the now, though, the Town's league form was nose-diving and, days after the Millwall game, Paul Buckle left Kenilworth Road by mutual consent. The Hatters wasted no time in making their new appointment, hiring Dagenham & Redbridge manager John Still – but ended the campaign in seventh place.
John Still’s first season in charge made him a Town hero – building a team that smashed the Conference with 101 points and 102 goals in front of adoring fans home and away and taking the club back to the Football League where they belong. A season of consolidation saw the Town miss out on the play-offs, and with success looking unlikely again in 2015/16, Nathan Jones stepped up to the mark.
Good times ahead
Poor home form meant no play-offs again – but big news was brewing in the background, with the promised plans for a new ground (and a whole lot more) being announced to massive excitement. The future is bright, the future is orange!
Out of League Two
The first full season of the Nathan Jones era began in scintillating fashion as Plymouth were dispatched on their own patch with goals from Jack Marriot, Jonathan Smith and new-boy Danny Hylton.
Hylton would prove to be one of the best pieces of business the club has done in recent years, as his 27 goals that season helped the Town to a fourth placed finish in League Two. But, exiting the play-offs in somewhat brutal circumstances after an injury-time goal to Blackpool is one we were all keen to forget about at the earliest opportunity.
The draws that had hindered the Town that campaign were eliminated in the 2017/18 season. The diamond formation that Jones had been so set on implementing would prove to be fruitful, as the Hatters seemed set for the League Two title as they put eight past Yeovil, seven against Stevenage and Cambridge and five against Swindon. Accrington though would have the final say as their outrageous form for the second half of the season saw them take top spot, with the Town settling for second. Awards left, right and centre for the team that wowed the most were waiting though, with Alan Sheehan, Danny Hylton, Luke Berry, Marek Stech, Jack Stacey and Dan Potts all getting named in various teams of the season.
Expectations varied from supporter-to-supporter as to what the Town were capable in their first season back in League One, but very few would have foreseen what was to come. A run that saw the Hatters move from mid-table mediocracy to seemingly challenging for a play-off place, before breaking into the top two got the dreaming started.
Nathan Jones wouldn’t be the man to oversee consecutive promotions though, as he departed for Stoke City at the beginning of January.
A familiar face in Mick Harford took over the reins on an interim basis, initially just game-by-game, but as the momentum continued, big Mick was confirmed as manager until the end of the campaign.
The visit of Portsmouth on a snow-swept Tuesday night saw Kenilworth Road host one of the most memorable games in recent history. Thank you, George Moncur. The top spot was taken by the Hatters, and a 28-game unbeaten run ensured they wouldn’t loosen their grip on the third-tier title, which was secured on the final day of the season with a 3-1 win over Oxford United. Back-to-back promotions achieved. Mick Harford’s name sang around Kenilworth Road. The stuff of dreams.
Ten years on from their relegation to the Conference, the Hatters were back in the Championship.