Conference champions 10 years on | Jake Howells

Non-league to Premier League in the space of a decade?

Yeah, that’s us. We’re proud of our story since 1885 but the past ten years have been special.

This season we’re celebrating the first of our four promotions with the first – and probably most important – one: the 2013/14 season when, ten years ago, a team led by a lovable London boy got back to the Football League.

In this series we talk to those heroes who made it all happen.

Watch past episodes:

Alex Lawless | Paul Benson | Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu | Scott Griffiths

“It was a strange time and there were some dark days,” says Jake Howells, glancing at the Kenilworth Road pitch behind him.

“I would sit on the bus back from games, I was 18. Fans were around me. There was a lot of negative energy.”

He’s not painting a particularly pleasant picture for someone who should have been relishing his dream of playing regular football for his local club.

An academy graduate thrust into the first team as a 17-year-old, the formative years of Howells’ professional career were unprecedented.

His debut against Huddersfield was the Hatters’ last game before relegation from League One. Two months later the Town were faced with a 30-point deduction in League Two. From youth team football to facing up to dropping out of the league entirely all in the space of 12 months. A situation like no other.

But it’s in moments like this is where you learn the most about people. And about yourself. For all the Hatters’ predicaments, this was an opportunity for a fresh-faced left-footer to make his way in the game – one he would grab with both hands.

“I remember my debut, my shirt was too big for me, but to see my name on the back of it was my dream,” says Howells.

“I knew the club were struggling. But I was a young lad and saw it as a chance. I had senior pros like Kevin Nicolls and Sol Davis around me. I cleaned Sol’s boots but was sometimes keeping him out of the team which was strange.”

The campaign known to Town fans as the ‘minus-30 season’ would have tested the most seasoned pro. Yet the teenager stood up to the challenges that it brought.

“We were trying to build a squad. Trialist after trialist came in during pre-season. All I wanted to do was to play. When we signed Chris Martin on loan we thought ‘hold on, we can get out of this’.

“Physiologically it was very tough. We’d win but still be on minus points. It was very draining. I remember losing 5-1 at Darlington. It’s a long way from home and you’re thinking ‘how do we get out from this?’”

Despite the best efforts of a team constantly playing catch up, the deficit was too big to eat up.

The Town, eventually put out of their misery, could start life in the Conference free from the shackles of points deductions.

However, a different challenge would lie in wait for Howells and the Hatters.

“The expectations went from ‘we’re getting relegated’ to ‘we have to win the league by 5-10 points’,” explains Howells.

“We’d go to away grounds that the club had never been to before. 2,000 Luton fans expecting us to win every game. But we just didn’t have the standard required.”

One season in non-league then became two, three, four and five.

Among them back-to-back play-off final defeats. At no point, however, did he think about leaving for greener pastures.

“I never thought about jumping ship, I was so engrossed in my Luton Town journey,” Howells says honestly.

“The club had supported me and gave me my platform. “That said, the Wimbledon final hit me. Jason Walker’s last-minute header from my cross was inches away from going in.

“It would have been such a relief off my shoulders. To miss out on penalties…

“Then, the following season, against York, an offside decision… it was just another challenge to overcome.”

The seasons of dread begin to mount up in our minds as he chats chronologically through the campaigns. It’s bordering on sadistic.

Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“All managers have different ways of doing things and then the following season John Still came in and got us back to basics,” explains Jake as talk turns to 2013/14.

“One of his first sessions was purely the basics. He was all about the detail. ‘Set pieces and dead balls, that’s how you win leagues,’ he would say. We weren’t going to pass our way out of the division. We needed to be more direct but we had the players to play a bit lop-sided – Paul Benson was the focal point, Andre Gray was higher, Luke Guttridge was pulling the strings.

“Every game was amazing, especially at Kenilworth Road. We felt we’d score in every game. My tally was the best in a season – admittedly I was on penalties! – but I felt full of energy

“Plus we had people like Steve McNulty and Ronnie Henry who had been there and done it. Seen everything you can imagine at this level. Small dressing rooms, horrible pitches. They knew going to Alfreton or Braintree wouldn’t be a walkover.”

Come the end of the season, and after overhauling long-time leaders Cambridge United, the Town were back in the Football League with 101 points and 102 goals crowning a magnificent and significant season. After the years of hurt came a new feeling.

“Relief. The pressure I’d carried for so long, through all the bad times, was off. Seeing the fans on the bus those times… We knew the job the board were doing, rebuilding the club. I was proud to be part of it. To finally get the club back in the Football League was a great moment for everyone involved.”

Jake’s career at Kenilworth Road would end after two seasons back in the Football League at the end of the 2015/16 season.

With 334 appearances for the Town under his belt, only 16 players have played more matches than him in the club’s history.

“The only thing is that I never got a chance to come back and say goodbye or thank you,” says Jake, with a regretful tone.

“But I am proud of what I achieved and my children will grow up seeing me scoring goals on YouTube and that’s enough for me.”

Now working for Foco – supplying merchandise for clubs including Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich – Howells is still involved in the game to some degree, although the use of his left foot has somewhat diminished.

“It keeps me busy,” he says. “But I’d give anything to be back out on the pitch now.”

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