Conference champions 10 years on | Jonathan Smith

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 | Jake Howells | Matt Robinson | Mark Tyler | Luke Guttridge

It was at Barnet, on Boxing Day 2013, when it happened.

“Pfft,” exhales Jonathan Smith. The midfielder winces as he remembers the moment that effectively ended his season – but one which would galvanise a squad going for the most important promotion of them all.

He still shows the battle scars from the challenge to the children he teaches ten years later. “What’s that lump on your leg, Mr Smith?” they ask innocently.

At the time the Town were trailing Cambridge in the Conference table when Smith and his teammates travelled to the Hive. The Hatters would earn a crucial 2-1 victory but it was misfortune – a broken leg – that bestowed Smith that cold afternoon.

It’s an incident the midfielder, who had been a driving force in the middle of the Hatters’ side, will not forget.

“I just grabbed my leg and tried to hold it in place,” he says, the vision still vivid. “What went through my head? Pfft…upset, hurt. Pain. A lot of pain.”

Smith’s season was all but over. Not that he was thinking of that at the time. But more of that later.

The injury cruelly came midway through a campaign in which the midfielder had worked tirelessly to get himself into manager John Still’s starting XI following the departure of Paul Buckle, the manager who had brought him to Kenilworth Road.

“When Paul left I was worried,” he says. “In the lower leagues, when a new manager comes in, they often mix it up and that could have happened to me.

“All I knew was that I wanted to stay at Luton and I had to work hard to prove it.

“The turning point came in the 1-1 draw with Macclesfield. I came on, ran around, had a positive effect, flew into some tackles and I really enjoyed it.”

After a slow start the Town began to become a force with Smith at the heart of it, doing the dirty work in the middle of the park.

“We were fortunate to have such a good side, full of hard-working players but a couple with a bit of an X-factor,” Smith says. “Andre Gray, Luke Guttridge, Paul Benson. I’d played in hard-working teams before without that something special but we just had a team that just clicked.

“It was a tricky start but John soon worked things out and, as well as having those with the X-factor, we had leaders like Steve McNulty and Mark Tyler. Reliable players who came together and credit to John for that.”

The Hatters’ flowing football produced successful results – a far cry from the inconsistent struggles that Smith came into when he first joined the previous year under Buckle.

“I made my debut at Hereford, which flew by, but I remember my home debut against Dartford and just remember being in awe of Kenilworth Road and the atmosphere,” he says. “I brought into it straight away, even though it wasn’t the best of times. I quickly released the atmosphere and the ground really suited my character and I loved playing there.

“The Conference wasn’t easy and after Paul left and John came in I knew I had to find a way of convincing him to play me. I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that I was not his first choice, but I kept working hard – even though it took a bit of time to win him over.”

With the Town flying in the festive period of 2013/14, Smith’s sudden injury rocked everyone.

Yet the Hatters rallied, and appeared in the next game, two days later, with “For Smudger” shirts in the warm-up. After missing their stricken teammate, the side duly responded, thrashing Kidderminster 6-0 at Kenilworth Road.

Once out of hospital, and cheered by the support of the club and the fans, Smith was on a one-man mission to get back to full fitness – doing all he could to ensure this was not the end of his career with the Hatters.

“Straight away I was like ‘how long is this going to take?’ I had the saying ‘if it doesn’t help the leg, don’t do it’.

“I lived by that. I set up a gym in my house and would only eat anything that was good for me – nothing bad – I was doing everything in my power to get back and worked so hard.

“In the summer after the season finished, I went on holiday to Greece. I was running on roads barefoot because I wanted to rescue my leg. I didn’t want to do so using cushioned trainers. People were looking at me thinking ‘who’s this guy running barefoot on the roads’.

“I was obsessed with coming back as I didn’t want my career at Luton to be over. I worked really hard to make sure that didn’t happen.”

True to his word, and in typical Smith fashion, he was back in an emotional return weeks after the Town had secured the title.

But while disappointed not to be a part of the team on the pitch in the second half of the season, that changed for the final minute of the campaign, in the last game at Hyde, when Smith emerged from the bench as a substitute.

“I’d been back in training and had done a lot of full-contact stuff so John asked me if I wanted to be involved and I said ‘I’d love to’.

“It was a great feeling to be back. Even warming up on the pitch beforehand, I was like ‘I’m back’. It was great to be back training but it’s the matches I live for, it’s why you play.

“The reception I received from the fans was amazing. My dad and my now wife were in the stands but once the fans ran on to celebrate at the end she was worried I’d be safe with my leg!

“But I could feel the love, especially after the injury, the fans were great – I’ve got so many cards from fans at home wishing me well, it was fantastic support.”

Smith needn’t have worried about that – the next problem he faced was proving he could cut it back in League Two.

It was time to convince Still once more.

“You go on holiday at the end of the season and you’re thinking, ‘what do I have to do?’ Managers will always think when a team gets promoted which players they need the next campaign at a higher level.

“A lot of the lads went on holiday celebrating, but I didn’t. I needed to work hard, do extra fitness and be ready for the following season.”

Once again that endeavour paid off. Smith was part of the Hatters side that began the 2014/15 campaign among the pacesetters in League Two before results tailed off in the second half of the season.

“I still have regrets about that,” he says. “I’d worked so hard – probably too hard. I was making sure I was so fit that after training I’d still run and go swimming.

“After Christmas, I kept getting little niggles and I couldn’t keep up the same intensity I’d played with in the first half of the season. I think if I had, then we would have won promotion. But the niggles affected my form so it was frustrating.”

Smith’s displays certainly did not go unnoticed that season – he was named players’ player of the year and won the player of the year award voted by the young supporters.

The following season saw another change in manager, as Still made way for Nathan Jones, which meant Smith had a new man to impress.

The midfielder struggled to force his way into the new manager’s plans on a regular basis. Even though he was in and around the squad as the Town pushed for promotion in 2016/17, time was called on his time in Bedfordshire.

“It was tough leaving as I felt I still had more to offer,” Smith says, who now teaches football in a local school in his hometown Preston.

“Not being involved in the play-off games against Blackpool hurt, and I didn’t want to leave. But I’ve always been a fighter, even when you know you’re going, even if there would have been talk about bringing in Steven Gerrard to the team, I’d still work hard to convince people I should play.

“But I’m really proud to have been associated with this club and to see how well it’s doing now.

“The Conference and League Two are tough, and during those seasons we were never the underdog. Luton were the biggest team in those divisions and we had to deal with that expectation.

“The way Luton are playing now as the underdog is different, and it brings a different kind of energy, especially when they play at Kenilworth Road.

“It’s been an amazing journey. Now, when you see Ross Barkley playing in centre-mid and Pelly still doing it, it’s a credit to the club and how far they’ve come.”

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