Conference champions 10 years on | Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu

Ten years ago a quiet 19-year-old walked into Kenilworth Road, played centre-half at Staines in the FA Trophy and never left.

Turns out, despite some initial hesitancy, it was the best decision of Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu’s career. Four promotions later, he became famous around the globe for being the first player to go from non-league to Premier League with the same club – all in less than a decade.

“I didn’t really want to come!” he starts our interview with a typical Pelly bombshell. “Nobody wants to drop out of the Prem and join a team in the Conference. But sometimes you’re in that football bubble and you don’t want that bubble to burst.

“A decision had to be made though, and the rest is history. To drop down, to experience men’s football, experience our old Ely Way training ground, win four promotions and now be in the Premier League is great. It was the experience I needed; to play football.

“I spoke to my mum, my dad, my agent, and with my contract ending at West Ham at the end of that season, I knew I needed to be playing regular football. It was also important that I signed for someone who wanted me, and Luton and John Still wanted me. I needed a place to prove myself and I think I’ve done that now.”

It’s hard to believe that ten years ago the Town were drawing in that Trophy match at Staines and today host Tottenham in the Premier League – but that game is one that still sticks out in Pelly’s mind.

“It was 0-0, we had the likes of David Viana, Arnaud Mendy, Joe Davis and Zane Banton playing,” remembers Mpanzu. “I played centre-half that day but I think those days are long gone! Ten years later we’re now playing the big boys and it’s been a journey – one I’d love to do again.

“All those players along the way who have helped me get to where I am, thank you. Especially Dan Potts as he’s been here with me the longest!”

Mpanzu was a major driving force in the Hatters’ title win of 2013/14 but, at 19, coming into a club that had struggled to get out of the Conference after four seasons of hurt, did he feel any expectation?

“Not really, slotting in was easy,” he says. “The team was doing well. If we were near the bottom it might have been different, but the team were doing so well there was no pressure on me. I was 19 and the manager gave me free rein to explore myself and do what I do, driving into the box, scoring goals and it worked out well.

“We battered a lot of teams and Luton was a tough place to come. We played a system that suited us. We got the ball up to Andre [Gray] and Benno [Paul Benson] and they scored a lot of goals between them. We scored 100 goals and got 101 points and it was probably the strongest side I’ve played with since I been here.

“The team had real fluidity and it showed. We eventually overtook Luke Berry at Cambridge and I remember scoring a banger in the game at Dartford to equalise. We were 1-0 down and I scored in off the stanchion and then Andre scored a header – which he hardly did – and that was game that really stands out.”

That comeback win at Dartford – already a result highlighted by Benson and Alex Lawless in this series – all but clinched promotion back to the Football League.

So, did that justify Mpanzu’s decision to join the Town on a permanent basis?

“Wholeheartedly,” he says. “It would have been tough had we not made it out of the Conference that season.

“To get out of the league first time of asking – for me anyway – was key and made me feel like my decision was the right one. It was probably the toughest decision of my career – and something not many players would think of doing. Sometimes you’ve got to take a leap of faith. God’s got a plan for you and for me that plan worked out.”

Despite hitting the ground running when arriving at Kenilworth Road, once promotion was secured Mpanzu felt the relief of the fans and one player in particular.

“Jake Howells was here when we were deducted 30 points,” he says. “The relief of him making it out of the Conference was wonderful. The joy on his face, and the fans in their celebrations showed that.

“They thought they had been hard done by, so the rise from the bottom is a fairytale and to see us where we are right now, it’s a great feeling.”

Ten years – for most clubs and players – seems a long time. Two play-off defeats, four promotions and a great escape act means the past decade has flown by.

And while he might have a little more facial hair and his haircut might have changed a few times, he’s barely changed.

“I’m still a kid at heart,” he smiles. “I’m still joking with the boys and playing around. I might have matured on the pitch in that time but in those ten years players have come and gone and it’s been great to be a part of.

“Luton have progressed every year I’ve been here. I remember the training ground at Ely Way, people walking their dogs. It wasn’t the worst, but the facilities we have at The Brache are great.

“Can I believe what this club has done? I don’t think I’ve ever stopped and thought what we have achieved. I’m focused on this club staying in the Premier League, because that achievement would top them all.

“But I think, once this season’s done and we’re in the Premier League next season, maybe when I’m holiday, in the sun, enjoying a cocktail, and I’ll think about what this club has achieved, particularly those behind the scenes and the directors who have sustained the club.

“I’m sure it will be a wonderful reflection.”

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