Conference champions 10 years on | Ronnie Henry

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 | Jonathan Smith

When Ronnie Henry first set foot in Kenilworth Road in 2012 he envisaged a first season of glory and goals, promotion and pride.

Signed by Paul Buckle from Stevenage, then in League One, and instantly installed as captain, he had one aim and one aim alone: inspire Luton Town back to the Football League.

Sadly, things didn’t quite work out for the former Stevenage man. The Town were regressing, and struggled in the Conference under Buckle in 2012/13. Kenilworth Road, which Henry once knew as an intimidating, hostile environment as a visiting player, was now an uncomfortable place for the Town players as to perform as the team finished in seventh in the fifth tier.

It was a year that made Henry think about his decision to leave Stevenage and even question whether he would even stick around for a second season.

“That first year, if I said I didn’t have second thoughts, I'd be lying to you,” Henry says as he takes a look around an empty, cold and wet Kenilworth Road last week.

“Yeah, there were times that come over me that I thought this is this is a tougher challenge than I thought, and where I felt, ‘what have I done?’

“It wasn’t easy. There was moments where I could have left the football club because of how hard it got, but the reason I was captain is because that I stuck by what I wanted to do.”

By the time that disappointing season had come to an end the Town had a new man at the helm in the shape of John Still and Henry knew the boss would want to get back to basics if the side were to make a return to the Football League.

“I remember John taking over very clearly,” remembers Henry. “It was a Tuesday evening. He came in to the dressing room and spoke to us. Then we went to Braintree and we lost. John came to watch. He was quite clear in what he wanted. It was quite simple.

“John knew exactly what he wanted and he made it very clear from every different playing position from goalkeeper to the forwards. When you get it here, this is what you do. We’re all on the same the same sheet. So it made it quite easy for us. It was quite, quite refreshing. It was simple.”

But things in football are never easy, never simple.

Henry still had his burning ambition of winning the Conference, of being the captain and lifting the trophy, but a bumpy start to the following season saw the Town already playing catch-up.

With expectation as higher as ever, Henry was quickly realising why the Hatters were finding it so difficult in getting out of the fifth tier.

And one incident in particular sticks out – one which could go on and have a huge impact on the remainder of the season.

Behind at half-time at home against Lincoln, one fan vented his frustration at the team as they left the pitch. Once the Town had turned the game around and won 3-2 thanks to two goals from Mark Cullen, the captain stuck up for his teammates and told the supporter exactly what he thought.

“I remember it clearly now,” recalls Henry. “I mean the position I played in the team was obviously at right-back. So coming over to get the ball back from the crowd and when they're throwing it back at you it was really hard not to hear what they were saying.

“I understood where they were coming from. The fans are passionate, they want the club to do well. They expect to do well. And we weren’t doing great at the time.

“So it was it was on us. The only thing I said to the fan was that we had a young team. It wasn’t easy, even for myself as a senior player and as a captain.

“There was a huge responsibility on us to win games week in, week out. And that situation here with the fan, rightly or wrongly, I went to speak to him.

“I said, ‘listen, we're not doing it deliberately. We’re trying our best. I understand where you’re coming from. But listen, give us some leeway. A little bit. We’ll try and get you where we want to get to in’.

“Now a lot of people are saying that may have been the turning point to the club rising up the league, whether it was or not, I don't know, but him and the rest of the fans kind of understood.

“It was a case of ‘let’s get in this together’. We're only going to get up the leagues by the fans and the players and the staff all getting amongst it together. And I think that’s when John started to bring the fans into the huddle.

“It certainly did bring us all together and it felt more of a more of a unique football club and you know for a fact when these fans here get behind you, in this environment, in this stadium, there was only one outcome when we walked out of this tunnel onto this pitch. We knew we was going to win.”

With the fans onside and with Still reciting his “stronger the team” mantra each week, the Town were soon hitting their stride, hitting top spot at the turn of the year and never looked back.

Henry, from right-back, was in fine form and continued to use his leadership skills as captain to full effect – none more so on New Year’s Day when Barnet came to Kenilworth Road.

“It was a big, big game and the and the weather was absolutely terrible, and I don’t mind saying it now, but the game probably shouldn’t have been on,” remembers the skipper.

“I was freezing from the start but I was trying to get the game on, making sure it was on, making sure it was played. I said to the referee ‘come on, ref, it’s got be played!’

“I was saying there was nothing wrong with the pitch, even though it's psychology in my head I knew the pitch was hardly playable.

“We landed up playing in areas in the corners of the pitch where it wasn’t so bad. We didn’t want to play in the areas that were terrible as the referee would call it off.

“But I'm really pleased the game went ahead because we ended up winning it and going four points clear. It was a big game and it was a big turning point.

“Psychologically it was big against Barnet because it was a huge game. To get that game on to keep the momentum going… after that we I didn’t look back.”

And that’s how exactly how it ended. A 27-match unbeaten run paving the way for a promotion back to the Football League and, come the end of the season, Henry achieved the aim he set out when he first walked into the dressing room.

Helped by a team which included several leaders, with the likes of Steve McNulty, Mark Tyler, Luke Guttridge and Paul Benson, Henry wrote his name into Hatters history by lifting the Conference trophy high after the 4-1 win over Forest Green in the final home game of the campaign.

“It was special, especially being captain,” he says. “I enjoyed the responsibility of being captain at such a fantastic football club and it was a real honour, but it was a real responsibility. It was tough the first year. I'm not going to lie to you.

“But I managed to do it the second year and it was a lot easier because of the experience in the in the changing room and the standards we had, the environment and the coaching staff created. It made my job a lot easier because I had five or six players around me that would do exactly the same job.

“I just wore the armband out on the pitch at the weekend and got the privilege to lift the trophy which was a huge, huge moment in my football career and one that I remember all these years on.

“But it wasn't just for me, it was for my family. It was for the fans and for the for the people that work here. Because when I came here it was obvious what the football club wanted.

“It became desperate for the fans to get out of the Conference. Everyone deserved it because we worked so hard for it and it was just a great moment, so to give that to the football club, it was a relief.

“I’m not going to lie, it was a relief. To banish all of that frustration that that you had sometimes taken personally, especially the previous year.

“But getting us out of the Conference was probably a bigger achievement than a lot of people realise because it’s so hard to get out of the division with only one club being promoted automatically.”

But while the Hatters were heading for League Two one man who wasn’t was Henry.

“Yes,” he says with a tinge of melancholy. “As soon as we finished the season and we were promoted I spoke to the club about extending my stay, and Luton were quite open to extending it, but I made the decision to go back to my old club Stevenage with my old manager.

“There was nothing against Luton, and I would love to have stayed here, but I thought at the time I needed to make a decision.

“I thought, I've come here. I had an agenda: I wanted to help get the football club into the Football League and I've done that so I could walk away happy.

“I’d love to have played for the club in the Football League but that wasn’t to be.

“But I am so I’m so proud of what I've done here and I have no regrets. I have no regrets whatsoever.”

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