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16 October 2012

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Cult hero talks Nuneaton and David Pleat

Kirk Stephens is one of the good guys. After all, he’s scored a 90th minute winner at Vicarage Road. 

That strike is something that ‘Basher’ believes all of the star-studded names he has played with over the years would swap for their international caps for, as he reminisces to Talk of the Town about the good times at Kenilworth Road.

On Saturday Kirk was back in familiar surroundings, surrounded by familiar faces, as he watched two of his former clubs go head-to-head in the Blue Square Bet Premier for the very first time.

The Kirk Stephens story began when he was released as a youngster by hometown club Coventry. Undeterred, a trial at Peterborough followed where he was spotted by a certain David Pleat, the then manager of Nuneaton. Posh offered him a full-time deal but Stephens, only 16 at the time, was so enthused by Pleat’s persuasion he rejected League football in favour of a part-time contract in Warwickshire. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. After six years with Boro, he was snapped by Pleat who had since moved to take the managerial hot-seat at Kenilworth Road.

248 appearances and two goals – including that one at Watford – later, Kirk could look back on a career, which would eventually go full circle when re-signing for Coventry, with fond memories – and thank a certain Mr Pleat for making it all possible by keeping a six-year promise.

“I owe everything to David,” Basher, as he is affectionately know, tells Talk of the Town. “He was my mentor and took a chance on me and I must thank him for the opportunity he gave me in football.

“I was released as a kid by Coventry and I was devastated but David saw me in a trial at Peterborough and wanted to sign me.

“What sticks out for me though is when David left Nuneaton, it’s something that I’ll never forget. I had just got ready for training when I asked him where he was going and he told me that he had terminated his contract with the club.

“He then said if he ever went onto manage a Football League club I would be his first signing. Six years later, he was true to his word and he signed me for Luton.”

At Nuneaton, Stephens was quietly going about his business as a dependable right-back as Boro came close a number of times to winning promotion.

“I had six great years at Nuneaton – I absolutely loved it,” he says. “We had a good team in the Conference then. Wimbledon and Kettering were our main rivals for the title and we had some great games down the years.

“Wimbledon pipped us to the title and won promotion to the Football League but when Luton and David came in for me there was no way I was going to turn that chance down.

“Originally the Nuneaton chairman rejected the offer and I read about it in the local paper. I couldn’t believe it and demanded to see him about it. He wasn’t prepared to let me go but I couldn’t blame him.

“I told him I had never asked for anything and had given him six years of service, and by the next morning, the situation had been solved. 

“I remember coming home from work and was told somebody had called for me but nobody knew who it was – only that the person calling would call again later.

“Eventually the phone did ring again and it was David Pleat. ‘Do you want to come and play full-time for me at Luton?’ he said. ‘Yes!’.

“It was great because I never forgot what he had told me all those years before at Nuneaton and he kept his promise. I was one of his first signings when he took over.

“I was about to jump to the Conference to what now is the Championship with Luton – and I couldn’t wait.

And what a time to join the Town. It was the summer of 1978 and Pleat was piecing together a side that would go on to lift the Division 2 title in 1981/82 with Kirk ever-present at right-back.

“When I joined Luton there were so many good players and it was a privilege to be a part of the team that did so well,” says Kirk.

“I was 23 when I signed for Luton and over the next six years I was living the dream. They were the happiest years of my life.

“To have met and had the chance to play with the likes of Ricky Hill, Paul Walsh, Tony Grealish, Jake Findlay, Brian Horton and David Moss was unbelievable.

“To win the Division 2 title and then stay up in the way we did the following season by beating Manchester City at Maine Road on the final day of the season is something I will never forget.

“It was a great time to be at Kenilworth Road and I was enjoying my football. I can’t stress enough how much of a fantastic club Luton is. 

“They might not be a Manchester United or Chelsea but it’s such a family friendly club – I don’t think there are much better.

“It’s one of the only clubs I know that a large group of ex-players want to keep returning to.”

However, all good things have to come to an end and Kirk, who once donned the gloves and went in goal at the Kop End in a thrilling 3-3 draw at Liverpool in 1982, rejoined Coventry in 1984 to fulfil a childhood dream of playing for the Sky Blues.

Fast forward to 2012 and Basher, content at realising his dream as a professional football, watched on as the Hatters and Boro faced each other for the first time in a competitive game.

Nuneaton, who have had their fair share of off-field problems in recent times, have won three Play-Off finals in the past four seasons to get back where Kirk feels they belong – in non-league’s top flight.

“Nuneaton have done really well,” says Stephens. “When they had their problems they were relegated down several leagues and I’ve always said Nuneaton belong in the Conference, or higher.

“Luton don’t deserve to be in this league – they belong in the Football League and that’s why my allegiance will lie with Luton on Saturday.

“Nuneaton have achieved their ambition of returning to the Conference. Luton, though, need the points to get them in a position to challenge for the title and I believe they can do it.”

This article appeared in Saturday's issue of Talk of the Town. Copies of this and all of our programmes are available on our online shop and in the club shop in Kenilworth Road.

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