Academy graduate Kevin Foley on his time at Kenilworth RoadHE’S ONE OF A SELECT GROUP OF TOWN PLAYERS TO GRAUDATE FROM THE ACADEMY AND GO ON TO STAR IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE. KEVIN FOLEY REFLECTS ON THE UPS AND DOWN DURING HIS TIME AT KENILWORTH ROAD
“Don’t worry I could talk about Luton all day,” says Kevin Foley as we usher our apologies for interrupting his daily schedule of the school-run last Wednesday afternoon.
As the phone call ticked around to the two-and-a-half mark Foley soon became aware, as the conversation wandered from his time in the Town’s youth system to watching himself on Match of Day in the Premier League with Wolves, that he’s nearly 30. “That’s outrageous!” he shrieked.
Admittedly we hadn’t helped: reminding him that it is almost nine years since the Hatters had beaten Leeds United 5-1 in the Championship – before the wheels fell off and the Town’s downward spiral began. The season of 2006/07, that saw the Town relegated from the Championship, was the toughest of Kevin Patrick Foley’s career. But more of that later – let’s start at the beginning.
Everyone likes a hometown boy done good. Except that’s not entirely true. Contrary to anything ever-written about Foley he is not a Lutonian.
However, Luton was the place where the football bug was caught, and soon after kicking the ball around the park as a young boy in a Manchester United shirt, it wouldn’t be long before Foley was outlining a career in the game.
“People think I was born in Luton, but I was born in London and moved to Luton when I was five,” explains Foley. “I grew up in Luton, in Farley Hill, and I didn’t really play football properly until I was eight or nine.
“I was playing for Barnfield Colts and was scouted to go on a six-week trial with Luton Town centre of excellence. Fortunately for me I was taken on at the age of nine by Paul Lowe.
“Lee Cowley was coaching and he really did teach me a lot. Sometimes it wasn’t easy, especially as a young boy because all you want to do was to play football all the time, and the sessions would be stop-start. But that was the important thing – he was coaching us and preparing us to be footballers, we were taught the basics; how to play on the back foot, how to pass the ball effectively. This was a really key thing for me in my younger years and I’m glad he’s still at Luton coaching now.
“At that time I never took anything for granted but half-way through my last year as an under-16 I was told I was going to be offered a two-year YTS deal and I was over the moon. I knew that the hard work was about to begin.”
Within months of signing his scholarship, Foley was given a rare chance in a reserve game that would go on to shape his career.
“The opportunity to play right-back came about when I was 16 and I was called in by Brian Stein to play in a reserve game.
“Growing up I would play up front, I know it’s hard to believe but I would bang the goals in for fun! In the centre of excellence I was playing as a midfielder, and I had never played right-back before, I’d always played either central midfield or right midfield.
“Playing for the reserves was a huge thing because you’d be playing against bigger, better players. I slotted in okay and I really thrived on it. I came away from the game thinking I could go on and do for myself in that position. My aim from then on was to nail down a place at right-back.”
With a spring in his step and with a whiff of first team football around the corner, Foley remained focused, keeping his head down and developing as a player. And he had youth team boss John Moore to thank for keeping him on the straight and narrow.
“I can’t speak highly enough of John,” says Foley. “He was a great coach and is a great man. He instilled discipline, and taught a lot of us young players the principles in life. He was always somebody you were desperate to impress. He didn’t always congratulate you on doing things, so when he did it was a massive deal.
“It was a tough environment in youth team but it stood me in good stead. These days I see a lot of young players have everything delivered to them on a plate. I think all young players need to learn discipline and the respect. Cleaning boots isn’t a bad thing.”
Sooner or later, though, the first team chance did come along. After two appearances in the LDV Vans Trophy as a 17-year-old in 2002, he got his first taste of League action under then-boss Joe Kinnear with two substitute appearances late in the 2002/03 season in League 1.
Kinnear, though, departed in a dramatic summer off the field for the Town, leaving Foley and the club in limbo. One phone vote later, the Hatters had a new man at the helm in Mike Newell.
Foley began the 2003/04 campaign still unsigned and went onto play 37 times in all competitions, scoring twice. Not bad for an 18-year-old fresh out of the youth team who was beginning to make the right-back position his own.
“The end of the Joe era was a bit weird,” recalls Foley. “Joe left, and Mike Newell came in. Mike was told he was working with limited recourses and, with the club under a transfer embargo, it meant we couldn’t sign anyone, me included.
“I was thrown in at right-back and for 75 per cent of that season I was basically playing as a third-year YTS earning less than £100 per week. Enoch Showumni was in the same boat, but playing for expenses. After he scored a hat-trick against Brentford we were both signed on professional forms and we were both understandably delighted, it was a magical feeling.”
His performances in the Town side were drawing glowing reports and soon he was adding goals to his game – his first senior strike against Yeovil was followed by another in the League Cup at Charlton.
The Hatters finished that season in 10th place and nobody expected the following campaign to be anything other than another tilt at reaching the Play-Offs at best.
“At the start of the season after there was no real belief that we could win the league or even challenge for promotion,” admits Foley. “As players you always want to better your previous season and in 2003/04 we finished just outside the Play-Offs so having a crack at the top six was our aim. We beat Oldham in the first game and won the next five.
“We were flying, but then lost three games on the bounce. I remember after losing to Hull the manager sat us down. We rarely ever had meetings and never used to watch the DVD back but we did this time. Mike Newell just said ‘look, people are doubting us’. He showed us clips in which we did well and clips in which we didn’t. He said: ‘the wheels aren’t coming off, don’t worry, we just need to cut out these little mistakes’. There were no drastic measures after that and in the end we romped home.
“That team was great. Kevin Nicholls was running the show, Steve Robinson kept things ticking over, Paul Underwood was a great athlete, Ahmet Brkovic scored goals for fun; we had Rowan Vine and Steve Howard up front, and a back four of Sol Davis, Curtis Davies, and Chris Coyne and myself, and Marlon Beresford in goal. It was a good team and we didn’t pick up many injuries that season – that was the key. I was 19 going on 20 that season and I’d won a league title. It gave me so much confidence and I learnt so much.
“I think growing up as a player at Luton made me realise what I wanted to achieve. John Moore always used to tell us to set ourselves targets so I set myself the goal of playing in the Premier League and playing in a World Cup.”
Foley was still four years from ticking one of those ambitions of his list as he embarked on life in the Championship with the newly-promoted Hatters.
The Town weren’t given much of a chance in 2005/06, especially as the fixture computer handed the Hatters an opening three-game schedule against teams relegated from the Premier League the season before: Crystal Palace, Southampton and Leeds.
“I remember the Palace game because a lot was made of Andy Johnson deciding to stay after they were relegated,” says Foley. “I was told before the game how Johnson would play, that he would stand off the post at set pieces, looking for the second ball. He was my man, I didn’t listen to anything I was told, and after we couldn’t clear a corner, Johnson pounced to score. It was my fault. It turned out to be a big lesson for me and I’ll never forget that. Thankfully we won the game.”
One abiding memory for Foley from that season in the Championship was the Town’s epic FA Cup encounter with Liverpool in front of the live BBC cameras.
“Without a doubt the game of that season was the Liverpool cup tie,” says Foley. “It was an incredible night. In the tunnel beforehand I was genuinely in awe standing next to Gerrard, Alonso and Carragher…they were the European Champions after all. I couldn’t believe it.
“To go 3-1 up was unbelievable, it was out of this world. In the end we ran out of steam, I think we’d put so much effort into the game at that stage that the final 20 minutes took it out of us.
“I remember Alonso’s goal from the halfway line. Marlon had come up for a corner and was out of his goal, stranded. I wanted to run back and try and clear it but thought to myself ‘I’m not going to make it’, I had no energy left. Afterwards it was so, so disappointing. We had them at 3-1, we should have seen it out, and perhaps we got caught up in the emotion of it all.”
After a more-than-respectable 10th place finish in the Championship, having flirted with the Play-Offs throughout the year, the summer – and season – that followed was tough for Foley to take as the Town lost several key players and saw the manager leave which contributed to the first of three successive relegations.
“We lost Vine, Nico, Howard, Curtis. The spine of the team was gone and it really affected us. It was a strange season, Mike Newell was sacked and in came Kevin Blackwell. It was a new experience for me, I had never really seen that side of football before. A lot of questions went through my mind. Who will the new boss be? Will he like me? What formation will he play? Will he bring in his own players?”
But while Foley would still keep his place in the side under Blackwell, the Town drifted down to League 1, and the two-time young player of the year would soon be saying goodbye to Kenilworth Road.
“After relegation that season I still had a year left on my contract,” continues Foley. “Before the first game of the season I was still at the club but Kevin Blackwell pulled me and told me that Wolves had put in an offer.
“I was nervous, I’d spent 12 years at Luton and it had been a big part of my life. It all happened so quickly. I met Mick McCarthy on Sunday, signed on Monday and made my debut against Bradford in the League Cup on Tuesday. I remember playing well the previous season at Wolves. I must have made a good impression.
“Moving away for the first time was a new experience. I learned a lot. We won promotion in 2009 to the Premier League. At that point I said to my agent that I felt I’d ‘made it’ after all, I was watching myself on Match of the Day!”
Foley’s affections for the Hatters never diminished as he starred in the Premier League at Molineux, but it wasn’t until 2013 that he got the return to Kenilworth Road he never thought was possible when the Town drew Wolves in the third round of the FA Cup.
“I was thinking that I might never make a return to Luton, especially with them out of the league at the time,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it when the draw was made.
“But the less said about the game the better…I played a nice little part in the Luton goal, shanking my clearance which led to the winner.
“It was strange walking through the main reception as an opposition player, but good to see familiar faces; Lita on reception, Dickie the groundsman; and Nick Owen came and had a chat with me before the game.
“It reminded me what a great place it was; the memories came flooding back, from watching the West Ham FA Cup quarter-final replay in the stands, to making my debut and being part of the League 1 championship side.
“For so many reasons I’ll never forget my time at Luton. It will always have a place in my heart.”
The above interview appeared in issue 10 of Talk of the Town against Dagenham & Redbridge