Talk of the Town talks to a Hatters cult heroHE MADE HIS NAME AT KENILWORTH ROAD PLAYING FOR EXPENSES BEFORE GOING ONTO TERRORISE DEFENCES FOR A NUMBER OF CLUBS. ENOCH SHOWUNMI TELLS HIS STORY TO TALK OF THE TOWN.
Enoch Showunmi was a teenager at University studying business when he told his friends the three things he wanted to achieve in life: become a professional footballer, play for Nigeria, and have Barcelona bid for him by the time he turned 28.
“Well two out of three aint bad!” laughs Enoch as we come to the end of our hour-long conversation, in which the former Town striker had recalled how his career was kick-started out of the blue following a chance meeting against the Town one day.
Now 32, it’s been 11 years since Showunmi first set foot inside Kenilworth Road. Then-Town boss Mike Newell took a punt on the Kilburn-born boy after impressing in a trial game. “And the rest is history,” says Enoch.
“I was 21 when I got my break,” Showunmi explains. “I played in a game arranged by a guy called Mark Wilson. At the time I was playing for Willesden Constantine but the game against Luton was for a team made-up of semi-pros and amateurs. The game was against Luton and luckily for me I did enough to get picked for a trial. I spent pre-season in 2003 and did well enough to convince them I could stay.
“When I was playing for Willesden everyone used to say I was a good player and that I should be playing at a higher level. I came in for my trial at 21 and I thought I did ok, not great, but I was playing as a central midfielder then.”
With Newell happy to give the youngster a chance, the only problem for Showunmi was that the Town were in administration and under a transfer embargo. It meant that Enoch was only paid expenses, and his first foray into the world of professional football consisted of him travelling to and from London every day. It was something that began to take its toll.
“It was a bit of culture shock joining Luton though full-time,” admits Showunmi. “Previously I was training once a week and playing on a Saturday and now all of a sudden I was training every day. At the beginning I was jumping on trains, coming to training, going home again, eating, sleeping and then waking up to do it all over again the following day. I was knackered. All I seemed to be doing for the first few weeks was getting the train.
“A week after I graduated I was due to start a job with o2 but I had to tell them I couldn’t take it because I was off to train with Luton Town. The job was lined up but I never took it.
“I remember telling Brian Stein that I might have to stop coming because I couldn’t afford to be getting the train every day. Eventually the club agreed to pay my expenses, which was working out at about £40 a week. I signed on non-contract terms, all that I took home was expenses.
“I was a bit down and I did think about packing it in. I kept thinking ‘do Luton want me?’ But I just kept coming for training until they said ‘don’t come any more’, but they didn’t.”
With the Town down to the ‘bares bones’, to quote Newell himself, Enoch was unexpectedly given his professional debut in the Town’s Division 2 (now League 1) match at Plymouth on 13th September. It didn’t go well…
“I remember my debut because I was taken off in the first half because the referee said he was going to send me off otherwise,” explains Enoch. “I kept going into challenges too quickly. I wasn’t used to the speed of the game.
“It took a bit of time for me to get confident about my ability but playing in that game, and because Mike Newell showed trust in me gave me confidence, as did training every day with senior pros.
“But looking back I don’t think I was really ready for that Plymouth game. I was told the day before that I was playing because there were a few players out injured. I was well and truly thrown in at the deep end. That game gave me an idea of where I needed to get up to in terms of fitting in.”
If anything Showunmi’s infamous debut raised his profile and it wasn’t long before his story of playing for nothing in a bid to win a contract began to pull on the heart strings of the Hatters faithful.
A group of supporters began an online website named Enoch’s Army, and soon Showunmi was having to cope with his new-found fame.
“Enoch’s Army was funny,” he laughs. “It boosted my confidence massively, especially on the pitch, knowing that I was getting the support. It felt a bit strange at the time because I was new and nobody had heard much about me.
“In all honesty I didn’t think I deserved the support I got because I hadn’t done anything. I remember one day walking back to the train station after a game and I was approached by a guy who asked me if I could come to the pub for a drink.
“I met the people behind the website and thanked them for their support. I was still getting used to people recognising me and but I knew there was plenty of work to do so I kept knuckling down and trying to improve.”
And improve he did. When February came around, as the Hatters began to eye a place in the Play-Offs, Showunmi’s performances were the talk of the town.
A hat-trick during the 4-1 win over Brentford on 21st would properly change his life.
“The defining moment of my career came after I scored that hat-trick,” Enoch says. “I will never forget it.
“At the time Luton were in administration and they got special dispensation to sign me. February was a big month, I remember coming off the bench against Stockport, and starting against Brighton and setting up two goals in that match which really boosted my confidence. After the hat-trick I was offered a contract and that was a moment in time that defined by life, I was now a professional footballer.”
That season saw the Town finish in 10th place with Enoch scoring eight goals in all competitions, but the following season saw the Hatters romp to the League 1 title.
However, despite the champagne moments, the 2004/05 campaign – his first full season as a professional – was a tough campaign for Showunmi, even though he will be best remembered for the crucial late winning goals in three victories away from home at Bristol City, Chesterfield and Bournemouth.
“I came back at the start of that season after earning two caps for Nigeria and felt I should be able to push on and establish myself,” says Enoch. “But I was soon a bit deflated because a week before the season started Mike Newell signed Rowan Vine on loan for the season.
“I thought it was the time for me to break into the side but I had to be happy with a place in the squad and I was used a lot as a substitute. I didn’t play enough but when I did, I felt I did well.
“We started the season so well it was really difficult to break into the team and we went onto have a fantastic season.
“Happily for me I was contributing when called upon, and I learned that season that football was not all about individual success, and learned the importance of the success for the team as a whole.
“The promotion season saw me score some vital goals and it was great to be a part of. I came off the bench a lot, and I always felt as though I was improving. I think coming on as a substitute meant that the manager trusted me a lot and that did give me something to be proud of. That was part of the manager’s plan, to perhaps give me 20 minutes at the end to go and get the winner.”
Promotion in 2005 meant the Town and Enoch were now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Leeds, Crystal Palace and Southampton in the Championship.
However, the frontman’s third season with the Hatters saw him used 27 times as a substitute and it was time for Showunmi to move on.
“At the end of the first season in the Championship I thought that I now needed to be playing regularly in a first team somewhere,” he says. “I looked at Steve Howard as an example because he was a regular goalscorer.
“My game had changed, and improved, and over the two years I felt that I had adapted well as a striker.
“When I was spotted for Luton I was a central midfielder so I always retained the mentality as a midfielder in that I had to set up goals rather than score them which was new for me.
“I think I had gradually grown into that striker’s mindset. My height and presence always meant that I was used as a target man, certainly later in my career.”
After leaving Kenilworth Road, Enoch took in spells with Bristol City, Leeds United, Falkirk, Notts County and two seasons with Tranmere.
“I enjoyed my time at Tranmere. I captained the team for a while, scored a few goals and was player of the year there.”
These days, however, Enoch is enjoying investing his time in what he knows best: money and finance, while he currently remains on the books at Conference South side Wealdstone.
His story of opportunity is something he is keen to pass on to the younger generation – and his affection for the Hatters for giving him that chance is something that will never leave him.
“I know that it takes a lot to be a professional. You have to make a lot of sacrifices. Some people don’t have the right attitude,” says Showunmi. “It was a long road to turn pro but worth it.
“Having spent the time I did at Luton I always look back at my time there and look out for their results.
“I was proud to have played for Luton and I’m pleased they are now back in the Football League and doing well. I’ve never been back since, but would love to return one day.”
But we’ll never know if Barca ever put that bid in.
This article appeared inside issue 13 of Talk of the Town, our official matchday programme. Limited copies are available from the club shop priced at £3.