Former Hatters academy graduate Keith Keane on his time at Luton Town
The following appeared in Saturday's issue of Talk of the Town for the visit of Oxford. The programme is still available in the club shop priced £3.
Ask any Town supporter which of Keith Keane’s eight goals in Luton colours sticks out and it’s safe to say that 99 times out of 100 one goal in particular will stand out.
It came four years ago, against today’s opponents Oxford United, on a dark, chilly February night. Having already scored an equalising goal in the second minute of added time through George Pilkington, few inside Kenilworth Road – who hadn’t left at 0-1 – would have predicted what happened next.
With the adrenaline of that late leveller already pumping through the players and the capacity crowd, Keane nonchalantly bent in a left-wing corner over the heads of the Town attackers and Oxford defenders, and saw the ball nestle perfectly – unbelievably – into the net. The Hatters had won 2-1.
A fluke? A moment of genius? Keano is honest enough.
“Nobody means to score directly from a corner,” admits Keane – who received an almost avoidable second yellow card in the ensuing mayhem for supposed over-celebrating.
While in the grand scheme of things that particular season, the goal, sadly, meant nothing. By the end of the campaign the Town would be licking their wounds after failing in what would be the first of three attempts to win promotion via the Play-Offs.
At the time, however, it was a goal that shook Kenilworth Road like no goal had shaken the old girl since the good old days; perhaps not since Ahmet Brkovic’s last-minute winner against Hull in 2005, or, a little further back, when Scott Oakes completed his hat-trick against West Ham in ’94 in the FA Cup.
“The Oxford game is one I will never forget,” continues Keane, now clearly in reminiscent mode. “It’s up there with my debut, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final, winning League 1 and the games against Liverpool.
“To get back to 1-1 through Pilks’ header I think we would have settled for a draw. Luckily enough we won another corner almost straight away and the corner ended up in the net.
“To win it in that fashion was unreal. I remember Oxford had started that season like a train and led the table for a long time. Our victory gave us a boost, and it had the opposite effect on them.”
Oxford supporters reading this will no doubt share contrasting memories of that night. But they would go on to have the last laugh that season, as their side overcame a blip in form to get past Rushden & Diamonds and then York City in the Play-Offs to end their Football League exile at Wembley.
For Keane, and the Town, it meant another season in the Conference – a division the now 27-year-old never believed he would be plying his trade in after successful seasons spent in the Championship and League 1 whilst on the books at Kenilworth Road.
The ups of making his debut and winning promotion to the Championship were tempered by the disappointment of relegations and Play-Off heartache that saw the Hatters slide from a 10th place finish in the second tier in 2006 to mixing it in non-league three years later.
As a proud Lutonian, the club’s decline was something Keane struggled to comprehend.
“It wasn’t easy, as someone born and raised in the town people would very often ask me ‘what’s going on?’ or ‘why have we been relegated?’. It was difficult,” says Keane.
“I was partly to blame. The players were not doing their jobs on the field but the off-the-field issues, with the points deductions didn’t help.
“Everyone wanted answers and I couldn’t give them. Luton has always been a big club and when it suffers it was hard for the whole town to take.
“Every club has its bad times. Luton went through a particularly bad patch but now, thankfully, they are on their way back.”
A fresh-faced, 16-year-old Keane made his Town debut as a second half substitute in a 2-1 win in the LDV Vans Trophy at Rushden & Diamonds in November 2003, before making his Football League bow in a less-than-romantic goalless draw at Wycombe on Valentine’s Day later that season.
And having been snapped up by the Hatters’ academy as a nine-year-old after eye-catching displays in Sunday League football, Keane was thrust into the professional game at a young age and dealt with it in his own way.
“My debut at Rushden I can remember because I was so young I didn’t feel any nerves,” continues Keane. “I treated it just like any other game and didn’t think too much of it.
“The Wycombe game, though, was different entirely. I realised playing with some senior pros was a big, big deal.
“We had the likes of Kevin Nicholls, Emmerson Boyce, Steve Howard and Chris Coyne in the team. At that point you thought to yourself ‘oh wow, this is a different kind of pressure’.
“It didn’t matter who you were or how old you were: if you weren’t pulling your weight you’d be reminded about it.
“Nobody would let you off the hook. If you wanted to be in the team then you had to step up. That was the most helpful thing about making my debut so young.”
Keane, though, needn’t have worried about being blooded into the cut-throat nature of a Town side pushing for promotion to the Championship so young. Because he was in good company.
“I’d look around and see Kevin Foley, Curtis Davies, Leon Barnett and Stephen O’Leary becoming more involved. That helped me a great deal and I think Luton has always been able to do that, that’s why the youth system has been so successful.
“I knew I wasn’t on my own, there were young, talented players around me; we’d come through the same youth scholarship and had together learned discipline instilled in us by people like John Moore. That set us all up to become successful.”
The honeymoon period of winning League 1, in 2004/05, and the subsequent top-half finish a year later, would soon come to an abrupt end, however.
Off the field the Town were struggling and with it went the likes of Nicholls, Howard, Rowan Vine, Carlos Edwards and young team-mates Foley, Davies and Barnett. All sold as the previous regime sold the prize assets.
“The nucleus of a strong Championship team was sold and they were never replaced properly,” says Keane. “For me that’s when the rot set in.”
After two relegations the Town found themselves starting the 2008/09 in League 2. With Keane desperate to help the Hatters return to League 1, the club’s predicament then became national news.
“To start the season on minus 30 points was quite surreal,” says Keane. “It wasn’t until a few weeks later that it really sunk in. Mick [Harford] said to us at the time ‘look, we can sit here and sulk about it or we can give it a really good go’ – and I think we did.
“If anything we tried too hard in games, gunning for a win when probably a point would have been good enough, but we were in a unique situation, a desperate one where we always needed three points.”
After three failed promotion attempts from the Conference, Keane too the tough decision to move back into Football League with Preston at the end of the 2011/12 campaign.
However, a week on Tuesday it is likely the defender/midfielder/goalkeeper/striker (“I’ve pretty much played everywhere for Luton,” he jokes), will be back at Kenilworth Road with loan club Crawley, who he joined earlier this month.
The Hatters take on the Red Devils in the second round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – a competition very much close to Keane’s heart.
“The JPT win was a great day,” he recalls. “For a League 2 club, on the verge of relegation to the Conference, to take 40,000 to Wembley was remarkable. It showed the country how much the club meant to the town.
“It was gutting for everybody that the club fell out of the League but, even if it was for that one day, I hope we gave the Luton fans something to cheer that day.”
After the Town succumbed to a second successive Play-Off final defeat, against York City at Wembley in 2012, Keane decided he needed to move on.
“I still have regrets about leaving Luton because I wanted to help them back to the League,” he says. “I got an offer from Preston and felt the new challenge would be best for both parties.
“I guess all in all it worked out well for both of us and I was delighted to see the club return to the League last year.
“It will be a strange occasion for me returning with Crawley, especially as I don’t think I’ve ever even been in the away dressing room, but, like always in life, there’s a first time for everything.”