Chief executive looks back on 2014 and ahead to the New Year
The following was written by chief executive Gary Sweet and appeared in our official matchday programme for the match with Shrewsbury Town on 8th January:
Good evening and welcome one and all to a floodlit, televised Kenilworth Road for what promises to be a thrilling encounter between two sides vying for automatic promotion to League 1.
Special greetings go to our visitors this evening, the players, staff and, most importantly, the supporters of Shrewsbury Town. We hope those of you that made the 250-plus mile round trip from Shropshire will have been made welcome and you enjoy the atmosphere from the Oak Road end. Your Thursday night visit to Bedfordshire is appreciated in light of the temptation of remaining in in front of Sky’s coverage this evening.
But really there’s nothing like the first-hand experience of a live match under floodlights, is there?
As this is the first home game of 2015 it gives me pleasure to wish every one of you a very Happy New Year on behalf of everyone at Luton Town Football Club.
It wasn’t a difficult decision to choose a topic for these programme notes given the eventful year we’ve all just experienced. 2014 will be a year that will be positively carved into every Hatter’s memory bank.
It wasn’t just a promotion. It was THE promotion; the one promotion that we had so narrowly missed out on in four of the previous five seasons; the one promotion that we all wanted, given the narrow opportunity for success and competitiveness of the Conference Premier; it was the one promotion every director, employee, player and supporter realised would elevate our Club to another level enabling us to be the progressive and ambitious Club we all want to support. 2014 re-instated the long-term hope and faith that the previous five years had sternly tested.
Despite this stern test, our stay in the Conference should be warmly remembered. Not only shall we fondly remember the friendliness and respect the clubs and members of the competition gave us, but I firmly believe that this phase in the Club’s history will be acknowledged as the time we, collectively, re-defined Luton Town Football Club as a significantly better and healthier establishment than the one we had previously belonged to.
No matter how tough it was for us, I’m thankful of our Conference years. It was a harsh but enlightening haven for us to rehabilitate after a catastrophic era of a downward spiral that seemed the inevitable conclusion would be terminal for our football club.
Thankfully, we’re in a happier place now and who could have believed that by the turn of this year we’d be in the running for another automatic promotion spot? The squad that John and his staff have built – and continues to build – has quickly established a competitive team one division up and has put us ahead of schedule.
So, on the pitch we enjoyed 2014. What about off the pitch?
Well that one promotion has enabled us, as a board, to have more optimism and confidence in investing in the foundations for our longer-term future. Last year saw us further stabilise our finances, invest in the behind-the-scenes infrastructure at Kenilworth Road, invest in and accelerate the project to relocate and implement a number of positive initiatives that gained national media attention.
In the spring, we handed the right to veto changes to the Club’s image rights to our supporters trust – Trust In Luton. Last month, we became the first professional club to implement the Living Wage to our permanent staff which is also being rolled out to all direct and third-party matchday staff and which has subsequently encouraged a number of other clubs to think about following suit.
Also last month, we wanted to encourage our staff and players to charitably contribute to the Luton Foodbank – such a worthy and much-needed organisation – and I’m delighted to be able to announce that every single Luton Town professional player now donates a small sum towards this much needed cause along with our coaching and administration staff.
Another milestone was hit last autumn when the Luton Town Community Trust began to coach 3,000 children and special needs footballers per week across the county. This is a wonderful achievement, led admirably by Kevin Thoburn and James Hatch, which is having a hugely positive impact in our local communities.
By the start of the new season in Football League 2, we had surpassed 5,600 season ticket holders – the highest number on record (rather a sad indictment on historical record keeping prior to our custodianship than performance I hasten to add) – a number which keeps rising; currently at 5,800, thanks to Mike Hooker and his helpful team.
In August, we opened our first ever retail store in the Mall in Luton. Having never done this before, it took a leap of faith in our supporters, community and in our brand to believe it would be a risk worthwhile. Spearheaded by June Walsh, the results have been astonishing with a fourfold (400%+) increase in retail business in the last three months of the year versus the previous year.
I may have just mentioned a small number of heroes who have helped reconstruct our great Club but these notes shouldn’t be written without the acknowledgement of every member of staff who have worked tirelessly (and continue to do so with renewed optimism) to reignite the pride we all feel. The players are our obvious heroes but every member of staff is also a hero to me. Thank you!
So, where do we go from here; what does 2015 bring us?
Well, as previously touched upon, the project to find a new stadium is more than well underway. Land is in the process of being acquired, plans are being drawn and engagement with the Council is very encouraging. Whilst the magnitude of the task shouldn’t be underestimated by any means, I fully expect significant steps closer to the realisation of this project during 2015. This will be our major focus of attention off the pitch.
On the pitch, we’re in a splendid position and, whilst we are ahead of schedule, we certainly won’t be shying away from the opportunity presented in front of us but will welcome the chance to accelerate plans to strengthen our squad.
Let’s contrast our current position in the league against previous promotion seasons. Currently, with all clubs having played 23 games, we were two points behind the leaders averaging 1.83 points per game (a win tonight and will put us on 1.88). In 2001/02 in the old Division Three, we were five points behind the leaders, averaging 1.87 points per game. Last season, at the same time, we were four points behind the leaders averaging two points per game – and nobody needs reminding of the outcome.
Not only do we tend to get stronger as the season progresses but within days we’ll welcome back Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu and Alex Lawless – which will feel like two new signings – and with Paul Benson’s recovery ahead of schedule, this month will be an ideal time to begin another run.
We’ve boosted the front line this week with the loan signing of Jayden Stockley (welcome to Kenilworth Road, Jayden!) and we’re happy to continue to back John Still in the market should the right opportunity arise for the right player.
We can’t promise a repeat of 2014 but there’s plenty to be encouraged by which all bodes well for an exciting second half of the season and a fascinating 2015.
Enjoy the game and please raise your hats and your voices to make this a hair-raising encounter!