These programme notes were written by Hatters Chief Executive Gary Sweet, for the Leicester City edition of Our Town.
Good evening and welcome all to what promises to be cracker of a cup tie under the lights here at Kenilworth Road as we host one of the Premier League’s top clubs.
Leicester City are a club we’ve often had respectable tussles in the league with historically, and it may now sound slightly strange to consider our visitors today as one of England’s top clubs, but it is a title that is fully deserved. It’s an accolade that’s not only based on The Foxes inspirationally winning the title in that unforgettable 2015/16 season – a year which gave belief to every club in the English pyramid that we can still dream – but also of how they are now perceived as ready to challenge for the top places again under Brendan Rodgers, currently lying third in the table.
The way the Foxes play their football, by being brave on the ball and attacking teams on the front foot, is very much in keeping with how we like to see the game played too. It is why we believe the sale of one of our own (a young man whose name you might hear sung once or twice tonight!) to them in the summer transfer window for a club record fee was just about the perfect fit.
We are very proud of the role we played in JJ’s rise, but we are tremendously proud of James himself. He was, and still is, a great role model for all the young players in our academy, with the way he conducted himself, the way he wanted to better himself, and the way he wanted to help his hometown club win promotion before he moved on.
We were all delighted to see him win his first England Under-21 cap recently, and we’ll be just as pleased, as we were for Jack Stacey at Bournemouth last week, when he makes his Premier League debut. If his first start for the Foxes comes tonight, here at what will always be his home ground, it will just add to what should be an electric atmosphere.
Leicester beat the Champions League runners-up on Saturday, and while we are a division below them at the moment, their rise as a club from their nadir of League One to Premier League champions serves as a brilliant blueprint for our own somewhat steeper climb back from the Conference to the Championship.
Anyone too down about losing successive games away at QPR and at home to Hull (both of whom have spent several recent seasons in the top flight, remember) should remember that three years ago the corresponding weekends saw us follow three straight league and cup wins with two defeats in a row against Grimsby and Crawley.
It hasn’t worked out too badly since then and whilst Saturday’s result and performance in the latter stages of the game was disappointing, as a united group, we’re happy with the progress we’re making. It’s nowhere near perfect, by any means, but we will only be able to hold our own comfortably in the Championship by controlled effort, continuous improvement and some time.
Graeme, his staff and the team that went into the international break having played so well and with such fantastic momentum after beating Barnsley and Huddersfield, not forgetting the 3-0 win at Cardiff that brought about tonight’s tie. Those breaks are an added distraction that we all need to learn to cope with, as they disrupt training schedules and restrict the work that coaches can do as a team with key players missing. They can present an advantage in many ways, but we acknowledge that we need to avoid the pitfalls they can introduce, but it is a scenario we want to experience more and hopefully will become accustomed to.
However, the international break brought us our first international goalscorer in a debut since Joe Payne netted twice when winning his first and only England cap against Finland in 1937. James Collins’ first appearance for the Republic of Ireland was overdue, but a fitting reward for his fantastic form since he netted his first goal of last season when Charlton visited at the end of September. Thirty goals for club and country in less than a year is a phenomenal record, so well done Collo!
On Thursday we will be attending an EFL club meeting where a range of topics will be discussed, including how the fall-out from Bury’s expulsion from League One will be resolved in terms of promotion, relegation and FA Cup involvement amongst other significant issues around the administration of this beautiful game.
The state of a game is a concern for us. We are witnessing historical clubs go to the wall, clubs taking legal action against its own league which it is a member of, clubs selling fundamental assets of their stadia and training grounds as a means to apparently comply with league rules (!) and where there is a tenfold factor of player budgets in the same league that clubs are able to lose dozens of millions of pounds, promoting a boom and bust culture.
The financial dynamics around the game are worrying but we recognise that money isn’t the only currency in football. Other than points in the league table we also recognise that inclusion is fundamental to our uncompromising culture at Luton Town.
We are competing against clubs who may be richer than us but many of whom are operating an unsustainable financial model at a cost of supporter, community and industry engagement. To survive in this mad world, and indeed to succeed, we need to play the long game. We need to keep our heads on the foundations of stability we’ve created and success will come.
On the home front we have seen the recent fire at our former training ground at Ely Way destroy the facility that we had created for use in the community by our club charity, the Luton Town Community Trust.
With water and electricity now restored, we hope to be able to re-open the dressing rooms to enable the academy’s fixtures to resume on the pitches there soon, while the Trust staff led by Kevin Thoburn have adapted how Luton Town people do, converting the old gym into a makeshift office and making sure that not a single session was affected by such a devastating blow.
We’re also delighted to announce that, in a boost to Luton’s town centre offering, we are expanding our club shop. With our location in the Mall having been relinquished for smart new premises in Park Street, overlooking our new stadium site at Power Court – where car parking will be free with purchases of £20 or over.
We’ll be holding the official opening on Thursday evening with business kicking off on Saturday morning, starting with an invite-only sensory hour dedicated to supporters with autism and other disabilities between 9-10am. During the quiet hour, guests will be able to browse and purchase without crowds and TV screens will be turned off with background noise reduced. Please support the new venture to help your club become stronger.
In other good news, I have pleasure in announcing that both Luton Council and we have now agreed and signed the Section 106 contracts for both Power Court and Newlands Park. This now means that our two planning applications, that are essential in facilitating our stadium relocation, will now be issued with a formal decision notice.
We thank you for your patience in getting us to this stage; patience which will still be required as we ride any challenges that may come our way over the next six weeks and as we then move on to updating and refreshing our schemes since they were conceived four years ago.
Once the ink dries on our decision notice I will communicate further details of what our next steps are and what we can look to expect going forward.
Onto tonight and a chance to mix it with the country’s top footballers, the carrot a place in the last 16 of a competition that is part of the fabric of Luton Town Football Club.
Be loud and proud Hatters, welcome one of our own home then get behind your team and make this one of those famous cup nights we revel in here at Kenilworth Road. There won’t be many more opportunities to come, so enjoy it.