Non-league to Premier League in the space of a decade?
Yeah, that’s us. We’re proud of our story since 1885 but the past ten years have been special.
This season we’re celebrating the first of our four promotions with the first – and probably most important – one: the 2013/14 season when, ten years ago, a team led by a lovable London boy got back to the Football League.
In this series we talk to those heroes who made it all happen. Next up, it's striker Paul Benson
Paul Benson says he would be a liar if he said he thought the Hatters would be in the Premier League ten years after he helped us achieve that first step by lifting the Conference title in 2014.
“I always felt there was scope for this club to progress,” he says as we start to reminisce about the season that kick-started it all. “I remember when I signed – I had opportunities to stay in the Football League but I always felt the club was set up to get promoted and go up again and I wanted to be a part of that.
“Even though they were in the National League, it had the potential to play higher. I’d be a liar if I thought the club could go as a high as it has, though.
“However, the appeal for me was being part of that team that got the ball rolling, the wheels in motion. It wasn’t really an issue dropping down to the National League for me, but there was potential. What the club has achieved in the last ten years has been phenomenal and a testament to everyone who has carried that on. To see where we are is wonderful.”
But back in the summer of 2013 the stars aligned. Benson was deemed surplus to requirements at Swindon and a man he knew well – one who knew a thing or two about the Conference – got in touch.
“I’d always had a good relationship with Stilly, the gaffer,” smiles Benson. “He made contact quite early on at the end of the previous season and it was clear that I wasn’t going to be needed at Swindon. There was a change in ownership and in management and fell massively out of favour.
“With Stilly he catches wind of these things, and as soon as he rang me I was interested. Once it was clear he wanted to sign me it was done quickly – although not quick enough as I missed the first five games.
“The offers in the Football League were at clubs that would have been in League Two for the next three-to-four years so the attraction of being part of a club that had ambitions of being in League One made it clear.
“To be reunited with a manager who I enjoyed a lot of success with at Dagenham, plus the backroom staff: Terry Harris, fitness coach Dave Richardson and Hakan Hayrettin, plus playing a system I fitted into to... everything fell into place.”
What didn’t immediately fall into place were results. The Hatters initially struggled. This, a fifth season out of the league, had put pressure on those who knew the Club’s past failures. But not Benson.
“It wasn’t a sense of pressure you felt, but it was definitely an environment that you could tell where there was a lot of frustration and anxiety in the crowd,” Benson explains. “You got a sense the supporters were annoyed with what had been served up previously, so you did feel in games that the fans were getting fed up with what they were seeing. It wasn’t pressure you felt, it was the weight of expectation that the fans wanted better, especially in home games.
“The fans backed me from day one, though, and that was unique for me because I never ever had that at any other club. They were great with me. They were definitely with the players, but just run-down with the situation they were in, frustrated with it being the fifth year out of the Football League. Perhaps they felt it was only going to be a short time down there and it hadn’t materialised and now they were thinking ‘how long are we going to be down here?’”
Soon things started to click. Benson’s debut saw him win a penalty in a 2-0 win at Kidderminster before scoring his first goal for the club in the 3-0 victory at home to Dartford.
However, for Benson one of the crucial moments that sticks out – as it does for many – is the incident that saw a fan remonstrate with captain Ronnie Henry after the 3-2 win over Lincoln that saw the Town fight back from 2-1 down.
“I wasn’t involved, I was in the stands, so I didn’t know what was happening as Ronnie was coming off,” recalls the striker. “But the way it was dealt with genius by Stilly. The guy came in, sat down with the gaffer and Ronnie, watched training. It could have gone the other way... an ‘us’ v ‘them’ situation. But that was the gaffer, he needed to unite everyone. We had the huddle, he liked that unity.
“It was great to connect with the supporters. In fact, one of our academy boys, Ollie Lynch, one of the first things he said to me was ‘I was in the huddle once!’ It was genius really, such a simple idea to unite everyone.
“Once that was sorted, I don’t think we looked back.”
And then some. It wasn’t until the end of March that the Town would lose again. 27 matches unbeaten with Benson at the heart of it all and the Football League in touching distance.
“The gaffer found a side he could trust. There were important relationships on the pitch and stability in the line-up.
“You could almost pick seven or eight names of the 11 that that’s important in any successful side, to build cohesion, especially at that level week in, week out. I had great relationships with the wide men and it showed and results, after a slow start, started to turn.
“We built ourselves into the season. We were grinding results out but then hit a patch around November, December, January when we won in real style and elegance. I remember beating Wrexham at home 5-0. Kidderminster six; Hereford seven; Nuneaton five. We were on another level. We were going into games not thinking if we were going to win, but by how many, such was the confidence we had.
“It was so easy. The players around me made it that simple. I used to love central midfielders running beyond me and Luke Guttridge had that ability; we had wingers who didn’t too much with the ball.
“I think anyone could have played centre forward that season would have got 18 goals. It was a joy to play because the players around me were so high on confidence and knew their jobs so well it played to my strengths... usually I’d be finishing off a glorious move.”
The spirit of that season – from Still building a team on the pitch and reuniting a fracture fanbase off it – is something that Benson believes has lived on ever since.
“That’s the culture of the club. Talk to the first team players now and they are so down to earth and humble,” he says. “Those types of people, good people, who embrace the way this club is.
“Whether that’s borne from back from that situation I don’t know, but Gary Sweet is big on the culture of this club, but I think it highlights how important that season was; the moment with the fan especially.
“Of course, you’ve got to be producing on the pitch, there has to be a correlation on the pitch. Winning helps. When that marries in the stands, it goes hand in hand, and you get the buy in from the fans. When you give that extra on the pitch, the fans give extra which gives you extra and it’s the perfect circle.
“It’s probably why the club has where it’s got to, everyone pushing themselves that one per cent.”
Ten years on, Benson is one of those people who ‘gets Luton’. A club he’s taken to his heart and now is responsible for the next generation of good humans – and good players – as head of the Hatters’ academy.
And he certainly doesn’t downplay the importance of that season for him personally either.
“Luton was also a club which I felt would probably be my last step, and it fell at a good time. I was 33 pushing 34 and I felt good. I felt I could play longer, but felt conscious that it would be my last big club, and wanted that to be memorable.
“It’s one of the proudest moments. I’m fortunate to have promotions at other clubs but the achievement of Luton getting into League Two ranks highest.
“It shouldn’t have been difficult to get out of the Conference with Luton, so the expectation made our achievement all the better, being part of a team that gets over the line is massive for me.
“The players and staff before had shown it wasn’t easy, and that’s what I like... the success we had under massive expectation and delivering. It makes me proud.”
Paul Benson was signed from Swindon Town in August 2013 and went onto make 85 appearances for the Hatters, scoring 25 goals. After being spotted playing county football in Essex by John Still as a 20-something, Benson scored goals for Dagenham and Redbridge, Charlton and Swindon in the Football League. After leaving Kenilworth Road in 2016, he returned to coach in the academy in 2017 on a part-time basis, and since 2019 had been a full-time coach. He then became PDP Head of Coaching and acting as Interim Academy Director since Paul Hart’s departure at the end of January and was appointed academy boss this summer.