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Conference champions 10 years on | John Still

23 April 2024

Club News

Conference champions 10 years on | John Still

23 April 2024

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Monday saw the ten-year anniversary of the Hatters' promotion back to the Football League.

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.

Watch past episodes:

Alex Lawless | Paul Benson | Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu | Scott Griffiths |
Jake Howells | Matt Robinson | Mark Tyler | Luke Guttridge | Jonathan Smith 
Ronnie Henry


We were in a bad place in February 2013. Hopes had slipped away of promotion from the Conference and crowds were hovering around the 5,000-mark. Defeats against Dartford and Barrow were not exactly what the Hatters faithful had in mind after relegation from the Football League in 2009 but that was the harsh reality.

Without a manager, the board turned to a man who had been there, seen it, done it and bought the t-shirt when it came to success in non-league, winning promotion twice to the Football League.

Having guided Dagenham and Redbridge to League One, John Still had pretty much sown up a job for life at Victoria Road.

So why give all that up and swap it for a frustrated fanbase and underachieving squad?

“Because nobody had been able to do it,” says Still. “It was one of those things where I felt to myself, ‘if I could do this, it’s going to be amazing because it’s a club that shouldn’t have been at that level’. I just felt, if we could do it, it would be special and that’s how I felt.

“I took some advice of someone who knew the club well, he told me how it was. That the supporters were anxious because what had gone on, the points deductions, the disappointment.

“There was an anxiety around the place. There was also this feeling that if they don’t get out of this league then the club was going to fold eventually because people won’t stand by it as that long. That sometimes can be the switch that you need to go.”


On the day of his appointment the Town lost 2-0 at Braintree. “I joked to Terry Harris saying we’re going back to Dagenham,” Still said at the time.

But while results were inconsistent as the season came to a close, slowly but surely the man at the helm was plotting the Town’s promotion strategy.

“The time at the end of that season was valuable to look at players – who could play for me?” he says. “Within four games I probably knew who I wanted to keep.

“I was aware what we needed, too. I’ve always been a lover of young, hungry players and that was important.

“But you need a little bit of experience, which the likes of Paul Benson and Luke Guttridge offered. I also needed athleticism and when we started the following season I though we had everything in place.”

After signing Benson and Guttridge that summer everything did seem set to go after a promising pre-season.

But the team started slowly, losing on the opening day of the season at Southport. Then, after a 2-0 defeat at Wrexham, the Town were stranded in the middle of the fifth tier table looking up at the one promotion place. The defeat in North Wales was to prove a turning point.


“In pre-season and in training I could see all the things I wanted to see,” remembers Still. “But then we went to Wrexham and I had been toying with playing with a new system but I just put it off.

“When the game was over I knew what my next step was and knew it would work. It was just tweaks to the positions, one being playing Gutts higher, in behind. It was really important to get him further forward to find the players in the final third to do the rest. We needed someone that could knit that all together and he did that.”

Indeed he did as the midfielder flourished further forward, helping the Hatters go on a 27-match unbeaten run to take them to the cusp of the title.

A strong dressing room helped. The new boys, together with the 30 goals of Gray and the experience of captain Ronnie Henry, Steve McNulty and Mark Tyler, added depth to a squad that also relied heavily on young talents such as Cameron McGeehan, Matt Robinson and a certain Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu.

“You don’t win anything without having a good group,” says Still. “Not everyone’s going to be shouting but we had a perfect mix. There were some strong voices; Macca, Ronnie, Tyles, but Benno would be one to say things more subtly.

“They were all important ingredients. I said before about baking a cake. We had all the best ingredients but if you haven’t got any sugar it’s not going to taste good or work. We just had all the ingredients, all over the pitch and in the dressing room.”

What also helped the Hatters was hunting down an in-form Cambridge, who had led the table for a large parts of the campaign.

“Sometimes you can be playing and winning games and you want everything to be comfortable and easy but all of a sudden your standards drop as you’re not working as hard.

“So the competition was perfect for us. Richard Money, who had been here before, was in charge and I thought it gave us a little edge and I like edge. I felt that it kept us going. And once we got into a rhythm, everything started to manage itself.”


As the Town climbed to the top of the table there was no stopping the juggernaut. A win over Braintree at a sold-out Kenilworth Road would be enough to clinch the title and a return to the 92.

“It was like a carnival, people juggling – I didn’t like it,” remembers Still of that day. “I had a bad feeling.”

Braintree, one of the bogey teams of our time in the Conference, won 3-2 and the celebrations were put on ice.

“But I always knew we’d win the league, and earlier in the season I had a feeling we would. The way we were playing, I’d seen it before, the way we were grinding out results, I just knew.”

Eventually, without kicking a ball, on 15th April, after Kidderminster beat Cambridge – in which Amari’i Bell scored for Kiddy – the Town were crowned champions, ending their exile from the Football League.

An outpouring of emotion followed. A Luton Are Back hashtag was trending on Twitter. There were calls for statues of John to be erected outside the ground.

The Town were finally back.

“The whole story of Luton, and what they had gone through, makes it for me the best time I had in management,” says Still.

The love and affection for him in these parts is not lost on the former boss.

“I’m aware of what Luton supporters think of me, which is fantastic,” says Still, who is now involved at National League South-end.

“I played a small part. The club has grown since I left but there are so many other people responsible – people whose work supporters don’t always see.

“The way the board have worked… the club is their life and it gives me so much pleasure to have been able to have done that [win promotion] for them. For the supporters too, they put so much into the club.

“It was a great club to be around and I’m delighted it’s grown and grown and grown. I’m proud to have played a part.

“So much so, I’ve gone from being a Luton manager to a Luton supporter.”



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