There are many aspects of pride to being a football supporters, some of which are laudable whilst others are less so. At the less extreme end of this spectrum is the pride of being the supporter of a club in the Football League. It’s a club that – along, of course, with the Premier League – only ninety-two clubs can be members of, and losing that status can have a damaging effect on one’s self-esteem. The Football League introduced automatic promotion and relegation with the Football Conference more than a quarter of a century ago but, whilst the fourteen of the Conference National’s twenty-four clubs can – if we take into account previous incarnations and so on – claim to have been members of The Ninety-Two Club at some point in the past and the dividing line between that division and the bottom half of League Two often feels too muddy to be of any real consequence, the stigma of that dividing line between being A Football League Club and being A Non-League Club remains.
Relegation from the Football League can have a suffocating effect in a football club, and at few other clubs has this been more evident in recent years than at Luton Town. At Kenilworth Road, the feeling of injustice at a drop to English football’s fifth division was primarily exacerbated by the manner in which it occurred. As recently as the end of the 2006/07 season, this was a Championship club, but within just two years Luton Town was a non-league club again for the first time since 1920, relegated from League One and then given an unprecedented – and since then unrepeated – thirty point deduction by the Football League after being found guilty of fifteen misconduct charges and exiting administration without having a CVA in place. It was a set if circumstances that led to a sense of injustice which persists to this day.
Since that relegation, the Hatters have huffed and puffed but failed to find a formula to solve one of English football’s most intractable problems – that the Football League can be a hell of a lot more difficult to fall out of that it is to clamber into. They’ve been unlucky, losing a penalty shoot-out against AFC Wimbledon in the play-off final in 2011 and then again in the final against York City the following year, and they’ve been just plain average, finishing last season in seventh place in the table, but over the course of their four and a half sojourn in the non-league game, the overwhelming feelings to emanate from Kenilworth Road have been of that sense of injustice and, perhaps even more pressingly, of extreme frustration at an inability to be able to get back into the Football League. Last year’s managerial fall guy was Paul Buckle. The former Bristol Rovers manager had taken his team to a Premier League ground, in the form of Norwich City’s Carrow Road, and won in the FA Cup, but poor league form meant that this wasn’t enough to keep Buckle in a job, and he left in February of last year.
It was too late in the day for his replacement, John Still, to fully stamp his authority on the team last season, but Still is one of the most experienced managers in the game at this level of football. Still, over the course of his career, has taken Leytonstone & Ilford into the Conference, Maidstone United into the Football League, Redbridge Forest into the Conference, and Dagenham & Redbridge first into the Football League and then into League One. Yet the pressure on any manager at a club like Luton Town, with the burden of the club’s history, many of the most successful years of which fall comfortably into the living memory of the middle-aged, has often felt like an albatross around its neck in recent years. John Still, however, has been managing around this level of the game for more than thirty years now, though, and it is starting to feel as if that vast experience is starting to reap rewards.
The start of February always feels like the beginning of the end of the season. For many clubs, involvement in knock-out competitions is now over, and the closure of the January transfer window slams the idea of substantial further tinkering with personnel firmly shut. It is, to coin a cliché, a time of year that starts to sort the men from the boys. For much of this season, the top of the Conference National table has been pretty much a two-horse race between Luton and Cambridge United, but over the course of the last few weeks this race has swung dramatically in Luton’s favour. A month ago, Cambridge beat Luton by a goal to nil at Kenilworth Road, but this win was in the FA Trophy rather than the League, and since then Cambridge have won just one of their five league matches while Luton are now, almost astonishingly in what is normally a very competitive division, unbeaten in the league since losing at Wrexham on the thirteenth of September.
Last night saw two Conference matches play out which might yet have a decisive effect on the rest of this season. Luton had a tricky trip to Cheshire to play Macclesfield Town and came away with a win by two goals to one, but Cambridge United’s recent stutter continued with a one-nil home defeat at the hands of Alfreton Town, meaning that Luton now have a six point lead at the top of the table with seventeen matches of the season left to play. There is, of course, still plenty of time for Cambridge United to pull themselves back into contention in this particular race. A month from now, Luton travel to The Abbey Stadium to play Cambridge in a match that might, if current form continues, be a last chance solution for Cambridge’s opportunity to get automatic promotion this season. The race is far from over just yet, but the form books for these two clubs are heading in two very different directions at the moment.
If there similarities between Luton Town at the moment at any other club at the moment, the one that springs immediately to mind is one of those that has recently pipped them to a place in the Football League, AFC Wimbledon. This club was starting to stagnate in the Ryman League Premier Division when Terry Brown arrived there in the summer of 2007. A vastly experienced stalwart at this level of the game, he needed a soupçon of luck to get his team into the Conference South via the play-offs at the end of the season, but the Dons then flew through the Conference South, stabilised in the Conference National and then pipped Luton themselves to a place in the Football League. When the pressure is on – and it most certainly has at Kenilworth Road since that relegation in 2009 – perhaps an experienced old head who won’t get flustered at the first signs of things not going completely according to plan is just what everybody at that club, fans, players and directors alike, needs. Luton Town lost their first league match of the season at Southport. They have only lost once in the league since then.
There is one trusim about modern football that often seems to be swept under the carpet, and this is that if you are sufficiently talented to get paid to play football, you are not incompetent. It may not feel like it, but it’s true and if we accept this to be true – or even merely to be largely true – then we have to consider the probability that professional football is a game played inside the heads of those that take to the pitch every weekend. The accumulated knowledge of more than thirty years in the game gives John Still the skill-set to be able to shake the albatross from around the neck of this club. Luton Town’s supporters are surely too long in the tooth at the art of disappointment to believe that this particular race is anything like over yet and there may even some of the opinion that where Luton Town can find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat, they will manage it. This, however, is conjecture for another day. For now, John Still is getting things very right at Kenilworth Road, and that’s as much as any Luton Town supporter – as similar circumstances would be at any club – can hope for at this time of year.
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