It is fifty years since Luton Town made their first appearance at Wembley, and twenty years since they lost the League Cup final. This weekend, however, in a show of defiance that must even have reddened the faces of the fusty old buffoons of the Football League and the Football Association, they took 40,000 supporters to Wembley for the final of the Football League Trophy and walked away with the cup. Luton, over the years, have found themselves much derided. Whilst local rivals Watford cultivated an image as a “family club”, Luton, under their now deceased chairman David Evans, became a byword for all that was wrong with football during the 1980s – the ID card scheme, the plastic pitch and the occasional bouts of hooliganism did their image damage which still hasn’t been completely rectified.
This may have been part of the thinking behind the draconian points deduction that they received last summer, a deduction which has effectively become a death sentence on their ninety year stay in the Football League. They certainly received less sympathy than many others likely would have when the sentence was passed last summer. Never mind that those in charge of the club had been nothing to do with the trouble that the club had got itself into, many were (and indeed still are) happy to kick this club while it was down. The club’s supporters have had almost a full season to prepare for life in the Blue Square Premier, but the Football League Trophy gave them an opportunity to put on one final show for the watching television audience and dignitaries of the game.
It seemed that beating Scunthorpe United, who lurk in the play-off zone of the division above them, would be a step too far. The joyous celebration at the end of their regional final win against Brighton & Hove Albion seemed to tacitly acknowledge this. The town has a population of 180,000 people, so it should perhaps come as no surprise that they sold out their original ticket allocation and requested more. This was a defiant two fingers up at their detractors and the authorities – as timely a reminder as possible that this is a club with a tradition, a history and a huge residual support.
Both sides played their full part in one hundred and twenty minutes of drama that was completely appropriate, considering the circumstances of the match. Scunthorpe scored first – Gary Hooper’s shot skidding in from just outside the penalty area – and one might have expected the floodgates to open, considering the forty-one league places between them. Righteous indignation, however, can have a strange effect on people, and this certainly seemed to be the case with Luton, who levelled just before half-time through Chris Martin and then took the lead through Tom Craddock with twenty minutes to play. It seemed as if Luton had done enough to win the trophy but, with barely two minutes left to play, Grant McCann curled in a beautiful shot from the edge of the penalty area to level things up again.
Five minutes into extra time, the moment of truth. A long ball through the middle left substitute Claude Gnapka in a race against Scunthorpe goalkeeper Joe Murphy to get to the ball first. Gnapka won the race – just – and lifted the ball over Murphy to give Luton an unlikely 3-2 lead. Scunthorpe pushed on and put Luton under incredible pressure in the closing stages, but Luton clung on by their fingernails to record a victory which may prove to be highly significant for the club. They may not yet be down but the gap between them and the safety zone seems to great to bridge. Winning all of their remaining league matches will give them a fighting chance of staying up, but even this might not prove to be enough.
What is important, however, is the message that it sends. Fifteen miles up the road from Luton is Milton Keynes, where ticket giveaways and a team being pumped full of money is giving an illusion of success amid growing rumours of a sizeable debt. This sham of a club, who would like to call themselves “rivals” of Luton when the truth is that Luton’s true rivals are Watford, won this same competition last year and the absence of applause within the game was striking. Luton may not have made many friends over the years, but they took 40,000 people to take to Wembley yesterday. Such a display – truly a shock and awe display for a side cast adrift at the bottom of League Two – may prompt more people to turn out in support of them for the remainder of this season and for next season. Their future as a Football League club remains bleak, but if they are dying as one of the exclusive ninety-two, this was quite a way to go out.
At ten o’clock last night, there were still Luton fans dancing around St Pancras station, celebrating the club that they support before boarding the train back to Bedfordshire, a county which seems likely to become a county without a Football League club within the next month or so. The circumstances of Luton’s financial collapse were not their fault, yet they have been made to pay for the mistakes and negligence of others in an unprecedented way. No club’s supporters could have deserved a day in the sun more, and the performance of both their team and their supporters would seem to indicate that writing them off completely would be more than somewhat premature.