Luton Town: 'Greatest story' not over as Hatters vow to go again for promotion

Cameron Jerome
Striker Cameron Jerome was just inches away from giving Luton the lead at the John Smith’s Stadium

The ‘impossible’ dream continues – to become the first team to go from non-league football to the Premier League.

It was not to be for Luton Town this season as a 1-0 defeat at Huddersfield ended their hopes of a trip to Wembley for the Championship play-off final.

To reach the top flight, 30 years after they left it and only eight after they were playing in the National League, would have been “possibly the greatest story in football”, manager Nathan Jones said in the build-up to the two-legged tie.

But having drawn the home leg 1-1, the return match was a case of ‘if onlys’ for a committed and superbly organised Hatters side – if only Harry Cornick’s instinctive close-range effort in the first half had flown a yard either side of goalkeeper Lee Nicholls instead of straight at him, if only Cameron Jerome had not headed fractionally wide of the post after the interval.

“I am so proud of the club, so proud of the team, so proud of every member of staff because we’ve really pushed the boundaries this year,” Jones told BBC Three Counties Radio.

“We wanted to consolidate and establish as a Championship side and then challenge. We’ve challenged (this season) so we’re bang on track and now we have to use that and try to get promoted next year.”

‘Unity’ key in Luton’s ‘rehabilitation’

Luton were a fixture in the old Division One from the early 1980s to 1992 and although the sight of manager David Pleat’s dancing feet when they avoided relegation in 1983 may be many people’s most abiding memory of that era – there were better times to come.

David Pleat
Luton boss David Pleat (left) runs onto the pitch after they secured their top-flight status in 1983

The Hatters finished seventh in 1987 and the following season, with a team including Brian Stein, Ricky Hill, Mick Harford, Steve Foster and Danny Wilson, lifted the League Cup after beating Arsenal 3-2, and reached the final again in 1989, only to lose 3-1 to Nottingham Forest.

A slow decline set in following relegation from the top flight in 1992 – the season before the Premier League started – culminating in their exit from the Football League in 2009 and five seasons in non-league football.

Those five seasons, though, were crucial to the progress Luton have made since then, according to chief executive Gary Sweet.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this month about the reasons for the club’s rise back to the brink of the top flight, he said: “It’s probably a recipe of unity and having good people at every level of the football club.

“It’s something that you could probably only put together if you spent five years in that rehabilitation clinic from professional football like we did – it was an amazing period.”

Striker Jerome agrees with his assessment of the quality of people working at the club.

“It’s just a body blow but I’m proud of the boys, the effort everyone gave this season and the progress the club has made. It’s a club that is going places,” he said following the final whistle at Huddersfield.

“You have to take positives out of the season and the positives are that the club got to where it got to because of all the hard work and the people who are associated with the club, the people who run the club, there are really good human beings inside the club and I can’t reiterate that enough.”

Luton’s progress this season has been achieved despite the purse strings being kept very tight.

Referring to Erling Haaland’s £50m-plus move to Manchester City, Sweet said: “That would probably cover our entire wage bill for five or six Championship seasons and it would probably be about four times what we have spent in our entire history on transfers. Our current transfer budget for our squad is less than £1.5m.”

Hatters’ future ‘excites’ Jones

And then there is Luton’s Kenilworth Road ground.

They have been looking to leave, on and off, since the 1950s and their old-fashioned stadium with a capacity of just 10,356 would make them unlikely bedfellows for most clubs in the Premier League.

But in programme notes following the international break in the second half of March, Sweet said: “We simply will not allow for Luton Town or Luton to be seen as sub-standard.

“And if we can achieve a satisfactory level of compliance in the eyes of the Premier League with minimal dispensations, there is no reason why our charming environment shouldn’t be embraced by those other member clubs as an enhancement and broadening of the rich tapestry of venues to visit.”

Their proposed move to a 23,000 capacity purpose-built stadium at Power Court remains a way off, despite approval in January of plans to develop land near the M1 motorway which will help pay for it.

The plan for the new stadium
The new 23,000-seat stadium will be built on the site of a former power station in the centre of Luton

All of that, though, is out of the control of manager Jones as he begins planning for next season.

It was John Still who began Luton’s revival with promotion from the National League, but it was the Welshman who led them to take the next step from League Two and laid the foundations for a successful League One campaign in 2019 before accepting an offer from Stoke City.

He returned 16 months later and is a perfect fit for the club – just as their most famous former supporter, the late Eric Morecambe, was a perfect fit for the comedy tastes of the UK public in the 1970s, along with partner Ernie Wise.

Jones has a contract to run until the end of the 2026-27 season and despite missing out on the chance to face Nottingham Forest or Sheffield United at Wembley with a Premier League place at stake, he said: “We were bold, we were brave, tactically superb, and I’m really excited about what the future holds, I really am.

“We’ll learn and we’ll go again. We’ve had a significant injury crisis (towards the end of the season) and it’s really cost us but we’ll be better for this.”

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