x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

FA Cup: Norwich City upset small milestone in bumpy road for Luton Town

The once top-flight club had a rapid descent to Conference football and wish to return to glory days.

Luton Town had shocked Norwich City 1-0 in their fourth-round match, the first time a lower-tier team defeated a Premier League side since 1989. Chris Radburn / AP Photo
Luton Town had shocked Norwich City 1-0 in their fourth-round match, the first time a lower-tier team defeated a Premier League side since 1989. Chris Radburn / AP Photo

When Luton Town face Millwall in the FA Cup fifth round today, it will bring back memories of English football's darkest months.

In early 1985, with the Bradford fire and the Heysel disaster and weekly outbreaks of violence, it seemed that football might not survive. Of all incidents of hooliganism, the most unforgettable came at Kenilworth Road in a sixth-round FA Cup tie as Millwall fans ran amok, ripping out seats and hurling them at police.

It was after seeing footage of that violence that Margaret Thatcher, then the prime minister, decided to act, introducing her notorious plans for an ID-card scheme for fans. The proposal prompted mass outrage from both supporters and civil liberties groups and were eventually abandoned by all but one club – Luton, whose chairman was David Evans, a political ally of Thatcher.

Having suffered from the violence of the 1980s, Luton then suffered from the commercialism of the 1990s.

The town lies 30 miles north of London and, pretty much anywhere else in England, its population of 200,000 would be comfortably enough to sustain at least a Championship side.

But Luton have never had consistent success. They won promotion to the top flight in 1955, lost in the FA Cup final in 1959 and yet were back playing in the fourth flight in 1964. The 1980s were their era: having won promotion under David Pleat, they stayed in the top flight from 1982 to 1992, winning the League Cup in 1988.

But economic reality was waiting. Kenilworth Road, one of the first grounds in England to install a plastic pitch, its turnstiles hidden in a terraced street, always felt more like a model of a football stadium than an actual stadium.

The capacity today is 10,200 and that simply isn't enough to sustain a top-flight club. What followed relegation in 1992 was a case study in how to ruin a football club in 20 years.

The financial need to keep selling players and repeated changes of manager led to relegation to the fourth tier in 2001. Under the management of Joe Kinnear, Luton were promoted at the first attempt, but in 2003 businessman John Gurney took over the club.

He tried to merge the club with Wimbledon, who ended up moving to Milton Keynes to become MK Dons, and then sacked Kinnear. The financial problems continued and Luton spent a year in administration before being sold to a consortium led by the general manager Bill Tomlins.

Remarkably, in 2005, under Mike Newell, they went up again. The following season, Luton lay fifth in October when the defender Sol Davies suffered a stroke on the way to an away game at Ipswich. Luton's shattered players were routed 5-0 and went on to lose their next six games.

Things got worse. Newell was sacked, while Tomlins resigned after an FA investigation found the club had made illegal payments to agents. They were relegated and went into administration, being docked 10 points. They finished at the bottom of the third flight and were relegated again.

The next season they were presented with an impossible task, starting with a 30-point deduction - 10 points for the illegal payments and a further 20 to allow them to come out of administration.

Luton did, defiantly, win the Football League Trophy, a competition for teams in the bottom two divisions, but they were relegated out of the league, finishing a place below Grimsby, who were managed by, of all people, Newell.

As if to rub in their demise, Luton's first game in the Conference, in 2008, was against AFC Wimbledon, a new club on their way up that was recreated after the MK Dons were established. In 1991/92 it had been a top-flight fixture.

How fleeting glory can be.

Luton's shock win over Norwich City in the last round, the first victory for a non-league club over Premier League opposition since Coventry lost to Sutton in 1989, is perhaps the start of rebuilding towards a league future.

"Everybody has said, 'Would you change this for promotion?' and I would, but I can't do that," said the Luton manager, Paul Buckle, whose side lie seventh in the Conference, 14 points off promotion.

As fans know, a year before Coventry's embarrassment, Luton were playing in an FA Cup semi-final. Against Wimbledon.


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