How I learned to love Luton Town – even though I used to hate them
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Let me make a confession – when the Premier League season started, I wanted Luton Town to go down. I was rooting against them. Not because of local rivalry, or because of any great crimes they had committed against me in the past. No, my reasons were far more petty than that. And yet, somehow, six months into the season, I have come to love little Luton, the club that I once hated so much for such small reasons. I want them to survive. Allow me to explain.
I am a Blackburn Rovers fan. I have no historical beef with Luton, no axe to grind based on some rivalry that stretches back into the distant past before my existence was even a bad thought in my father’s trousers. Nor did I have any particular problems with the town itself, my only experiences of which are some interminable hours spent waiting for flights to arrive at the airport, the transport industry’s answer to a dentist’s waiting room with only old crochet magazines to read to while away the time. Which, in fairness, would be a fairly sound reason for disliking Luton Town – but that had nothing to do with it.
No, I hated Luton because they bored me rigid. Many Premier League fans immediately saw them as a deeply romantic underdog story, a small club succeeding against all odds. Which isn’t necessarily untrue or unfair, but most of those fans hadn’t subjected themselves to watching Luton play over the course of the seasons prior. It was a painful experience.
Rob Edwards chiselled the Championship version of Luton into a tough, industrious outfit who were very, very good at keeping clean sheets and pinching games by the odd goal. But by god, was it hard to watch sometimes. Their results were an endless succession of 0-0s and 1-0s, dreary affairs marked by packed boxes out of possession and drab aerial bombardments of the opposition during the brief periods in which they had the ball.
They were Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers, but without Jay-Jay Okocha to liven things up. They were Sean Dyche’s Burnley without Ashley Barnes’ pantomime villain act. Their football was utterly turgid, a lifeless display of substance over style. It worked, but it also made me want to reach for the off button on my remote.
Of course, it probably had to be that way. This was a club who had not long ago been languishing in non-league and who had one of the smallest wage bills in the second tier. Had Edwards tried to turn them into a swashbuckling, free-flowing outfit playing the beautiful game to Cruyffian principles, they would probably have lasted about five seconds in the Championship. They did what they had to do – they blocked, they hacked, they huffed and puffed, and they sapped all of the colour and joy out of practically every game they played.
It didn’t help that they won the play-offs when my own beloved Blackburn were pipped to a spot last season by the faintest of margins. I wasn’t quite mean-spirited enough to hate them purely on that basis, and it isn’t as though I took any of it personally, but it doesn’t help your appreciation of some very dour football when it results in a promotion that could, so easily, have belonged to your team had the dominoes fallen just slightly differently.
So that was it – I couldn’t stand Luton. I respected their remarkable overachievement, and I understood that they played the way they did because they had to, but that didn’t mean I wanted to watch them play football. To bring dentists back into it for a moment, I’ve undergone root canal extraction, and it was preferable to watching 90 minutes of Luton Town last year. For starters, it was over more quickly.
And yet, despite all of that petty distaste for their football and underlying resentment of their success at our expense, I suddenly can’t help but like them. And that’s not least because of the fact that they have, against all expectations, been involved in several of the most entertaining matches of the season. Watching Luton used to be a chore. Now it’s a pleasure.
There was the thrilling, roller coaster 4-4 draw against Newcastle United, which stands among the best games of recent memory. The stunning 4-0 thrashing of a beleaguered and baffled Brighton & Hove Albion. The brilliant late comeback to draw 2-2 at the City Ground. The stunning late surge that so nearly saw them draw against Chelsea having been 3-0 down. None of the performances were remotely familiar to anyone who had seen them in the lower leagues, but who cares? They were tremendous fun.
Then, of course, there was the 4-3 defeat to Arsenal at Kenilworth Road. An extraordinary, ding-dong game, the conclusion of which was the first moment in which I realised that perhaps I didn’t mind Luton so much after all. I felt the agony of their fans as Declan Rice’s late, late goal sunk the Hatters after a performance of such indelible spirit and fortitude that it would be impossible not to root for it to have a happy ending.
That game also felt like a turning point for Luton, too – the realisation that they could, in fact, go toe to toe with the giants of the Premier League. In the second tier, they had grimly carved 1-0 wins out of solid Bedfordshire rock because their defence was good enough to keep clean sheets against their opponents. But now, knowing that the same back line could easily see three or four goals go in while playing just as well because of the sheer quality of the teams they were facing, they were forced to take all their resolve and defiance and channel it into getting some goals and scrapping for stirring comebacks rather than going one up and battling to keep it.
And it’s worked. They have scored more league goals than Manchester United so far. Their methods are still distinctly route one, and tiki-taka is hardly on the menu, but their determination to get the goals back no matter how far they fall behind means that watching them play is exciting in a way that it never was before. They have always had a never-say-die attitude, but now it makes them entertaining as well as tough as teak.
This weekend, they face Sheffield United in a relegation six-pointer. They are above the drop zone for now, but only because of Everton’s points deduction, and the Toffees are still racking points up at a better rate. But I badly want them to survive. I want their comically archaic ground in the Premier League for another year, and I want Edwards and his band of hard-headed brothers to get the reward for working harder and with more grit than any other team in the league.
I want them to do it for the little guy, to do it for every impecunious club wondering how they will ever be able to compete with the big boys, and perhaps most of all to do it for Tom Lockyer. Luton will need to win against the Blades – but even if they don’t, they’ve already won me over, and the odds against that were even higher than those of surviving in a league which is seldom kind to smaller clubs. Congratulations, Luton, you made me love you after all.