The Friendly Clubs: Luton Town

There was a period in the early 1980s when the great clubs of England’s industrial cities gave way to smaller clubs from quieter places. Southampton, Ipswich, Norwich, Watford and Luton all had their great days between Clough’s first European Cup and the end of the Falklands Conflict. To this south-eastern boy, they were  home teams, teams you could conceivably go to watch. They  hadn’t the big names or the history. But perhaps they were the future. They were the Friendly Clubs.



Give Luton credit for bothering this season. The shocking points deduction they’ve been handed makes their departure from the Football League almost inevitable. With half of the season gone, they are still in negative points and are sixteen points away from safety. On standard form, they’d be in a respectable mid-table position.

It shouldn’t have been like this. Luton isn’t a pretty place – although the Council and local people are  in the process of changing all that – but its prosperous and has excellent transport links. There are other parts of the south east that combine motorways, a number of smallish prosperous centres, rich villages and IT skills. Hidden cities, made up of suburbs and out-of-town housing, and sooner or later a football club is going to be able to tap into all that wealth and population properly. It could have been Luton. There isn’t another club for miles. But the fans wouldn’t relocate.

So Kenilworth Road looks much the same now as it did when I went there as a boy. The cages that I saw Manchester United fans break out of are gone, of course, and so is the cigarette smoke and stale beer smell. But in all other respects, it’s the same wholly male place that it ever was, and football is quite obviously the only reason to be there.

It’ll go when Luton go, and the Council will redevelop it. If Town can keep going, relocation might even be their chance to revitalise once again, as they’ve done twice in the past. But if they don’t, there’ll be ageing men who I saw as young players who’ll stop and remember from time to time.

And they’ll have something intelligent to say about the matter, because Luton Town in the early ’80s was something of a brains trust.

They were managed, of course, by David Pleat, who’d come up through the ranks of the club before securing the top job. Pleat was ahead of his time and was obliged to pursue the best years of his career during the Football League’s rackety last pre-Premiership years. Luton were his first big project, after which he concerned himself with long, frustrating and interrupted  efforts to return Spurs to the top of English football.

His captain at Luton was Brian Horton, at that time a sort of cut-price Mick Mills. Horton was the man unfortunate enough to be on the end of that peculiar skipping run/dance that Pleat produced when Luton stayed up:

Like Pleat, Horton was a management talent, and is one of the few men to have overseen more than 1,000 league games from the dugout. It is worth noting that every single club to divest themselves of Horton’s services has fared worse under his successor, most notably Manchester City who replaced him with Alan Ball.

Brian Horton was the team veteran. With him in midfield was the much younger Ricky Hill, who, for a few months in the early ’80s, looked to be growing into a serious talent of international stature. Like Huddlestone now, he had physical presence, but never Huddlestone’s ability to produce a pass or his power of shot. But he played for England three times, and then went on to a successful coaching career.

For an hundred reasons, Hill should have been a black manager in the English top flight long before Paul Ince’s recent breakthrough. But the English have no respect for titles won in the United States or in the Caribbean, and no English club besides Luton has given him the opportunity he deserves.

Because English football has dealt rather successfully with racism on the pitch, it thinks it has carte blanche to give an airing to every other possible prejudice and hatred. And dealing with racism on the pitch hasn’t cleared it from the dugout.

More recently, Danny Wilson has managed in the top flight.

But Pleat, Horton and Hill all pale by coaching comparison with the scorer in that clip, Raddy Antic. Antic is the only man to have coached Real Madrid, Barcelona AND Atletico.

Madrid and Barcelona: such luxury, heat and exotica after Luton.

Luton’s brush with relegation, ended by Antic,  came because of the flamboyance of their football. Only Champions Liverpool scored more away goals that season, which gives you some idea of how little attention Luton paid to stopping the opposition. Instead, they relied on the goals of the coming men, Brian Stein and Paul Walsh. And how exciting they were together, how bright they made the future seem.

They were so young. There was so much time. And we had Barnes, Blissett, Mark Chamberlain, Peter Beardsley and young Gary Lineker all coming through on the heels of Regis and Cunningham. When you read the names, it almost hurts.

Walsh and Stein got their chance, partnered together in a friendly against France by Bobby Robson. Robson was never as adventurous in international management as he was with his clubs, and this was a step out of the ordinary for him. Bedfordshire crowded around the television, waited for “Look East” to get out of the way and then switched on. It was 1984, and something that had been building for five years was about to make it to the next level. After this, nothing would be able to stop Luton’s young men.

Poor Stein froze. He was never the same man again after that. Walsh would go on to win a League title with Liverpool, but won his European Cup runner’s up medal at Heysel. He’s one of Jeff Stelling’s brave boys now, after a peripatetic career in which he pleased fans more than managers.

It was less of a turning point for Luton. Horton went, and the captain’s headband passed to Steve Foster, another local hero type. Foster’s probably the forgotten member of the 1982 England squad. But his clubs are forgotten too: before Luton, he enjoyed the rest of his top-flight career at Brighton and Hove Albion. A kind of delayed-fuse albatross, then, Steve Foster: he was in the losing 1983 FA Cup Brighton team, and won a League Cup with Luton, something that still makes those who witnessed it blink:

Stein was back at Luton by now, and in hindsight, that winning Final (that’s Pleat in the commentary box) was as much about 1980-4 as it was about what was to come for Luton.

All the friendly clubs are gone now, and the young men who lit them up are in late middle age. I had a football annual for the year 1980; I forget which one. There was an article on the new generation of talent that was coming through – so much talent – and a series of predictions for them, ending with the phrase “And – of course – England will win the World Cup!!”

But the talent stalled, and England didn’t, and sometimes, when the rain’s lashing against the window like it is now, it feels as if we’ve gotten nowhere since the early ’80s, and as if nothing since then has actually happened. In a moment, I’ll wake with a jolt, and find myself back in my bedroom with its view of Goldington Power Station and the Renault Fuego sitting in our drive.

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6 responses to “The Friendly Clubs: Luton Town

  1. This is a very nice series, James. Mind you I took our son Tom to the Manchester City v Luton time some time in the next century and the first thing we came across was a fight. He was only about ten or so. Luton played some neat football.

    I suspect most clubs are friendly. What holds this series together is a brief, luminous period of prominence that everyone knew was not going to last.

    I wrote a piece on Watford for a magazine called the Hertfordshire Countryside about the same time as the Luton match. Watford were never pretty. Ever. It is the proto-Peter Crouch centre forward, George Reilly, I remember. Blond moustache. Pump it up to George. But John Barnes… I think of Watford as the route one team par excellence.

    Ipswich, on the other hand, played excellent football with two Dutchmen, Muhren and Thijssen. Beattiue, Mills, Whymark, Gates, Cooper in goal and Roger Osborne who scored the goal against Arsenal in the Final then collapsed of sheer exhaustion.

    But isn’t Hull the most wonderful story! And how good to see Aston Villa on the rise.

  2. ps

    Written too fast.

    I did not take our son to Man City v Luton in the next century. It was, alas, the last. There is also a redundant ‘the’ in there.

    Also see Beattie.

  3. Players of the era… as an England fan, the successful internationals obviously made their mark, but Muhren and Thijssen somehow always stick in my mind.

    George is right, Hull is a good story and so is their manager, stalking the sideline with the comms gear on his head, like an American Football coach…

    Wigan actually are quite a friendly club, but we’re past the time when they could make the impact that clubs past did. And thanks to Eric Blair, the name will always conjure a whiff of misery…

  4. I was there in 1988, in line with the goal by the corner flag in the sun. Andy Dibble played a blinder apart from the penalty save. Shocking for Arsenal. My enduring memory were the officials taking the orange squash back to the dressing room just after Luton scored their third.

  5. Interesting stuff. As a child of Southampton 1976 of course looms large in the emergence of these teams, with Ipswich’s win in 1978 evoking a sort of fellow-feeling in me not just because of the obvious giant-killing parallel but also because it was a team representing a proper place, in my half of the country. Coventry likewise, and to some extent Watford – famously family-friendly and associated with Elton. Luton I recall a bit differently, with its plastic pitch and the awful David Evans… but we were in the late 1980s by then…

  6. Gary Langham

    Great articles!

    As a Man Utd fan I enjoyed watching the Man City v Luton clip again! 😉 When I went to Salford University some years later I met up with a Man City fan whose main claim to fame was belting David Pleat whilst he was running off the pitch on that fateful day. From memory, I think it turned ugly shortly after the final whislte.

    Of course I don’t condone this behaviour but it does make me smile when I look back! Cheers, Gary