How Luton Town got within 90 minutes of the Premier League
LUTON, England -- Oak Road has become an unusual tourist attraction. Search for it on Instagram and you'll see an array of photographs that define how so many English football clubs have been rooted in their communities for more than a century. They also illustrate the fairy-tale story of Luton Town FC, a club that's one game away from the Premier League, just nine years after "doing a Wrexham" and winning promotion from the National League.
If Luton defeat Coventry City in the EFL Championship Play-Off Final on Saturday -- it is billed as football's £180 million game due to the financial rewards of being in the Premier League -- the Hatters will have made the journey from nonleague to Premier League in less than a decade.
Over to you, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
But nothing crystallises the Luton story quite like the Oak Stand at Kenilworth Road, the club's tiny 10,356-capacity stadium, which welcomed supporters from Braintree Town and Welling United less than 10 years ago. Next season, fans from Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal could be making the same journey through turnstiles wedged between Nos. 99 and 103 Oak Road and then across a metal staircase that cuts through the back gardens of the houses on the street.
"It annoys me and makes me giggle when you get the social media content about an away end going through gardens," Luton chief executive Gary Sweet said. "It's been like that since World War II or even before. Why is it raised now -- is it just because we might be going into the Premier League?
"Erling Haaland's not going to walk through that entrance: he's going to walk through the other s--- entrance we've got. Embrace it. We've got thick skins; it also shows you don't necessarily need lavish surroundings to succeed.
"You can do all that without having a beautiful stadium. It is beautiful, though. The old girl is beautiful."
Kenilworth Road is certainly different. If Luton are promoted, their stadium -- opened in 1905 -- will be the smallest to ever host Premier League fixtures. The Main Stand is a jumbled patchwork of multicoloured wooden seats and plastic benches, while the players' tunnel is narrow enough to trigger memories of the days when scores were settled by opponents off the pitch, away from prying eyes and cameras.
If Luton are promoted, they face a £10 million to-do list of summer improvements in order to ensure their stadium meets minimum Premier League standards: it includes bigger dressing rooms, new floodlights, improved media/broadcasting facilities, a VAR system and a completely new stand to replace the enclosure opposite the Main Stand. Despite Luton's having approval to build a new 17,500-seater stadium at nearby Power Court, the Premier League could be less than three months away; Kenilworth Road, which is 30 miles north of London, will be getting a rapid upgrade.
"If anyone can do it, we can," Sweet said. 'We've got to practically rebuild a stand, but we'll have gone from nonleague to the Premier League, so we can manage that small matter."
Mick Harford has seen it all with Luton Town. The 64-year-old won two England caps while playing for the club in the 1980s, when Luton established themselves in the old First Division, and he played on the day when the team beat Arsenal at Wembley to win the EFL Cup in 1988. He was also in charge as manager when Luton completed their slide from England's top division -- they were relegated in 1992, three months before the start of the Premier League -- to nonleague with relegation to the National League in 2008-09, after starting the season with a massive 30-point deduction imposed by the EFL and English FA for financial irregularities dating back several years.
That sanction, which condemned Luton to relegation, remains an open wound among the club's supporters, as borne out by a banner -- Luton Town, Est. 2008, Betrayed by the FA 2008 -- which still hangs in the Main Stand.
Harford, now Luton's chief recruitment officer, admits that the club has been on an incredible journey. "It's been a roller-coaster ride, especially for the fans," Harford told ESPN. "When I first signed for Luton [in 1984], there was a dressing room full of international players. It was a really good team and we could compete with the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool. We had a bit of a golden era.
"But after that, players left, I left and I came back, but all the players left. The club went in a chain of different owners, changed hands a few times, and they just went on a downward spiral. Then they got into monetary problems and got deducted points, and as soon as you start deducting points, it becomes difficult to attract players to your club. Things just went downhill from there and we went down into the National League and were there for five years.
"As we all know, it's very, very hard to get out the National League. Look how long Wrexham's been down, and they're a big club. Did I fear for the club? I think everybody does when they go down to that level."
After four seasons of failing to escape the National League, Luton hired John Still as manager in 2013. Still had enjoyed a record of success at National League level stretching back over 20 years, having won promotion to the EFL with Maidstone United (1989) and Dagenham & Redbridge (2007), and his appointment proved to be the catalyst for Luton's rebirth and rise.
"It's a fantastic story, isn't it?" Still told ESPN. "If somebody wrote it, it wouldn't be fact, it would be fiction.
"When I arrived, I felt there was a desperation among everybody and supporters were putting the players under lots of pressure because they genuinely felt they should be a Football League club. The biggest thing was trying to get everybody singing from the same hymn sheet, and getting the supporters to really back the players, so I used to do a thing at the end of the game where I had a little meeting on the pitch and I used to pull someone out of the crowd to come in, to involve the supporters and make them feel they were involved. And we gradually turned it around."
Still won promotion in his first season in charge, restoring Luton to the EFL. Promotion from League 2 (alongside Coventry City) followed in 2018, with the team going up from League 1 at the first attempt in 2019. Three promotions in nine years, and a fourth is potentially just 90 minutes away on Saturday.
Midfielder Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu has been in each promotion-winning team, and the 29-year-old will become the first player in history to play for the same club in the National League, League 2, League 1, Championship and Premier League if he helps guide Luton to the top flight. "It's been an adventure," Mpanzu said. "Not a lot of people have done it -- I think I'll be first -- but it's all about having people who believe in you.
"Did I want to come here when I left West Ham? Absolutely not! But Luton believed in me, gave me a chance and now we just have 90 minutes to go. We've come a long way from a training ground with dog walkers cutting across our pitches and getting changed in portable cabins, but hopefully by 7 p.m. on Saturday, we'll be in the Premier League and drinking champagne."
Luton won just two of their first nine Championship games this season -- Coventry made an even worse start, winning one and losing four of their first nine -- but their form since the beginning of January, with two defeats in 21 games, propelled them into the playoffs with a third-place finish. USMNT goalkeeper Ethan Horvath and 20-goal top scorer Carlton Morris have been key figures.
The departure of manager Nathan Jones to Southampton in November could have wrecked Luton's prospects this season, but the appointment of Rob Edwards has proved to be a masterstroke. Edwards guided Forest Green Rovers to promotion from League 2 last season before moving to Watford, Luton's traditional rivals, last summer. But after being fired following just 11 games in charge there, Edwards is now on the brink of a second successive promotion, but this time to the Premier League.
"It's been a wild season for me to say the least," Edwards said. "I hoped to get promoted at the beginning and it didn't really work out at Watford. It's a bit strange, it's different.
"People ask me about a winning formula, but it comes down to good people. Anyone could've come in and done what I've done, it's been pretty easy really. I'm just lucky they picked me."
Luton, meanwhile, believe they have hit the jackpot by hiring Edwards. "We couldn't have had a better human being come in than Rob," chief executive Sweet said. "His image and persona is impeccable, and he reflects our image and persona. I think he's actually a bit better than we are."
The mutual appreciation between Edwards and Sweet is a reflection of Luton as a club. Those years in the lower leagues, battling to escape the National League, seem to have forged a togetherness and family spirit that are rare at the highest level of the game. To further underline the community aspect of the club, a group of supporters started an online fundraiser this week, aiming to raise £500 for Kenilworth Road's ticket office staff to have a free day out at Wembley on Saturday. By Thursday morning, the figure raised exceeded £5,000.
"There's a lot of love here," Edwards said. "It's about more than just football, it's about people's lives. I've sensed it and sense it's been like that for a while. People will be going to Wembley to win, and if we don't there will be devastation and a period of mourning, but when you look where we've been, things could be a lot worse and we are on our way back."
If Luton do make it, Kenilworth Road will get its last dance in the Premier League. A throwback to different times, but an experience that no player or supporter will forget. "The stadium is brilliant," Harford said. "When there's 10,000 people in here, it sounds like there's 60,000. It'll be a sad day when we leave it, an absolutely sad day, but we're going to have to leave it one day, hopefully very soon.
"If we can get into the Premier League, we will be given money to put towards a new stadium and that will give us a foundation for the next 20, 25 years to take this club forward."