Five years ago, Luton Town were sixth in the fourth tier of English football. Now, they stand on the brink of the Premier League.
Down Oak Road, a cramped, terraced street just north of London, in between house numbers 99 and 103, are the turnstiles to the Oak Stand at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road stadium.
As you squeeze through the turnstiles, people cooking their dinner glance down from houses above. If you look from the steps, up to the stand, you might see someone hanging out their washing.
A cursory look at Tripadvisor tells a similar story: ‘Time travel – but fun’ says one. ‘Old school’, says another. For balance, there are a number that call it a dump.
The stadium is one thing. But the most important thing for Luton right now is what’s happening on the pitch.
Because it’s nothing short of remarkable.
Luton Town is currently third in the Championship, having risen up the table with seven wins in their past ten games.
On this day five years ago, Luton was sixth. In League Two.
And ten years ago, it was fifth – in the Conference, the fifth tier of English football.
Luton Town’s rise up the leagues is part of a journey that started with the club in administration, suffering points deductions, and could end with a new stadium in the Premier League.
So how has it all happened?
Here’s Mpanzu, goes for goal! A spectacular second for him, and third for Luton…Luton Town
Let’s start with Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu.
Because if there’s one player who symbolises Luton’s rise, it’s him.
Having joined the Hatters from West Ham in 2014, Pelly Mpanzu has been part of a Luton team that has been promoted three times while he’s been at the club – and he’s just 28 years old.
Then, there’s the manager, Nathan Jones.
He’s on his second stint in charge of Luton Town. His first was successful – he guided his side to promotion from League Two in 2018, and got Luton to second place in League One before leaving the club to become Stoke’s new manager.
Things didn’t go well at Stoke, though – Jones won just six games in 38, before being sacked by the club.
In that funny, footballing way, he returned to Luton as manager seven months later. Some things just work in football, and Nathan Jones’ return really worked.
We are staying up, say we are staying up! We are staying up, say we are staying up!Luton Town
With the club lying 23rd in the Championship when he took over in May 2020, Nathan Jones inspired his side and secured its survival in a dramatic, last day of the season victory over Blackburn Rovers.
With such a narrow escape, Luton was still a small fish in a big pond, but it kicked on last season, finishing 12th.
And now, this season it finds itself third in the table with eight games remaining – and was narrowly beaten by Chelsea in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
There’s a sense that the club is doing things the ‘proper’ way, too.
Having ended up in administration and plummeting through the leagues between 2006 and 2010, Luton’s recovery has been marked with financial stability. The club posted a profit last year. Its relatively low income – partly, but not entirely due to a small stadium – means it can’t afford big wages.
Luton also eschews lucrative advertising it isn’t comfortable with.
In 2018, it rejected over half a million pounds from gambling companies to be its main shirt sponsor, with chief executive Gary Sweet saying it would be against the club’s principles.
Things are looking up for Luton – which brings me back to the stadium.
Because, all things being well, away fans won’t have the dubious privilege of having to wander underneath someone’s house in order to get into it for much longer.
The club have bought land nearby in order to build a new, 23,000 seater stadium, that would bring it into the modern era.
Running out on new turf as a Premier League side is a tantalising prospect – and after defeating the odds on so many occasions in recent years, maybe this will be Luton’s ultimate triumph.
Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler, and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.