Saturday morning in London. I come across hundreds of Arsenal supporters in their red “Emirates” shirts, on their way to an early kick-off against Manchester City. Finally, at Sct. Pancras, I also spot an orange “Easy Jet” Luton shirt. And as Luton is my destination today, I follow shirt and owner to the train to take me north of London. I have only been to Luton once, when I flew with Easyjet to Luton airport back in the nineties. As the train stops at the airport, my guiding Luton supporter gets up and leaves the train. “Is this the stop for the football ground?” I ask him. “No, next station”. He seems to prefer easyjet to Luton Town F.C.
I have not really checked the map for the way to the ground, as I usually just follow matchgoers from the station. But there are none to be seen, so I have to check on my smartphone.
Luton is not a place that people in general travel from abroard to visit. When I told my English friend Charlotte that I planned to go, she looked at me in disbelief. Luton? Probably most reknown for the English Defence League emerging from the town. A town with tension and conflicts. But they have a traditional football ground. With entrance through terraced housing in one of the stands. And that is what has lurred me to make the trip.
First sign of a football ground is the carpark for executive box holders. It does not look of much, and I have to remind myself that Luton last were in the topflight before the introduction of the Premier League back in the 80’ies. Since then, they went from bad to worse before being relegated from the football league. But this summer, they won promotion back to League 2, the fourth tier of English football. They have not benefitted from television and sponsorship money like the top clubs.
At the end of the road, I can see the Kenilworth Road stand emerging. This is the “centre” of the ground. The ticket office, the club shop, the few burger stalls are all here, just as you have to enter the main stand either from here or the other end of the ground, Oak Road.
Ticket office as well as club shop is very tiny and interimistic. Outside the shop, faded photos of some of the heroes from the eighties remind visitors that there hasn’t been that much to cheer since then. With two hours till kick-off, there are very few fans around.
I do not really fancy “Hungry Harrys” burgers, and make my way round the ground, hoping to come across a better offer. The Kenilworth Road end is the only fully accessible stand in the ground. The main stand to the left of it, with the oddly added David Preece stand in the corner, is cut off by a tram way. Hence the need to enter it through one of the end-terraces. On the other side, what used to be “The Bobbers’ Stand” is now only tiny executive boxes, each with two rows of seating attached to it. A one meter broad passage leads along this stand.
In some ways, it is almost reminiscent of walking the tiny alleys in Venice. In other ways, the grim passage could hardly contrast more to the romance of Venice. Intermittently, the passage is opened by adjacent roads leading up to it. Here you can get a view of the stand – and see that netting has been suspended between the floodlight pylons to stop wayward footballs to be lost in the streets and gardens behind the stand.
The passage leads to Oak Road – and it is here that the two entrances for away fans go through the terraced housing. As I get there, two coaches with Cheltenham fans arrive. It is only the away supporters who enter through the houses, although the Luton supporters also have an entrance for their “Bobbers club”.
Right now, I am chasing my pre-match meal. I hear a local guy telling some visiting supporters that there is a chippy across the bridge. So I cross the tramway and the road – and sure, there is a chippy, a Doner Kebab chippy. According to the sign in the window, it has got a food hygiene rating of 3 out of 5. Perhaps not enough to attract visitors from afar, but enough to make me dare take my fish ‘n chips here. A group of young boys with a couple of fathers also go for their meal here. It is ok. Not the greatest I have had, but ok.
Having had some food, I focus on the look of the main stand as I cross the bridge again. Really, it looks like a bewildering mess. I can see fans suddenly turn up in the middle of it through a hidden stairway; only to disasppear again immediately. Extraordinary.
As I walk towards the Oak Road, I see the Madinah Masjid mosque on the corner. I have seen a number of muslims around the ground, all finely dressed. But none of them have been heading for the football ground, and inside the ground, I later notice that just about everybody is white British. I know that Luton is not a tourist attraction, but it is very rare that I can’t spot fellow Scandinavians inside an English ground.
Later on my trip, I read Daniel Gray’s book on “Travels through England’s Football Provinces”. He is not very fond of Luton, and describes how security wouldn’t allow him to write on his ipad inside the ground, as he doesn’t have a presscard. Fortunately I have got one. I approach the security in front of the away supporters entrance and ask, if I can be allowed to enter to take photos for my blog. They ask the supervisor, and she allows me to do so.
To me, it is really fascinating. There is something about a football ground that has organically grown out of – or into – a local community. Right in peoples backyard. That was where you were most likely to build a football ground. Now they build them in desolate docks or by ringroads. In stead of looking where people live, you now look where there is convenient parking. Probably most people living in the houses, would prefer to get rid of the ground. And most fans struggling to find parking would prefer to move somewhere else. But to me, this is one of the little pockets, where you actually feel that you can TOUCH history, touch the time gone by.
I leave the away supporters’ entrance – and go to the main stand at the corner of the street to enter the Oak Road end through a long tunnel.
When you have walked round a rather grim, old ground, the grass always seem even greener than normal, fascinating. Inside, the Oak Road end looks just as old as from the outside. Pillars hinder the view – although rows of seats have been thrown in on top of the old terrace steps. I discover that you can leave the stand from staircases down to the housing in Oak Road, where the toilets are located. As I take a photo of it, the security man comes over to me. I tell that I travel round football grounds. So does he. He works at Wembley, Craven Cottage, Upton Park, The Den – as well as here. “Getting paid to watch football!” he says triumphantly. He seems a nice guy. He stresses that if there is one thing that he doesn’t tolerate, it is racism. That soon leads him to describe vividly some of the ways he has pacified troublemakers – not at football matches but at pubs and shops. I dare not ask him about trouble at football matches, because I may miss the first half if I do.
I get to see the last of the warm-up – and I also get the chance to get a pie. It is a standard Pukka Pie, nothing special.
Kenilworth Road is probably mainly famous for two things. For introducing Margaret Thatcher’s identity card scheme for away fans; and for opting for an artificial pitch back in the 80’s. You can still se the remains of the articifial pitch, whereas the identity cards probably are long gone.
I can now concentrate on assessing the main stand.
Compared to the relative small size of the ground, they have got a gigantic set of signs for the toilets … More interestingly, the lower section of the stand – the old standing terrace – only has benches. Perfect for getting up to stand. Most of the people enter from the top of the stand – from the labyrith of stairways on the outside of the stand. A fence makes it possible to use the entire Oak End for away supporters.
On the other side, beneath the suspended netting, are the hospitality boxes. Each of them has two rows of four seats attached. There are a few families there, but a lot of them are standing empty. When I look again some 10 minutes into the match, I notice a middle-aged man and a young blonde in one of the matches that previously was empty. They don’t notice what is going on in the match. They seem absorbed by their food and their conversation. With the television set in the background probably overshadowing the distractions from the football field. When I look again at halftime, they have gone – and in the second half, some of the stewards take the seats inside the box. A venue for business meetings? Or for dating?
The players finally enter the field, greeted by a mascot hatter. The strawhats were apparently the trademark of the town back in the early 20th century, hence the nickname “The Hatters”. I stand right next to Cheltenham’s away support, only seperated by a black sheet covering a section of seats – and a few stewards.
The crowd is just under 8.000 – not bad for a League 2 clash. But you sense that Luton, despite never being one of the great clubs, feel that they belong higher in the footballing hiearchy. But today, it is Cheltenham, who start as favourites, unbeaten in second place of the league.
Much to my delight, I notice that both teams field a classic, British centre-half. Big and tough, ready to put his head anywhere. The Peter Kay no-nonsense “Have it” type, ready to belt the ball away to safety. Elliott is a playing coach at Cheltenham, McNulty captain of Luton. I should have played my football in England – then I might have got further than the D-team!
The crowd starts off in pretty good voice, helped on by a Luton goal after about 10 minutes. But gradually it fades out. Thre crowd gets caught up with the tension of the match, which is pretty close and fiercely contested. There are good play and decent chances at both ends, but Luton manage to hold on to the win.
The disappointed Cheltenham supporters make for their coaches, the Luton supporters start to walk towards the city centre. Only a few of them – like me – head for the station. It is really a local crowd. Considering the bad reputation Luton seems to have, I have really enjoyed the afternoon. No unpleasantries, no hostile atmosphere. So for supporters who like to visit a traditional football ground, Luton is worth the trip. I even came across a welcoming Hatter-dustbin as I left. Still, though, the contrast between the all British white crowd inside the ground and the muslim community around the mosque just outside it, is remarkably stark and thoughtprovoking.