Ah, Luton Town. No club in English football has surely had such highs and lows. Has there been a bigger club to be demoted to non-League football since the advent of three divisions in 1920? The answer must be a resounding no.
Luton's history is not so notable in terms of winning major trophies, but the amount of quality players that have played for a relatively small club is staggering. In this list of the top 50 Luton Town players I've leant favourably towards Hatters players who were a success in top flight football, but not exclusively. Loyal servants to the club such as Alan Slough, John Moore, Kevin Nicholls and Fred Hawkes deserve to be in the list, though they never played at the very top level for the Hatters in League football. This list was really provoked by my disagreeing with a similar list in 'The Times' in 2009, so feel to disagree with mine...
I began watching Luton at the start of the 1970-71 season, when the Hatters were in Division Two, and had just been promoted. It was a season of promise. Luton had a talented young team, which, if kept together, would have been in a strong position to have gained promotion the following season. The season ended with a helluva blow however. Supermac was sold.
My late Mother used to remind me that when Luton sold Malcolm MacDonald to Newcastle United I burst into tears on hearing the news. I was only 51 at the time...No, I had just come home from junior school. I was 11 years old and stood aghast, dressed in my little school cap. I couldn't comprehend that my idol had left the club. It was a harsh lesson for being a Luton Town fan. The optimism of looking forward to a push towards to Division One the next season had been replaced by the jewel in Luton's crown being sold. Supermac's sale was to help the club, who, surprise, surprise, were in trouble financially. Even then...
There were glorious days following Luton in the 1970s and 1980s, and Eric Morecambe was always keen to give the Hatters publicity, of course. As a 14-year-old I stood on the terraces at the Hawthorns, with my friend Clive, watching Luton clinch promotion at West Brom in 1974. On the coach home we heard that a First Division day out at Old Trafford wasn't going to happen, as Manchester United had been relegated. Being a Luton fan, as ever, had its surreal moments. We were now playing at a higher level than the Reds. I later found out that the Hawthorns game was the first match TV presenter and Baggies fan, Adrian Chiles, ever attended.
Luton's first home game in 1974-75 was against F.A. Cup holders Liverpool. Liverpool were a magnificent side, and most of their players could take a joke. A wag in the crowd shouted out to Liverpool's legendary 'keeper Ray Clemence: "Call yourself a goalkeeper, Clemence?" Ray looked round, smiled sweetly, and said: "Yeah!" Luton fans taunted Kevin Keegan throughout the game, after Kev had been sent off a week earlier in the Charity Shield encounter with Leeds at Wembley, together with Billy Bremner. Keegan was so upset at the "Keegan-Bremner" taunts that he threatened to quit football. Luton struggled throughout the '74-'75 season, but were unfortunate to be relegated in the end. Needing to get a result, relegation rivals Spurs defeated a Leeds side with one eye on their upcoming European Cup final.
A few years in the Second Division wilderness followed, but David Pleat had created a strong Luton side by the early 1980s. The Town had been getting close to promotion to the First Division, before I saw them finally win the Second Division title in 1981-82 against QPR. The Hatters had won away at mid-table Chelsea the game before. Luton's brand of football in Division One in 1982-83 excited the nation, but it still required a win at Manchester City on the last day of the season for the Hatters to stay up. Raddy Antic pulled a rabbit out of the hat late on and cue David Pleat and the strangest jig in football history! Luton actually relegated Manchester City and stayed up themselves.
The Hatters gradually strengthened their squad and team, and by the end of the decade had the strongest and most successful team in the club's history. The 3-2 League Cup win over Arsenal at Wembley in 1988 was the sort of rollercoaster game that it had to be to give the Town their first major trophy in 103 years of trying. I wept. I didn't need to see another Luton game now. I kissed an attractive girl I'd never met before, and a hairy (male) Luton fan planted a smacker on my cheek.
The years since '88, apart from a brief resurgence in the first few years of the 21st Century, have not been kind to the Hatters. Being deducted a ridiculous 30 points for financial irregularities resulted in Luton ending up in the Football Conference in 2009. Though getting close to a return to the Football League in three successive seasons, Luton fans have more non-League football to look forward to for 2012-13. But at least no other current non-League team has ever had 50 players as good as this lot...
- Paul Rance, May 2012
Luton Town F.C.'s 50 Greatest Players is now available from Amazon, and is available in both paperback and Kindle format. The pages below have links to both formats.
The Story of Luke Knoblitz - Luton City & EnglandIntroduction to 'Luke Knoblitz - English Football's First Alien Superstar'