Luton Town v Southend United
Kenilworth Road / League Two / 11th October 2014
“Hell on Earth,” “What a dive!” “Avoid at all costs” and quite simply “Shithole.” These were some of the glowing reviews I received regarding the town of Luton when I expressed my desire to visit the Bedfordshire town and more precisely its famous football ground. I think anyone that knows me will know that these sort of reviews will do little to deter me from visiting a place and in fact only lead to my curiousity being further heightened. Why were people reacting with such opprobrium when I mentioned the word Luton? What makes it a ‘shithole’? And the most important question of all, surely it cannot be any more bleak than my hometown of Merthyr Tydfil? (You I know I love you really Merthyr). Some of these criticisms even stretched to Luton Town’s football ground, Kenilworth Road, but when folk started describing it as ‘old-school’ and ‘crumbling’ I was sold on the idea of make the long haul to pay the place a visit. Train tickets booked. Match ticket bought. Luton here I come.
I rolled up into London Euston just after 10am and immediately made for the underground to get to London Bridge station, where I was to get the train to Luton – located a 50 minute train journey away from the centre of the Big Smoke. Travel tip: National Rail Enquiries was determined that this was the easiest and quickest way to get to Luton; well, I’ve since learned from my train driving, Morecambe supporting pal John Lancaster that I would have been quicker walking from Euston to London St. Pancras station and hopping on the train there. Well, you live and learn.
Anyway, I was soon heading out of London and into the areas littered around the outskirts of the capital. As we headed through places like St. Albans with its pleasant-looking abbey, I began to wonder what all the fuss was about – everything seemed all very nice. Then Luton appeared.
As mentioned earlier, I was born and bred in Merthyr Tydfil, which is hardly the sexiest of towns, but I think it is fair to say that on arriving into Luton, it is not exactly one to dazzle you either. It is very grey. However, I’m no ‘town snob’, so I headed out of the station and towards a part of town called ‘High Town’ with an open mind. Within 2 minutes of exiting the station I found the Bricklayers Arms and I decided that it was as good a place as any to have my first drink of the day.
I was a big fan of the Bricklayers Arms. Friendly barmaids, plenty of beers on tap, football on the TV and large beer barrels used as makeshift tables – what more could you want? It was also great to see the place covered in the Luton Town badge and the toilet walls being white, orange and black in ode to the club’s colours. Luton fans also seemed to be fond of the place too, although one fan had found inspiration for his home team in the street outside.
“What you got there mate?” asked the one Luton fan to his mate, who had just returned inside from having cigarette.
“A copy of the Watchtower off some God person? She asked did I want to read something positive and I said I was going to watch Luton play, so definitely!”
I wandered High Town (all a bit depressing) in search of the recommended English Rose pub, which I did eventually find about 5 minutes away from my original starting point. The pub came with all the usual CAMRA recommendations, although it was very quiet on this early Saturday afternoon. I decided to embrace it’s real ale culture though and I even went all multicultural with a Cwrw Ysgawen – Elderflower Ale brewed in Porthmadog. I have to say that it was bloody lovely. I perused the Saturday morning edition of the Guardian and my day seemed all very pleasant all of a sudden. I had to remind myself that I had a game to get too though and so off I went venturing into the town centre of Luton.
On the high street I found all the usual places, but my eye was caught by all the Luton fans heading into the White House Wetherspoons pub located on Bridge Street. I’d not exactly encountered many Luton fans up until now, but this place was abuzz with Hatters. It was while at the bar here that I began to ponder: when exactly did Luton switch from their more traditional white shirts to the orange kits that everyone was wearing in the bar? I assumed it had occurred when the orange clad people at EasyJet invested more money in sponsoring the club. One of those kit changes that seems to have gone rather unnoticed I thought, at least outside of Luton anyway. (Ed – It turns out that my assumption was wrong – in fact, the club let the fans decide in March 2014 which colour, white or orange, best represents Luton Town and let them vote for the colour of this season’s home kit. Orange was clearly the victor. Well done to the club for letting the fans decide; I’m sure that was one lively debate though!)
As I do, I soon found myself chatting to two Luton fans in the corner of the bar. Alan and Peter began to tell me some of their stories of following Luton over the years and about the glory years of the clubs in the 1980s. I tried to impress them by showing them my photo of me with Luton legend Raddy Antic (scored the winning goal to keep Luton in the top flight in 1982/83 and as a result relegate their opponents that day, Manchester City), who I’d randomly bumped into on the streets of Cardiff before the European Super Cup final between Real Madrid and Sevilla back in August (which you can read here if you do want to read about my random encounter with Raddy). They were delighted to hear that Raddy had thumped his chest, before just saying “Luton” in reply to me saying I was a Swansea fan – clearly he still holds the club dear to his Serbian heart.
They had told me that the ground was at most a 15 minute walk away (“just follow the crowd down the street – you won’t miss them”) so I decided to have one more beer, before shaking both Alan and Peter’s hands, obviously having a double thumbs up photo with them and then heading back out into the streets of Luton.
The lads were spot on and there was a stream of orange and white (once again, mainly orange) all heading in one direction. After crossing a walkway over the A505, walking down some alleyways, through a Sainsbury car park and then around some winding street with red-bricked terracing housing, there was still no sign of the ground. I knew it was close as the number of fans had ballooned, but still no sign of floodlights or even a whiff of a burger van.
Then, all of a sudden, there it was. Kenilworth Road, the home of Luton Town, just emerged from out of the surrounding terraced housing around it. And what a sight. Okay, to many it probably isn’t the prettiest ground you’ll ever see – it’s hardly the Emirates – but by gosh is it exactly what I love in a football ground. The old shed-like stands, the noise of the rickety turnstiles, which led into a caged off area just before the entrance to the stands themselves and the floodlights towering up around the side of the ground. Perfect. However, there was to be one bit that impressed me even more.
Everyone had told me beforehand that the entrance to the away end at Kenilworth Road is a bit special, so I decided to head down the narrow, quite claustrophobic alley between the one stand and the adjacent housing, until I emerged at the other end with the Southend fans. Basically, the away end entrance is literally wedged into the middle of some terraced houses, so much so that the steps leading into the stand look out over the neighbouring houses’ back gardens. It’s certainly different, but I do like ‘different’.
Back down the alleyway I went, past some young Southend fans who thought they were hooligans by banging the nearby railings (mentalists!), and back towards the Kenilworth End where I’d be sitting for today’s League Two clash between the Hatters and the Shrimpers. For those unaware, Luton is (was?) famous for its hat trade hence the nickname The Hatters.
With half hour to spare, I found myself on the concourse under the stand and what a crumbling concourse it is. This was the definition of ‘traditional’ and ‘old-school’. The place was rather cramped as the Luton masses queued for their beers and burgers, but I was more than content with my surroundings – this place was beautiful to me. A £3.50 pint of Fosters was drunk before I headed up the staircase and into Kenilworth Road proper.
Luton Town Football Club came to fruition in 1885 following the merger of local clubs Luton Town Wanderers and Excelsior with the new club playing at Excelsior’s home, Dallow Lane. Luton Town would go on to become the first fully professional football club in South England and thus they moved to Dunstable Road. Dunstable Road would be the club’s home until they moved to Kenilworth Road in 1905.
Despite looking untouched since its construction 109 years, the ground has undergone some changes since its original incarnation, mainly in the form of the Main Stand; the original burnt down in 1921, before a new two-tiered Main Stand was constructed to replace it. With construction and renovation taking over other parts of the ground, the capacity eventually swelled to 30,000.
In the 1980s, the ground became infamous for its artificial pitch, after seeing QPR using one at Loftus Road. However, the banning of such surfaces in the Football League saw Luton dig up their surface in 1991 and return to good, old grass.
Having spent the last 4 years in the Conference between 2009/10 and 2013/2014, following a quite scandalous 30 points deduction in 2009, this season sees Luton Town now back plying their trade in the Football League. As far as Football League grounds go, Kenilworth Road is easily one of my favourites just for being a bit…well, ramshackle and slightly unusual. The ground is a scene of stands of all shapes and sizes. I found myself in the fairly classical Kenilworth End behind the goals, with the Main Stand to my left. Another unusual trait of the ground is the small Preece Stand wedged in the corner between these two stands; the addition of this stand makes Kenilworth Road an unorthodox five stand ground. Opposite the Kenilworth End is the Oak Road End, which today housed the away fans from Southend. Finally, the other side of the ground has another unique feature: there is not so much a stand as a just a low row of executive boxes running the length of the pitch. Once again, certainly a strange sight within a league ground.
I took my seat just a few rows from the front of the Kenilworth End and was setting myself for what was hopefully going to be some exciting League Two action. The two teams crossed the pitch along with coaching staff, who had to make their way across the pitch to the dugouts in front of the executive boxes on the far side.
I’d heard that the Luton fans could be a loud bunch, but after a very slow start to the game the place had become quite subdued. However, there was certainly something to shout about by the quarter-hour mark. A low pass from Scott Griffiths found Alex Lawless on the edge of the box, who then cut inside and curled in a superb shot right into the top corner. What a goal! Admittedly, my travels this season so far have been rather devoid of truly wondrous goals and off the top of my head I’d argue that this beauty from Lawless is the best I’ve seen so far this season.
There was an increase in volume from the home fans following the goal, but soon the place became rather stagnant again and despite adoring my surroundings, I did find myself slightly disappointed with the atmosphere in the ground. Not that I let this dampen my spirits, as I was utterly loving the ground itself.
The goal seemed to perk up Luton on the pitch and they began to dominate proceedings with some nice passing at times. Good football was not to provide Luton with their second goal though – that was to come from some woefully bad football from the away team. Southend’s keeper Daniel Bentley passed the ball directly to Luton’s Andy Drury with a kick from the 6 yard area, leaving Drury to push the ball into the path of the onrushing Mark Cullen, who slotted home past the glum looking Bentley. 2 – 0 to Luton and they looked to be cruising.
Following the second goal in the 32nd minute, chances completely dried up and the half was seen out in an uneventful fashion.
Half-time: Luton Town 2 – 0 Southend United.
Despite the queue for the bar, that soon disappeared and I had another pint of Fosters in my hand to accompany me during the interval. Many had headed down to catch up on the half-time scores, whilst I was just surprised to find TVs on the concourse with the rest of the surroundings seeming to pre-date the birth of television.
Seconds after taking my seat back in the stand and after the half had kicked off, Southend almost scored, only for some smart goalkeeping from Mark Tyler to deny Jack Payne.
Southend began to pile on the pressure after Shrimpers boss Phil ‘Sloop John B’ Brown had made an effective double substitution at half-time. However, for me, Luton had the outstanding player on the pitch and perhaps even one of the best individual performances I’ve seen on this season’s travels; this performance was delivered by Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu – or Pelly as the Luton fans seemed to simply know him as. From the opening minutes Pelly had absolutely dominated the midfield and as the game wore on, he only seemed to get better. There was a touch of Yaya Toure about him with his powerful, energetic runs, which led to him being chopped down on several occasions. Even Southend’s assistant manager David Penny saw himself sent to the stands following an off the ball altercation with Ruddock on the touchline, which led to a bit of handbags between the both teams.
Luton did well in the final 15 minutes, as Southend seemed to have called the game a write-off. Once again, Pelly was holding the ball up superbly and he was also beginning to hammer away at the Southend defence with his pace and clever flicks in the closing stages.
As 6 minutes of added time were announced, the PA system announced that today’s Man of the Match was Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu – and rightly so!
Full-time: Luton Town 2 – 0 Southend United.
I was actually quite sad to depart Kenilworth Road, so I tried to saviour my final moments there before exiting out of Luton’s home.
Within moments, the ground disappeared back into the enveloping terraced houses and I found myself walking along with a sea of orange and white shirts, past the orange and white sign of Sainsburys.
I had planned to head back into the Bricklayers Arms for one last drink before jumping on the train back to London, but on seeing the heaving mass of Luton fans around the bar, I decided to give it a miss and just get some food instead.
A few yards round the corner from the pub, I spotted a kebab shop directly next to the bridge that headed over to the train station. I decided it was as good as anywhere else to grab some grub. I left for the train platform with kebab in hand only to find a delayed train on the platform which would immediately whisk me back to London Bridge. On I jumped. I found myself sitting opposite two smart-looking business women, but I could not just leave my kebab alone for 45 minutes.
“Sorry ladies, but I’m going to have to eat this. Sorry if it smells.”
And it really did. They didn’t look too impressed. Saying that, I wasn’t too impressed either – the kebab was rather rancid. I didn’t even finish it!
My train back up north wasn’t until 9pm, so I headed to the Hornyman’s pub (*giggles childishly*) along the banks of the Thames to meet my pal Dave Williams, who I hadn’t seen in a couple years. Despite now being big time and working for TalkSport, Dave is a native of Treharris in my part of the world; however, as he admitted later, he was desperate to be part of a ‘double thumbs up’ photo on Lost Boyos so I can officially announce that you have now made it my friend.
After a couple of drinks in one of my favourite London pubs, the Shipwright Arms, located by London Bridge station, and after having two girls praise Dave’s sexy Welsh accent, whilst questioning my accent and even my nationality, it was time to depart London. I was soon asleep, as the train headed back out of London and onwards to the North.
Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road may not be for everyone and some will probably think I’m a bit mad, but Kenilworth Road has to be one of my favourite Football League grounds. It’s dilapidated, run-down appearance just seemed to charm me, as I sort of felt it might. The town didn’t exactly blow my mind, but I didn’t find it as soul-destroying as some had alluded to before my visit. Any town that houses Kenilworth Road is good in my books. The prospect of a future visit would perhaps now make me do a sort of bouncy, jig of joy, perhaps in the style of David Pleat when he famously gamboled across the Maine Road pitch following Luton’s famous escape from relegation during his managerial reign. Sadly, for my pal Raddy Antic, that Pleat skip goes down in history as the iconic moment in the club’s history rather than the Serbian’s decisive goal, which prompted the skip in the first place. Nevermind Raddy, at least you’ve appeared on Lost Boyos – Pleaty hasn’t. And your favourite English club has now received a glowing review on the site too.
Highlights: Good pubs (even the Wetherspoons was great), brilliant ground, best away fan entrance I’ve seen, Alex Lawless’ goal, did I mention that I loved the ground too?
Low Points: Town is exactly the prettiest, atmosphere was a bit of a let down in the game, crappy post match kebab.
See all my photos from my day at Kenilworth Road here.