BY MARK GODFREY
Thanks to the patronage of one of this country’s finest ever comic talents, unfashionable Luton Town achieved virtual cult status at a time when their fortunes on the pitch were decidedly underwhelming.
The great Eric Morecambe – one half of the incomparable Morecambe and Wise duo that were TV royalty during the 60s, 70s and 80s – started following the Hatters with his son when they moved to the area, and very soon after, in January 1970, he was invited to join the board of directors. It didn’t take Eric long to exploit his connection to Luton Town in their act; perhaps most famously during their Anthony and Cleopatra sketch first aired on the BBC in June 1971 when they persuaded Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson to try and keep a straight face while Eric gurned and quipped as his “Luton FC” Roman standard is given deliberate prominence in shot.
He was a great advert and advocate for his club, never shying away from the publicity it brought them both. During the early 70s, Luton were the archetypal mid-table also-rans in the Second Division of the Football League having been promoted twice in the late 60s (with Malcolm MacDonald banging the goals in before his move north to Newcastle United). This was until the 1973-74 season when their runners-up placing earned them top flight football for the first time since 1960. Harry Haslam’s team could not maintain that position though and they were relegated after just one attempt, alongside Carlisle United and Chelsea.
Morecambe also decided to step down as a director in November 1975, although he remained as vice president of the club keeping the relationship between the two very much alive and in the public eye.
After relegation, Luton reverted to type and struggled to be anything other than mediocre, and by early 1978, were under new management – Haslam having moved on to Sheffield United. 33-year-old coach, and former Luton player, David Pleat was promoted from within. His previous managerial experience had consisted of six years in charge at non-league Nuneaton Borough.
Pleat set about renewing the squad of players he inherited, believing that giving youth a chance would be the long term answer. As if to emphasise this farsighted policy, Pleat’s Luton narrowly avoided the drop back to the Third Division, but in that difficult campaign the likes of club legends Ricky Hill and Brian Stein – both future England internationals – amongst others, became regulars in the side, gaining valuable experience for the years ahead.
Within a couple of years, Pleat’s methods began to bear fruit. Sixth and fifth places followed, and by the start of the 1981-82 season, Luton were one of the most exciting teams in the division; as well as the attacking talents of the aforementioned Hill and Stein, they had Northern Ireland defender Mal Donaghy and the Yugoslav veteran Radomir Antic at the back, experienced midfielder Brian Horton – considered by many to be the final piece of Pleat’s jigsaw – and David Moss, the goalscoring winger.
Going back to the Morecambe and Wise sketch a decade earlier, Eric famously asks a Roman bust he had been working as his ventriloquist’s doll “what do you think of it so far?”, to which the bust replies “rubbish!”. Whatever Eric’s opinion of the standard of football at Kenilworth Road had been to that point, he could hardly have been more impressed with what followed.
Luton burst out of the traps in the autumn of 1981 and barely looked back. They quickly ascended to the top of the Second Division closely pursued by their nearest and fiercest rivals, Watford. Graham Taylor’s side – another club with its celebrity links through superstar chairman Elton John – had gradually risen through the divisions and were trying to reach the top level of English football for the first time. The Hornets from Hertfordshire clung on to the coat tails of their neighbours from 19 miles up the M1 over the border in Bedfordshire. Both teams were renowned for scoring plenty of goals, yet how they did so was of marked contrast. Pleat’s Luton played a brand of fast, attacking, passing football while Taylor and Watford became known as a more direct team preferring ‘route one’ to patient build up.
Despite their contrasting styles, both teams continued to accumulate points at an impressive rate (1981-82 was the first English league season where three points were awarded for a win) and by early 1982, they had pulled away from the rest to contest the Second Division championship between themselves. It was Luton who held the upper hand for the majority; they lost twice in their opening seven games and just twice more in their remaining 35. Consistency like that saw Luton top the table for virtually the whole season; Watford took top spot from them for one solitary week, relinquishing it immediately. The Hatters would not slip up again, storming to the title with an impressive eight point margin to second placed Watford with Norwich City a further nine in arrears in third. Promotion and silverware; what did you think about that, Eric?
Luton’s first season back in Division One was – as expected – a struggle. They won plenty of admirers for the way they played but struggled to achieve results, winning just twelve games all season and only seven against teams who finished 17th (out of 22) or higher. The final day of 1982-83 came to define that Luton team, and more specifically, manager David Pleat.
Staring prompt relegation in the face, Luton visited Maine Road to take on Manchester City who were also desperately clinging onto First Division survival. City may have fallen on hard times - indeed they had topped the table earlier in the season before an alarming slump - but playing at home, were still favourites to win, or at least get they pointed they required.
John Benson’s City created the better chances with Luton hanging on, at times, for dear life. Then, with just five minutes remaining and with the home side virtually safe, the visitors sensed an opportunity. A cross into the box caused mayhem; City keeper Alex Williams palmed the ball out to the edge of the area where Antic loitered for the scraps. He rifled in a low shot, leaving City defenders flailing helplessly, contorted in all directions in their vain attempts to block the goal-bound effort. Pleat was jubilant, staggering almost uncontrollably around the dugout area as if struck by a bolt of divine lightning. At the final whistle, an even more fanciful reaction was to come.
The Luton boss, resplendent in a beige suit – with just a passing resemblance to early period Del Boy – skipped and shuffled gleefully over the Maine Road turf towards the travelling away contingent. He celebrated by grabbing Brian Horton and planting a congratulatory kiss on his cheek. The whole celebration, with its comedic dance and the big wet smacker, reeked of Eric Morecambe himself. Luton were saved in the most dramatic of circumstances on the type of footballing ‘D-Day’ Sky Sports would be falling over themselves to cover today.
This gave Pleat a platform to build on, and while finishing places in the First Division gradually improved over the next five years (seventh in 1986-87 their best under John Moore who led them for just one season), it was in the cup competitions where Luton thrived.
Unfortunately, their most famous supporter never got to see any of it. In the early hours of May 28th 1984, Eric Morecambe passed away aged just 58 in Cheltenham General Hospital after suffering a third heart attack following a performance at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. In his honour, the club named a suite after him at Kenilworth Road.
Had he survived, Morecambe would have seen Luton grow as a team, adding players like Mick Harford, Steve Foster, Danny Wilson and Mike Newell to an already decent squad. He would also have witnessed them on the verge of reaching the FA Cup final in 1985, only to be denied in the semi-final by Everton’s greatest ever side in their pomp – the Toffees having to rally from a goal down to win in extra time.
Better was to come in April 1988 when, on a glorious sunny day at Wembley, they produced a famous cup shock in the final of the League Cup – known then as the Littlewoods Cup – by beating George Graham’s emerging Arsenal. By this time, Pleat (and John Moore) had moved on; his achievements at Kenilworth Road had attracted the attention of north London giants Tottenham Hotspur in 1986. However, he lasted just one year at White Hart Lane; his position terminated due to misdemeanours in his private life.
Ray Harford was in charge for a game that was one of the all-time classics, often forgotten in favour of some of its more revered 1980s FA Cup final counterparts. ITV’s co-commentator alongside Brian Moore was, ironically, David Pleat – the man who had engineered the development of this modern Luton Town team. Brian Stein gave the Hatters an early lead which they defended resolutely. The barricades were finally broken down when substitute Martin Hayes equalised for the Gunners with 20 minutes remaining. Just three minutes later it seemed all of Luton’s efforts were in vain when Alan Smith put the favourites ahead, calmly shooting past Andy Dibble. No one would have blamed Luton if they had capitulated at that point but the more than 95,000 in attendance had more drama in store as Harford’s men rallied. The catalyst for the comeback was surviving a potentially killer blow; Mal Donaghy brought down a surging David Rocastle to concede a penalty. Unusually, Arsenal full-back Nigel Winterburn took the spot kick, drilling it low to Dibble’s left. The keeper guessed right and moved swiftly to turn Winterburn’s kick around the post.
Luton’s second came with eight minutes left after a mistake by Gus Caesar; Danny Wilson finally heading home after a scramble in front of John Lukic in the Arsenal goal. However, the best was yet to come. In the final minute Luton pressured their opponents’ goal. Ashley Grimes outside-of-the-left-foot cross was met – fittingly – by the elder of the Stein brothers (Brian), the man who had been there from the very start of the Pleat era. His sharp finish pinched the League cup in an incredible finale. This was their first, and so far only, major honour.
Sadly, this was as good as it got for Luton Town. Not even the benefit of their infamous plastic pitch - installed in 1985 – could prevent them from languishing near the foot of the table for several consecutive years. Ironically, at the end of the season when Kenilworth Road returned to a grass surface, they were relegated. From there, the last 20-plus years have been a rollercoaster, to say the least…
One cannot skirt over the good times of the 1980s without touching upon its controversies too. We have already mentioned the plastic pitch which was despised by virtually all who ever had the misfortune to play on it and leave several layers of skin on it. The shocking riot in March 1985, when thousands of visiting Millwall fans rampaged through the town and inside the stadium, will remain one of English football’s darkest moments of a very dark time. And, of course, there was the much-debated ID card scheme – championed by former chairman and Tory MP David Evans – which also involved the banning of away supporters at Kenilworth Road.
Even taking these events into consideration, the late 70s and 1980s were a time when the football club brought a lot of sunshine to its supporters. They may have been the butt of many an Eric Morecambe tongue-in-cheek jibe, but it was Luton Town who had the last laugh.