From Hades to Hollywood: The unbelievable journey of Luton Town Football Club

Survival, unity, and the rise of fan power: Luton's is a story of redemption, from non-league to Premier League.

Through thick and thin, Luton supporters have never given up on their club
Through thick and thin, Luton supporters have never given up on their club / George Wood/GettyImages

“No one connected to Luton Town Football Club fears relegation. How could we? We have been to Hades and lived to tell the tale.”

Kevin Rouse, chairman of Loyal Luton Supporters Club, is hardly exaggerating. Luton may be the modern messiahs on how to run a sustainable football club. But for decades, they were anything but.

Stadiums on stilts, letterbox petrol bombs, endless administrations and the infamous ‘Manager Idol’ characterised the club’s turbulent years throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

“When we so nearly didn’t have a club to support then just being here at times is a miracle in itself.” Rouse explains.

It is hard to imagine a more remarkable comeback story. Non-league to Premier League in just ten years. Spending next to nothing in the process. Yet, few are fully aware the true depths of despair that many Hatters fans have been through in the last 30 years.

For Mark Araci, it has been an unmatched emotional journey. Now based in Chicago, he has become the cities one-man travelling band for a club most Americans never knew existed until the last year. Well, unless they knew Araci. He wouldn’t let them not.

“I made the point of telling everybody everything about Luton, boring them to tears. I even made the team I play football with play in Orange.”

When Luton won the playoff final last year, Araci was at Wembley but had left a sea of orange behind him in Chicago. Friends going wild in bemused North American bars as Luton overcame Coventry 6-5 on penalties. For Araci himself, it was more personal.

The day started with a trip to Luton’s own: The Bricklayers Arms. Next it was a train to London and a limo to Wembley. It was a day done in style. All his friends and daughter in tow.

“I got into the stadium and suddenly realized what we were there for. It started sinking in. Remembering my dad and what not, being there with my daughter. It was absolutely everything.”

Araci recalls the moment Coventry’s Fankaty Dabo stepped up to take the decisive penalty, knowing he had to score to keep his side in it. The sun finally disappeared behind the stadium as he did:

“The temperature dropped and it was like a cold shiver. I remember looking up and going ‘Dad he’s gonna miss it isn’t he?’ He went wide of the goal and high and I just went absolutely f***ing crazy.”

Luton had done it.

“I was over the chairs in front of me, hugging my daughter, lifting my daughter up. It was everything that had been bad for the past 30 odd years just expelled.”

Luton's litany of dodgy owners

Most football fans can talk of experience with questionable owners, the memory of one probably sticking in their mind. For Luton fans, the list is long. Over 30 years long.

David Evans the first name on it. A man who splits opinion amongst Hatters fans to this day. On the one hand, he presided over an incredibly successful period during the 1980s, winning the League Cup and spending a decade in the First Division.

On the other, he left Luton one of the most hated sides in the country. Banning away fans for four seasons in response to the notorious 1985 FA Cup clash with Millwall. A game that quickly turned into a violent riot, wrecking Kenilworth Road and the neighbourhoods surrounding it.

1985 Luton riot
1985 Luton Millwall riot / Express/GettyImages

Naturally, opposition fans were furious at the ban, Luton became a toxic word to many. Araci hated it but did manage to find one upside.

“I saw an opportunity to make some money with my friends. We got loads of additional members and would sell them on the day of the game to visiting fans. You know, all highly illegal and all that but a handy way for a teenager to make a little bit of extra money.”

It was Evans £3.25 million sale of their stadium Kenilworth Road to the local council that would be his real legacy. Leaving the club in uncertain financial territory, having to lease their own ground to this day.

After Evans, came David Kohler. A man Araci despises:

“He just sold. It was like asset stripping. We should never have been relegated in the 1991/92 season, but the owners just did not invest in the team.”

Despite being one of the founding members of the Premier League, Luton were relegated before they could partake in it. Araci thought it would only be a short-term setback:  

“At the time, I thought we’d be back within a year or two. I never thought it would be 31 years before we played a game in the topflight.”

A long way back

What followed instead was years of underinvestment. Kohler became a villain amongst the fans. His self-centred proposals like a new 20,000-seater stadium titled the “Kohlerdome” did little to help. Neither did the club dropping down to the third division under his ownership.

By 1999, things had gotten toxic. Kohler reported being abused in the street, attacked in his car and having his home graffiti’d by fans. The final straw: an alleged petrol bomb and matches being posted through his letterbox. He reacted furiously:

"What happened is an act that any reasonable person must deplore. As a husband and father of three children, the youngest only five weeks old, my primary responsibility is to them. The police have viewed this petrol bomb as a warning. However, I am not prepared to use my family as a shield or place them in any circumstances that could endanger them.”

Luton fans vehemently deny this happened. They claim he left under the orders of a receiver from fellow director Cliff Bassett, to whom he owed £2 million. The petrol bomb being a convenient excuse.

Nonetheless, he left the club in administration and in their first fight for survival. Araci and others had seen enough. It was time for fan organising.

In the backroom of the Brickies (The Bricklayers Arms), twenty or so fans met up to discuss buying the club for £1:

“It was a mix of people. I was the representative of the fanzine. The Loyal Luton Supporters were there. It was the first time that all the supporter groups had come together and basically said enough was enough.”

There was a common belief amongst them.

“We needed to start doing something about this. We need to start securing the future of the club because it means so much to the town.”

They wouldn’t win the bid but sowed the seeds of supporter unity that would be crucial when dealing with the calamity that was to come: John Gurney.

The Gurney manifesto

In 2003, so-called businessman Gurney and a mysterious consortium of ‘international investors’ acquired the club for £4 from previous owner Mike Watson-Challice.

“He was a complete joker.” Rouse exclaims.

Fan favorites manager Joe Kinnear and his assistant Mick Harford were quickly dismissed, and a peculiar manifesto was published on the club website. Rouse could barely believe his eyes:

“Outrageous promises were made. The famous ground on stilts (on top of the M1 motorway) with a 70,000 capacity and an F1 track running around it. He said that NFL and NBA games could be played there and would make the club £350 million a year from it.”

It didn’t end there.

“He wanted to change our name to London Luton FC and use a Pop Idol style poll to vote in a new manager.”

Araci was only just through the door, having been travelling for a year, when his flatmate handed him the manifesto.

“There was this stack of papers on the table. You start going through it and you’re like ‘What the hell is he talking about? A F1 track underneath the stadium. I couldn’t get my head round it.”

It quickly became apparent something was wrong. Staff wages were not being paid, fans began to revolt and then there was the notorious 'Manager Idol'.

Hatters fans were told to vote for their desired next coach in a poll. The just fired Joe Kinnear was on the list, alongside Steve Cotteril and Mike Newell. Conveniently, the winner was the only man who turned up on the day of the announcement: Newell. A man who would ironically long outlast Gurney at Luton.

The fans fight back

Amidst the chaos, supporters were getting organised. Season ticket sales had almost stopped, local sponsors were being convinced to boycott investment and instead pledge £300,000 to the newly founded supporters club Trust in Luton (TiL).

It was a fan-led revolution. One that, through online message boards such as the Luton Outlaws brought all sorts of fans together. Araci tells me of a key player in the operation, going by the name ‘Tiddles’:

“He had this unbelievable knack of digging into people. He started digging around this Gurney and he found links with people who had done very questionable things with other football clubs.”

This information was relayed to Gary Sweet, a key member of the Trust, who proved crucial in bringing Gurney down before it was too late.

Sweet and the TiL found that Gurney had somehow missed that the club’s creditor, Hatters Holdings, held a debenture against the club. A debenture for the owing of several million pounds that could be called in at any time.

The Trust ingeniously acquired shares in Hatters Holdings and called that debenture in. With that, Luton was taken out of Gurneys hands and placed in administrative receivership on 14th July 2003, just 55 days after he had bought it.

If you want 40 minutes of barely believable The Office-like entertainment, watch Trouble at the Top on YouTube. The BBC were there to film it all.

Araci sees the whole saga as a positive, for what was to come... “In that short period of time, he caused so much mayhem but we got so much good out of it.”

First, unsurprisingly, there were a few more questionable ownerships to pass. Bill Tomlins would take the club out of administration in 2004, only to leave it three years later. The FA’s investigation into the paying of agents through third-party companies triggering his departure.

Tomlins claimed this was only done because manager Newell hated agents, a well-documented reality. The intention being to hide their involvement from him. Perfectly legitimate…

Next was the turn of Touring car driver David Pinkney, whose reign would last only seven months. Sensing financial disaster and impending FA punishment, he decided to cut his losses and left the club in administration once again.

Fearing possible extinction, Sweet and the Trust took executive action. After more meetings in the Brickies, a fan-led consortium, Luton Town Football Club 2020, bought the club in February 2008. They would eventually sell 50,000 shares to the Trust, ensuring fan ownership for the future.

The FA's great betrayal

It was a huge moment. But one that was followed with further disaster. This time inflicted by the FA and Football League (FL). They were found guilty of past financial irregularities with little sympathy given to the new owner’s transparency.

In 2008, they were relegated to League Two with the help of a ten-point deduction. The following season, the FA would do one better. Deducting thirty. Stating Luton had failed to come to an agreement with those owed money.

Essentially consigning Luton to non-league football and the Conference league. It is a decision no Luton fan has ever forgiven.

“They really did f*** us over. They did try to break the club and I think if it had been any other club, maybe they would not have survived. But what we had been through in the past ten years had set ourselves up ready to go.”

Before their relegation, Luton managed to make it to Wembley. Reaching the final of the Football League Trophy, 40,000 fans watched as their side became the only club to win the Trophy and be relegated from the Football League in the same season.

When FL chairman Lord Mawhinney stepped up to congratulate the players, he was resoundingly booed by the Hatters supporters. For Rouse, that was ‘one last two fingered salute.’

“It was a defiant gesture towards him, he knew at that moment in time he was hated by the Luton legions on the terraces of Wembley.”

‘Luton Town Betrayed by the FA 2008’ still hangs in Kenilworth Road to this day.

To Rouse, the club’s rise up the divisions has been, in a sense, their final revenge.

“It is justice that we are in the Premier League, sticking two fingers up to the authorities that tried to kill us.”

Spending little but rising fast

Perhaps most fitting is the way they have come up. A rise done through sustainable ownership.

Since the Premier League was created in 1992, Luton have spent £31 million on transfers (£19 million of which came last summer). Compare that to Brentford, their nearest rivals in transfer spend at £209 million. How?

“By keeping to a strict playing budget, good dealings in the transfer market and building a backroom staff that brought into the ethos of the club. For the fans by the fans.” Rouse explains.

Since the 2020 takeover with Sweet at the helm as CEO, the club have created an infrastructure that prioritised youth development and a keen-eyed recruitment policy.

Identifying ‘rough gems’, as Araci calls them. Players previously forgotten about at other clubs and providing them with a sense of belief at Luton.

“Giving them a bit of a polish.” Araci explains. “Look at Ross Barkley! He’s been phenomenal! He’s up there with Ricky Hill for me in terms of the best player I’ve ever seen for Luton.”


Luton Town v Nottingham Forest
Luton players in the tunnel during their game against Nottingham Forest / Alex Pantling/GettyImages

But it’s not just impressive recruitment. There’s a bonded feeling at the club. Araci cites Marvelous Nakamba screaming “Together” into the cameras after last season’s playoff victory as the epitome of this:

“There’s a great togetherness in the club. The owners are born in the town, raised in the town, they know what it means to the town. The players understand it, they all understand it. The players know what the club means to the fans. The history of the last 15 years, how we could have lost the club. It all comes together.”

It is a unity built from shared experiences. Both bad and good. From three consecutive relegations that knocked them out of the football league to the eventual fairy-tale rise that followed it.

One player is the embodiment of this: Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu. The midfielder who was there when John Still finally led them out of the Conference in 2014. Who was there for the consecutive promotions in 2018 and 2019, rising from League Two to the Championship. Who was there when they beat Coventry and cemented their Premier League status last year.

The first footballer to climb from the non-league tiers of English football to the Premier League with the same club, Mpanzu is the symbol of Luton’s remarkable rise.

“Never mind bloody Wrexham, this is the real Hollywood story.” Araci exclaims.

A story that is not finished yet. Thanks to Nottingham Forest’s four-point deduction, Luton lie in 17th, a point above the relegation places with nine games to play. Survival is a realistic possibility.

Something few gave them a chance of at the start of the season. Each pundit relegating them without second thought. Fans laughing at the peculiarity of Kenilworth Road, it’s size and strange entrances beside people’s back gardens.

Did this spur them on? “Without a doubt.” Says Araci. “If you studied the history of the previous season alone, you would have seen that we were not gonna come up and be the knock overs that they all thought we would.”

Manager Rob Edwards tactical reinvention has been key to that. Starting the season in a more direct long ball style of play that worked well in the Championship, Edwards quickly realized that, although they were competitive, it wasn’t quite enough in the Premier League.

He then honed the team to mix that direct style with a focus on high-energy pressing and playing out from the back. Giving them a versatility that is hard to predict.

“That’s the big change, he empowered the defence to find (Sambi) Lokonga and Barkley rather than just going for the route one. We have more of a ball possession desire rather than just get rid of it.” Araci tells me.

This change in tac has opened up Luton’s scoring abilities. If the table was to go by goals scored, the Hatters would be 11th. The success of their quick countering out of defence proving key in their battle for survival, the likes of Elijah Adebayo and Carlton Morris reaping the rewards of this.  

It will be a fight to the wire but one Araci feels a sense of destiny for.

“I’m confident that our season will end with another Hollywood script. I’ve always said from the beginning of the season, we just need to be the fourth shi***** team in the league and if we’ve done that, then that’s the Hollywood script for you.”

Even with relegation, Luton’s story is one remarkable enough for Hollywood. There is no need for Ryan Reynolds. Just a small town thirty miles north of London that have been to hades but are far from it now. A town that finally has its club back.

Next. Robert Lewandowski finding form at the right time for Barcelona. Robert Lewandowski finding form at the right time for Barcelona. dark

“The supporters have a connection now that this is our club and not some plaything for speculators, spivs, chancers, playboys or the football authorities. Long may that last.” - Kevin Rouse