A 9-year climb from non-league to top-flight football is just one part of the Luton story. After the club was almost destroyed by previous owners, fans took back control – and provided an alternative to the corporate domination of football.
(Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Today, Luton Town F.C. returns to top-flight football after a thirty-one-year stint in the wilderness that threatened the club’s existence.
Luton is a remarkable place. An energetic, working-class town which owes its social and ethnic diversity, as well as its legacy of industry, to massive growth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With proud histories in hat and car making, we’re still left with the burning embers that make us the staunch Lutonians we are today. The community has shaped the football club, and the football club has, in turn, shaped the community.
Luton Town is hard. And if you’re coming to try and break us, you better be ready for a fight. The most recent attempt to kill us off resulted in the regeneration of the football club, which is now trying its best to carry the town back to where it belongs.
In 2003 John Gurney and his consortium acquired the club, and while he wasn’t the last poor custodian of the football club, he was the one that lit the fire in the fanbase, demonstrating the need to take matters into our own hands.
Many things have changed in the football club’s 130-year history, including players, managers, and, too often, the league we play in. But one constant in that time has been its identity—something Gurney had wanted to change during his short tenure. In addition to his aspiration to build a 70,000-seater stadium with a Formula 1 racing track around the perimeter, Gurney explored the option of renaming the club ‘London-Luton Football Club’ and pushed for a merger with Wimbledon F.C., which included a proposed move to Milton Keynes.
A large contingent of Lutonians demonstrated their anger and opposition through protest, including voting with our feet by refusing to buy season tickets, but we needed to be smarter. Gurney threatened fans, ‘If they expect me to walk away from Luton with nothing, I’ll make very sure there’s nothing to walk away from.’
This is where Trust in Luton (TiL) was born, thanks in part to Gary Sweet, one of its founding members and the current CEO of Luton Town Football Club. The threat to the club’s existence promoted TiL to scupper Gurney’s planned rebranding and eventually gain control of the club.
Gary Sweet and the Trust devised a plan to acquire shares in one of the club’s major creditors, Hatters Holdings, an offshore company Luton Town Football Club owed several million pounds. After Trust in Luton and Gary Sweet secured majority ownership, they deliberately placed the club into administrative receivership in July 2003 to successfully force out John Gurney. And just like that, his turbulent fifty-five days in charge were over.
One chapter closed and another battle survived. But things weren’t going to be so straightforward. The club was sold to a new consortium, and, apart from a brief moment where we popped our head into the Championship, the next few years were going to be hard, thanks to a couple of incompetent owners.
But the foundations were there, and the Trust was lying in wait for the right opportunity. In 2008, they got that opportunity. The club was placed into administration, with the administrators selling to the fan-backed Luton Town Football Club 2020 consortium, securing greater fan ownership and involvement.
We could finally breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a bright future once more—or so we thought. The Football Association had other ideas; the club were still being investigated for past financial irregularities under the previous ownership.
As a result, the club was struck with a thirty-point penalty before a ball had even been kicked, all but condemning us to another relegation. This time though, it was out of the Football League. A reminder hangs on a flag above Block F at Kenilworth Road stadium, ‘Luton Town betrayed by the FA 2008’—an experience that spurred us to learn from past owners’ mistakes and protect the club’s future.
In 2014, Trust in Luton secured the legal right to veto any changes to the club’s identity, including its name, nickname, club colours, club crest and mascot, no matter who owns the club. TiL then merged with the long-established Luton Town Supporters’ Club (LTSC) to become the Luton Town Supporters’ Trust (LLST), a democratic cooperative and a shareholder of Luton Town Football Club 2020 Ltd, meaning that fans own shares and elect members to the club’s board—providing a safety net to which fans of all clubs should aspire.
Wrestling back control of our club has meant success off the pitch as well as on it. Luton F.C. became the first professional club in the English Football League to become an accredited Living Wage employer and the first to reject gambling sponsorships. The club is now as rooted in the streets of our community as the Kenilworth Road stadium itself.
This is the side of football you don’t see, hidden from the millions that watch around the globe every week. Football is richer and has more viewers than ever, but this wealth and exposure has too often come at the expense of fans and their communities. Lutonions know this ugly side of the beautiful game better than most, but we also understand through hard experience how vital it is for fans to own a stake and have a voice in their clubs.
We may be a poor town, but we have a rich community. We have made it to the Premier League on the most threadbare of budgets through the hardest of fights—and we’ve come to shake it up.Original post