Sunday, September 28, 2014

I really really hate Luton

You don’t need to know much about Oxford United to know that Swindon Town is its nearest and deadliest rival. The historical rivalry with Reading seems to have withered due to a lack of use, whereas Wycombe Wanderers snap at our heels trying to provoke us into a reaction which rarely gains any traction.

The Swindon rivalry is well rehearsed; insults are traded, there is periodic, out of context, abusive songs sung for no other reason than to remind us all of the animosity. When games happen they’re highly anticipated, broiling affairs which, let’s face it, we tend to win. As much as I like the rivalry, I like the insults, the anticipation and the games, it’s all very knowing. We know they hate us, they know we hate them and we all act according to a pre-ordained script.

As a result, like many derbies, there is something of the American wrestling about the whole affair. At the top, a layer excitement, fury and action, below a carefully constructed pre-rehearsed narrative. So, in a sense I hate Swindon because I’m supposed to, but in truth I don’t hate them with a visceral loathing. That feeling is reserved for Luton Town.

Luton and Oxford’s histories have followed very similar trajectories. We both experienced a Wembley victory in the mid-eighties and then Conference football in the late 2000s. It is possible, perhaps, to use each other as a benchmark of our true success. Being in the top flight is not either team's natural position in the world and nor is struggling in the Conference. Our natural position, you could argue, is somewhere relatively better or worse than a team like Luton, and likewise them with us.

Along with Wimbledon, Oxford United and Luton Town were Thatcher’s children. During the 80s Thatcher dismantled the traditional British economy pushing many of football’s traditional heartlands into recession. Clubs like Blackpool and Preston fell down the leagues, others, like Manchester United struggled along without the success they once enjoyed. Oxford, Luton and Wimbledon were heartlands of the nouveau riche feeding off the false riches offered by privatisation and other economic reforms.

You would think that we would galvanise into a ‘movement’ but like all middle-class neighbours we were all racked with jealousy and mistrust. We, beside being funded by a fraudster, achieved our success the right way - playing exciting attacking football, marauding over all-comers in front of packed crowds. Wimbledon were fabled route-one specialists, aggressive and physical. Luton simply cheated their way to the top laying a carpet of artificial turf at Kenilworth Road which caused the ball to bounce as if on a trampoline and burn the legs of those who had the temerity to fall over. The only football you could play on it was ‘Luton football’. In short, rather like Thatcher's economic miracle, it skewed the market to enable their success.

Thatcher acolyte David Evans, a Conservative MP and Luton chairman, also took the decision to ban away fans from Kenilworth Road further distorting their home advantage. Superficially, it was an attempt to combat hooliganism - as if there was something about round balls and rectangular goalposts - the functions of the game - which cause otherwise happy people to turn violent. He was also a vocal supporter of Thatcher’s plans to introduce identity cards for football fans; an absurd abuse of human rights. Luton were basically Thatcher’s version football porn and Evans fawned endlessly over her to gain favour.

There were notable scuffles between the clubs on the pitch - they knocked us out of the League Cup in a often forgotten semi-final in 1988 thereby denying us a second Wembley trip in 2 years, there was an astonishing 7-4 defeat at Kenilworth Road and a 3-2 Oxford win on the plastic that all but secured our survival in 1987.

Fast forward to the Kassam years; we’re plummeting back down the league and the latest Kassam saviour, Joe Kinnear, resigns from Oxford on health-grounds. He reappears days later at Luton. He could have given so many reasons for resigning, but he simply, publicly, lied. Plus, he left us with David Kemp. Then, he took Luton on a dance back up through the divisions - beating us on Boxing Day in 2001. While we struggled, they celebrated and we were eventually relegated to the Conference while they sat pretty. This would have been galling enough had it not been based on one of the biggest lies in English football history.

The club were operating way beyond their means and when the money dried up administration was an inevitability. In addition it was revealed that Luton had been paying agents via third parties against the Football League’s regulations. The result was an accumulative 30 point deduction which meant they were relegated into the Conference the following season. In essence, we’d been a victim of their ill-gotten success, or that’s how it felt. Their points punishment was one thing, but it didn't compensate for our suffering.

By now we were both in the Conference, this put Oxford and Luton in the unfamiliar position of being giants of their division. Inevitably, they arrogantly predicted an immediate return to the Football League - being the only team, they said, ever to be relegated from the league for 'non-football reasons' (not true, their cheating artificially inflated their footballing capability; the points deduction was just a readjustment for that). But it was us who set the pace winning 2-0 on a fantastic night at the Kassam with a James Constable goal moments after missing a penalty (spewing a mini-YouTube classic) and a wonder goal from The Great Carrier Of Hope, Jamie Cook. The stadium seethed throughout - the size of the crowd and its intensity taking the police and club by surprise - part of the chaos being that it wasn’t considered important enough to be all-ticket.

Months later and the tide was again beginning to turn; Luton was finding their feet and we were suffering a characteristic mini-collapse. The problem appeared to be stemmed at Kenilworth Road as Matt Green put us into the lead, which we carried deep into injury time. Then, perhaps inevitably, they won a corner from which they equalised; and then heartbreakingly about six hours into injury time, we conceded again and walked away with nothing. Chris Wilder talked paternally about us being alright despite us metaphorically falling off our bike and getting a boo-boo on our knee.

The season, inevitably ended with a play-off. It seemed pre-ordained that we would meet Luton at Wembley (maybe even a full Wembley) for the right to promotion. But, while we completed our side of the deal dismantling Rushden, they inexplicably capitulated at home to York. It probably did us the world of good as their form suggested they’d have gone to Wembley as hot favourites. But, all of this was overshadowed as angry Luton fans chased the York players into the away end hurling abuse and objects at them. A shameful episode for which they were barely punished - even more galling when you consider that a year before we were deducted five points for a minor administrative error involving Eddie Hutchinson.

Saturday's defeat, which seems to have opened the debate around Michael Appleton's commitment to The Right Things, seems to have been self-inflicted. However, this doesn't make me feel any better about them.

I haven’t even touched on what a horrible place Luton is or what a pipsqueak of a stadium they have with their grandstand of greenhouses down one side. It all adds to a great pyre of evidence that makes Luton a team I loath beyond all others.

Oh, but I love their kit.

Addendum: There is a fine line between deliberately nasty and simply discussing a genuine feeling. And this is about the latter, not the former, although I realise that it does look like the former – particularly if you are a Luton fan. If you think about it, I’m describing a relationship over a 30 year period. The only real constant in this relationship is me and the name Luton Town.

It just so happens that Luton and I have never really got on – from plastic pitches and bad results to banned away fans and hooliganism. But that’s not to say that there aren’t good people in Luton and it hasn’t done good stuff. I have vague recollections of being a "Luton fan" during the 1985 League Cup final. It’s just my only interaction with the club has really been through the bad stuff listed above.

At least Luton is a memorable team for me. I suppose, in a sense, I should dislike other clubs even more because they just happen to turn up at Oxford games from time to time and leave no impression at all.

What I do know is that frequently when you dislike something, that it says more about you than the thing you dislike. Perhaps that’s it – Luton Town is a bear trap for me; which says more about me than it does about them. 


midland hatter said...

Its quite touching that you feel so passionate about your hate for Luton. However, your loathing should be reserved for your beloved Swindon. Despising another team more is as bad as saying you support more than one team. So don't flatter yourself, we hate Watford and dislike the rest, you're not even on our radar. The ground may not be in great shape, i will give you that, but, I will take it every day over one that spends it times 40% full.
Thanks for the points made, not as good as the 3 we took yesterday!

Anonymous said...

Jog on you mug. Two words Michael Appleton

Anonymous said...

How did it take you to write that?. Too much time on your hands. You're irrelevant to us

Unknown said...

i got bored after "you don't need to know much about oxford"

Banquo said...

That orange kit looks brilliant.

Unknown said...

Our stadium may not be pretty but we are one of the few traditional stadiums left. We have collected more trophies at that stadium (nevermind the Wembley ones) than you have in your whole history.

Also, Oxford are about as important to us as Partick Thistle. Our extensive history of being giants and killing them means we aim quite a lot higher than Oxford Town, City, United, Rovers or whatever your full nane is.

Unknown said...

I've got no opinion about Oxford but it's nice that you give us so much thought. I'd try and calm down a bit if I were you, all that bitterness can't be good for you. Anyway, cheers for the 3 points, say hello to the conference for us next season.

Unknown said...
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Oxblogger said...

Blimey, where did you lot come from?

OK, I’ve add an addendum to this post, but on the main points:

I don’t really expect any Luton fan to have any particular animosity towards Oxford, certainly not over and above Watford. This is just my feeling towards one club; I don’t expect other Oxford fans to think the same, or any Luton fans to give a monkey’s about Oxford.

Two words: Michael Appleton? Agree, see my previous posts on the subject.

Your stadium - it's true, it's not pretty, but it's yours. As someone who misses The Manor I empathise with that argument.

Petey said...

You seem to care a whole lot more about us, than we care about you.

A whole lot more.

The number of valid points you make, equal the amount you took from Kenny Road on Saturday....namely, none.

All you are, is just another punter, and just another club, that says the name of Luton Town in vain, in the hopes that they'll get some much needed attention at our expense.

Oxblogger said...

Thanks, but I have already made the point that because I associate "Luton Town" with a load of pretty miserable things, that doesn't mean I expect you to have the same feelings about us. If we're irrelevant to you, I'm cool with that.

I don't agree that there are no valid points - as far as I can see, there are quite a lot of undeniable facts - the games, the points deductions, the banning of fans, the plastic pitch, the trouble against York and the identity cards all happened.

Btw, I do get the 'no points' joke.

Unknown said...

Knocking another teams ground when your own consists of only 3 sides is desperate let alone your attendances being half of ours - no wonder you're bitter.

Luton isn't remotely the nicest town in England, never will be but that works in our favour. Other fans find the town unwelcoming and intimidating with a hostile crowd close to the pitch not making it a pleasant day trip for opposing teams.
Kassam?? stadium or Kenilworth Rd it's a no brainer !!!

John Aston said...

Hmm, came here via a link in the local press. You've made the back pages in the Luton News!

I'll try a measured response. As a Town supporter I can unfortunately identify with some of the criticisms. Our association with a careerist Tory MP back in the 80s makes me cringe. As does the coin-throwing attack after losing the play-off semi-final to York. Truly classless and pathetic.

The point about cheating our way up the leagues, however, is untrue. Progress under Mike Newell was made in spite of the thieves in the boardroom, not because of them. You only have to look at the sales of our star players in that time to realise that the property speculators who owned the club were using it as a cash cow. Looking at Oxford's own history, you'll surely identify with this.

It was Newell and the lowly Club secretary who brought the FA's attention to the board's financial wrongdoings. You'll remember, perhaps, the Panorama documentary on agents' backhanders at the same time? As ever, the establishment went for the whistleblowers rather than the perpetrators. There's a nice summary of events in When Saturday Comes

The 30 point punishment was vindictive, perhaps driven by the same unpopularity that forms the theme of your post. Luton Town was a convenient soft target. According to David Conn, "Newcastle United and Birmingham City were found by two VAT tribunals to have done the same and also to have made false statements about it to the FA." Yet has any Premier League club ever been deducted points by the FA?

Rather like Millwall, Luton are viewed through the media prism which focuses on our minority and marginalised self-styled 'firm'. Since the club has been run by a fan-based investment team, great strides have been made to
foster ties with the local community, promote relations with Luton's asian population and base its future on youth development rather than ill-conceived speculation. The club is debt-free.

Time for some revisionism on your part? Luton departed non-league football with many more friends than enemies. We're using this to our advantage to sign upcoming talent and through the loan system to keep our squad players prepared for call-up. Can Oxford say the same?

Unknown said...

You also are incorrect about the plastic pitch being the reason we made it to the top. We were promoted in 1981 to Division 1 (as it was then) because we had the most skilful team by far, under David Pleat. A team that set the First Division alight the following season, with the first couple of months including 5-0 and 5-3 wins at home, a 4-4 draw away (having missed a penalty), and a 3-3 draw away at Anfield with our right back in goal.

And all achieved in a grass pitch. Because in Ricky Hill, Brian Stein, Paul Walsh, David Moss, we had one of the most talented front fours in the league.

The plastic pitch and the ban on away fans came later, so the reference to cheating our way to the top is, frankly, libellous.

Oxblogger said...

John, you had me at 'measured'. I've no doubt my view is distorted and fundamentally 'wrong' when you apply any rationality to it.

It's wasn't supposed to be measured or fair; but nor is it personal against any individual. It's my own reaction to an institution, maybe even just two words; 'Luton' and 'Town'. And it's almost certainly wrong.

If a Swindon fan says they hate Oxford, they don't hate me, they hate a thing called Oxford. I don't take it personally. I thought we were all in on that.

But that's what football is about - irrational, personal, emotional reactions to things. If we were wholly rational we'd all support Chelsea or whoever, objectively, is the best club in the country. If we were all fair, then you'd appreciate Watford and what they achieve and I would applaud Swindon, but where's the fun in that?

Perhaps over time you and people like you will help persuade me and people like me that I shouldn't have this reaction to your club. It doesn't really matter if I do change my view, of course, it's not going to change your view and nor should it. In that debate (and most/all others) I am irrelevant. Which is why this is not news; which daft sports editor thought that it was?

As I said before, I remember as a child cheering your win over Arsenal in 1985. Then, things went sour. Your comment, and other things I hear about 'modern Luton' helps chip away my ill-conceived (but real) perceptions. Perhaps I'll one day change my mind again, it would be quite cool if I did.

Unknown said...

You sad, bitter little man, still banging on about the plastic pitch and away fans ban 25 years later. You can't even get your facts right as we installed the plastic pitch after we were promoted to Div 1 so how did it help us cheat our way to promotion? QPR had one before we did so do you think they cheated too?
Meanwhile since the plastic pitch and way fans ban went we've seen the establishment of the Premier League which has syphoned billions of pounds to a few elite clubs whilst leaving the rest feeding on the crumbs. And we've seen the football authorities legitamise franchise football with the birth of MK Dons. Don't you think those are far worst 'crimes against football' that a short-lived plastic pitch and away fans ban over 2 decades ago?

Oxblogger said...

OK, if there are any Luton fans who would like to write me a fully factual, wholly rational, chronologically correct assessment of why they dislike Watford, I would be happy to post it up here .

Oxblogger said...
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Unknown said...

I'm a luton fan and I really enjoyed this piece. A fair bit of what you've written is, of course biased. Calling one of Oxford's misdemeanors a "small administrative error" while playing up Luton as cheaters seems a bit disingenuous. But hey, we're football fans so of course we are going to be slightly zealous with our language and biases.

I understand that this is a seven year old piece, but it is interesting to see the organic relations individuals make between clubs that they recognise.I consider Watford to be Luton's main rival, most luton fans would say the same. Yet I believe this because it is tradition within the club and its supporters base. Essentially, like many I consider Watford our rival because I have been told to. These feelings are not therefore personal. Individually I have much more personal feelings of slight animosity towards clubs like Cambridge, Reading and Millwall, for reasons that dont matter, which really eclipse those towards Watford.

I'm glad you've had a club like luton to really chart Oxford's successes and failures against. It really makes supporting much more satisfying on a personal level.