‘Greatest story in football’: How non-league Luton Town went from $7 sale to brink of PL promotion

The last time Luton Town was in the top flight of English football, Jim Courier was the men’s world No.1, ‘End of the Road’ by Boyz II Men topped the American song charts and Kevin Costner was the highest grossing actor in the world.

In the years sincethe Hatters plummeted down, and eventually out of ], the English football pyramid and went into administration an alarming three times in nine years.

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But now, with a squad value of a team that should be staring relegation in the face, Luton sits just three victories away from being promoted to the Premier League.

Even at the start of the season, English bookmakers had Luton pegged at $3.50 to be relegated down to League One.

It’s truly the stuff of fairytales that not even the most deluded optimist inside Kenilworth Road could have dreamt of.

A two-legged tie against Huddersfield Town awaits before a potential trip to Wembley for the richest game in football, with promotion to the top flight estimated to be worth $AUD470 million.

If that transpires, it could very well end up being, as Luton manager Nathan Jones said on BBC radio, “possibly the greatest story in football.”

For a team that was in the Conference as recently as 2014, Luton’s journey transcends the definition of a rapid rise.

This is how the Hatters fell, then rose, then almost fell again as they prepare for the chance of a lifetime.


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‘Greatest story in football’: How non-league Luton Town went from  sale to brink of PL promotion
Nathan Jones has Luton just three games away from the Premier League. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images


Luton was just one place away from securing a spot in the inaugural Premier League season in 1992/93, but relegation on the final day of the preceding campaign in Division One — the Premier League before the Premier League — meant it wouldn’t be a part of the new era.

What could have been if that last 90 minutes of the season had gone a little differently.

Luton by no means were a minute club, either. They enjoyed three consecutive finishes in the top half of Division One in the late 80s along with winning the League Cup and an FA Cup semi final appearance in the 1987/88 season.

It was the club’s most successful era, but that’s as good as it got.

After being relegated from Division One in 1991/1992, the Hatters lasted four seasons in the second tier before another relegation followed in 1995/96 as well as another to the fourth tier in 2000/01.

The club was also bleeding heavy losses at the start of the decade, with financial losses nearing $AUD887k each month.

Eventually then-chairman Mike Watson-Challis sold the club for just $7 in 2003 to a consortium led by a businessman by the name of John Gurney, who was one of ten people charged with conspiring to import cocaine into the country in 1999.

Gurney’s tenure was short, but not without controversy.

Kenilworth Road has a cult following from football fans. Credit: Steve Bardens /AllsportSource: Getty Images

Firstly, he wanted to rebrand the club and build a 70,000-seat stadium over a motorway which would also host other sporting events like Formula One and baseball.

Then he decided to sack Joe Kinnear, a manager who was highly popular with fans, before creating a phone vote for supporters to decide who the next manager would be.

Fans could choose from three candidates – including Kinnear – and every phone vote cost 50 pence.

Kinnear won the vote with 82 per cent of fans choosing him to return, but he refused to manage the club unless Gurney was gone.

Mike Newell was ultimately decided as manager as the fans rallied to create a supporters trust named Trust in Luton.

The trust managed to oust Gurney after 55 days in charge after acquiring shares in the club’s major creditor, Hatters Holdings, and allowed them to put the club into administration.

After Gurney was forced out, the club sold over 3000 season tickets and new sponsors immediately came on board.

A group led by former chairman Bill Tomlins purchased the club in 2004 and helped the club get promoted back to the Championship in 2005, but things would get even worse before even the thinnest ray of sunshine would appear.

Luton Town were promoted to the Championship in 2005, but worse days awaited. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

From 2006 to 2009, Luton tumbled from the Championship all the way to the Conference as it copped three successive relegations.

In that time, Tomlins resigned from his post in April 2007 due to an FA investigation unearthing irregular payments made by the club’s parent company to various player agents which forced Luton into administration once again.

A new consortium was formed – named Luton Town Football Club 2020 – with current CEO and one of the founding members of Trust in Luton Gary Sweet joining it in that same role.

Even though the new owners and senior figures had no connection with the many, many sins of previous regimes, Luton copped a punishment that remains an English football record to this day.

The Hatters were handed a 30-point deduction to start the 2008/09 League Two season, with 10 points for the illegal payments to agents and 20 for being unable to complete an insolvency agreement to the required standard of HMRC.

With the club needing promotion form over the course of the season just to stay alive, Luton ultimately fell 15 points short of safety, bringing an end to oldest professional club in the south of England’s 89-year stay in the English Football League.

Luton would remain in the abyss that is non-league football for five seasons before resurfacing back in the EFL in 2014.

As iNews’ Daniel Storey wrote, “Luton Town were defined by their own historic mismanagement. Nothing else mattered.”

Luton’s 89-year stay in the English Football Leagues ended in 2009. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images


Perhaps the years spent in non-league football was the best thing possible for Luton.

Speaking on The Athletic Football Podcast, Sweet is adamant it laid the foundations for the current Premier League tilt.

“Spending five years in the Conference taught us a harsh lesson of how to build that foundation and base of stability which is benefiting us today and will continue to benefit us,” Sweet said.

And the CEO had one message for clubs or other chairman who want to copy the Hatters’ blueprint: “go down to non-League for a few seasons.”

Perhaps the most important part of Luton’s rebuild was the appointment of Nathan Jones as manager in January 2016.

Working as the first-team coach at Brighton, the then-41-year-old was handed his first job as a full-time manager at Kenilworth Road.

He steered the club away from relegation to an 11th-placed finish, the lowest position in English football he has ever led the club to.

Jones led Luton up to League One in 2018 and had the Hatters flying at the summit of the league in the 2018/2019 season, but bigger clubs were taking notice of the incredible work he had been doing.

Nathan Jones moved to Luton in January 2016. (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

It was Stoke City, who were in the Championship, that took the plunge on Jones in January 2019, with the move drawing the fury of numerous fans.

Luton still managed to finish first in League One that season, while Jones and Stoke managed to finish 15th in the Championship.

However, both Jones and Luton would soon find out that they needed each other to be successful.

Poor form with the Potters left Jones sacked after 10 months with Stoke, while Luton found itself fighting for Championship survival.

With the Hatters deciding to part ways with Graeme Jones, a vacancy had opened up at Kenilworth Road and the former manager who had brought the good times back was ready and willing to return.

The decision to bring Jones back in May 2020 proved to be a masterstroke.

Having been 10 points from safety, Luton lost just one of the last nine fixtures to stay in the Championship.

His time away from Luton gave Jones the perspective he needed about the club and taught him perhaps the harshest lesson of his life.

“I’ve learned lessons, I had to go away to learn a bitter one and a big one,” Jones told The Athletic.

“I evolved as a manager in that time.”

Graeme Jones struggled to lead Luton in the Championship and was sacked with the team in 23rd spot. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Luton finished 12th in 2020/21 as yet another sign of consolidation, but this season, the club has broken through to yet another new level.

The most remarkable thing about Luton’s success though is the fact it’s all being completed on a shoestring budget.

According to Sweet, Luton operates with a “bottom three” budget and Transfermarkt estimates the cost of Luton’s squad to be just $31 million.

For comparison, Fulham and Bournemouth – the two sides who have already been promoted to the Premier League for next season – hold a squad value of $221 million and $225 million respectively.

Perhaps what is most important about Luton’s meteoric rise is that they have not overspent to get where they are, having seen the perils of other clubs who bet the house on promotion, only to plunge themselves into financial oblivion.

Instead, the Hatters have learned from the mistakes of yesteryear and are the poster boys for what a financially stable club in the lower divisions of English football should look like.

“You only have to look at clubs that have a really good season but all their walls are falling down now because they don’t have the infrastructure now,” Jones said.

“We are not that team. We are so strong underneath in terms of the process and what we have that, if we don’t win the Championship this year or get promoted this year, our house isn’t going to fall down.”

Luton’s squad have shined this season and are three wins away from the Premier League. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Now 270 minutes is all that stands between Luton and a Premier League debut.

With Jones at the helm, Luton has never looked back, not for one second.

But every now and then, a glance in the rear-view mirror may be helpful, if only to remember just how far the club has come from the days of Gurney, the 30-point deduction and the five-year detour to non-league football.

It’s been the most remarkable of rises for the Hatters and for those Luton fans who have had to suffer through it all, it’s still not time to wake up from an eight-year dream.

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