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Feb 15, 2013

Cup run breeds optimism for Luton

Good news stories have been few and far between for the Bedfordshire outpost of Luton in recent years, so the FA Cup heroics of the town's football team have come as a welcome antidote for a community scarred by years of decline.

Back in the mid-1980s, when Luton was a bustling town bolstered by the presence of an international airport and a Vauxhall car plant that supplied jobs aplenty for Luton's workforce, the thriving local football team complimented the image of a working class enclave that had become a successful arm of the rapidly overflowing 'outer London' sprawl.

It was during those halcyon times that Luton Town manager David Pleat was guiding his side into the top division of English football and establishing the club among the most consistent giant killers in the game, with the culmination of their rise coming as they beat Arsenal in the 1988 League Cup Final at Wembley.

However, those glory days, both on and off the pitch, have been replaced by increasingly depressing tales of woe, with the decline in the fortunes of the football team seeing them slide out of the Football League at a time when the reputation of the town suffered due to the decline of its car plant and a relentlessly negative media image.

Luton, it seemed, had forgotten how to smile and yet their football team has long been a beacon for optimism. The Hatters continue to attract huge support despite their less than impressive form in the Blue Square Premier League - a tribute to the loyalty of their followers.

Last season's appearance in the play-off to decide the final place in the Football League saw more than 30,000 Luton fans descend on Wembley, while some 42,000 of their followers were on hand at the same venue to witness the Hatters lifting the Johnstone's Paint Trophy back in 2009. They are impressive numbers by any standards.

As is that statistic that Luton's average attendances for home games is still topping 6,000 this season, confirming the Hatters as giants among the part-time minnows they are playing against most weeks.

However, the success they crave in their promotion push is still proving to be elusive. Tuesday night's defeat against the part-timers of Dartford was the latest blow to their hopes, with a top six finish and a play-off place far from assured. Thank heavens for the FA Cup run, or the mood of optimism would have been burst once more.

In truth, Luton Town are still trying to recover from the savage decision taken by Football League chiefs to dock the club 30 points for financial irregularities back in 2008 which plunged them into a black hole that could have ended with their complete demise. That was until Luton fan and broadcaster Nick Owen led a consortium that rescued the club from the abyss.

"I was asked to get involved as a figurehead for a consortium that was trying to save Luton Town five years ago and while it has been a real challenge for all of us in the years since, the pride I feel in being chairman of a club I have supported all my life makes it worthwhile," Owen tells ESPN, in his role as club chairman.

"I have seen Luton at the top and winning major trophies and also down on their knees during my time supporting the club and while our patience is being tested more than every when we find ourselves losing to part-time sides who we all feel we should be beating in the Blue Square Premier league, I remain convinced that we will rise again.

"There are still many issues to overcome, not least of those is getting ourselves back into the Football League and then trying to find a suitable site for a new stadium. Luton has a long way to go before it is back where it belongs, but we'll get there."

Owen is struggling to disguise excitement after he was absent for the historic win against Norwich at Carrow Road last month, as Luton became the first non-league side to beat top flight opposition in the FA Cup for 24 years.

"As Luton chairman, I don't tend to look at the latter rounds of the FA Cup and book my holidays around the big dates in the diary, so I was on a cruise in the Caribbean as we got the famous victory at Carrow Road and had to celebrate from afar," he tells us.

"In my eyes, supporting a football team is all about those special events when they achieve the unexpected. Winning the League Cup in 1988, winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy in front of more than 42,000 Luton fans at Wembley a few years back and this cup run is what being a fan of a team like Luton is all about.

"I have to be honest and say we would swap this cup run to be a few points clear at the top of our league, but the financial rewards and the joy it has given our long-suffering supporters has been fantastic."

Millwall's visit to Kenilworth Road this weekend revives anguished memories of one of the most disgraceful nights in the history of the English game, as Lions fans rioted at Luton's home during an era when the epidemic of hooliganism became chief story on a news broadcast that was being presented by Owen himself some 28 years ago.

"I was present in 1985 for the infamous Millwall match and spent the night sat next to our manager David Pleat," he recalls. "The next morning, I was presenting on national breakfast TV and the events at Kenilworth Road had become the biggest story in the news. The same David Pleat was a guest on our show and we had the dubious task of talking about a night that brought shame on the game.

"We all hope those dark days are behind English football and that Saturday's FA Cup tie will see Luton and Millwall battle it out for a place in the quarter-finals in the right spirit.

"Of course, there was a theory that a game against Manchester United at Old Trafford would have been more attractive for us after getting this far in the FA Cup against all the odds, but let's save that for the quarter-final shall we. That would be nice."

Loyal Luton Town supporters like Owen have waited long enough to dream all over once again and after years of seeing their town and their beloved football team dragged through the mire, this unexpected FA Cup run is a reward indeed.

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