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.