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. 

Luton Town 2 Yellows 1

Contrasting views of our last minute capitulation against Luton last night. The normally objective, measured and authoritative Rage Online saw us deservedly go down with a whimper, whereas most other reports seem to suggest that the performance was pretty good with a nightmarish end. Like the extended DVD edition of Lord of the Rings.

Everyone’s reality is different. There are those who view this as clear evidence of The Collapse – the prophesy that says, post-Christmas, any good work will be undone leading to untold misery. Some think that we’ll slip out of the play-off positions, some see us being beaten at Wembley by Luton, others view this as a blip; a hard one to take, but a blip none-the-less.

Last year, we were galvanised by a common foe – the league administration itself. We recognised that it was us against the world and we were all the better for it. The flags came out, the team went from being average and ponderous to all conquering.

Well, this is where the season starts and that character needs to return; the title is a three-way race. We have a little head start and everyone is going to want to shoot us down. It is time to enjoy that pressure; I would rather be chasing the title as a non-league team than be in mid-table misery in any other division. It’s exciting; the prospect of success, the tightrope that we walk to get to it, the bubbling molten lava of failure. The balance beam of hope. By God this is where we want to be, in the mix, sucking in the pressure, taking the blows, getting up and going again. Christ, if Stevenage or York want to get this title, then they’ll have to break records to do it, we’ll make them sweat blood. We’re a better squad than we were last year and we have more to play with. It’s time to add some swash to our buckle. Let’s just get it on.

Where to now? I take a lead from Malcolm Boyden – and I don’t do that very much – on Saturday I’m going to put on my shirt and scarf, go to the ground and roar the bloody roof off.

Jamie Cook scores a goal within the context of a 2-0 win over Luton

“Have you forgotten that once we were brought here we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language? We lost our religion, our culture, our God – and many of us by the way we acted, we even lost our minds.”
Martin Luther-King

Amidst the fragmented wasteland there is a meadow, for years visitors have passed through it promising riches and leaving behind them naught but despair.

A traveller arrived with little fanfare; he was familiar, yet older and more wizened. The crowds gathered as they regularly did out of habit but little expectation.

Admist the melee and noise the carrier took centre stage. He raised his right arm and gestured to the gawdy lights of the bazaar of restaurants, cinemas and bowling alleys. The crowd were still.

“You are fearful” boomed the mysterious traveller “Paralysed not by happiness, but by the prospect of you losing what happiness you have. Your home is your misery – it is safe, it is predictable, it has become you.”

And the men gazed at his raised arm.

“This is not where your future lies; no wealth comes from property. No satisfaction from vacant consumption. You gorge but are never sated, gorge but are never enriched; there is no hope in this gluttony. Only in hope there is hope.”

The men stared at the traveller’s raised arm and grew fearful. They were angry to be challenged. The shards of truth the traveller spoke pierced their souls. One of the men spoke.

“But traveller” he said “Why should we believe you? Our hearts are blackened with disease and our lungs constricted by the cancer of our past, but it is what we have and what you speak of is a journey so beautiful, that we cannot entertain its richness. Tell us, why should we believe you when so many have come and destroyed our hopes with such callousness?”

“You should believe me” said the traveller growing to a fearful height “I have travelled a dark path for many years and now I choose to return. I have the scars of Boston and Stevenage and Rushden and Witney and Crawley and contained within each scar is a story more terrible than you will ever know. But with each is a lesson. A lesson that without riches or purpose or possessions there is nothing but hope. And it is this lesson I have learnt. FOR I AM JAMIE COOK AND I AM THE TRUE CARRIER OF HOPE.”

And the man dropped to his knees and pleaded for the carrier to prove it. The carrier, without further thought, allowed hope to glance across his body before sending it over and beyond the grasping hands of the catcher before bringing to rest lightly in the back of the net.

The men were enraptured by the carrier’s sorcery. Fear evaporated. There was much still to do to restore the great meadow – there is sweat and pain and wounds so deep they will never heal.

But above all, there is hope.

Comment: The season it cometh

With the Aston Villa Under 19 Turnstile Operators XI cast aside by the spellbinding work of Potter it’s time to get ‘down’ to the ‘serious’ ‘business’ of the new season.

…hark! Is that the first Harry/Alfie Potter reference of the new season?…

The bookies seem to agree we’re second favourites behind Luton. They’ll be favourites simply by the fact that it’s the name most people know. To be fair, they’re unusual because weren’t the worst team in League 2 last year and they have maintained stability throughout the summer. But they won’t be the first former League Cup winner with high expectations and Andy Burgess and (probably) Steve Basham on board to find it tough going.

We’re more hardened to this level; we’ve bought pretty much the best available players at in the division. There’s an off-field stability that characterised the titles of Burton, Aldershot and Dagenham in the last three years. We have everything going for us… gulp.

Of the rest, AFC Wimbledon have momentum, Stevenage have all the attributes of a title winning side, but frequently come up short. My original tip; Cambridge, have capitulated in the last couple of weeks.

Beyond this, any team could theoretically do a Histon and sustain a challenge from nowhere, but it will be through accident rather than design.

Our biggest enemy, as always, will be ourselves. We are not patient by nature and the title will not be won by September. There will be fallow periods that we will need to tough out. But if we can approach the season in a measured and confident way it is hard to see who will stop us. Which is enough to make anyone nervous.