There’s a funny thing that happens when one says the word “Luton” to English people. Almost as a reflexive response, and virtually without fail, they wince, and one of the words they then say is “shithole.” And that’s just about the town; ask them about the football ground, and they look like they might be sick.
Ah, but some of them — the ones I identify with, even before I had seen Kenilworth Road — will say “Proper ground, that.” That it’s “one of the last of the old ones” is either reason to avoid it or reason to get there soon, depending on one’s perspective. The same might be said of Luton itself.
A Ticking Money Bomb
To non-British people, Luton would appear to be simply a town, just north of London, with an airport. The latter is important should you be looking for cheap flights to Europe, which I was when I came to town. ($125 roundtrip to Barcelona, thank you very much.)
Though it’s not in the north of England, Luton very much fits my Standard Northern English Town narrative: former industrial glory (in their case hat-making) followed by economic and then social decline, marked here by famous riots in 1919. Thus did Luton enter, to most eyes, its shithole stage. This stage does include affordable housing, however, so immigrants tend to show up, and in England these tend to be South Asian, whose arrival is another stage of the Standard Northern Story. (That their presence often drives people’s use of “shithole” rather makes me wince and feel sick.)
But there is another process unfolding in Luton, still in its early stage: gentrification. London, you see, is already “developing” places like Battersea, Croydon, Leyton, Clapham and Bermondsey, places which would have been given “shithole” status not long ago but are now filled with artisan coffee shops, yoga studios, and apartments well into the thousands per month. And London is also expanding.
All of this is coming to Luton, have no doubt. It’s about 25 minutes from St. Pancras rail station, it has the airport, and it has a lot of space for development — even taking into account that much of that “space” is currently inhabited. But gentrification is entirely about moving some folks out and others in. As such, I wonder how long the barber shops and halal take-aways will last in central Luton.
The Neglected, Still Inhabited Ground
Speaking of places which share still in use but soon to be cleared out, let’s take a trip to Kenilworth Road to see the Hatters. They are fresh in the Championship for 2019-20, having been promoted after last season, so they had moved up on my groundhopping radar.
It was a Tuesday night game with Charlton, and in keeping with my usual ways I had reserved a seat ahead of time, all the better to choose my spot. I like a view of the away fans, but Luton had an interesting feature that caught my eye: a raised stand tucked into the corner that looked like it belonged behind a baseball foul pole. A lower row there would seem to have a good view of the home “Kop” as well as the visitors across the way.
I suppose that somewhere in the ticket-buying process, the words “obstructed view” might have appeared, but I didn’t notice. I would come to realize that saying “obstructed” at Kenilworth Road would be like saying “wet” in a rainforest. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The ground is tucked between houses and a highway, with two entrances famously leading between flats! One of these is for the away fans, who I am told then ascend a famously rickety staircase to a famously foul terrace.
Along one side is what they call “executive boxes” but which I honestly would believe were simply boxcars dropped off alongside the pitch, with light bulbs hung inside. It is certainly no more ornamental than that — and they’ve been there since 1987!
Behind the goal opposite the visitors sites “the Kop,” officially known as Kenilworth Road Stand, and it’s the one part of the place that one might realistically confuse with some other football ground — that is, it has seats, all the same color, and a view of the pitch.
Beside this is my stand, the David Preece Stand, which we’ll get to, and along the other side … well, let’s go back in time a bit.
There was a time when the builders of football grounds and the owners of clubs simply didn’t give a shit about supporters. They were fenced in lie animals, made to stand on concrete terraces, given almost nothing for toilets, fed garbage, and otherwise neglected — at best.
And then in the 1980s some truly terrible things happened — people died in crushes and riots and fires — and the Powers That Be made the clubs clean up their act, mainly by banning alcohol in the viewing area and making the top clubs replace terraces with seats.
At Luton and other places, that directive arrived more like “put in seats,” which Luton did in its 1922(!) Main Stand, clearly in the most minimalist way possible, which was to put a long metal rack on each level of the terrace, then hitting every yard sale on Bedfordshire for any spare slab of plastic they could locate, then pinning it onto the metal racks. Voila — seating! This was done to the Main Stand in the 1990s. And so it stands today.
What’s really brilliant about it, and here I am not being sarcastic at all, is that among the thousands of spots there are at least half that many colors and types of “seats.” In the upper tier they even have backs!
Somewhere along the way, it became clear that the club would need a new ground, and the next logical decision would have gone something like, “So why should we spend any money on this one?” Apparently there’s been no answer to that one. Paint is peeling, stairs creak, water drips from here and there, poles are everywhere, and the toilets … well, “medieval” is not far off.
Put it all together, and I cannot tell you how much I love Kenilworth Road. I have often wondered what football was like in its black and white days, before any real money came into the game and mostly men, most of them old, gathered at the ground to barely survive a game of football. If you are also curious about those days, you can visit them just a little north of Luton!
But do it soon, because they are, in fact, building a new ground in the center. As they should.
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The Game Itself
But my seat!
Yes, it was in the corner, and yes it had a good view of the Kop, and it had a fine view of the pitch and the away fans — or it would have, but for the floodlight tower!
Honestly, there was a full-on tower right in the middle of my view, close enough that had a fire broken out I think I could have escaped by shimmying down it to the pitch!
There was also a peeling-paint post plus a roof to my left. Utterly outstanding. As play progressed down the pitch, all of us in our section would lean one way or another to see what was happening, creating for me a fun little sense of community through shared suffering. Interestingly, though, when I mentioned this to my neighbor, something about the tower in the way, he looked at me as if he had honestly stopped seeing it years ago. Or at the very least, it was like I had mentioned the rain to someone in Seattle.
Here are the teams coming out before the game:
It was a cracking game, actually — three goals, one of them controversial for a probable offside that was waived off — and two more shots off the post.
Luton won the game, by the way, 2-1. Here are the highlights, shot from on top of the boxes. I was sat in the upper-left stand you can see in the corner.
It was a proper game of football, in a proper football ground.
Go See Luton Town!
It could well be that the next thing you read about Luton will be something along the lines of “rejuvenation,” both of the town and, related, the ground. And that will be a good thing for most people. And I will encourage you, then as now, to see a game there. They draw good crowds, the fans care a lot, and the football isn’t bad.
I would never, in other words, drop the word “shithole” on Luton, or Luton Town FC. I’ve seen shitholes, believe me. What I see in Luton is something which, for now at least, I would call a traditional footballing culture in an old school ground and a town that everyone is about to take notice of.
Go see all of it while it lasts.