Gnakpa's Soup: Personal, biased opinions based around Luton Town Football Club. Updated sparingly, for my own sanity.
With Jake Howells recently penning a two-year extension at Kenilworth Road, it seems appropriate to acknowledge a man who contributed to the midfielder’s career during the club’s darkest days…
Don Hutchison joined Luton Town in July 2007 on a one-year deal after his release from Coventry City. The former Scotland international came to the Hatters following a frustrating season with the Sky Blues, where a troublesome ankle injury had limited his first-team appearances.
The 36-year-old had only managed 14 games in an injury-hit season at the Ricoh Arena, but following a short trial at Luton, Don joined the likes of Darren Currie, Chris Perry, Paul Peschisolido and Paul Furlong and signed on to manager Kevin Blackwell’s vision for League One glory.
The former Leeds boss envisioned a swift return to the Championship for the newly-relegated Hatters, who were still reeling from a calamitous second season in the Football League’s top division. Speaking to the Luton News while Don was trialling at the Town, Blackwell was in an ebullient mood:
“I've had people phoning me and agents calling me offering me some very good players, which is what I want,” stated Blackwell. “People are now beginning to realise we're serious about what we're doing here.”
Unfortunately for Don, his year in Bedfordshire would turn out to be a turbulent one. Despite making 26 appearances for the Town (including six from the bench) and scoring in a 2-0 defeat of Northampton Town in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, the Hatters’ season would soon be overshadowed by chaotic events both on (and off) the pitch.
In November 2007, Luton were sunk into administration, activating an automatic ten-point deduction and plunging the club into a relegation dogfight. A brief run in the FA Cup saw Luton face Liverpool in the third round at Kenilworth Road in January 2008, with the Hatters claiming a remarkable 1-1 draw against the Merseyside giants.
The return leg at Anfield was a welcome financial boost for the Town’s worsening debts, but any chance of another David vs. Goliath result was never on the cards - by the time Luton arrived in Liverpool for the replay, a number of the Hatters’ prized assets had been sold off by administrator Brendan Guilfoyle, with Chris Coyne and Dave Edwards barred from playing due to their imminent moves to Colchester and Wolves respectively.
With Coyne missing, Luton were left to face the likes of Steven Gerrard and a pre-Chelsea Fernando Torres without a recognised central defender. Hutchison was called upon to play as a makeshift centre-back alongside an inexperienced Keith Keane, with the Guardian quipping that the Hatters were better off playing with a wardrobe in defence than the former Scotland international.
For 45 minutes, the press were made to eat their words; the resolute (and slightly fortunate) Luton backline held the Reds at bay, until Ryan Babel’s goal in first-half injury time gave Liverpool a 1-0 lead. A step-up in class in the second-half saw the Premier League side record a comfortable 5-0 victory, but Hutchison had kept the then-brilliant Torres quiet all evening.
Footballing-wise, the second half of the season would be devoid of any joy for Hatters fans: despite the best efforts of new manager (and Luton legend) Mick Harford, two wins in 22 games, including 16 losses, inevitably saw the Town relegated to League Two.
With the miserable season over, Harford told Hutchison that he was free to leave Kenilworth Road - but rather than accepting his final pay packet and leaving the club, Don remarkably used his last wages to sponsor two Luton Town youth players instead.
Jake Howells had made his Hatters’ debut as a substitute in the final game of the 2007-08 season, as Luton succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at home to Huddersfield Town. The 17-year-old Howells had already turned down advances from Fulham and Portsmouth during the season before he replaced Sol Davis in the 75th minute, as the Hatters' year in League One finished with a whimper.
While Jake was looking to follow the footsteps of former Town left-back Matthew Taylor, another promising youngster was looking to trace Howells’ path into first team action. Scott Sinclair (not to be confused with Manchester City’s currently beleaguered namesake) had his sights on a future first-team appearance as an exciting young winger/striker.
Hutchison’s money would be used to sponsor both players during the course of the Hatters’ League Two campaign, with Luton’s new managing director Gary Sweet acknowledging the extraordinary gesture the former Liverpool, Everton and West Ham player had made for the club:
"This is a truly amazing gesture by Don,” remarked Sweet. “For a player to turn around and refuse his final pay packet and instead ask to sponsor a youth player is unheard of. This shows the type of man that Don is, and what football means to him."
While Sinclair’s first-team career never fully took off – he made a brief cameo against Brentford in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy before leaving the club in 2009 - Howells has become a Hatters mainstay.
Following his debut in League One, Jake made 36 appearances for the Town in League Two and was rightly rewarded with his first professional contract in May 2009. He also grabbed the first of a hat-trick of Young Player of the Year awards at Kenilworth Road and a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy winners’ medal, as the Hatters dropped out of the Football League.
Four caps for England C during 2009-10 (including a goal against Estonia and a man-of-the-match award against Belgium at Kenilworth Road) were followed by five Wales Under-21 caps during 2011-12, as Jake continued to impress at non-league level. He was made Luton’s first-choice penalty taker during the triumphant 2013-14 season, with six of Howells’ eight goals coming from the penalty spot as he – and the Town – ran riot in the Skrill Premier.
Upon Luton’s long-awaited return to the Football League, Jake has made a whopping 276 competitive appearances for the Hatters, scoring 26 goals. No matter how small Don’s contribution was to Jake’s Luton career, it’s turned out to be an incredibly good investment.
Hutchison never found another club after leaving Kenilworth Road, but Jake’s continuing loyalty and unbridled talent at Luton show that Don's final, selfless act as a footballer was worth its proverbial weight in gold.
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