Forgiveness #1: Jeremy Simpson
Luton Town 4 - 1 Forest Green Rovers
(Originally Published in May 2014.)
Of the 39,000 souls inside Wembley Stadium, we were the last ones to know:
“York have scored. It’s 2-1. York are winning.”
Nobody else at the Gents urinals had noticed a thing. Nobody had noticed the second half of the play-off final commencing two minutes ago, and nobody had heard a decibel of noise from the 9,000 York City fans that were still celebrating Matty Blair’s decisive goal.
From the outskirts of the FA’s grossly overpriced concrete bowl, the only audible screams had emanated from the rocket-powered hand driers that turned your mitts into Jeremy Clarkson’s Arial Atom’ed face.
Although nobody in the Gents could know it for certain, another season of hope was already going down the pan all too figuratively in front of their eyes.
Seventy minutes later, our group was met by a Barnsley fan as we entered the car park: “I hope you get up soon lads - you’re too big to be there,” he said, carefully avoiding eye contact. For a moment, I had no concept of what it would feel like to be in the Football League again.
The vision of playing painfully average football at Conference level for decades was spooling in front of my eyes, with 3,000 desperate souls clinging onto an autumnal permanence of lost hope. Resignation would swiftly lead to apathy; apathy to depression. How much longer would our resolve last another season of heartache?
Also: how had we lost that game? Granted, we’d condensed our entire season into 90 minutes of football - a flash of greatness soon followed by periods of distilled nothingness - but how could we lose by those decisions? The free-kick for Ashley Chambers’ equaliser was dubious, but Blair’s goal?
Now, I’d (begrudgingly) accept the first goal was legit, because Luton still had a chance to clear the resulting free-kick, but the second goal was so blatant it would’ve make Maradona blush. Following 40 points of deductions and the insulting ‘punishments’ that were given to the chancers and crooks who caused the Hatters to plunge into financial ineptitude and, eventually, out of the Football League, this game pushed the fans’ conspiratorial levels of injustice, negativity and pessimism to worrying limits.
Unfortunately, we were still learning that injustice doesn’t ebb and flow like anger – it remains hidden in plain view until its festering debt is repaid in full; and under that grand lattice arch at Wembley, Luton Town had again collapsed under the greatest pressure of all.
To cap things off, Wembley referee Jeremy Simpson, assistant referees Glen Hart and Adam Matthews and fourth official Tony Harrington were all being promoted to the Football League as well: in fact, Luton were the only group to not be granted Football League status at the full-time whistle, even though the officials had dropped an horrendous clanger during the biggest game of the non-league calendar.
But, fast-forward to April 2014, and Luton Town had reason to celebrate. Finally, after five tortuous years in the Football Conference, the Town had won back their place in the Football League, and what’s more, they’d done it without the need of the play-offs.
In fact - they’d done it in some style.
With one away game at Hyde remaining, the Hatters had reached 98 points and notched up 101 goals following a handsome 4-1 victory against Forest Green Rovers.
A dubious first-half penalty awarded against Steve McNulty looked to derail celebrations for the majority of 10,044 attendees, but two goals from Andre Gray (including a spot-kick of his own) and one each for Cameron McGeehan and Mark Cullen saw the Town sign off their home games in the Skrill with consummate ease.
Despite their pre-season status as bookies’ favourites, the Forest Green side that faced the Conference champions looked way off the pace of any promotion candidate. Whether their players’ focus was already on the end of season or not, FGR resembled many of the Hatters sides that had inhabited Kenilworth Road for the last four years. Rovers’ eleven non-league ‘Galacticos’ may have been dangerous on paper, but as a team, they were strangers in lime green shirts.
In comparison to the small pocket of fans from Nailsworth, every Luton fan crammed in the Kenny would’ve had a moment where they thought that this year would finally be the year.
Some would’ve sensed from the moment they witnessed Alex Wall’s screamer in the thrilling 4-3 victory against AFC Halifax, or from when Steve McNulty combined world class technique with Peter Kay’s “’Ave it!” to bury Southport in November.
Others would’ve put the champagne on ice upon seeing the likes of Alfreton, Nuneaton, Kidderminster, Wrexham and Hereford thoroughly dismantled by the Luton juggernaut, while fellow factions of John Still’s barmy army would’ve nodded sagely at the dogged away results against Braintree, Barnet and Cambridge United.
Every single league game from mid-September until March allowed seven years’ worth of pent-up pressure and injustice to be steadily replaced by heady optimism – and it’s what us Luton fans needed.
Thanks to John Still’s mantra of ‘Controlling the Controllables’ and focussing only on ourselves, it no longer mattered about refereeing decisions in the past and present. The vengeful feelings toward Mr. Simpson and his officials were steadily replaced by the experienced voice of our own Yoda in a tracksuit.
Further closure came from progress on the pitch. The strength and depth of the squad had been bolstered exponentially during Still’s tenure, as high-earning flops were replaced by a small army of young, hungry players striving for success. Under Still’s tutelage, a number of these rough diamonds could become future Hatters heroes before securing a big-money move – a move that could secure the financial stability of the club for years to come.
It’s for these reasons that, in comparison to the glory of winning at Kenilworth Road, a play-off win at Wembley would’ve muddied our resurrection into redemption.
To have won at the beacon of modern football – a dichotomy of vastly-inflated prices, questionable sponsorship packages and eye-watering debt that chains the national football team to its turf like a hostage – would’ve gone against everything that we’d fought against in recent times.
The white scar of concrete and glass that still stretches along one side of our Kenilworth Road ground was an early indication of the game replacing regular fans (and rampant hooliganism) for new levels of sterile greed in the mid-eighties. The Executive Boxes sat on Beech Path are still regularly mocked by opposing fans in the Oak Road end, who, after peeking into residents’ windows upon entering the ground, can watch Box holders eat, drink and glance at Sky Sports throughout the game.
And while it’s easy to preach from this ivory tower of promotion about moral codes, it could be argued that holding a promotion party at the headquarters of an authority that decided to attack club over crook(s) would’ve been as hollow a victory as one could’ve imagined.
Thankfully, we were spared all of this. For the fortunate fans who were able to attend, we were (mostly) sat around those who had weathered the barren seasons alongside us. Whether it was surrounded by the lunatic fringes of the ‘Wing Stand’ and Enclosure, the cramped confides of the reclaimed Oak Road, the unobscured beauty of the David Preece stand, or from within the tiers of the Kenny End that got Keano sent-off after scoring that goal against Oxford United, we were able to celebrate within our own micro-communities, rather than being lost within a sea of 90,000 red seats.
This victory allowed us fans to toast, embrace, nod knowingly or shake hands with those around us who had shared this historical hell hole – whether if we’d agreed on formations, players, tactics, managers or not – and look positively toward the future instead.
As the players waded through all of our delirious faces on the pitch at the end – Alex Lawless grinning like a Cheshire Cat, Cameron McGeehan looking completely bewildered and Steve McNulty typically taking it all in his imperious stride – before celebrating in front of the directors’ box, with Pelly sacrificing a boot to the roof of the Main Stand, Robbo swearing in exuberance before launching into his champions rap and Happy Harry suffering from an extreme case of #Headloss, it made some of us remember something:
Yes, there will still be hard times to come (2020 never said it was going to be easy, remember), but being back in the Football League on our own terms makes every incident far easier to deal with.
While there’s rarely been a moment in Luton Town Football Club’s history where there hasn’t been a drama or worry shortly around the corner; for the moment at least, we were reminded that things can, and will occasionally, improve.
And with the mouldy, water-stained entrance to the Bobbers’ Club continuing to reverberate from the sound of relieved, exuberant supporters long after the pitchside celebrations had concluded, we could all say that finally, after years of agony, the joy was all ours.