‘Why I’ve had an irrational hatred of Luton Town for decades’

Their rise from non-league back to the top has been applauded but I want us to send them back down

A general view of the stadium at the West Ham United v Chelsea EPL match, at the London Stadium, London, UK on February 11, 2023.

It will not have escaped your notice that Luton Town have returned to the top table of football, and I have seen many people that are happy about this prospect.

Most of those people are either from Luton or under the age of 40. If you do not fall into either of those categories, you will not be happy about it. 

Indeed, I wrote a book in 1995 called ‘An Irrational Hatred of Luton’ and our game due to be played in September will be the first time we have played them since then.

The title for the book had been intended as a working title and a bit of a joke, but everyone who saw it, loved it, so it stuck.

So why, when there are so many more obvious teams to dislike, do I have a problem with Luton? 

Older fans than me will possibly have memories going further back into the late seventies but my first memories of them are in the record-breaking 1980-81 Division Two campaign. 

A record number of 66 points when it was two points for a win. Of our 19 home games, we won 17, drew one with Oldham, another team on my personal hit list, and lost one, the first one, to Luton Town.

Record signing Paul Goddard was making his home debut and we had just won the FA Cup – but we couldn’t beat Luton.

Not only that, of the three away games we lost that season, one was at Kenilworth Road, meaning that 50% of our defeats that season were to Luton.

After a year of eating Luton-Free, they followed us up the following season and, it has to be said, developed into a major force in the first division, despite home crowds averaging under 10,000. 

Tony Cottee made his debut at home to Tottenham on New Years’ Day 1983, famously scoring the opening goal in a 3-0 win. 

Less well remembered, except, perhaps, by me – a few days later we played Luton at Upton Park and although Cottee scored again, a Paul Walsh hat-trick gave Luton a 3-2 victory in one of the most West Ham-like performances you could wish to see.

Fast forward to 1984-1985, and the season is petering out with a vague threat of relegation hanging in the air. Luton at home should be a winnable game but it’s a dire 0-0 draw. 

The reason I call my hatred of Luton ‘irrational’ is because it’s about more than just results. 

It’s about how they make you feel – that afternoon as Dave Swindlehurst laboured away up front like a pregnant buffalo, the bloke behind me said: ‘Come on West Ham, you can beat this Second Division ****!’

Then he said it again. Then he said it again, and again, and again until eventually I focused my irritation not at him, but at that horrible little Bedfordshire club.

1985-1986 is obviously one of the most celebrated in West Ham’s history, missing out on the title to Liverpool by four points.

Guess how many points we dropped to Luton that season? Yes, four. They beat us at home 1-0 in the second home game of the season and then we could only manage a 0-0 draw at Kenilworth Road in December, a result which, incidentally, also brought to an end a run of five consecutive away wins.

Of course, there were other results that cost us – the most obvious being the home defeat by Chelsea, and away defeats against teams we should have beaten, like relegated Birmingham City, and very ordinary Aston Villa and Arsenal sides as well as a string of draws in September. But it suits my agenda much better to blame Luton.

In 1988 following failure to build on the success of 1985-1986, West Ham suddenly found themselves unable to attract top names. 

It probably didn’t help that Frank McAvennie had left, Cottee was moping around looking for an excuse to leave, and there was a 41-year-old playing in midfield alongside a man who’s knees were held together with string. 

But there was hope with the Hammers linked with a £1m bid for Luton’s Mick Harford.

His decision to stay at Luton sparked a whole raft of unsuccessful bids and suddenly West Ham were the transfer pariahs of the division. 

A shame because a partnership of Harford and Cottee would have been something to behold, there is every possibility Cottee might have stayed had the club shown some ambition, and relegation would not have followed. All Luton’s fault.

Fast forward to 1989 and West Ham enjoyed a fantastic run in the League Cup beating Sunderland 5-1 on aggregate, a very good Derby side 5-0, Liverpool 4-1 and Aston Villa 2-1 in the quarter finals. 

The semi-final pitted West Ham against Luton Town, the winners having a Wembley date with either Nottingham Forest or Bristol City. 

All the stars were aligned – a poor season in the league could be forgotten with a cup final at Wembley. 

But this was Luton – the first leg at Upton Park was a disaster – goalkeeper Allen McKnight beaten twice at his near post, and a similarly poor performance from Julian Dicks saw West Ham 3-0 down and the second leg a mere formality.

That second leg would be played on Luton’s bouncy castle of a plastic pitch, installed in 1985.

The installation of this trampoline was sanctioned by the Football League, clearly by people with no idea about how the game is played. 

It is clear this surface gave a distinctly average Luton team an unfair advantage when you compare their home and away records over four seasons, they lost just 13 games on their plastic pitch, but a huge 43 away from home. 

Unlike QPR’s plastic pitch which seemed to hinder them as much as the opposition, Luton’s pitch was like playing in a hall of mirrors.

A similar strange decision by the Football League was to allow Luton to exclude away fans.

Following riots by Millwall fans after a cup tie in 1985, the Hatter’s Tory MP Chairman David Evans was clearly sucking up to Thatcher by introducing a membership scheme which excluded away fans. 

In such a small stadium this, combined with their pitch gave them a huge advantage. Still, it was easy enough to get membership, so I didn’t miss any games as a result.

By the time we met again, both the pitch and the membership scheme had gone, but the hoodoo remained. 

West Ham’s first season in the Premier League had been going well and was about to be crowned with a Wembley semi-final appearance against Chelsea, when Luton Town turned up again like a bad penny in the sixth round. 

Mike Marsh hit the post in the first game, but it ended 0-0. In the replay at Kenilworth Road, West Ham took the lead through Martin Allen, but two goals from Scott Oakes, whose main claim to fame had been that his dad was in Showaddywaddy, scored twice to put Luton in front.

Ian Bishop equalised but then it happened again. Defending a high line, Steve Potts went to trap the ball on the half-way line, stood on it and ended up on his backside, as Oakes ran through and completed his hat-trick. To this day I have been unable to stand Showaddywaddy.

That was the last time we met in a competitive game. Luton slid down the divisions and eventually out of the Football League all together before their remarkable comeback. 

Under normal circumstances their achievements would be applauded. But this is Luton. 

I will be there for the game at Kenilworth Road, roaring the Hammers on and hoping we take one of the first steps towards sending them back where they came from.

1 Comment

  1. So you hate Luton for petty reasons and for things they had a right to do, not sell Mick Harford to you? And for having the gall to beat you in semi finals because they should just let you beat them?

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