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Shoes off, flares and football under the floodlights.

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The Oak Road End turnstiles built into the terraced housing at the unique Kenilworth Road Stadium, Luton
The Oak Road End turnstiles built into the terraced housing at the unique Kenilworth Road Stadium, Luton

There is a tremendous  amount of respect that needs to be given to both non-league football fans and the clubs they support down in the lower levels of English football

Walking to and watching a game in any of these grounds across the UK shows off the raw, rugged nature of football in this country. Worlds away from the money, global sponsorship and indiscretions that come with topflight football, there is a heart and soul to the atmosphere of these games, with players less likely to stay down injured, rolling around on the turf clasping at body parts that have barely been touched by the opposition, while the fans, ever bound to their beloved side through the emotions and hardship of lower league football, watch on praying that one day their side will reach the pinnacle of the game, but knowing all the same, that their fate lies elsewhere in football’s hierarchy. It’s truly traditional British football, in all its long balls, mistakes and glory

Maybe it was the multiculturalism and unity of the town, its streets were filled with all creeds, colours and people of all ages, as they enjoyed the evening sun, or perhaps the unique way the Oak Road End, that holds the traveling fans for their visits to Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road stadium, is built into the terraced housing that surrounds the stadium, with people’s front doors blending in with the turnstiles as you walk around the ground. 

Whatever it was that added a little sense of magic to the hot summer air that night, Tuesday evening in Luton was, before kickoff, what going to a football game in England should be about.

After eventually parking about a mile away from the stadium, I walked the backstreets of the town, through the suburban sprawl that surrounds the ground. Plenty of home fans were out in force, decked in their bright orange home shirts and eagerly chatting about the forthcoming opportunity to play, and possibly scalp, a Premier League side that night.

The walk reminded me of the journeys I have taken through the Finsbury Park area of London to the Emirates Stadium, or through the housing areas in Putney that engulf Fulham’s Craven Cottage, the large three story London town houses looming over the densely populated streets of the capital, with stalls, program sellers and unofficial fanzine writers all selling their wares to the local fans.  Luton, though, had that slightly rough edged, rundown feeling to it. The terraced, two story housing of the area is far less grandiose than that of the capital, with the streets emanating the style of housing seen in movies such as Kes and The Full Monty, the Northern former mining communities portrayed as the last bastions of the almost lost, “English community spirit”.  Walking past children kicking footballs through the narrow streets, while a mother leaned her head out of her front door to tell them to, “calm down or they’ll break something” – one child immediately kicked the ball from his hands, launching high onto the roof of a nearby house, before standing openmouthed, his hands clasping his face as he prayed the roof tiles would stay intact before the ball had finished working its way back down to ground level – that community spirit appeared alive and well, for one summers night at least.

After walking around all four sides of the ground (this was, admittedly, more thanks to the directions of a local steward rather than a desperate urge to take in the circumference of Kenilworth road), dodging between the fans and diving through the alleyway that runs along the back of the executive boxes that make up the length of the south west stand, I finally found the main entrance into the ground and up into the main stand. Away to the left, the 600 or so Villa fans who’d made their way down the M1 that night were milling their way into the away end, a chorus of “Paul Lambert’s barmy army” droning from a group a exceptionally enthusiastic supporters. Even a pre-season friendly away at Luton can rile up the most passionate of Villans.

In fact, the Villa support, who maintained a constant low hum of noise from the majority of the night’s proceedings, were so eager to see their side grab the first victory of their pre-season campaign that some had brought some pyrotechnics along with them. Unfortunately for those who had smuggled the purple smoke bomb through the turnstiles, Villa provided little in the way of entertainment on the pitch for their fans to cheers about, resulting in a slightly awkward moment when the smoke bomb was detonated midway through the first half. With Luton leading at this point, some of us wondered if the devise had been used as an excuse to leave the game, with the hypothetical fan who released the cloud of smoke saying, in a rather sarcastic tone, after the game to his mates, “I wanted to stay and cheer the boys on, but after that thing went off the stewards kicked me out. I had to go to the pub instead.”

Whoever the detonator was, it appeared they were packing more than one element of mischief upon their person that night, as a few minutes after the initial bellow of smoke wafted across the pitch, a second incendiary device was tossed from outside the ground onto the roof of the boxes opposite the main stand, giving the whole occasion a slight taste of the intensity from a 1990’s Serie A match, rather than the low intensity, fitness focused friendly these pre-season games are meant to be.

Another handful of Villa fans were removed from the stands as the game went on, their rather ironic chants of “we’ll do what we want” being quashed by the local stewards who obviously felt that the away supporters having that sort of mentality was a bad idea. Kenilworth, some may remember, played host to an appalling football riot of 1985 when a game between Millwall and Luton was halted just 14 minutes after kickoff due to crowd trouble in the away end. Once the game was restarted and finished another pitch invasion and mob scene erupted within the ground, with Luton Town FC deciding to ban all away fans from the ground until the start of the 1990/91 season. Perhaps the Villa fans, ‘doing what they want’ was an idea that hit a little too close to home for those guarding the away end.

The home fans, equally eager before the game and buoyed by their side’s impressive performance against top caliber opposition, stole the show on the evening. Flares, smoke and fire crackers may be something that many who have watched or experienced the intensity of a derby game on the continent both fear and admire in the same moment, but nothing will prepare you for the true British eccentricity of a new, novel chant. Midway through the second half a gaggle of fans placed towards the away end of the main stand began a chorus of what sounded like, “stand up if you love Luton.”  One of the more common chants from the terraces of England, it’s easy to let such songs wash over your head, especially when you have little affinity to the set of fans singing. From the corner of my eye, however, I noticed that each fan stood singing with their arms aloft was holding something in their hands. Turning to have a look it became apparent that the home fans were not singing “stand up, if you love Luton” but “shoes off, if you love Luton.”  With their shoes off their feet, held high in the air, and lungs booming with pride, this bizarre scene continued for a few minutes before those participating retook their seats and put their shoes back on their feet.

This sort of ingenuity is something, I think, that is lost on the fans of Premier League sides. In the top flight of English football there is the fear and intensity brought on by the race to survive, to stay afloat and to keep the club in the financial paradise of the Premier League. In the lower leagues there is an acceptance of one’s place, with fans realizing that the road to fame, glory and wealth is one that is unlikely to be walked in the short term. With the Premier League a long way off, it seems some fans try to make the best of a bad situation by doing something a little off the wall, a little different. That British ‘quirkyness’, as a number of American’s have often described it to me, is alive and well in the grounds of our local clubs.

With time running out, and Luton comfortably 2-0 up, the evening’s entertainment was over for the night with ten minutes left to play. Villa’s support was fading fast with many darting out early to get to the M1 for the 90 minutes shoot home, while the roads of Luton fluttered with fans stood outside late night chip shops and Kebab houses on street corners, discussing the performance that would give them hope for their fight for football league status once again.

Shoes off, flares and football under floodlights. No one ever said pre-season football could be this good.