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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

Luton Town — a vessel for far-right hate, or a likeable club with an unfair reputation?

Football's Front Lines: "Obviously society nowadays is all headlines and people don't very often read the actual story"

Luton Town is a club stuck in the 1980s, with Tommy Robinson wannabes in the stands and cloggers on the pitch.

That’s what a lot of people think about the Bedfordshire club.

Hatters CEO Gary Sweet was forced to urge a small section of the club’s supporters not to sing songs in support of the country’s most notorious far-right activist earlier this season.

Just a few weeks ago there was a claim of racist language against an Accrington Stanley player.

The claim was later dismissed by Bedfordshire Police after an investigation found a lack of any evidence, but such things stick, especially for a club with Luton’s reputation.

Will the real Luton please stand up?

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Will the real Luton please stand up?

However, to see whether Luton have progressed since the dark days of plastic pitches and cage-like fencing, I – a liberal lefty, vegetarian, card-carrying member of the Green Party – went to a visit a club with a reputation for being one of England’s least tolerable.

What could possibly go wrong?

Home of the Hatters

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Home of the Hatters

My fears were confounded almost as soon as I arrived for Luton v relegation-threatened Plymouth Argyle, as I couldn’t find any vegetarian food available.

The chippy had run out of chips and the other food stalls had run out of cheese pasties.

I was at Kenilworth Road; an old-school ground slap bang in the middle of one of the most multicultural towns in the UK.

Its corrugated iron cladding and narrow pathways down the side of the executive boxes stand echo with the sounds of hooligans knocking seven shades out of each other from decades ago.

I wanted to see what fans and staff think about the club’s reputation and what, if anything, they are doing about it.

The setting for a climatic scene in every hooliganism film ever

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The setting for a climatic scene in every hooliganism film ever

I really needn’t have looked far because, as it turned out, they are doing a lot.

I met Tony Murray, chairman of the Luton Town Supporters’ Trust, in the Bobbers Club, the entrance of which is housed in between residential houses along the street.

“It’s a difficult one to fathom,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just the football club, I think it’s more to do with the reputation of Luton, people make their mind up about the town [without visiting].

“I have been a Luton fan since the late 60s, since I was a kid. I haven’t heard any racist chanting certainly since the early 70s and the way the supporters of Luton are if we were to hear anything like that it would be stamped on. We will not tolerate it at all.”

I later found out Tommy Robinson was involved in a scuffle as he made his way to the ground.

The Football Lads & Lasses Against Fascism group tweeted that Robinson was ‘not welcome’.

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Outside the ground, as I considered going to Sainsbury’s to get an egg sandwich, I met Richard Hardy.

A fan of 33 years, Richard has seen it all at Luton; relegations, promotions, points deductions and administrations.

But never racism.

“If you go back to the 80s, no away fans, plastic pitch… for supporters of a certain age, it wasn’t great.

“I’d like to think now we’re more of a family club than we probably used to be but we’ve still managed to retain an authentic footballing feel.

“Obviously society nowadays is all headlines and people don’t very often read the actual story.

“I’ve been watching Luton many, many years and it is not a racist club with racist fans. In all the years I’ve been I’ve never encountered that at all.

“Yes it’s an old-school ground and the atmosphere is old-school. And it can be a bit edgy at times, but racism certainly not at all.”

Richard, complete with Stone Island

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Richard, complete with Stone Island

I wolfed down some chocolate cake in the press room before I’m introduced to Luton’s Community Ambassador Raj Koyes.

After only a few minutes conversation, I started to get a picture of a club who are striving to do the right thing.

Raj is the man to go to for just about everything.

When he isn’t printing matchday programmes, leaflets, team-sheets, banners, billboards and more, he helps run soup kitchens, local community projects, activities for kids, as well as raising money for Luton Food Bank and Hospice UK.

His influence goes a long way in Luton.

Unsung hero

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Unsung hero

For example, members of Bury Park’s Muslim Community handed out free chocolates to fans at a game last season as a gesture of friendship and thanks to the club.

Forget the racism allegations, if more clubs handed out chocolates at games, the entire world would be a better place!

As far back as 2014, Luton pioneered the ‘From Headscarves to Football Scarves’ scheme which saw local South Asian women welcomed to a game.

Kick it Out deemed the scheme a ‘great success’, and many other clubs and since followed suit.

Luton was used in a recent Parliamentary Review as an example on how to run a successful, modern football club.

Starting to get a different idea of Luton’s reputation yet?

Don’t wake the neighbours

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Don’t wake the neighbours

“We don’t really bang on about what we do here,” Raj said. “We just get on with it.”

He admitted if the Hatters were in the Championship or even higher, their community work would probably get more attention.

“I haven’t experienced any racism at Luton, it’s a myth,” he added.

“Probably in the 80s there was racism but not now. It’s just not there. If you don’t go to a place you don’t know what it’s about, everyone that comes here ends up loving it.

“The success that happens on the pitch happens in the town.”

Every football club needs a Raj.

Emphatic

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Emphatic

Luton blew a terrible Plymouth side away on the day.

They were 3-0 up after half an hour and went on to win 5-1 with James Collins (no, not that one) getting an impressive hat-trick.

I spent the second half chatting to undefeated middleweight boxer Linus Udofia, who apparently tries to wear Luton shirts during fights and weigh-ins but is constantly told to take them off.

He was introduced on the pitch at half-time to wild applause from the home fans; it was one of the best days of his life.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said after his appearance on the Kenny Road pitch.

Luton through and through

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Luton through and through

Linus came to England from Nigeria as a young lad and instantly fell in love with Luton Town.

“I live round the corner from here. The community is incredible, it’s very welcoming here.

“I don’t feel any animosity here, I don’t feel out of place, there’s no [racist] element, it’s a very homely environment.”

I kept an ear out for bad language or racist chants.

The worst I heard was “You’re f****** s***” from Luton fans to Plymouth, a sentiment I agreed with wholeheartedly.

This is a club mixing with the likes of Sunderland and Portsmouth…

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This is a club mixing with the likes of Sunderland and Portsmouth…

While the ground is ‘old-school’ (the club are working hard on moving to a new site in the centre of Luton) the football certainly isn’t.

Nathan Jones’ young side play some really nice stuff and are worthy of their current place in the League One play-off spots.

After the game I couldn’t stop thinking about how nearly everyone I spoke to kept mentioning the 1980s.

Clearly the club and the fans are massively aware they used to have a problem.

But they are working overtime to try and eradicate their old reputation.

In fact, they are doing more than most clubs, which is why the unsavoury incidents earlier in the season undermined the ongoing efforts and sadly overshadowed the club’s true character.

Tony is one of many fans who are a credit to the club

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Tony is one of many fans who are a credit to the club

Luton have been let down by a handful of idiots at times.

But what club doesn’t have a few f***wits?

My club, Crystal Palace, also had fans who chanted in support of Tommy Robinson.

Much less was made about it because it doesn’t fit the narrative of how people view the club.

If Luton continue playing the way they are and get promoted you may hear more about the community work they do and less about sins now decades old.

But how about some more vegetarian options?

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