Luton Town's 60-year search for new home nears end
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Last Updated: 20/01/20 5:30pm
Luton Town's Championship relegation fight is of immediate concern to supporters, but the club's long-term prospects offer some solace as they moved closer to ending a 60-year wait for a new stadium this month.
Nottingham Forest's City Ground will be the focus on Sunday for Luton as the sides clash, live on Sky Sports Football, but the High Court was central to fans' thoughts on January 6, when it was confirmed work could begin on a much-needed new home.
It has been a long and tiring road for the Hatters.
A move 60 years in the making
Plans were submitted in 2016 for a mixed-use development (Newlands Park) near the M1 to rejuvenate the town and also help fund a 17,500-23,000-seater stadium (Power Court) - but leaving Kenilworth Road was mentioned as long ago as the 1950s.
"It's brilliant news, a long time coming," Luton chairman David Wilkinson tells Sky Sports. "I've been a fan for 62 years - and we've been talking about a move all that time!"
Having waited so long, however, the Bedfordshire club were then held up by legal wranglings.
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Capital & Regional, owner of the local shopping centre, launched several legal challenges to the Newlands Park development before it was confirmed finally this month that C&R would not push for a Judicial Review at the High Court.
This finally gave the green light for the 2020 consortium, Luton's owners who took over in 2008 after years of financial issues at the club, but Wilkinson admits there was anger over the legal delays.
"There was quite a bit of that [anger]," he said. "Because the plan when we all got together 12 years ago was to be in the Championship and the new stadium by 2020 - hence the consortium's name. They've really delayed us by two or three years, which has made a huge difference."
Delays, delays… and more delays
Other club officials have also not been shy in expressing their frustration at delays caused by the various levels of legal dispute with C&R.
For its part, C&R said after the High Court judgement that it fully supports the "redevelopment of the Power Court site for the new stadium for Luton Town Football Club". It doubts, however, the viability of the Newlands Park development, which is key to the stadium's funding.
The club responded firmly: "To read their statement one would think they were victorious at the High Court. They were not successful … We do not accept C&R's viability arguments for Newlands."
After all these setbacks and arguments, Wilkinson is just delighted the club can finally move forward.
Having suffered points deductions, relegations and a spell in non-league, the club's current custodians are still determined to compete, but as a self-sufficient club without the risks previous regimes have taken.
"We could not survive without the new stadium," Wilkinson said. "The club went into three administrations in 10 years before we took over because it was trying to go beyond its means, as so many clubs now do."
Failing to move, falling behind
The sense of frustration can be understood by the fact Luton have been trying to leave the 10,106-capacity Kenilworth Road for so long - and the need to move is obvious for all to see.
Few fans of opposing clubs will forget entering the away end through locals' back gardens, but while this oddity may make for great social media content, it highlights how far behind the Hatters are from their Championship rivals.
Of the five Championship clubs never to have played in the Premier League (Brentford, Bristol City, Luton, Millwall, Preston), only Luton have barely touched their stadium in over 30 years, with Brentford moving into a shiny new home next season.
The club's rise from non-league has been swift - including two successive promotions - but even so, they have found the Championship a very different financial beast from their last stay in 2006/07.
As Wilkinson pointed out in his programme notes last weekend: "The value of Premier League parachute payments to Championship clubs would completely fund the player budgets of Leagues One and Two for well over two seasons."
He also told Sky Sports: "We always knew it was going to be tough and that we were probably going to be in bottom six, because that's where we are in budget terms."
Luton's aim is for the development and new stadium to help the club become self-sufficient, rather than having to sell their leading lights, such as James Justin (Leicester, £8m) and Jack Stacey (Bournemouth, £4m), who left last summer.
Protecting youth development
As well as the stadium move, Wilkinson is keen to highlight the importance of Luton's application to gain Category Two status for their academy and entry into the Premier League U23 setup.
This would hopefully mean an end to players looking to leave the club if, on graduating from the academy, they fail to find a route to the first team.
"This move is very important, it's crucial," says Wilkinson. "The trouble at the moment is there is no football between leaving the academy at 18 and the first-team squad. There is no organised reserve football other than some friendlies, but players then get frustrated.
"This would give us a bigger group of players overall as we would have an under-23 squad which could include the youth players we keep from the youth team.
"We have to install an indoor dome with an artificial pitch. And hire some extra coaching staff. That allows us to apply for the Premier League U23 programme, which has two leagues.
"It's not finalised, but we have applied and are reasonably confident. It would mean we will be able to provide football at that level for those youth players."
On the pitch, Luton have been struggling under manager Graeme Jones, who took over in the summer and their next four opponents (Forest, Derby, West Brom, Cardiff) show the level they are up against to remain in the Championship.
But even if that attempt falls short this season, the club's future off the pitch is at least a little closer to being secured.