22. Aug, 2022


As I write my latest blog, I happen to be wearing a Morecambe and Wise T-Shirt. Eric and Ernie, the finest comedy double act this country has produced, what do you think of the show so far?

Eric was christened Eric Bartholomew, he was born in the Lancashire Seaside town of Morecambe. In tribute to his hometown he adopted Morecambe as his stage name and teamed up with Leeds born Ernest Wiseman. After a stuttering start when their first TV series bombed, the boys finally hit the big time.

London came calling, the marvelous scripts of Eddie Braben demanded the boys move nearer the capital. Eric chose the Hertfordshire town of Harpenden
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Relocated in the South, sports mad Eric was looking for a football team to support. The comedian had two clubs on his doorstep. The choice was Luton Town or Watford. A coin was tossed and Luton were the victors. Luton Town's greatest moment occurred in 1959 when they reached the FA Cup Final. They lost an attractive final to Nottingham Forest. Roy Dwight scored Forest's first goal in a 2-1 win. Roy Dwight was Uncle to young Reginald Dwight, Like Eric, young Reggie adopted a stage name. He was a decent piano player who felt Elton John was a] more eye-catching name. Elton of course had his own football passion and became an avid Watford fan. The rock superstar even bought the club and became Hornets chairman in 1976.

Meanwhile 19 miles down the road Morecambe had become a Luton director. He saw The Hatters regain their top flight status in 1974. The Hatters nickname came courtesy of the town's hat making industry. Although in truth a large percentage of Luton's population were now  employed in the giant Vauxhall Car factory. So maybe the Vivas, Victors or Astras would have been a more appropriate nickname.

Sadly Luton's early Seventies resurgence was brief, they were relegated in 1975. But Eric remained loyal. The Hatters even got a mention in the famous Cleopatra sketch, a play whot Ernie wrote and starring Oscar winning actress Glenda Jackson. Eric Morecambe plays a Roman, he holds a shield which reveals the name Luton FC. Later when asked "What News of Carlisle" Eric replies "They lost 21". Ironically the Cumbria club were promoted and relegated with Luton in 1974 and 1975.

Luton Town's star began to rise in 1978 when David Pleat was appointed manager. Pleat took over when Harry Haslam was sacked. Harry Haslam was another joval character who masterminded the 74 promotion. But the Kenilworth Road board opted for a younger man; it proved a wise choice. Pleat inherited a crop of promising young players. The pick of the bunch were midfielder Ricky Hill and striker Brian Stein. Pleat invested wisely in the transfer market. Experienced striker Bob Hatton was signed from Blackpool while Swindon Town winger David Moss also joined The Hatters.

Moss in particular, was to play a pivotal role as The Bedfordshire side became regular promotion contenders. His crosses provided a fruitful supply line for Stein and Hatton. In addition he was a superb penalty taker who could also find the net from open play. After several seasons knocking on the door Luton entered the big time in 1982. The Hatters were scoring all the right goals at all the right times.

They won the Second Division title and ended a 7 year absence from The First Division. The title was made even sweeter by the fact that local rivals Watford had to settle for the runners up spot. Two small towns on the outskirts of London were beginning to ruffle feathers. Little wonder Pleat and Watford counterpart Graham Taylor were earmarked as two of the hottest properties in management.

The signing of Brighton captain Brian Horton was key to the title success, Horton formed an impressive defensive rearguard with Northern Ireland International Mal Donaghy. Yugoslava International Raddy Antic was another interesting acquisition.

As Luton prepared for First Division football David Pleat swooped for Charlton striker Paul Walsh, the teenage sensation was earning rave reviews in South London. Walsh replaced Bob Hatton and immediately forged a prolific partnership with Stein. Forget Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham, humble Luton Town were the must watch team in the Autumn of 1982. The goals reigned in at both ends of the pitch. In earlier blogs I described the 3-2 win at Birmingham City and the 4-4 draw at Stoke City. The Hatters were equally free flowing on their own turf, Brighton (5-0) and Notts County (5-3) were thrashed at Kenilworth Road. Walsh grabbed a hat trick against County.  But it was September's 3-3 draw at Anfield which showed this was no ordinary promoted side.

Town had the temerity to take the lead with a piece of marvellous attacking play. Walsh turns and slips the ball through Mark Lawrenson's legs before cutting the ball back for the onrushing Brian Stein, whose first time shot arrows into the top corner. But before half time normal service appeared to be resumed  as goals from Greame Souness and Ian Rush gave the home side a 2-1 half time lead. Luton were dealt a further blow when goalkeeper Jake Findlay sustained an injury whilst throwing the ball to a Hatters defender. Findlay was unable to play on and defender Kirk Stephens took over between the posts. Indeed it was the stranded Stephens who Rush slid the ball past.

At half time David Pleat made a change, Stephens reverted to the day job and regular stand-in Mal Donaghy became Luton's 3rd goalkeeper of the afternoon. The switch seemed to inspire the visitors, wonderfully composed finishes from Moss and Stein put the First Division new boys 3-2 up. Only a late Craig Johnstone equaliser saved Liverpool's blushes.

But as Winter set in the harsh realities of top flight football saw Luton embroiled in a relegation battle. Everton dished out two hammerings 5-0 at Goodison Park and 5-1 at Kenilworth Road. It wasn't the last time the Merseyside Blues would break Bedfordshire hearts. Coventry City also helped themselves, winning 4-2 at Highfield Road.

Going into the last match of the season Town needed a win to stay up. This would be a nerve wrecking task in itself, but the match was given extra spice. Opponents Manchester City were also fighting for their First Division Lives. A draw would keep City up and condemn Luton Town to an immediate return to Second Division football.

City were the home side and were favourities to survive. With 5 minutes left the Maine Road scoreboard displayed a 0-0 scoreline. With time running out Stein hoisted a hopeful cross into the Manchester City penalty area, City goalkeeper Alex Williams punched the ball away. the clearance fell to the feet of Raddy Antic. The substitute shot first time and the ball flew past 2 City defenders and into the bottom left hand corner of the net. As Antic wheeled away in delight, Pleat urged concentration from the touchline.

Despite frantic pressure from the home side, Luton hung on and booked another season at the top table of English football. As the final whistle blew, Pleat ran on to the Maine Road pitch, the Hatters boss jumped a jig of delight before embracing his orange shirted heroes.

Twelve months later tragedy hit Kenilworth Road, Eric Morecambe died of a heart attack on May 28th 1984. The Man who had brought joy to millions was aged just 58.

Sadly Eric never saw his beloved Hatters prosper. In December 1983 Town emerged as unlikely title contenders On Boxing Day they sat 3rd in the table. But like fellow challengers Coventry City, Luton suffered a horrendous run of results and narrowly avoided relegation. There were positives. In February 1984 Walsh and Stein were capped by England at senior level. The Town front pair played together during a 2-0 defeat to France It was a magnificent achievement to see 2 players from a so called small club been recognised at the highest level.

Eventually Luton were unable to hold on to one of their prized assets. Paul Walsh signed for Liverpool in the Summer of 1984. His replacement was a very different type of striker. A fee of £250,000 saw Mick Harford become a Hatter in December. Harford arrived from Birmingham City, at 6ft . he was the traditional British Centre Forward, a fine header of the ball, big Mick was the total opposite of the quick silver Walsh.

League form continued to be inconsistent but Luton thrived in the FA Cup. In the Quarter Final they beat Second Division Millwall at Kenilworth Road. Brian Stein got the winner in a match marred by crowd trouble. As the final whistle blew a section of visiting Millwall fans invaded the pitch and began throwing seats at Town supporters. A total of 31 Lions fans were arrested. The ugly scenes were broadcast on BBC Sportsnight. The riot prompted Hatters chairman and Conservative MP David Evans to introduce a controversial Membership scheme. Now only card carryng fans were permitted entrance to the ground.

Having disposed of Millwall, Luton faced Everton in a Villa Park Semi Final. The Toffees were the FA Cup holders and were on their way to winning the First Division title. For good measure Howard Kendall's side went on to win the European Cup Winners Cup. But underdogs Luton Town looked like causing a major upset when Ricky Hill put Pleat's men in front. Town were four minutes from Wembley when Everton were awarded a free kick on the edge of The Hatters penalty area. Kevin Sheedy's daisy cutter beat the wall and gave Les Sealey no chance in the Luton goal. Everton had got out of jail and sealed their place at Wembley when Derek Mountfield headed an extra time winner.

In 1985 the club installed a plastic pitch as new signings Steve Foster from Aston Villa and David Preece (Walsall) became firm favourites. David Pleat was lured away by Tottenham Hotspur and assistant Ray Harford became the new Luton manager. In his first season Town finished 7th (their highest ever finish) and knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup.

The following season saw the greatest day in the clubs history. Luton beat Wigan Athletic ,Coventry City, Ipswich Town, Bradford City and 1986 winners Oxford United to reach the 1988 League Cup Final. George Graham's promising Arsenal were their Wembley opponents. The Gunners were League Cup holders having beaten Liverpool a year earier. Most neutrals expected the cup to be returning to Highbury.

The pride of Bedfordshire hadn't read the script. The underdogs took a 13th minute lead when Stein latched on to a Foster pass and slotted home. For almost an hour Luton held on to their slender advantage. But Arsenal scored twice in 4 minutes. Goals from Martin Hayes and Alan Smith put the North Londoners 2-1 up. Arsenal were then given the perfect opportunity to seal the deal when David Rocastle was felled in the box. The Gunners were awarded a penalty. Arsenal full back Nigel Winterburn grabbed the ball and faced Andy Dibble in the Hatters goal. Dibble guessed correctly, diving to his left he saved Winterburn's spot kick.

Dibble was only playing because first choice goalkeeper Les Sealey was injured. The save proved the trigger for glory. On 82 Minutes Danny Wilson's scrambled effort made it 2-2. Then with a minute on the clock, a cleared free kick fell to Town substitute Ashley Grimes. The former Manchester United star showed the agility of a race horse rounding Epsom's Tattenham Corner before crossing. The ball fell to an unmarked Brian Stein who made no mistake.

Luton were 3-2 up and clung on to their lead. Steve Foster lifted the cup and at last The Hatters had won a major trophy (The Winning team is shown above). It could have got even better. Town lost a FA Cup Semi Final to Wimbledon and the 1989 League Cup Final to Nottingham Forest. On both occasions Mick Harford goals had given Luton the lead. Harford was on his way to becoming a Luton legend. Like Ricky Hill he was capped by England an scored 69 goals in 168 appearances.

Together with another famous fan, Harford saved the club. In 2009 he managed them to Football League Trophy glory. Town were now a League Two (Old 4th Division) club dogged by financial problems. They were deducted 30 points by The Football League and relegated to The National League. TV presenter Nick Owen took over as chairman, Nick is a lifelong Hatters fan. Ex Dagenham manager John Still oversaw an immediate return to the League. Harford remained as his loyal assistant. A role he held last season as present boss Nathan Jones took Luton to the brink of Premier League football. Harford won an even bigger battle, having been diagnosed with Cancer.