A tale of one small city and one big town
Having been consigned to eight nights’ hotel stay in Luton on business, I thought the least I could do was catch a match or two, and see if the Bedfordshire town really deserves the negative reputation it undoubtedly has. Ironically such an endeavour involved immediately leaving its vicinity.
The Conference South fixture list caught my eye on Tuesday night, and while I would have loved to see Whitehawk away in Hemel Hempstead, I plumped for the far shorter trip to Clarence Park, to see St. Albans City host Poole Town. I had no time to see anything of St. Albans itself bar the five minute journey from the train station to the ground, however it is one of the more leafy and enjoyable settings to watch a football match. Overshadowed by tall shadowy trees on three sides, the main stand has the appearance of a converted barn, and the homely atmosphere is only slightly spoiled by the regular roar of an express train hurtling onwards to London from just beyond the pitch’s perimeter.
I thought nothing of the announcement pre-game that the Hemel Hempstead-Whitehawk match had been postponed due to floodlight failure. Saints scored two in the first half, could have had a couple more, and ultimately never looked like ceding control to their opponents, who sat one place above them in 3rd in the league standings. After giving up on the terrace due to the effect a hard day’s work had had on my legs, I settled into a seat in the main stand midway through the half, where, bizarrely, I was shortly joined by eight members of the Whitehawk team left with an evening off after their game’s curtailment. Although I thought of mentioning the few times I have enjoyed games at their Enclosed ground, including the red-hot atmosphere of the 2014/2015 season’s play-off semi-final win against Basingstoke, I settled for a curt and shy statement about living in Brighton to the player sat next to me, received a firm handshake and friendly smile before he turned back to his many Spanish-speaking teammates.
St. Albans continued to dominate after the restart and were worthy 4–0 winners, however I must admit to leaving before the final goal in a tired wish to get back to my Premier Inn bed for the night. There appeared to be no way of actually leaving the ground prematurely however, a tactic that many bigger clubs may wish to employ when their fans feel tempted to beat the traffic, and I found myself hurdling the turnstile by which I’d entered the ground, which led me into the pitch black of the public park complex in which the football club is situated. Overall I was very impressed with the incisive attacking football that Junior Moria, Louie Theophanous et al that the strong crowd of near-500 bore witness to, and am tempted to return next Tuesday evening, when St. Albans City are at home once more, with local rivals Hemel Hempstead, of floodlight failure fame, the opposition.
But what of Luton? The ramshackle Kenilworth Road is a unique football venue which, despite the calendar not working out in favour of me seeing a match there, I felt I had to visit regardless. Situated in the infamous neighbourhood of Bury Park, correctly or not sensationalised as the home of both Islamic extremism and white racism, Kenilworth Road is shabby, outdated and thoroughly charming. I’d love to visit as an away fan through the Oak Road entrance built into terraced housing, however the fixture Gods have thrown up an awkward one this season in that Pompey’s visit falls on a Tuesday night in November, in what is so far shaping up to be a top of the table clash that the two biggest clubs in the fourth tier deserve.
For all of its negative points (and believe me it has many), however, Luton’s football club, from what I can see, is something the town can take pride in. Having a high street presence in the form of a club shop in the town’s shopping centre is no mean feat for a League Two club. Indeed, Portsmouth FC’s retail units closed a few years ago, and it is an added bonus to the Hatters that locals rivals Stevenage have the indignity of a Tottenham Hotspur shop in the centre of its equally depressing mall. Hopefully I will get the chance to return to Kenilworth Road and see a game; indeed it is the only reason I can possibly imagine returning to this dire place. While the club may have far to go to again reach the heights of their period in the top flight and League Cup victory of the 1980s, its current high-flying status in the English fourth tier and St. Albans City’s similar in the sixth, not to mention the current purple patches of Watford and Borehamwood, show that the football scene in the commuter towns of Beds and Herts is alive and well.