This Town Had a Reputation Problem. Premier League Soccer Changed Things.


As the announcement trilled out over Kenilworth Road, the jumble of rusted metal and peeling paint that Luton Town F.C. calls home, the tone started to shift. At the start of the sentence, it was little more than the traditional polite welcome to the stadium for that evening’s visiting team, Manchester City.

By the end, though, the voice of the announcer seemed overcome by what sounded a little like awe. Luton, the fans in the stands and the players on the field were reminded, was about to face “the champions of the F.A. Cup, the champions of England and the champions of Europe.” Luton seems to be having a hard time believing the company it now keeps.

There is a reason for that. Fifteen years ago, Luton Town had been relegated to the fifth tier of English soccer, a world away from the power and the prestige of the Premier League. There was, for a time, a genuine risk that the club, founded in 1885, several years before the invention of the zipper, might fold altogether. For years afterward, money remained tight, ambitions modest.

Now, Luton Town’s horizons are much grander. Last summer, it won an unexpected promotion to the world’s richest, most popular sports league. Three decades after it last played in England’s top division, it could again call Manchester City, Manchester United and the rest its peers.

That meant an immediate transformation in the club’s financial outlook: Playing in the Premier League for a single season is worth around $150 million. More important, the status that came with it gave the town — a place that has long suffered a chronic reputation problem — a global platform on which to change not just how it is perceived by others, but how it thinks of itself.

There are, broadly speaking, three ways that Luton permeates the British consciousness. One is as a transportation hub; some 16.2 million passengers filter through London Luton Airport every year. Few, though, linger. The clue for their ultimate destination is in the name.

The second is, perhaps, best summarized by the results of a 2004 poll for The Idler magazine. Some 1,800 of its readers awarded Luton the dubious honor of being Britain’s pre-eminent “crap” town. As one reader put it, Luton was essentially a “brick-and-iron temple to global pollution.” Last year, another survey ranked it as the worst place to live in Britain.

Third — and most damaging — is the town’s association with extremism. In 2005, three suicide bombers responsible for a set of coordinated attacks in London stopped off in Luton to collect a fourth accomplice before boarding a train to the capital. One of the town’s mosques has hosted speeches by the radical Islamist preachers Mostafa Kamel Mostafa and Omar Bakri Mohammed.

In 2009, a handful of protesters from the extremist group Al Muhajiroun staged a demonstration in Luton against British soldiers returning from Afghanistan. That prompted counterprotests in the town from an array of far-right groups. A far-right agitator, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — better known by his stage name, Tommy Robinson — was born in Luton.

For a time, the town was unwittingly and unwillingly projected as the heartland of the nationalist group he founded, the English Defence League. The largest march in the group’s short history was held there in 2011. Another contentious figure, the provocateur Andrew Tate, who has been accused of human trafficking and sex crimes, spent some of his childhood on the town’s Marsh Farm estate.

When — if — the rest of England thought of Luton, it was in that context: division, rancor, blight. Luton, though, always saw something different.

“The place that you see on the news: I don’t recognize it,” Tanher Ahmed, 42, said from behind the counter of Hatters Fish and Chips, a couple of minutes’ walk from Kenilworth Road. “There’s harmony here,” he added. “There’s a sense of community.”

Bury Park, the area that immediately surrounds the stadium, might feel distinct from the center — with streets full of sari stores, roti joints and perfumed confectioners rather than the clutter of chain pubs and bookmakers that dot most British high streets — but Luton sees that as a strength.

“Luton has always been a mix of people,” said Maryan Broadbent, a board member of Luton Town’s main fan group. When the town was a center for millinery, and then for the car manufacturer Vauxhall, there were influxes of workers not only from India and Pakistan but also from Ireland and, later, Eastern Europe.

“It’s always been a changing place,” Ms. Broadbent said. The town’s Muslim community has long fought both the handful of extremists who made up Al-Muhajiroun and the idea that they were somehow representative.

But the presence of its soccer team in the Premier League was, for residents, a chance to offer an alternative definition of Luton.

Mr. Ahmed chose to win hearts and minds on a case-by-case basis. He opened his shop after he spotted a gap in the market. “There was no chippie in the area,” he explained. Fans have to walk the bustling streets of Bury Park to get to the stadium, so he knew there would be demand. “I wanted to give a good impression of the town,” he added.

It has also helped that the club has not merely existed in the Premier League — an improbable guest at the feast — but also provided one of the season’s most compelling story lines.

Luton has a shoestring team — one of its mainstays, Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, is now the only player to have represented the same club in the top five divisions of English soccer — and it is led by Rob Edwards, a young, charismatic (and, not entirely irrelevantly, very handsome) coach.

It has a crumbling, hostile stadium, a creaking throwback to an age before the edges of elite sports were smoothed down and buffed to a high sheen. And it has shown that it can compete with far richer, far more pedigreed rivals. With a handful of games remaining, Luton still harbors a slim hope of avoiding relegation and securing a second season among the elite.

There have been moments where the team has been overmatched, the romance of its story lost amid cold, hard capitalist reality — against Manchester City, for example, Luton lost, 6-2. But the team’s pluck has won it plenty of friends.

Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, described Mr. Edwards’s work with his team as “insane” — in a positive way. Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal coach, insisted that Luton Town “deserves more credit than any other team in this league.”

For Luton, the town, that positive association is a rare and precious thing. It has, in recent years, nurtured a thriving arts scene. And when the author Sarfraz Manzoor, who grew up in Luton, was appointed chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire last year, he said he would use his post to make people think of Luton as “cool.”

But having a team in the Premier League will not change any of the more deep-rooted problems Luton faces. Unemployment is higher than the national average, for example, and there are as many as 15,000 children in town living in poverty.

The club’s success may yet generate a material benefit. A portion of the $150 million or so that it will earn for playing a season in the Premier League has been set aside to help build a new stadium. That arena would be closer to the city center and could “transform the piece that lets Luton down,” according to Ms. Broadbent. But the intangible benefit is no less valuable.

For almost a year, millions of people have thought about Luton at least once a week. Not as a backwater or as a crucible of intolerance, but as a soccer team: bold and courageous and hopeful and refreshing.

There are plenty of people, across England, nursing a fading hope that Luton Town avoids relegation and sticks around for another year. That may not make a difference to the ultimate outcome of the season — the Premier League is not a sentimental place — but it has made a difference in Luton.

In the soccer team, the town has been able to see itself as it would like to be seen. “Whatever happens,” Ms. Broadbent said as she contemplated the specter that Luton’s feel-good story may not have a happy ending, “we have done ourselves proud.”



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