Blast from the past – Luton Town, October 1987

This is, believe it or not, a plastic match ticket, found by Dad recently while tidying up.  Dad used to take me to Kenilworth Road, Luton for a few seasons, the Sealy-Foster-Hill- Harford-Stein side.  We saw some great games on Luton’s infamous plastic pitch, always from the very front of the terrace, right behind the goal.  I loved it there, almost within touching distance of the goalkeeper, and any goals would nestle in Luton’s extremely stringy net right in front of us.  Thrilling. Funnily enough we were talking about how Liverpool never used to be able to beat Luton at Kenilworth Road, but here we have a ticket from a 1-0 Liverpool win (Gillespie).

I dug out Luton’s results from that season and the thing that stood out were the number of people who were going to games that year.   Have a look:

Date Opponent Venue Result Attendance Scorers
15-Aug-87 Derby County Away 0–1 17,204
18-Aug-87 Coventry City Home 0–1 9,380
22-Aug-87 West Ham United Home 2–2 8,073 Harford (2)
29-Aug-87 Chelsea Away 0–3 16,075
31-Aug-87 Arsenal Home 1–1 8,745 Wilson (pen)
05-Sep-87 Oxford United Away 5–2 6,804 Breacker, Harford, Hill, Nwajiobi, B. Stein
12-Sep-87 Everton Home 2–1 8,124 Hill, B. Stein
19-Sep-87 Charlton Athletic Away 0–1 5,002
26-Sep-87 Queens Park Rangers Away 0–2 11,175
03-Oct-87 Manchester United Home 1–1 9,137 Harford
10-Oct-87 Portsmouth Away 1–3 12,391 Harford (pen)
17-Oct-87 Wimbledon Home 2–0 7,018 B. Stein, Wilson
24-Oct-87 Liverpool Home 0–1 11,997
07-Nov-87 Newcastle United Home 4–0 7,638 Nwajiobi, B. Stein, M. Stein (2)
14-Nov-87 Sheffield Wednesday Away 2–0 16,960 Allinson, M. Stein
21-Nov-87 Tottenham Hotspur Home 2–0 10,091 Allinson (2)
05-Dec-87 Norwich City Home 1–2 7,002 B. Stein
12-Dec-87 Watford Away 1–0 12,152 Foster
18-Dec-87 Southampton Home 2–2 6,618 Harford, McDonough
26-Dec-87 Everton Away 0–2 32,128
28-Dec-87 Charlton Athletic Home 1–0 7,243 Wilson
01-Jan-88 Chelsea Home 3–0 8,018 Harford, B. Stein, M. Stein
02-Jan-88 West Ham United Away 1–1 16,716 M. Stein
16-Jan-88 Derby County Home 1–0 7,175 McDonough
06-Feb-88 Oxford United Home 7–4 8,063 Harford (2), McDonough, B.Stein, M.Stein (3)
13-Feb-88 Arsenal Away 1–2 22,612 M.Stein
05-Mar-88 Wimbledon Away 0–2 4,854
15-Mar-88 Coventry City Away 0–4 13,711
29-Mar-88 Portsmouth Home 4–1 6,740 B.Stein, M.Stein, Wilson, own goal
02-Apr-88 Newcastle United Away 0–4 20,752
05-Apr-88 Sheffield Wednesday Home 2–2 7,337 McDonough, B. Stein
12-Apr-88 Manchester United Away 0–3 28,830
19-Apr-88 Queens Park Rangers Home 2–1 6,735 Foster, Wilson (pen)
30-Apr-88 Norwich City Away 2–2 13,171 M. Stein, Wilson (pen)
02-May-88 Watford Home 2–1 10,409 Oldfield, Wilson (pen)
04-May-88 Tottenham Hotspur Away 1–2 15,437 Grimes
07-May-88 Southampton Away 1–1 12,722 Wilson
09-May-88 Liverpool Away 1–1 30,374 Oldfield
13-May-88 Nottingham Forest Home 1–1 9,108 Donaghy
15-May-88 Nottingham Forest Away 1–1 13,106 Oldfield

Hardly anyone.

Luton went to Wembley that season (an epic League Cup final – we were there), but were still struggling to attract more than 10,000 for home games.  But look at some of the away games, too: 16,000 at Stamford Bridge; 5,000 at Charlton; 28,000 at United.  And so on…

Why was this?  I know football then wasn’t the same as football now, but, well, isn’t this weird?  None of the thousands of people who go to games in the modren world are doing so because it’s the ‘done thing’, yet here they are, flocking to the grounds.  In 1987, in the top division, even the big clubs were topping out at 30,000.  It’s Luton Town, admittedly, but still. Weird.

13 thoughts on “Blast from the past – Luton Town, October 1987

  1. Two theories as to crowd figures:

    1. Football these days is so well marketed and advertised by Premier League etc that it is more popular than ever in general (even though it’s more expensive and may attract a different type of fan to 80’s)

    2. Back in the 80’s hooliganism was still prominent/hanging over at football stadia and games were still deemed as unsafe to attend = lower crowds

    Just my initial thoughts…

  2. In retrospect Andrew must be right on both counts. Most clubs were down to their football-junkie core support at that stage, the rest having died off or been turned off.
    Post-war the mass attendances in general chimed with the times. There’s a wonderful photo of a long snaking queue of families waiting in orderly fashion to enter Waterloo station for holiday trains. Patience is the watchword — they are just pleased to be out and about, never mind the conditions. My Swindon Town informant of that era would cycle 15 miles to the County Ground after Saturday morning work, leave his bike untethered and it would still be there for his return. But when I took him to a game there in the 1980s it was his first for years and he found the experience different and unattractive. While much his kind of support had eroded, replacements were understandably off-put by troubles that Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough helped vividly to publicise. Meanwhile `Super Sunday’ and the associated hype was still in the future. It was temporarily down to the rump support who attended as much out of habit as anything.

  3. I agree with both of the above comments but would also suggest that Luton would have been worse affected than most.

    A small uncomfortable ground in a small town that was neither part of London or the Midlands. In my recollection it was also one of the least safe feeling grounds for away supporters.

    Hard to see why any but the hardcore would ever think of going to matches there.

    The least glamorous of clubs in an unglamorous era.

    1. I don’t think away supporters would’ve been allowed in at that point! Post Millwall they were banned.

      Take the point, but there are really low crowds at all the grounds. 15,000 at Spurs also stands out.

      Kenilworth Rd’s a funny place. Lots of very narrow residential streets to the ground and it is exceedingly conmpact. One side of the stadium entirely corporate boxes, too. I have fond memories of it though, for obvious reasons.

      1. I’d forgotten about the away supporter ban.

        Presumably that meant that home supporters had to have some sort of membership which would have prevented the casual or curious turning up.

        Won’t have helped attendances.

  4. I think Tony has summed it up perfectly there. For anyone not from Luton or a supporter of the club Luton is a bad place in general and the pokey location of the club with such a hefty reputation thrown in is enough to put anyone off.

    I personally loved that about my youth at Kenilworth Road (primarily 1989 -1992) but being a father myself now I wouldn’t dream of taking my kids to such a place. Its certainly not…. ‘family friendly’ shall I say and by that I don’t just mean the club, the location, the area and Luton in general. Far too much trouble going on these days.

    1. I wasn’t intending to be overly negative about Luton the town. In 1987 I was actually living in Leighton Buzzard not far away and went into Luton and Dunstable often enough. Hard to imagine anyone longing to visit there though.

      I do remember the narrow approaches to the ground and never felt secure when I went for Fulham away games.

      What it’s like now I wouldn’t know.

  5. One thing I also forgot to mention was that Luton is a place stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s a club close to London but yet too far out of London to attract support from the London area.

    Sacrilage for me to mention them but Watford must suffer the same sort of conflict. Despite thier successful years in the top flight (and league cup finals) they have never had the money to spend out on big names in order to attract the crowds.

  6. I have read that England’s 1990 World Cup & Gazza’s tears etc started an upsurge in football attendance and interest.
    I see Luton liked playing Oxford that year – 12-6 on aggregate

  7. Don’t worry about insulting Luton – I was born very close to the ground and I wouldn’t pretend it was anything other than a very rough place to visit. It does have a certain charm though and many people have a great fondness for Kenilworth Road and it’s patchwork mess of a ground.

    One issue limiting the crowds would be capacity. The limit is now just over 10,000 and through the 1980s the number was being reduced as the club ‘re-jigged’ (the bizarre “executive” boxes that line one side of the ground being the last major change).

    Luton Town undoubtedly do suffer from ‘fair-weather’ fans. I once had a long conversation with a Luton taxi driver who attempted to defend his decision to follow Spurs instead whenever Luton plunged down the leagues (as they often do).

    Having said that, there seems to a very solid base of 6,000 – 7,000 home fans that would follow the club into hell itself (a.k.a. the BSP). When assessing the current crowds it should also be noted that some visiting teams struggle to bring 3 figures with them.

    Great article, thanks for the memories (it’s all we have).

  8. My time at Kenilworth Road was in the 60s and 70s. I did see one floodlit match during a brief visit in 83 or 84, but only remember it as a goalless draw.
    Judging from the few matches I’ve seen there on television, the “one side that’s corporate boxes” is most likely what used to be known as “the bobbers stand.” When I became a season-ticketholder in the 70s, that was where me and my mates sat — much more knee room than the few seats available in the Maple Road area. Until then, I usually stood in the first one or two rows of terraces in the Maple Road stand, fairly close to the Oak Road End, which was then Luton’s home stand — and the source of a lot of singing and profanity. I guess that all turned around after the away team band.
    As for attendance, I am sure that the Hatters drew better than that in the 2nd division [old money]. I attended matches at K-Road in all four divisions, and seem to rememmber crowds that low only when the club were in the lower divisions. As for Liverpool’s hard record away at K-Road, I remember them welcoming us into the old First Division in 74-75 with a 1-0 defeat. Goal by Steve Heighway, as I remember.
    Thanks for the memory jogging, Rich

  9. Just to add what a fine player Ricky Hill (pictured) was. The team as a whole played good stuff at that time, but I recall him especially. Luton as a club were never convincingly top drawer, but for a period they cut the mustard on the pitch. Interesting how less than half the first division of that time is in today’s Premier, though, and two of them are not even in the Football League. You need to be bigger than Fulham and Luton combined to be anything like a fixture at this level in the long term.

  10. B+w geezer – you hit the nail on the head about Ricky Hill. An amazing player and it was a disgrace that he didn’t play more often for England. He only played a couple of times, maybe 3 at most, but I remember one of the games and he absolutely ran the game, he was everywhere. Had he played for a fashionable club then he would have picked up dozens of caps.

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