In the spring of 1988 Luton Town were on course for three Wembley appearances and chasing their first major trophy, while also eyeing up a second consecutive top ten finish in the First Division in what is generally regarded as the greatest ever season in the club’s history.
Something of a force to be reckoned with during the mid-1980s Luton gained promotion to the top flight in 1982 and reached the FA Cup semi-final two years later under David Pleat; but when their influential boss left for Spurs later that year many might have feared for their future – they needn’t have worried.
With former youth team manager and player John Moore at the helm, who was promoted to manager with Ray Harford as his assistant, the club achieved their highest ever finish in the league, claiming seventh spot at the end of the 1986/87 in what was to be a glorious period for the men from Kenilworth Road.
Far from resting on their laurels Luton, now under the guidance of Harford following the resignation of John Moore, were about to build on that achievement and embark on a season far beyond the expectations even of the most ardent of Town fans.
There was little indication of what the 1987/88 season was about to bring at the start of the campaign though with Harford’s men not registering their first win until the sixth time of asking and it wasn’t really until the New Year before they really got going.
In fact, January was something of a turning point in the campaign as they remained unbeaten in the league while also advancing to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup and reaching the semi-final of the Littlewoods Cup thanks to a win over Bradford City.
Progression in that season’s Simod Cup, a bizarre concept which was introduced to replace European Football in light of the ban on English teams participating in Europe following the Heysel Stadium disaster, was also confirmed with an away win at Everton as Luton embarked on an astonishing three-pronged assault on silverware.
As well as being difficult to play against in their tight and cramped ground with its infamous plastic pitch, and the fact the club slapped a ban on travelling fans, Luton also boasted an attacking line-up thanks to the likes of Brian Stein and his brother Mark along with Ricky Hill, Danny Wilson, Kingsley Black and Mick Hartford.
Their defensive line wasn’t too shabby either with the ever-reliable Les Sealey playing behind a back consisting of Mal Donaghy, Steve Foster, Tim Breaker and Ashley Grimes; even more bizarre then that in one of the games of the season that February they overcame Oxford United 7-4 in an end-to-end thriller.
And it would be Oxford that they faced again just four days later in a two-legged Littlewoods Cup semi-final which they would eventually win 3-1 to secure their first visit to Wembley that season and only their second-ever appearance in a major final.
Three consecutive defeats in the league throughout February and March were quickly forgotten thanks to a win over Swindon which meant another Wembley appearance was confirmed in the Simod Cup against Reading while wins over QPR and Portsmouth ensured another semi-final, this time in the FA Cup.
As so often when a team is chasing silverware on multiple fronts something had to give and the first disappointment came on March 28 when Luton were blown away by Second Division strugglers Reading at Wembley in the Simod Cup final and just a week later Harford’s men were dumped out of the FA Cup by Wimbledon at White Hart Lane who themselves were on their way to claiming a stunning victory in that competition by beating the mighty Liverpool.
But all was not lost and on April 24, 1988 Ray Harford and his Luton side walked out into the sunshine at Wembley to face Arsenal in what would be one of the most memorable finals of the decade.
Going into the game Luton had been ravaged with injuries and goalkeeper Les Sealey was ruled out, leading to a rare appearance for Andy Dibble; while David Preece was making just his second appearance in six months and Ricky Hill had not played since breaking his leg on Boxing Day.
It appeared to make little difference, however, as Town took the lead on 13 minutes after a clever touch from Steve Foster allowed Brian Stein to get behind Gus Caesar and fire beyond John Lukic resulting in 35,000 straw boaters being launched into the air on the Wembley terraces.
Luton remained comfortable for most of the game until Martin Hayes came off the bench for Arsenal with 25 minutes remaining and completely turned the game on its head, equalising almost immediately and then setting up Alan Smith to put Arsenal ahead in a thrilling five-minute comeback.
Arsenal were now rampant with Dibble being called upon to make a number of fine saves while Hayes hit the post when it appeared easier to score, and when David Rocastle was adjudged to have been tripped by Mal Donaghy, Nigel Winterburn had the chance to seal victory from the spot only to be thwarted by Dibble; a man who would no doubt not have been playing if it wasn’t for Les Sealey’s injury.
But there was still time for an incredible twist as, after Gus Caesar failed to clear his lines, Danny Wilson nipped in to score and then in the 90th minute Ashley Grimes sent in a perfect cross with the outside of his left foot for Brian Stein to clinch the most unlikely and dramatic of victories prompting scenes of wild celebration both on and off the pitch.
A strong finish to the season, including just one defeat in eight league games, guaranteed a 9th place finish in Division One to go with their cup exploits – an FA Cup semi-final place, a Simod Cup final appearance and, of course Luton’s first ever piece of silverware courtesy of that memorable day at Wembley.
The Hatters returned to the League Cup Final 12 months later but lost to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and in 1992 were eventually relegated from the top flight, missing out on the inaugural Premier League season as a result.
And their fortunes continued to sour in the years that followed, leading to several quick relegations and eventually administration in 2007; but none of that can overshadow the exploits of that sunny Saturday under the old twin towers on April 24, 1988, which crowned Luton Town’s most memorable season ever.