10 years ago, Luton Town had just finished 7th in the fifth tier of English football. One year later, Stockport County were coming to terms with a 14th place finish in the sixth tier - the lowest finish in their entire history. Perhaps it's fitting that both Hatters are Wembley-bound this weekend, after a decade of fighting to get back to where they belong.
The sun is set to shine down on Luton on Saturday, as they look to complete their incredible rise from the National League to the Premier League in a decade. The Kenilworth Road club have been on a seemingly unstoppable upwards trajectory and now they can cap it off in style under the arch.
They’ll come up against another club that have enjoyed a rapid rise in Coventry City, who dropped down to the fourth tier, have played outside their home city on three separate occasions and are aiming yo-yo from the Premier League to the fourth tier, and back up. It’ll be a feel-good occasion no matter who wins, but for Luton Town, their consistent rise and third place finish has made them favourites with Betfred.
The Hatters near the capital have also proved that if you can get your affairs in order and the right workers behind the scenes, anything is possible. Mick Hartford is just one of them, but his role in the renaissance has been remarkable. He’s been at Kenilworth Road as a player, coach, interim manager, permanent manager – twice, technical director, and will be at Wembley on Saturday as current recruitment chief at the club.
He is Mr Luton. But getting the club up from the depths of the Conference was not easy. They spent four seasons at that level, losing twice in the play-off final in consecutive years. It was painful, but finally in 2014, spear-headed by the goals of Andre Gray, they won the title. Clearly more than two teams need to be promoted from that level every season, but having escaped the bottleneck, Luton flourished.
They quickly established themselves in League Two and then Nathan Jones arrived. The Welsh boss helped propel them from League Two to the Championship in two phenomenal seasons. He also led them to the play-offs last term before moving on to Southampton, as Rob Edwards has picked up the baton.
They’ve provided the perfect blueprint for National League clubs currently struggling to get out of the imbalanced division. Wrexham and Notts County strangled the league this term with the Welsh club’s huge finances making automatic promotion impossible. However, now they are out of the way, hopefully we will see a more even division next term. Perhaps even an underdog story will emerge and follow in the footsteps of Luton.
One such example is happening before our very eyes. The following day, Stockport County will head down Wembley Way in search of riches. The Hatters are hoping to return to League One for the first time since 2010, having suffered the ignominy of three relegations in four seasons - a disastrous run that took them down to the sixth tier - and almost out of business.
“It was without a doubt the lowest day in the club's history,” local Stockport County journalist Sam Byrne explained. “It's difficult because a lot of other clubs will say they have had something similar with Wrexham, Chesterfield, Notts County - proper clubs that have been down here for so long. But for County to spend six years in the Conference North and to be playing almost - with no disrespect - almost Sunday League sides at times, and losing - for us to be where we are now and on the verge of something really special is a sensational feeling.”
This rise from the depths of despair has featured a whole host of people who have written their name in the annals of the club. Legendary boss Jim Gannon, who has managed the Hatters in three separate spells, was the man who finally got them back up to the National League while Mark Stott’s takeover in January 2020 has revolutionised the ambitions and fortunes of the club.
Since then, Dave Challinor and some strong investment has seen them climb up from the National League and now they are one win away from back-to-back promotions. League Two with its four promotion places must seem a doddle compared to the National League, but they will have to beat a talented Carlisle United side to achieve that goal.
They fell even lower than Luton and were miserable in the National League North. But the good times have returned to Edgeley Park and now this big fanbase has something to celebrate. Both Hatters have bonkers stories to tell. Tales of woe. But now the light has shined upon them, and they are a shining example for all those non-league clubs lacking hope.