A focus on Luton as they get set for their Football League return
JOHN STILL celebrated promotion back into the Football League with a civic reception in front of more than 10,000 Lutonians in the town’s St George’s Square on Sunday, but he admits to having been “devastated” 24 hours earlier.
The veteran manager might be a Conference champion for a record third time with three different clubs; on this occasion Luton Town, the team for whom he gave up his beloved Dagenham & Redbridge and hard-earned League status a little over 14 months ago.
But it is the former employers he won’t be revisiting in League Two next year that caused him grief last weekend.
Bristol Rovers, the club Still served as assistant-manager to Ray Graydon for 18 months before returning to east London to mastermind the Daggers’ eventual rise from the Conference to League One in 2004, fell against the backdrop of pitch-invasion pictures that Luton know only too well.
The Gas’ grief stems from the gradual decline that saw them drop into the relegation zone for just 56 minutes of the season, as 10,594 watched them lose 10 at home to Mansfield.
Luton had gone from the Championship to the Conference in consecutive seasons, but their fans’ fury was vented fully at the Football Association, whose 10 and 30-point deductions in Leagues One and Two pushed them through the trap door before a ball was kicked in 2008-09.
“You know what, I was devastated,” said Still. “I’ve got lots of friends there and I’m absolutely devastated for Bristol Rovers because that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.”
What advice would he have for the Memorial Ground hierarchy as they approach Non-League football for the first time in 94 years?
“You have to have a plan, don’t be ad hoc about it…and don’t expect it to happen overnight,” which is something he told Luton when he became the fifth boss, after Mick Harford, Richard Money, Gary Brabin and Paul Buckle, to try to bring their Conference exile to an end.
“The Conference is very unforgiving. It’s tough, on and off the pitch. If you expect just to go up, you are going to end up with a Luton situation where disappointment will start to weigh very, very heavily.”
The unprecedented punish- ment for failing to exit administration properly, and the financial irregularities of those who ran the club long before the LT2020 consortium, who have pumped in £12m over their six-year ownership, have certainly clouded the famous old ground.
‘F*** the FA, we’re on our way back!’ has become a familiar terrace chant this season, as Hatters put three play-off failures and last term’s seventh-place finish behind them to wrestle leadership of NonLeague’s top-flight from Cambridge United, as Still’s Dagenham did Oxford United in 2006-07.
“It is totally different to going up with Dagenham, as we started that season at something like 40-1 with the bookies,” says Still.
“Luton would be among the favourites every year, but as every year went by the disappointment among supporters and everyone involved was greater.
“I felt it was important that we didn’t lose the expectation, because that in itself isn’t a prob- lem. But the longer the wait, the expectation level gets out of control and it drags people down.”
That includes players. Luton made a habit of signing lads who were proven at Conference level and perhaps performed well in one-off games against them, but who failed to deliver regularly on the bigger stage where misplaced passes and wasted chances were under greater scrutiny.
It took the signing of former Conference winners who had experienced life in front of sizeable crowds, like Still’s former