It has been fourteen years since my last visit to Luton Town FC and in that time there has been a lot of activity and changes to the club’s fortunes, staff and set up. The only remaining aspects from the club back then is that they still play at the Kenilworth Road Stadium and Richard Bird is still their head groundsman.
Since its inception the club have had many ups and downs however, In 2008 the club’s administrator declared Luton Town 2020 Ltd as preferred bidders to take over the club - a consortium of lifelong supporters who are successful businessmen, including current chairman David Wilkinson as joint-first investor, brought together by CEO Gary Sweet and director Stephen Browne. This coincided with the signing of one of the club’s legends ex favourite players Mick Harford as club manager.
Since Mick Harford’s appointment, the club have been on a journey of success both on and off the field. Under the guidance of the new owners, the club have seen some good investments in both players and facilities. Particularly with the acquisition of the club’s new training complex and finally after many years of trying, finally getting planning permission for a new 17,500-seater stadium - earmarked for completion in the next three years once other projects have been completed.
The club was granted planning permission for the venue – located in the town centre on the derelict site of a former power station – by Luton Borough Council earlier this year, but the Power Court stadium approval relied on councillors also backing proposals for a new retail and leisure park at Newlands Park near the M1 motorway.
The project has been designed to fund the stadium project and will include leisure facilities, offices, retail units, restaurants and a 300-bedroom hotel.
The two projects are estimated to bring in the region of 10,000 jobs to Luton, and a boost to the local economy to the tune of £250m annually.
On the field of play, the club are currently topping League One with only a handful of games to go. A recent four-nil win over Doncaster saw them 5 points clear of Barnsley and in a good position to possibly take an automatic promotion spot to the Championship if they can continue their winning streak.
I met up with Richard Bird at the club’s new training complex that they acquired in 2016, taking out a long-term lease of Venue 360, the old site of the Vauxhall Recreation Centre, to the west of the River Lea. The private 17-acre facility is now the daily base for the Hatters’ squad and is known as ‘The Brache’.
Richard was very keen to show me around the site so I could see for myself the investment the club had made in the last three years. As soon as the club acquired the ground, they began work on upgrading the natural grass pitches (June 2016), bringing in White Horse Contractors to carry out the works. Phase one saw a 14,000m2 area (area 1) be reconstructed, taking off the top soil, relevelling, ameliorating with 2000 tonnes of sand and sown down with a dwarf ryegrass DLF Johnsons promaster seed mixture.
A new primary drainage system was installed at 5m centres, followed by a second tier of sand slits at 0.5 metre centres. A fully automated irrigation system was also installed by Top Turf Irrigation, with all the work completed and grown in by October 2016. Phase two (May 2019) will see the extension of area 2 to enable the club to have more pitches and training space that will also encompass the installation of a new two-tier drainage and irrigation system.
The site also provides a full size 4G artificial pitch that’s predominantly used by the academy, Luton Ladies, U18s and the junior section. The club have also invested heavily in refurbishing many of the exterior buildings and office space they took on with the lease. These facilities now provide the players, coaching staff and administrators with excellent facilities, such as a gymnasium, changing rooms, physio, rehabilitation/ conditioning rooms and office space for the manager and his staff.
Luton Town chief executive Gary Sweet has been quoted as saying, “These facilities are a major step forward for Luton Town Football Club. It cannot be underestimated how important this development at The Brache is to our long term football aspirations. Having a first-class training facility will elevate the team’s prospects on the pitch and ambitions for the progress of the club as a whole.”
Gary Sweet continued, “The training ground is the players’ working office and this environment is fundamental to developing a spirit among the team, maintaining their general well-being, their fitness and contentment. Not only that but being able to boast such comprehensive, fresh new training facilities will help us to attract better players to Luton Town.
In fact, Richard was very keen endorse his, chief executives’ words during our tour of the facilities. Having spent the last twenty-six years working on the grounds, he himself has seen the hard times with little investment in the facilities over the years, having to make do with limited resources.
Since the forming of the new ownership, the club seems to be moving in the right direction. The investment they have made in terms of improving the playing surfaces has been immense. The club have also taken on two new members of staff (Troy Mayo and Josh Giblenn) in the last twelve months to work alongside Richard and Roger Osborne. Roger has been with the club ten years.
Troy is currently doing his level 2 in Sportsturf at Oaklands College. Previously a greenkeeper, he soon found himself working at Wembley on match days and enjoyed the work so much he decided to apply for the job at Luton. As for Josh he studied Horticulture at Shuttleworth College. With a lot of hedges, shrub beds and amenity areas in an around the site, Josh’s horticultural skills come in handy.
Over the years Richard has built up a good working relationship with the local colleges, with the club gaining the opportunity to offer work placements to a number of students at Shuttleworth. During my visit, I met up with Joe Walsh who himself was completing a three-week placement at the club.
Richard and his team are responsible for maintaining all the playing surfaces at both the old and new training grounds and Kenilworth Road Stadium. In total they look after five full size pitches and a number of training areas. Most, if not all the training pitches are soil-based pitches.
The Kenilworth road stadium is a fibre sand constructed pitch. Work is centred around keeping the pitches in a playable condition for both matches and training. Priority is focused on the new training pitches and stadium. Dennis G860’s cassette mowers are used to cut and maintain the stadium pitch cutting at a height between 23-30mm depending on the time of the year. The club currently use a five gang Baroness cylinder ride on mower to cut the training pitches.
This year’s end of season renovations of the stadium surface will be centred around topping up the fibre sand material in the pitch. Premier Pitches will be undertaking the work with the aim of fraise mowing off the top 6mm, incorporating 100 tonnes of new fibre sand into the top 75mm of the pitch, releveling and over seeding with Rigby Taylor R14 CR. As for the training pitches, this year they all will be deeply scarified, topdressed with 80 tonnes of sand and reseeded with the same grass seed mixture.
The club also own their own Charterhouse Verti Drain and use it to decompact the pitches and training areas on a regular basis. They also have a Toro Procore for use on the stadium pitch. Richard predominately uses a granular feeding regime on all pitches, however, this year Richard is keen to start using a number of liquid foliar products to compliment is granular programme.
Pitches at both the stadium and training grounds are marked out using a iGO line marking machine and duraline paint.
It was heartening to see that Richard is finally getting the right investment into his pitch facilities and staff to cope with the ever-demanding needs of the coaches and players.
It seems the club is in a good place and hopefully they will continue to improve and get their just rewards for all the hard work being done by all who work at the club. I would love to see both Luton Town and my old club Portsmouth back in the Championship.