David Pleat on managing Luton, their glory days and promotion chasers

My Luton players said I was a brilliant coach. I didn’t know that. It made me proud and sad too: David Pleat on his Hatters glory days, Rob Edwards’ promotion-chasing crop and the demise of ‘cloth cap men’

  • David Pleat is warmly remembered after leading Luton into the First Division
  • The club, however, slid toward oblivion before slowly bouncing back in style 
  • Speaking to Mail Sport, Pleat recalled the glory days and his spell in charge 

On the way out of Kenilworth Road after Luton’s Championship play-off semi-final victory over Sunderland, David Pleat felt a tap on the shoulder. It was the father of current Luton manager Rob Edwards.

‘He just wanted to introduce himself and say he remembered the things I had done,’ smiles Pleat. ‘It’s nice to be remembered isn’t it?’

Pleat is remembered at Luton, for sure. It is a surprise there is not a stand named after him. If things go well for Edwards and the current generation of players at Wembley this weekend they will forever remember the Welshman as well.

Pleat was just 33 when he became manager of the Bedfordshire club in 1978 and took Luton into the old First Division. Edwards was, at 39, also young when he got the job in December. Only Coventry now stand in the way of a top-flight return for the first time since 1992.

‘Not much has changed there,’ explains Pleat over a cup of coffee. ‘The stadium is still tiny but with a great atmosphere. I still don’t actually know where everyone does their work. They have no office space, the dressing rooms are still the same, the boardroom is the same.

David Pleat is warmly remembered at Luton after leading the club into the old First Division

Pleat (pictured) has recalled discovering his players found him ‘brilliant’ and shared his pride

‘I have no idea where the accounts people sit or the commercial people or media people. But on match day it comes alive. The crowd against Sunderland was terrific, as good as I have ever heard there. It’s as though their time has arrived after all that has happened to them, as though they are one game away from conquering the world.’

What Pleat refers to is Luton’s slide towards oblivion. His Luton was one of adventure and daring, of Brian Stein, Ricky Hill and Raddy Antic and final-day heroics at Manchester City. Only during his second spell there in the early 1990s did gravity finally take effect and drag the club back into the old second division.

Much worse was to come. By 2001, Luton were in the fourth tier and by 2009 out of the Football League altogether. They had been in administration three times, had 40 points’ worth of penalties and suffered four relegations.

‘I actually knew someone on the panel who decided on one of the points deductions and I called him to say it was harsh,’ recalls Pleat. ‘It was none of my business but I still cared for Luton. He said if I had seen the evidence I would have known it wasn’t unjust.’

Luton’s climb back towards the summit has been slow and this final part is unexpected. Edwards’ team are different from Pleat’s expansive group, more pragmatic.

‘I wasn’t much of a defensive coach and my players would tell you that,’ Pleat says.

But there are similarities. Pleat took players like Stein from non-League, Hill straight from the school playing fields and Mal Donaghy from Irish football. The current Luton squad, which includes captain Tom Lockyer, come mainly from the lower leagues. Of the team who beat Sunderland, only three or four cost them any money.

Under Rob Edwards, the Hatters are now one game away from reaching the Premier League

‘Yes, lower leagues is the similarity,’ Pleat nods. ‘Just like some of mine, they have been given a platform they may never have envisaged.’

One of Pleat’s own, striker Mick Harford, does the recruitment for Luton now. But back in the day, Pleat’s own methods were less conventional.

‘There was a non-League column in the Telegraph that I read avidly for names and prospects,’ he reveals. ‘I also had a guy at the Belfast Telegraph. He told me about Mal Donaghy. Then I had all the local ‘pink’ football papers sent to me from Sheffield and Birmingham. I scoured them for leads.

‘I listened to people. Scouting is about your eyes but also your ears. When scouts meet they can’t keep their mouths shut. The gossip is unbelievable.

‘The cloth cap men I call them. I feel for them. Nobody takes much notice of them now. But I knew a lot of people. I made sure I was well informed. I knew what was going on.’

When we meet this week, it is at a hotel in Coventry. The night before Pleat has enjoyed a reunion with his old Luton players. He is 78 now but his head is still full of football, opinions on players tumbling forth in torrents. He still works as a consultant for his other great love, Tottenham, but this week is all about Luton and it says much for the bond forged more than four decades ago that the group meet at least once a year.

‘It’s a reflection of the spirit and camaraderie of the time,’ Pleat says. ‘They were so successful they like to relive it. What makes me laugh is it seems I didn’t know half of the stuff that was going on. They talk about it now, but it’s unprintable!

One of Pleat’s very own, striker Mick Harford (above), is now in charge of Luton’s recruitment

‘My first game was a 4-0 defeat at Millwall. I was young and people were thinking, ‘Who is this bloke?’. But all I tried to do was have different ideas. If I saw something I would extend the session. Someone like Arsene Wenger would never go beyond 30 minutes.

‘I had them doing shadow warm-up without the ball. Heaven knows what they thought they looked like.

‘But it made me feel proud when I heard them talk about me last night and maybe sad too. They said I was a brilliant coach. I didn’t know they thought that. I didn’t think I was really. I just thought I was a bit different.’

The challenge on Saturday is to beat another highly-motivated team. Coventry, led by Mark Robins, have also had their struggles. Beyond that, if Luton win, the club will face immediate challenges. Kenilworth Road only holds 10,000 people.

‘They only have 150 of their 37,000 tickets left for Wembley and the sad thing is that only 10,000 of that huge amount would be able to watch them next season,’ Pleat says. ‘If they win, maybe they should go for two years to Milton Keynes. Borrow the ground. They would get 20,000 for sure. It’s just a thought.’

Pleat left Luton twice, once for Tottenham in 1986 and then for Sheffield Wednesday in 1995. On both occasions, his exit was not taken well. Still, though, the affection endures. ‘I still have fondness for the club and the town,’ he explains. ‘My youth was there as a player. I met my wife there. We lived above a hairdressers. Then we moved to a bungalow.

Edwards’ crop this campaign are different from Pleat’s expansive group, more pragmatic

‘What I admire about the club now is that in Rob Edwards they were brave enough to take a manager who had been at their local rivals Watford. It’s amazing that they did that.

‘In my day I was at Luton and Graham Taylor was at Watford. A friendly hostility, I call it. Graham had Elton John’s money, I didn’t. They did well but we played them 10 times over that period and we won seven.

‘We played a different type of football from them. You have to be careful what you say don’t you? Graham said it wasn’t long ball but long passes. Bless him.’

The modern Luton will need some good football, good planning and good luck to move on from this point. Pleat remembers his team’s big moment in their first season in the top division in 1982.

‘Everyone remembers us winning at Manchester City to stay up on the final day,’ he explains. ‘But if they come up, Rob’s team will need a catalyst, a moment that helps them to believe. Ours was a 3-3 draw at Liverpool on a warm day in September. Walshy (Paul Walsh) ran them ragged. Ask Lawro (Mark Lawrenson) about it.

‘We had to use three goalkeepers after ours got injured. Kirk Stephens went in goal but couldn’t cope. Shakin’ Stephens we called him after that. So Donaghy went in. We had never been to Anfield before, none of us, including me.

‘To draw and then for me to sit and speak in that boot room with the pin-ups on the wall and the crate of beer was amazing. Evans, Fagan, Paisley, Moran.

Pleat believes that Edwards has dragged Luton to Wembley through honesty and team spirit

‘I realised when I walked out and got on the bus that I had told them all about us and learned absolutely nothing about them. They had done me. But we had got a point at least.’

As we finish our chat, Pleat takes a call from Luton chief executive Gary Sweet to check how the reunion went. He confirms there are 50 Wembley tickets set aside for former players and that prompts a final question. Does Pleat sense any fear among his old team that their place in Luton’s history may soon be usurped?

‘I have thought about this,’ he says. ‘It’s a good point, but I don’t think so. Their legacy is so strong.

‘They know how good they were and with the greatest respect to the current team, you cannot compare eras. Rob has got them here on honesty and team spirit.

‘They are a compact team, physically strong, particularly at set pieces. There is no one who can twist and turn like Brian Stein and no one who can manipulate the ball like Raddy Antic or Ricky Hill. But that’s OK. They are just different, a very passionate team with a great crowd behind them. I have my fingers crossed.’

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