Should Liverpool FC need some advice on who to approach to get construction of their stalled Anfield Road stand up and running again, they could do worse than calling Gary Sweet, the chief executive of Luton Town for advice on how to do it. Because on Friday, against West Ham, after just 15 weeks of building work from scratch, Luton will kick off their first season in the Premier League in front of a brand new stand at Kenilworth Road. Maybe not on the scale of the Anfield Road edifice, perhaps. But nonetheless the fact the project has been brought in not only to budget, but against the most ludicrously tight time constraints, is remarkable.
“It’s an amazing achievement by everyone involved, Gary and the board, the planners, the people who have done the work, quite incredible what they have done in so short a time,” reckons Rob Edwards, the club manager. “It’s going to be a really special occasion. I want everyone to get in early and once they’ve taken it all in, all the changes, to get singing, and making a lot of noise. Show them it is still The Kenny.”
Edwards is not exaggerating the scale of the operation. The moment last May when Luton won the play-off final to gain promotion to the Premier League everything changed. Not least the tight, cramped, atmospheric, vibrant old stadium they have inhabited since 1905. The board had been warned that should they gain promotion, nothing at Kenilworth Road fitted the Premier League’s requirements. The floodlights were too dim, there were not sufficient camera positions for the Var to operate, the broadcast facilities appeared not to have been upgraded in 35 years. And that is without mentioning the view from the press box. Last season Brad Potts, the Preston North End striker, scored with a flying volley so scintillating it was deemed the Championship goal of the season. But for those watching from the press area, the view of his strike was completely obscured by the sloping roof of the stand. They all assumed he must have scored with a header, which was how the goal was described in all the next day reports.
To meet the stringent Premier League demands, the day after the play-off win, work began on demolishing the old Bobbers Stand and reconstructing a new block filled with state-of-the-art broadcasting facilities. The Bobbers was so named because it used to cost a shilling to stand there. The new stand, and all the accompanied upgrades, was rather more expensive: the bill came to more than £10 million.
“There’s loads of changes, almost everything somewhere has had a little tweak,” says Edwards, who noticed, with a wry smile that even the away dressing room has been refurbished. “The amount of change is mad.”
Not that he had any input.
“I didn’t need to,” he says, rebuffing the idea that he was another Arsène Wenger, who when the Emirates was built, unleashed his inner architect and ensured much of the place was built to his requirements. “All I need is a dressing room, happy with that. I’m not asking too much. I’m a simple guy.”
Simple guy, maybe. But it was not a simple construction. Especially since the contractors were given an initial deadline of Aug 18, just 13 weeks after they moved in. One of Kenilworth Road’s distinctions is that it is entirely surrounded by houses; the away fans enter the stadium between two terraced houses. And the back of the Bobbers abuts people’s gardens, separated only by a narrow foot path. There is barely room there to walk through, let alone position a crane. For the builders, the only access was across the pitch. The kind of protective sheeting that is used to cover pitches for stadium rock concerts was installed to prevent the machinery churning up the greensward.
It was partly the access difficulties that led many to assume there was no chance of it being done in time. Drones routinely flew overhead taking pictures for media outlets inquisitive about progress. And when the first home game of the season was postponed, sceptics quickly assumed things were already doomed. Was this the Anfield Road Stand of the south?
But then on Tuesday, Luton played their Carabao Cup tie against Gillingham with the new stand fully operational. The dozen or so shed-like executive boxes that used to occupy the Bobbers have gone, replaced by broadcast and media facilities including what is now apparently the longest television gantry in the country, running the full length of the pitch. And, immediately behind the two new managerial dug outs, there are more than 1,000 executive seats. Which cost slightly more than a bob.
“It’s going to be a special night,” says Edwards of Friday’s fixture. “We’re really looking forward to it. I hope people watching on television see the positives [of the stadium], see it making a lot of noise. Hopefully it can bring us some points this season as well. Our supporters have been through some dark times in very recent history. For them to be coming to The Kenny to see Premier League football is really special for them.”
The irony in all this is that they won’t be going to watch Luton at Kenilworth Road much longer. They may have spent £10 million on improvements, but the place, with its creaking, claustrophobic stands and impossibly tight surrounds, is already on death row. A new home for the club is to be built about a mile away at Power Court. The plan is to move in to a swanky new, 19,500 capacity stadium at the start of the 2025-26 season. Though things have been put back by the requirement to shift an electricity substation. And a visit this week suggested they will need another miraculous building spurt to get it completed by then.
Not that the Luton board view the £10 million spent patching up The Kenny as wasted. They are keen to use as much of the improved infrastructure in the new place. And if they can’t switch the floodlights or the dug outs across, then they will ensure everything is offered to another club.
“Gary is determined nothing will go to waste,” says the Luton press officer Andrew Barringer. “It will all have a second life.”
In the meantime, Kenilworth Road remains open for business. And now with a smart new press box affording uninterrupted views of the action. So if James Ward-Prowse scores the Premier League goal of the season on Friday, at least this time the reporters will be able to see it.