John Still says excitement is building as Luton Town prepare for their grand return to the Football League. And why not? After five years in the wilderness for a club that was ravaged by financial mismanagement, these are undoubtedly exciting times. Luton are back. “They’ve waited for the day to come around when they play in the Football League again,” Still says.
Yet to the untrained ear it sounds as if Luton’s manager is reading from an autocue, that the tone of his voice does not quite match the words coming out of his mouth. It is not that he is boring or insincere – far from it – more that he is a man in possession of an almost intimidating level of calm. The impression quickly forms of someone who is utterly unflappable.
“I never used to be,” Still, 64, says. “I think I’ve mellowed a bit as I’ve got older. I have my say when I need to. But I think it’s important to have a calm approach, otherwise I’m not sure shouting and hollering is the right thing to do because the game has changed. I used to be a shouter and let players know exactly what I think but I do it in a calmer way.”
The obvious question is whether he has any secret methods to pass on. Yoga? Meditation? Maybe good old-fashioned counting to 10? Suddenly he sounds amused.
“I don’t have methods,” Still says. “I never get too high when it’s great, I never get too low when it’s poor. I just try and keep a constant. That keeps me very, very level-headed. If I feel I need to say anything that might be seen as aggressive, I try and ask myself if it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it is and sometimes I do. But mostly I try to think to myself not to do that and keep positive.”
That steady influence is what Luton required. They were promoted to the Championship in 2005 but when it went wrong, it all happened so quickly that they barely had time to pause for breath. As their finances went south, so did the team and their 89-year stay in the Football League came to an acrimonious end in 2009 after three consecutive relegations, administration and a total of 40 points deducted along the way.
Supporters raged, taking aim at former owners, managers and the authorities. What stung most was the unprecedented 30-point deduction they were handed at the start of the 2008-09 season for a combination of financial irregularities and illegal payments to agents. Their complaints fell on deaf ears.
For Nick Owen, the television presenter who fronted the Luton 2020 consortium that saved the club from bankruptcy at the start of 2008, the rebuilding job was huge. Four managers tried and failed to restore Luton to their former heights and the ill-feeling grew.
The turning point arrived in February 2013 when Still, seeking a new challenge, left Dagenham after nine years and dropped a division to join Luton.
“I found a desperate situation,” he says. “There was a lot of negativity and nervousness about whether they would ever get out of that league. I think one of the reasons they struggled to get out was because of that anxiety during games. It was that sort of feeling when I first got there. I had to find players with mental strength as well as physical strength.
“We tried to include everyone in what we do. But it was nothing new for me because I’ve always tried to have a team ethic, on and off the pitch. Everybody is included, whether it’s the cleaner at the training ground. It’s important you make people feel that they are playing a part in your success – or failure.”
It was difficult initially. “I hadn’t been there long,” Still says. “After the Hyde game at home, I was walking off and there was a guy with a cap on and he looked down at me and says, ‘Still, you’re a tosser.’ That went down well!”
Still could have been forgiven for wondering if he had made the right choice. Some people had warned him away from Luton. “But that gave me a spur,” he says. “I just felt I needed a challenge.”
The challenge was to turn Kenilworth Road into a positive place again. Instead of turning on the team, supporters started to give them their full backing and Luton went on a record 27-game unbeaten run to seal promotion.
They have lost their leading scorer, Andre Gray, to Brentford yet Still believes they can survive. “If everyone does well, we can have a good season,” he says.
And that means? “I’m pretty straightforward,” Still says, refusing to be coaxed into making a bold prediction. “What I want to be able to do is look at my team and feel it’s fulfilled its potential.”