Last weekend, Luton Town – currently in League 2 of the Football League – travelled to play Grimsby Town.
The Mariners were holding a ‘Memories’ day in honour of former player Matt Tees and invited Luton fans to wear retro shirts to mark the occasion – it’s fitting therefore that this piece finally appears so soon afterwards, as it has been in the works for the best part of a year.
Our thanks to Luton fan Tim Davis for initially suggesting the article and then for his research and assistance in bringing it to fruition.
Luton were only with Umbro for three years, 1989-1992, and only wore four distinct shirts, but with shorts/socks mashups and sponsor variations taken into account, they took the field in no fewer than 26 different kit combinations over that period of time.
In fact, the oddities go all the way to the first reveal of the new kits in the football press in the summer of 1989. The goalkeeper shirt shown was the classic Umbro ‘Hampden’ design, but with collar and red or orange shoulder panels – as far as we know, such a shirt was never seen in action, for Luton or anyone else.
The home shirt was a smart effort with orange and navy trim featured sparingly, while the away and third used the same design as the Chelsea home kit of the time.
Ordinarily, the fact that the royal blue of the away kit didn’t match up with the navy on the home and third would irritate us – but, at the time, the Football League had a prohibition on navy kits as they were at risk of clashing with the black worn by officials. In any case, the number of variations across the three kits is enough to quell any anger.
As well as the default format, the home shirt was also matched with white alternative shorts at Chelsea and Wimbledon. Away to Charlton Athletic, the blue away socks were used (unfortunately, there were no orange sets available that season to emulate the look used against Everton in 1985 FA Cup semi-final, when both clubs had changed socks).
All-blue was the first-choice format for the away kit, but that was only seen in the opening game of the season, at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur – when navy shorts v blue shorts was permitted, unlike when the Hatters went to Chelsea and Wimbledon.
The white home change shorts – with navy trim – effectively became the away shorts, worn at Southampton (with blue socks) and in the final-day win at Derby County which secured Division 1 safety (with the home socks).
As mentioned above, there were no orange socks to hand. As a result, the blue socks were used with the orange shirt and shorts at Queens Park Rangers in August and the white socks at Coventry City in September. Then, in December, the white shorts and socks appeared with the third shirt against Sheffield Wednesday.
None of the three shirts was changed for 1990-91, but, with the Bedford brand of commercial vehicles about to be retired, sponsors Vauxhall Motors put the name of their most prominent car marque on the Luton shirts for one season.
There were no new color combinations for the home kit – Charlton had been relegated but the white-navy-blue appeared at West Ham in the FA Cup. Football League sleeve patches were worn for the first time, too.
Whereas the Bedford wordmark had been rendered in white on the blue shirts in 1989-90, the Vauxhall was in navy.
While the all-white was allowed at Sheffield United in the league, the blue shirts were worn at Bramall Lane in the FA Cup. The blue-white-blue was the most popular change kit, used at Southampton, Tottenham and Sunderland, with the all-blue only seen at Leeds.
With orange shorts now available, there wasn’t as much need to mix with the third kit. All-orange was worn at QPR and Manchester City, but, oddly, white shorts and socks were used at Coventry. As with the previous season, Luton failed to win a game in the orange shirts.
Again, Luton finished one place above the relegation zone, but their luck would run out in 1991-92. Umbro introduced a new home strip, featuring far more blue and signalling the switch to brasher designs which would characterise the early 1990s.
With Vauxhall having departed, it appeared without a sponsor for the first few games of the season.
Before long, Universal Salvage Auctions came on board as the new sponsors. Unusually, plain white change shorts were brought to Old Trafford for the game with Manchester United – creating a shorts clash, not usually allowed back then – and they were also worn at Southampton.
Watching the footage of that game initially, we saw the blue socks and assumed they were from the previous away kit, but noticing the white tops made us realise that, in fact, Luton wore the socks from Southampton’s blue Admiral change kit.
Due to the large levels of blue, Luton couldn’t wear their home kit at teams like Chelsea or Everton and so the orange kit was promoted to second choice.
Sponsorless at West Ham United on the opening day – oddly, as the Hammers didn’t have blue sleeves that season and wore their home shirts at Kenilworth Road – the away kit then appeared with the same USA logo as the home before a recoloured version was designed.
Though the shorts had the same design on the sides, they were longer than in the previous two seasons and had a subtle shadow stripe, similar to the white home change set.
They remained unable to win in those shirts though and, for the penultimate away game, at QPR, manager David Pleat sought to end the hex by pairing it with the home shorts and blue socks. Unfortunately, they still lost.
The orange shirts did win actually win one game – unfortunately for Luton, they were being worn by Everton, who showed up at Kenilworth Road in November with just their home kit, having forgotten about the increase in blue on the Luton home.
Orange shirts, white shorts and blue socks was a permutation Luton hadn’t used.
After the QPR game, Luton won 2-0 at home to Aston Villa to give themselves some hope of survival before the final match, away to the already-relegated Notts County.
Two points behind Coventry City, Luton needed to win and hope Coventry lost to Villa. Not fancying their chances of achieving that in the orange, Pleat resurrected the blue shirts for their only appearance of the season – the Vauxhall logo had to be patched over, with the USA logo on top of that.
When Julian James put Luton into an early lead, it seemed as if the drop might be staved off again but Notts County came back to score two goals and win, meaning that Coventry’s 2-0 defeat to Villa was of no use.
It remains the last top-flight game that Luton – and indeed Notts County – have played. DMF replaced Umbro as Luton’s kit-maker that summer, staying for two years before the club self-produced their strips in 1994-95.
Since then, they have been outfitted by Pony, Olympic Sport, Xara, Diadora, Puma, Carbrini, Fila and, currently, Puma again.