Rowan Vine: Luton Town spell was the best of my career
Former Luton attacker Rowan Vine admitted his two years he spent at Kenilworth Road were the most enjoyable of his career.
The forward had started out at Portsmouth, spending loan spells with Brentford and Colchester before heading to Town on loan for the 2004-05 campaign.
He netted nine goals 43 games as the Hatters romped to the League One title, earning promotion to the Championship.
Vine signed permanently in the summer, as Town went on to finish 10th the second tier of English football that term, a position they haven't bettered since.
Looking back on the two seasons, Vine, who bagged 33 goals in his 111 appearances and was a guest of honour at the club’s Christmas Dinner on Monday night, told the Luton News: “I came on loan from Portsmouth, I’d been on loan the year before at Colchester, Mick Harford saw me play a few times and I think he played a big part in me coming to Luton in the first place.
“I spoke to him a couple of times, I did quite well at Colchester and Brentford the year before, I was 21, 22 and there were a couple of Championship clubs that were willing to take me for three months, I think Sunderland were involved.
“To be honest, one of my friends had played at Luton the year before and was maybe going back there, he was there pre-season and I spoke to him and he said, ‘they won’t have any chance of being at the top of League One.'
“I looked at it and ummed and ahhed, but I spoke to Mike Newell and he said, ‘we want you to come in, we want you to go straight into the team and play.’
“When you’re looking at a loan, you’d always rather be at a team that’s going to be at the top, but I don’t think anyone expected what happened.
“I think they were one of the favourites to maybe be in trouble, we definitely weren’t fancied and we started off really, really well and the team most of that season, it picked itself.
“We ended up finishing with 98 points, it was an unbelievable run we went on, and a really enjoyable time, especially for me.
“I played upfront with Stevie Howard most games and he scored the lion’s share of the goals, but I got a lot of assists, so we had a really good partnership.
“I played as a left winger for Colchester the year before, I played out wide and I didn’t really enjoy it.
"For Luton, Mike Newell was a striker and when you play for Mick Harford and Steiny (Brian Stein), if you play for managers and coaches that understand your position, they know where your best position is.
"They said 'look you’re playing up front with Steve Howard' at the start and then whoever else came in.
"They put combinations of strikers together as they were all strikers, so it’s a lot easier when you’re dealing with that.
"There’s no onus on you to come in and score 20 goals as that’s what Stevie Howard does, but you can make a partnership and we did.
"I’ve never felt the need to score goals as a forward, I mean it helps, but I’ve always done a lot of work on the ball and out wide in different areas.
"I’ve always prided myself on making chances as well as getting in the box and it just worked for me.
"It was pretty much a no-brainer for me to sign permanently when we won the league.
“Although I didn’t know it at the time, its probably my most enjoyable two years and the most fruitful of my career, as I probably played my best football there.
"Looking back, I could have gone and had an unbelievable run somewhere else, but the way it happened, I still think that was probably where I made my name.”
When asked when the side began to believe during that title-winning season that a promotion was on the cards, Vine said: “After eight, nine, 10 games, it was a case of, we’re beating some of the teams that are fancied, we’re looking strong.
"I thought we could have a right chance here, because we had a really good spine of the team and even the young players coming in, like Kevin Foley, Keith Keane after that, we had loads of young boys who were putting pressure on the experienced lads.
"There was no magic wand, training was pretty basic, it was intense, there was a competitive edge around the squad.
"People wanted to win in training, Mick Harford, Steiny and Mike Newell were quite old school, but they encouraged that competitive spirit.
"In training we’d play a lot of eight v nines, there would be tackles flying in and we’d take that into Saturday.
"When you line up at Kenilworth Road in that tunnel, you can see people don’t really want to be there and we had some tough characters as well.
"Our home form was unbelievable, the whole season, we only lost maybe one of two.
"The pitch was horrible for most of the year and no-one really wanted to come there, so we had some really good days, we scored fours and fives, it was really enjoyable."
Vine was signed in the summer, Town paying Pompey £250,000 for his services, but although they lost star defender Curtis Davies a few games into the Championship season, West Brom shelling out £3m for him, they still had a superb campaign, coming 10th.
The attacker missed the first few months with injury, but came back to play a huge part from November onwards, eventually scoring 10 goals in 31 games.
He continued: “I was struggling with a back injury and played the last three months of the (2004-05) season in agony, but because we were so close to getting it done, I was playing through the pain.
"Mike Newell was adamant he was signing me, but I was going to a lot of specialists and didn’t know if the actual transfer was going to happen.
"When it was done, we did it without me being fit, so I missed the first three months of the season, about 15 games of the season.
"We brought in a few players, but we only really brought in lower league players, there wasn’t a lot of money there or a big budget.
"You go into the Championship and it was an unbelievable league at the time, a really tough league, you look at it now and I think nine or 10 of those teams are back in the Premier League, but we just carried on the momentum.
"I was watching from the sidelines trying to get fit, but momentum in football is massive, we lost a couple of players, Curt went early doors, but we had a replacement as Leon Barnett came in and he was like a carbon copy of Curt.
"I came back the last 20 games, I scored a few goals and I finished the season really well.
"We finished 10th, we played 4-4-2 and we were just really direct. Teams couldn’t handle it and it wasn’t like teams couldn't work us out, they just couldn’t handle it, it was a really good time.”
Vine played upfront with Steve Howard once more that term, with Town's top scorer going on to net 14 goals for the club.
Describing their partnership, Vine said: "I loved playing with him, but he wasn’t the happiest man and if he didn’t score, he was the angriest man around.
"I used to describe him as a goalscoring bully. He was just in there, he wanted to score so much, and he just wanted to bully people and head the ball in.
"He rarely wanted to do anything else outside the box, but we had a great understanding.
"I didn’t have that appetite for goals, I’ve never had that appetite for goals.
"I’ve played with boys that are really selfish, Steve wasn’t really selfish, but he got himself in the right positions and if you hung the ball up to the back stick, there’s no-one better, probably in football, to go and win the header than him and that's what he used to do.
"We had a good relationship on and off the pitch and probably was until he left, one of the best partnerships around at that level."
After that season of success, things started to unravel at the club, with Luton beginning to sell their best players, Howard and Kevin Nicholls going in the summer.
They managed to make a fist of until January, when Carlos Edwards left for Sunderland and Vine himself moving on after Birmingham City parted with £2.5m to take him to St Andrews, after bagging an impressive 12 in just 26 league games.
Luton went on to win just two more matches after the pair exited, finishing 23rd to drop back into League One, a division they were relegated from the following season too, dropping into the Confence the year after.
Vine admitted he had never wanted to leave, saying: "The writing was on the wall in the summer.
"Howie went, Nico, we lost a few players, then the feeling started getting that it was crumbling a bit.
"To be fair to Mike Newell, he was just saying to me, 'Viney you’ve just got to keep doing it for yourself and we’ll sell you.'[
"I was like, 'I don’t want to leave,' as I didn’t want to leave, I wanted a new contract and wanted to stay, but I didn’t know what was going on at the club.
"I was on fire, scoring goals every week in the Championship, I had 14 goals before Christmas, but in January that’s when it went downhill.
"It was bittersweet for me, as I thought we were three or our players away from getting into the Premier League that summer, then you start falling apart and you’re selling your top goalscorer, your captain, the writing was on the wall.
"We looked at it and we kept it going, but it wasn’t nice for me as I left to go to Birmingham who were eight points clear at the top and then Luton just dropped like a stone.
"It was really hard for me as I was still living in Luton and had a lot of friends there, but it just went back-to-back relegations for a club that’s always been close to my heart, even now.”