Luton's Mpanzu bids to complete unique journey to the Premier League

From muck and nettles in the fifth tier to the Premier League! Luton midfielder Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu is an emblem of the club’s remarkable rise and is bidding to complete his own unique nine-year journey

  • Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu was born near Wembley and is now poised to play there 
  • He has journeyed through several tiers of the pyramid across nine unique years 
  • The midfielder is the life and soul of the team and represents their climb back 

Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu was born and raised within sight of the Wembley arch, and it has taken him the best part of three decades to get through the doors of the iconic stadium.

But if Luton Town beat Coventry in the Championship play-off final it will complete more than one incredible journey.

From Hendon to Wembley via Boreham Wood on £25 a game, and a couple of years at West Ham before the move to Kenilworth Road. And from non-League to the Premier League with the same club in nine years, a feat no one has ever achieved.

Back in November 2013 when he joined, initially on loan, Luton were stuck in the muck and nettles of the fifth tier of English football. They trained on a public field where residents walked their dogs through the training sessions and complained to then manager John Still if the ball hit their pets.

‘The training ground was a dog’s field with two portable cabins stuck together,’ says Mpanzu, reflecting how far he and his club have come ahead of their biggest challenge. ‘I came and saw it, saw the stadium and thought, “Oh man, this is different”.’

Luton midfielder Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu is targeting the end of a unique nine-year journey

The club are just one game away from the Premier League and take on Coventry at Wembley

Still was determined to sign the athletic young midfielder, however, and Sam Allardyce, then in charge at West Ham, made the decision easy. ‘Sam just told me, “You’d better sign for Luton”, so it was out of my hands,’ says Mpanzu. ‘I thought, “Cool, I’ll do that”, and it was done. I signed in January, we got promoted right away and it’s been a great journey.

‘Everything has gone up a level. We got a new training ground, a new gym, the food changes. Little stuff contributes to us making moves. Players come in and ask me what it was like. I tell them the place was bonkers, it was mad.’

Mpanzu has matured into a footballer Still reckons is worth more than £25million. At 29, he is also the life and soul of the Luton dressing room, an emblem of their climb back through the divisions to stand on the cusp of the top flight, where they have not played since relegation in 1992.

The prospect of the glittering showdown at a sold-out Wembley in a match conservatively estimated to be worth £180million to the winners will be a scene far removed from his debut against Staines in the FA Trophy, which attracted a crowd of 621. ‘It’s an achievement,’ says Mpanzu, signed by West Ham 12 years ago from Boreham Wood, where he came through the academy, broke into the first team and would earn £25 for each appearance and pay a £13 fine for every booking.

‘I got a lot of bookings,’ he points out. ‘You must have the staff, the manager and all the people who believe in you. They have done. That’s been great. You then just have to put the performances in and be confident in going about your business.

Mpanzu has matured as a footballer and is the life and soul of the Rob Edwards’ dressing room

Now on the cusp of glory, Mpanzu has looked back over taking a risk and joining the Hatters

‘Did I ever have doubts? No. Did I want to come here? Absolutely not. It’s been a risk but worth it and here we are, 90 minutes from being in the Premier League. It’s been a hell of a run and I’m still here trying to achieve something big. Hopefully we’ll be drinking champagne on Saturday.’

Don’t expect Mpanzu to shy away from the spotlight if they do. That isn’t his style, as he proved when he turned up at an end-of-season awards in a purple suit and a black bow tie, or the press day for the play-off final in superhero crocs. He asked boss Rob Edwards if he could wear shorts to Wembley.

‘You hear him before you see him,’ says Edwards. ‘And you see him quite often as well, if he’s in his purple suit. Win, lose or draw, he’s the same, and we need people like that. He keeps you going and drives you on. He’s the heartbeat of the group. He’s hard-working and he has stepped up and stepped up, and if he can do it one more time it will be incredible.

‘He deserves it but that doesn’t mean we’re going to do it.’

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