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Town crier

Mike Newell’s outburst against a female assistant referee attracted more publicity, but Neil Rose and other Luton supporters were more interested by what the manager said about the club’s chairman

While Luton fans may be ambivalent about joining a campaign to ban female officials from men’s football, they would as one take to the streets for a campaign to ban Andy D’Urso.

When Carlos Edwards was seemingly fouled as he was about to put the ball into an empty QPR net, it was D’Urso’s failure to blow his whistle, rather than Amy Rayner not waving her flag, that was the real cause of the furore that engulfed Mike Newell.

Newell’s outspoken attack afterwards on women and his own board were undoubtedly the product of huge frustration at losing a game thrown away by failing to defend three set pieces. This was an unprecedented (for him) fifth straight defeat and, with other strains such as the shock of Sol Davis’s stroke, it all boiled over. In future, he says, he will count to ten before opening his mouth.

When Newell made his bung allegations, I wrote in WSC 229 that they simply came from him giving a characteristically straight answer to a straight question, and there is little doubt that this was the cause again. He was not speaking out against women in football generally – Luton’s female chief executive is much loved – and he had little to gain from shooting off his mouth; rather Newell has damaged his reputation and could have lost his job. His apologies have made it clear that he does not pull back from the underlying thrust of the comments. Though some think Rayner struggled to keep up with play, she did not strike me as any worse than most assistant referees (for what that’s worth) and there are plenty of other things in football that bother me more. Certainly, the criticism of chairman Bill Tomlins was of more interest to Luton fans. Newell has said similar things in the past, albeit not quite so forcefully, but it was their conjunction with his remarks about Rayner that got him into trouble.

Few doubt Tomlins’ intentions, but progress on leaving Kenilworth Road, seen as vital, has been desperately slow. Long-standing plans to move to a site by junction 10 of the M1 were apparently scuppered a year ago by Luton Airport’s mooted expansion, although the land owners, also former Town owners, dispute this and a local paper reported last month that, while the airport does not think a stadium so close by is wise, it has done nothing to block one.

The board is now targeting junction 12 and land owned by respected director Cliff Bassett. This plan would see a 20,000-seat stadium handed over at no cost to the club (ownership of the junction 10 ground is an issue). It is perhaps no coincidence that, days after Newell’s outburst, Tomlins unveiled appealing drawings of the ground. But aside from doubts over planning permission, many object at the basic level of Luton Town moving out of Luton’s town boundaries, although supporters’ group Trust in Luton was recently convinced by evidence that no feasible site exists within them.

Newell’s grumbles about the limited budget he has to work on compared to most in the Championship is simply a fact of life for any manager at Kenilworth Road. By Luton standards, the board has backed him, spending £840,000 this summer on Adam Boyd and Sam Parkin. The other £4 million earned over the past year from player sales is probably needed to keep the club afloat.

Had the board wanted to shift out Newell without paying off his recently signed four-year contract, his arguably gross misconduct was a golden opportunity. Ultimately what kept him in a job is the success he has engineered against the odds since 2003. His welcome, along with chants of “Mike Newell’s sexist army”, was louder than ever at the following home game.

If Newell left, everyone fears he would take the team’s upward mobility with him, even with old boys Iain Dowie, Mick Harford and Andy King touted as possible replacements. Much like the bung fuss, if recent events conspire to make other job offers dry up – Newell spoke to Derby, Ipswich and Leicester in the summer – then so much the better. So long, that is, as he teaches the back four how to defend set pieces.

From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month

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