Club challenged in the Championship
6 July ~ It is hard to reconcile the oafish Joe Kinnear, who has recently been appointed director of football at Newcastle, with the man who took over Luton at the club's then-lowest ebb in February 2001. How can someone seemingly so dim bear any resemblance to the superb motivator and astute transfer dealer who turned Luton from a club headed for the Conference into Championship contenders? Kinnear arrived too late to save Luton from relegation to the bottom flight, but he brought in Steve Howard on transfer deadline day.
Burly striker Howard was the first of half-a-dozen players signed by Kinnear who would eventually star in Luton's illustrious Championship season of 2005-06, none of whom cost more than Howard's £50,000 fee. He built a young squad of players with something to prove, typified by captain Kevin Nicholls. Previously a workaday hard-man at Wigan, Kinnear turned Nicholls into a mesmerising box-to-box midfielder. Even with foreign signings, Kinnear was able to get players' names correct enough for them to respect him. French winger Jean-Louis Valois's 40-yard strike against Torquay on his debut invariably features in Luton's all-time top ten goals. Of equal importance, Kinnear appointed the talismanic Mick Harford as assistant.
The Hatters duly won promotion back to League One, though Kinnear's needless goading of title rivals Plymouth was a sign of bumptiousness familiar to Newcastle fans. After being labelled "a good place to die", Plymouth beat Luton to the title by five points. Still, it was Luton's first promotion in 20 years, playing attractive football. Not all of Kinnear's transfers worked – striker Robbie Winters and midfielder Sammy Igoe lasted one game each – but successive promotions looked likely, despite having to sell future England international Matt Taylor to Portsmouth for £400,000. Then, at the start of 2003, Kinnear was told Luton's budget was in meltdown and we fell away to ninth. Plymouth inevitably finished eighth.
Still admired by supporters, Kinnear and Harford were sacked by incoming chairman John Gurney. A man who made Kinnear's Newcastle ramblings seem reasonable, Gurney's plans included designing a new stadium on stilts so that it could host Formula One races. When fans protested, Gurney reinstated Harford but made Kinnear one of eight candidates in a fans' phone vote.
Several people on the list, including Peter Taylor and Iain Dowie, were still in jobs, unaware they were being shortlisted. Gurney claimed unfancied Mike Newell won and, although most Luton fans believed the vote was rigged against Kinnear, that was the last he was seen at Kenilworth Road. Gurney was hounded out before the season started but Newell stayed – and promptly won the title.
What's happened to Kinnear in the intervening decade is puzzling. Ill-health might have taken the fight from him. Seeing the standard of some managers Luton have endured since, it's equally likely that an eccentric such as Kinnear is still better than most bosses in the lower divisions. John Earls