Argument for more promotion places grows
16 December ~ With Conference bosses pushing to increase the number of automatic promotion places to two, this season's battle between Cambridge United and Luton Town seems the perfect ammunition. If their current form stayed steady, the U's would finish top with 104 points – and the Hatters would face the play-offs, despite having 100 points. Until an outburst by Cambridge boss Richard Money after his side's FA Cup defeat to Sheffield United on December 8, the two clubs appeared to have a healthy respect for each other's relentless runs.
Having finished 14th last season, Cambridge's rebuilding has been impressive from the start. They've only lost once, seemingly from complacency, 1-0 at relegation favourites Southport last month.
By contrast, Luton started appallingly and John Still looked certain to be their fifth successive mid-season managerial sacking after a tame 2-0 loss at Wrexham live on TV in September. In a widely mocked interview on Luton's YouTube channel, Still urged fans to stop moaning at home games and to instead properly support the team. Laudable sentiments, but Still's unctuous, gorblimey delivery was like an am-dram Harry Redknapp.
Yet his entreaty worked, with Luton undefeated in their 14 league games since, including six consecutive home wins. In their fifth non-League season, Kenilworth Road has become a ground to fear. The widely unpopular Hatters finally looking worthy of their self-styled Conference Big Club tag appears to have riled Cambridge manager Money. The second of Luton's non-League bosses, Money was fired after 15 months in March 2011. Luton were third, yet Money was at war with the fans ever since running from the dugout to shout at their away following after a defeat at Tamworth six months earlier.
Though a sensible coach with an eye for a bargain, Money has a reputation as an incessant tinkerer and his PR skills haven't improved at the Abbey. Even in Cambridge's glory run he's managed to irritate fans, accusing them of being too quiet at home games. "I wanted to ask them 'Are you not entertained?'" griped Money after a 1-0 win over Hereford in October – comments he admitted were the words of "a grumpy old fool" days later.
So it's no surprise that Money's attempt to put the pressure on Luton hasn't exactly been graceful. Asked about their unbeaten run, Money sniffed: "They pay League One wages and play in front of 6,500 fans. They're just doing their job." The usually chirpy Still was deeply unimpressed, saying he refused to talk about other clubs and urging Money to do the same, pointing out that Cambridge were able to offer higher wages when they beat Luton to sign defender Michael Spillane in August. Still was diplomatic not to add that Money failed to take Luton up despite those wages and crowds.
Whoever goes up, Money's clumsy sniping leaves a nasty taste in an otherwise compelling battle that will also encompass the FA Trophy, after the two clubs were drawn together in the third round earlier today. Conference chairman Brian Lee says an increase of promotion places is due to be discussed with the Football League "shortly"; hopefully all concerned can ignore such sideshows. Even Money is on-message in calling the current promotion system "outdated and unreal". John Earls