From a Luton dream to a Luton disaster, David Kohler's plan for a new stadium has finally come to an end John Earls reports
David Kohler was fighting a losing battle for Luton fans’ respect the moment he stopped being chairman and instead called himself chief executive. The latter title meant he could draw a wage we could not afford to pay him. Not that this forgives the moronic way Kohler was persuaded to resign in late February – an unlit petrol bomb and box of matches were posted through his letterbox with an accompanying letter making it clear what would happen “next time” if Kohler did not get out.
The sad truth is that the bomb is more likely due to a caveman disgusted at Town’s slumbering performances since reaching the Worthington Cup quarter-finals last October. Manager Lennie Lawrence, a decent man but not someone you can imagine motivating players out of our dismal run, got caught up in anti-Kohler feeling when he was awarded a new one-year contract the day before we lost 4-0 at home to Wigan.
Even then, Kohler managed to lose sympathy by including a piece attacking the independent Loyal Luton Supporters organisation in the club programme three days later. Kohler says a leaflet slating his eight-year reign distributed by LLS at the previous home game “was being investigated in connection with the petrol bomb”. The implication was clear, and a disgusted LLS were forced into a public denial of any knowledge of who threw the bomb.
In fact most of the recent chanting has been directed at Lawrence rather than the board, who for the best part of two decades have been trying to find a way of escaping from messy Kenilworth Road.
Kohler announced plans for the 20,000- seater, modestly-titled Kohlerdome five years ago. It had the usual retractable roof and movable pitch, and even a James Bond villain would have thought the plan a bit daft, but at least Kohler was genuinely committed to it. A site near Junction 10 of the M1 was found and the best news for Luton fans to emerge from the general election was that the town’s two new Labour MPs both supported the Kohler scheme. The council were already in favour, so everything seemed fine apart from a few complaints from residents.
But last October the Department of the Environment, 18 months after a decision was due, rejected the plans. Anyone tuning into Three Counties Radio that night would have heard Kohler bursting into tears on air, which is probably the best bit of PR he’s ever done.
The official reason is that the M1 is to be widened and the roadworks would interfere with the site. Yet Middlesbrough and Reading – who both applied at the same time as Luton – have had stadiums built despite similar problems. And, let’s be honest, it’s not as though Luton fans are going to clog up the M1 on matchday is it? Inevitably, conspiracy theories have started over the rejection. Current favourite is that the ban on away fans from 1987-92 is responsible. Rumour claims a DoE official who wasn’t allowed to watch his own team play at Luton is getting his revenge.
Meanwhile, no money has been spent on what Luton itself call “unsafe, unsatisfactory” Kenilworth Road. It is unclear what exactly we are we meant to do now. What class of player will want to play for us until we escape? Who will want to buy Kohler’s 51 per cent stake when we are doing our best to make Met Police shares seem a more sensible investment? At least we’ll have no trouble selling the film rights.
From WSC 146 April 1999. What was happening this month