Double standards

Luton will kick off not only in a lower division but hit by an unprecedented points deficit. Neil Rose finds some grounds for optimism, but plenty more for anger about double standards

October 21, 2006, was probably the last time Luton fans felt happy. Leeds were hammered 5-1 at Kenilworth Road and Mike Newell’s team went fifth in the Championship. In the 21 months since, 15 league games have been won, two relegations suffered, and two managers sacked. Two owners have left, one administration has been entered, 15 FA charges have been upheld and 40 points have been docked.

Supporters are already facing up to the distinct possibility of Conference football in a year’s time and there are those who would prefer to start there on zero points this year, rather than on minus 30 in League Two. And few outside observers think the punishments fit the crimes.

The ten points from the FA were for payments made to agents through a holding company, rather than the club itself, in breach of the rules. The commission pointed the finger at those in charge at the time, but went out of its way to say there was no evidence of bungs. And it was club secretary Cherry Newbery who blew the whistle – where does this leave the FA’s campaign to encourage others to report misdeeds? It seems the FA argued that Newbery was somehow not a “club official” and so Luton should not be rewarded for her act.

In docking 20 points for breaking their insolvency rules (which are now under urgent review, it is worth noting), the League had regard to “recent precedent” in coming to the decision, even though the Leeds tribunal said their penalty should not form a precedent. The panel also contained a director of Barnet – in the same division – and one from Norwich, who were interested in signing Luton midfielder David Bell and subsequently did so. The League stress, though, that the potential conflicts of interest were considered, and had no bearing on the unanimous decision of the eight-person panel.

The most iniquitous condition for being allowed to play in 2008-09 – and the only one not mentioned in the official announcement – was requiring the club to waive any right of appeal. Essentially the League are a private members’ club who believe they can do as they wish.

Nobody is saying these various offences should not be punished, but it is the scale of the penalties (ignoring the cumulative effect) that is patently unfair – the Times even gave over a leader to bemoan the harshness of it all. Those responsible are long gone and beyond the authorities’ jurisdiction; only the innocent are suffering. And had action not been taken so slowly, this would all have been sorted out last season, impacting one campaign, rather than two.

Spurs overturned a 12-point FA penalty for illegal payments to agents in 1994, by arguing that they had new owners and had blown the whistle. West Ham were merely fined over the Tevez affair. Even clubs in Italy’s match-fixing scandal were less severely treated. Some Luton fans believe the authorities have it in for their club, but the idea that it is easier to make an example of a small club than take on a big one holds more water.

At least Luton’s longer-term future looks rosy. The LTFC2020 consortium that has taken over the club, fronted by Nick Owen, enjoys the complete backing of fans. Its members are UK- and US-based, mainly supporters and former players (including iconic 1980s skipper Steve Foster), who from the start have communicated openly and frequently through supporters’ groups and message boards. Yet they are businessmen first and foremost – one, a former youth player, heads the US arm of housebuilder Barratt – and display a realistic vision for restoring the club’s fortunes. They have also pulled out of controversial plans for a new stadium by junction 12 of the M1 pending an independent review of all potential sites.

The support from within the game has been gratifying (David Davies and Doug Ellis apparently asked the FA to show leniency), while the offer of loan players by sympathetic clubs such as Spurs could be vital at a time when Luton are having to sell the few remaining jewels – at the heart of the conundrum is how a club that have raked in around £14 million in transfer fees in three years could be in so much financial trouble.

Yet one of the saddest aspects of all this is that some fans are praying for Bournemouth and Rotherham to be docked points over their administrations so as to give Luton a chance. Is determining the relegation battle before a ball has been kicked really what League officials mean when they talk about maintaining the integrity of the competition?

From WSC 259 September 2008