Neil Rose paints a sorry picture of Luton Town
I wanted to believe, really I did. I wanted to believe Luton Town could become “the largest club in Europe”. I wanted to believe we would have a 75,000-seat indoor stadium that also accommodated a Grand Prix track, from which we would net a clean £200 million profit a year once Luton took its rightful place alongside Monaco and the rest on the Formula One calendar. I even wanted to believe our new stadium would be home to NFL and NBA franchises and that thousands of Europe-based Americans would travel to it.
Cruelly, these and many other dreams will never be realised. But you have to give John Gurney credit – he certainly talked big once he took over in May (see WSC 197), precipitating the craziest 55 days in the club’s history.
Gurney came to Luton (or London Luton FC, as he wanted to rename it so as to link up with the airport) with a background of trying to move Bedford rugby club to Coventry and almost destroying it in the attempt. He lost any chance of winning people over by instantly sacking Joe Kinnear and Mick Harford – and bizarrely blaming it on Peter Miller, “who on a brief visit to this club from Northampton Town took it upon himself to dismiss the club’s manager and assistant manager”.
But rather than reinstate them, Gurney initiated a phone poll for the new manager, at 50p a throw and with no independent verification. From a group including managerial giants Terry Fenwick and Gardner Speirs, a shortlist of Joe Kinnear, Steve Cotterill and ex-player Mike “cheap option” Newell emerged. Five different groups got to vote: season-ticket holders and the players backed Kinnear, while the board and shareholders plumped for Newell. That left it up to the general public – and a week before the poll closed, Gurney said Kinnear had about 85 per cent of the vote. A week later, after Cotterill told Radio Five he’d turned down the job, Newell had somehow won by four votes. Yeah, right. Gurney even admitted there was evidence of Watford and Kinnear-hating Oxford fans voting for Newell.
Fearing the club’s demise, 2,000 fans attended the launch of the supporters’ trust. It asked fans and sponsors to withhold their money and started a pledge scheme which rapidly ran up more than £300,000. The stand-off reached a head thanks, in part, to the Football League, which had already imposed a transfer embargo until it received full details of the new owners. Unimpressed with the answers it got from Gurney – there was simply no evidence that the mystery consortium of foreign investors he claimed to front actually existed – the league decided to withhold all central television and sponsorship money, and called on the FA to send in an investigative team. A mercifully few days later, the club was put into administrative receivership by its major creditor, thought to be previous owner Mike Watson-Challis. Gurney was gone and pledges were immediately honoured, with 3,200 season tickets bought in the first week and a new shirt sponsor unveiled.
Luton is currently being run for the benefit of the major creditor and Watson-Challis, a committed fan, will not want the club pushed out of existence. Hopefully he’ll be a bit more careful about whom he sells it to this time.
On the plus side, no key players were sold, although much needed strengthening hasn’t happened, and the fans have come together like never before. The trust deserves huge credit, as does brave club secretary Cherry Newberry, and the interested buyers supposedly out there now know why they have to get the fans onside if they want to make the best of a financially troubled club with inviting development land by junction 10 of the M1.
On the downside, we’re not out of the woods – the receiver has started making painful cuts and may still sell players – and are stuck with a manager with scant credibility and a less-than-inspiring record at Hartlepool last season, although Kinnear could yet return depending on who buys us. But, overall, we’re just pleased to have a football club at all.
The sooner the FA gets off its FA and introduces a “fit and proper person” rule for owners, the better. It is too late to help Luton, but I wouldn’t wish what we’ve been through this summer on a Watford fan.
From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month