Bedfordshire is in shock at some dramatic upheavels, writes Neil Rose
It was all going so well. After a decade of decline, Luton Town were on the up. A high-profile manager had won promotion from the Third Division and followed it with a good season in the Second. A Luton legend was his right-hand man. The wealthy owner clearly loved the club. Then, in a dizzying week, Joe Kinnear, Mick Harford and Mike Watson-Challis all went.
First came the May 20 announcement that Watson-Challis had sold out to a mystery consortium, three years into the five-year plan aimed at getting Luton back to at least the First Division and into a new stadium by junction 10 of the M1. A few months ago, a spokesman (MWC, who lives abroad, rarely speaks in public) revealed the elderly chairman was having to put a hideous £500,000 a month into the club, although the most recently available accounts (for 2000-01) show annual losses of around £2 million.
Three days later came the bombshell: Kinnear and Harford had been dismissed by post. This was the big mistake – the brutal treatment of the revered Harford. And while Kinnear was not universally popular because of some Wimbledon-like long-ball tendencies, the fans recognised how much life had improved under him. Most believed Big Fat Joe could take us further. He certainly didn’t deserve an ugly sacking, even if he was on a salary put by the media at £420,000.
Message boards went into meltdown, season tickets were renounced, 6.06 was besieged and plans for a supporters’ trust were laid. Rumours flew at an amazing rate, most worryingly involving mergers with Milton Keynes-bound Wimbledon or Northampton, and Terry Fenwick as a possible new manager.
What continues to be more frustrating and paranoia-inducing than anything is the total lack of information from the new owners, whose public relations strategy seems calculated only to antagonise the fans. At the time of writing we still don’t even know who they are, other than being mainly foreign property investors.
On the day the new board was to meet, hundreds of angry fans protested at the ground but insufficient directors turned up and the meeting was postponed. Two people who did arrive were former Peterborough chairman Roger Terrell and ex-pro Lee Power, who said they had been approached to run the football side as chairman and vice-chairman but were having second thoughts having seen the strength of the fans’ reaction. They stressed they had nothing to do with the sackings, though spoke darkly of the lack of correlation between the club’s income and expenditure. A week later, Terrell and Power wisely decided against getting involved.
That same reaction – which has seen Luton receive more media coverage than at any time in years – forced Watson-Challis into issuing a statement chiding the fans. The club’s new life president insisted that the Hatters’ future is guaranteed, as is funding for the new stadium. He said that without the sale, Luton would probably have folded. But nobody’s feeling all that grateful at the moment.
Amid reports that Kinnear had refused the consortium’s offer of his old job back, the worrying then turned bizarre. In a belated effort to get the fans onside, the new owners said we would get to vote for whom they should approach to be the new manager. The only details so far are that fans who renewed their season tickets within a week get five votes as opposed to everyone else’s one. How many votes the directors will have is unknown, but more than five is a fair guess.
There is only one financially interesting thing about Luton – the land Watson-Challis bought by junction 10. The council, which owns Kenilworth Road and wants to redevelop it, backs the move, despite local protests. A planning application was due to go in later this year – although the long-standing issue of the need to widen the M1 there could yet rear its head – and it was only last month that the club predicted that we could move in for the 2005-06 season. Now we’re wondering if we’ll have a club at all by then.
Forget the attempt at Manager Idol. More than anything, this episode reinforces the fans’ status – or lack of it – in modern football. Joe Kinnear always signed off his column in the programme by urging us to “keep the faith”. We’re trying, but it’s hard right now.
From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month