Back And In Search Of Justice
Aug 07, 2014 10:33 PM EST
Five years after being forced into the footballing wilderness that is the, newly renamed, Vanarama Conference, Luton Town are back in the Football League.
The Hatters suffered a prolonged crisis that took them from challenging for the Sky Bet Championship play-offs to non-league football in three years. It wasn’t that players performed badly, quite the opposite. Allow me to take you back to May 20th 2003, and the start of the greatest roller coaster ride English football has produced. Manchester United fans will feel better about their time with David Moyes and Newcastle fans will bow before Mike Ashley after hearing this tale.
Luton Town had just finished 9th in what is now Sky Bet League One. Joe Kinnear and Mick Harford are at the helm, having won promotion the year prior. Chairman, Mike Watson-Challis, decides to retire and turn over control of the football club to a mystery consortium, whom he feels will provide the long-term security that was not afforded prior to his own tenure.
Unpopular David Kohler up and left Bedfordshire in 1999, after matches and an unlit petrol bomb were left at the door of his home. The club fell into receivership, only to be saved by Cliff Bassett, just two minutes before the deadline that would end Luton Town Football Club. Bassett was always very frank that although a fan, he did not want to own the club and only wanted to keep the club going until he could find the right long-term owner. Another Hatters fan, Mike Watson-Challis, would be that owner.
When Watson-Challis stepped down owing to ill health and age, the new owners wasted no time in making their mark on their £4 investment by sacking popular management team, Joe Kinnear and Mick Harford. To make matters slightly more bizarre, it was Northampton Town director, Peter Miller, that terminated the pair on Luton Town's behalf. What followed made national headlines in the United Kingdom as John Gurney jumped on the reality TV bandwagon. The self-styled front man of a mystery multi-million pound consortium announced a phone vote, much like voting for your favorite act on American Idol. The only issue was that, of the list of known and unknown names, several candidates had publicly stated that they had rebuffed the contract offer including Kinnear. Mike Newell, a former Hatter, Premier League winner and record-holder for fastest hat-trick in Champions League history, may not have won the vote, but he was the new Hatters' boss.
Back to the loveable rogue that was John Gurney. A man who had drug trafficking charges brought against him, and had attempted to asset strip several semi-professional sports teams, made a habit of posting semi-literate 4am press releases to the Luton Town website. Some of his classics included a proposal to buy Wimbledon FC (Now Milton Keynes Dons) in order to buy promotion from Division Two to Division One, renaming the club London-Luton Football Club in order to achieve a profit of £100m each year, and his most famous of all - Building a 50,000 seater stadium, floating on a concrete boat over the M1 highway, with a teflon (T-fal?) roof and a Formula 1 race track passing through the removable field of the stadium. Naturally his reign of terror (or outright comedy, depending on if you were a Hatter or a neutral) was short lived as Mike Watson-Challis tried to make amends for lack of due diligence. He continued to be the club's main creditor, with the club losing £3-4m per year. So he gave the dormant company, that Luton held a debt with, to the fans. Fans forced a second administration after the infamous fifty five days of John Gurney.
Bill Tomlins headed a consortium (a real one...With people...And money!) that took Luton out of receivership. Mike Newell worked wonders with little transfer activity and one of England's most productive youth academies, as Luton Town comfortably won the newly-named Coca-Cola League One. The following season saw the Kenilworth Road club challenging for the Championship play-offs, albeit falling short. The wheels started to fall off in 2006/07 as the players that had performed admirably, both in the Championship and in an epic FA Cup tie with reigning European champions Liverpool, were sold off. The team was dismantled and began to fall back through the league, with Mike Newell publicly criticizing the decisions. Of course, this did not sit well with Tomlins, and Newell was eventually dismissed. Tomlins, too, left as the Football Association began an enquiry into payments made to agents via the holding company rather than the club itself.
David Pinkney, a weekend race-car driver, took over as chairman one week before relegation back to League One was confirmed, and the club found itself in administration again as soon as November 2007. Hapless Lutonian manager, Kevin Blackwell, lasted only a few months as Luton finished bottom of League One with a ten-point deduction. Unprecedented punishments from the Football League and Football Association would leave Town needing a championship-winning performance just to stay in the league, as thirty points were deducted before a ball was even kicked in League Two. The FA took away ten points for the third-party payments, something that Newcastle, Birmingham, Charlton and Portsmouth have also been found guilty of but never punished. The Football League elected to take another twenty for failure to secure a company voluntary agreement, after the British tax authority refused a full-payment in protest at the Football League for supporting Leeds United in not paying their taxes a few years prior.
Luton would have secured a play-off spot without the deduction, but surely enough that couldn't overturn the thirty point deficit as the Hatters would play outside the Football League for the first time since 1920. The team and fans would not go quietly, as 45,000 traveled from Bedfordshire to Wembley Stadium for the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final. Mick Harford led Luton to a 3-2 extra-time win over Scunthorpe United, with Football League chairman Brian Mahwinney given a boo that pantomime villains can only strive for. As the players ascended the famous Wembley stairs, a Luton Town shirt containing the message "F... the FA -30" was displayed on the jumbotron and on the international TV broadcast. A poignant reminder that the fans were the ones punished while the former directors responsible for the infraction faced no consequence. A brief moment in the sun, before five years of hard work to regain what was rightfully theirs'. The big upside to 2008/09 was the purchase of Luton Town by the 2020 consortium. A group of fans led by TV host, Nick Owen, received the news that they were the preferred bidder on the morning of the FA Cup replay at Liverpool. The Hatters lost 5-0, but none of the 4,500 that traveled to Anfield on a Tuesday night cared - the fans all but owned the club and would control its destiny after this season had ended.
For a team that had won a major trophy in a period where Wembley became a second home, with over 125 years of history, adapting to life in the Conference would always be tough. A number of fans viewed it as semi-professional and that Luton should win the league by Christmas. Instead Luton secured a second, third and fifth placed finish, with two consecutive defeats in the play-off final. After it became clear that they would miss out on the play-offs entirely in 2012/13, despite becoming the first ever non-league team to win away to a Premier League side in the FA Cup, Luton dismissed Paul Buckle and brought in John Still. Still was one of the most decorated managers in non-league history, winning the Conference twice, two of the three feeder leagues and a League Two play-off winner. Luton had been trying to spend their way out of the Conference unsuccessfully, whereas Still had a philosophy of using his vast contacts to acquire young hungry players with a smart system. His famous quote is 'control the controllables', and Luton did just that as they coasted to victory. Luton fans learned to respect the league, to appreciate being the massive club that everyone would gladly park the bus and take a goal-less draw, and that it took hard work over technical brilliance to get out of the toughest league in England. Steve McNulty, who looks like anything but a professional athlete with his rotund appearance and grey hair, was a pretty good analogy for the team and league. You do not have to look like you could sign for Barcelona, as long as you have the ability to compete and could rival any player's work-rate and determination. The newly-named skipper scored a magnificent volley, and has shown his skill at times, both of which can be viewed on YouTube, but his hard work and excellent leadership were the winning factor for Luton Town fans and also the Conference title.
Still has brought in a number of players, despite losing star striker, Andre Gray, to Brentford, and the bookmakers all list Luton as favorites to win League Two at the first ask. To use Still's words, the fans and management could not control the previous directors' wrong-doings, but they can control the play on the pitch and support in the stands. The current directors set out a plan to have Championship football by the year 2020. The fans want to finally defend the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, five years after winning it. With a support last season that numbered more than many Championship teams, a manager that is an old-school winner, and a determination to finally secure some degree of justice, keep an eye out for an orange blur rapidly rising through the leagues.