The Right Stuff: Luton Town FC Speaks Up For Supporter Involvement
As winter finally gives way to the springtime, the sun continues to shine on Luton Town. The clubs sits thirteen points clearat the top of the Conference Premier and, whilst few at Kenilworth Road would be considering to assume promotion back into the Football League a completely done deal just yet, a last minute equaliser at Cambridge United in a match that might have blown a little life into a championship battle that has gone a little stale over the course of the last few weeks, as if there could be any doubt over this, merely confirmed that the Hatters have it all to throw away in the closing stages of the season.
Football clubs, however, have two faces and, whilst what happens on the pitch is obviously and rightly the main focus of many supporters, how a football club conducts itself off the pitch also has a significant – if somewhat less easy to quantify – value. If the owners of your football club are successful, as a supporter you may consider yourself more generous in offering up criticism of The Club itself. If the club is fair game, the argument that, “Well, someone has to finish at the bottom of the table” is seldom one that is given much of a hearing, at least not when there is usually a small list of potential scapegoats to be offered to sacrifice at the altar of the football Gods.
Luton Town Football Club hasn’t always been blessed with the best of reputations amongst its peers. For those of us of a certain age, the reputation of the club during its most successful spell in the 1980s was diminished by the excesses of the club’s chairman, the now deceased Conservative MP David Evans, whose installation of an artificial pitch and a voluntary membership scheme which banned away supporters for league matches – the latter of those two was widely considered to be a prime example of Thatcherism applied to football in excelsis – along with the worst excesses of the hooligan element amongst its support gave the club a reputation which has taken a long time to wear off.
In the modern day, though, supporter issues have moved on from “plastic pitches” (even the current ongoing debate over 3G pitches is light years away from this subject), away fan bans and the like, to such an extent that to merely mention them has an almost nostalgic feel to them. None of this, however, is to say that supporters don’t have anything to complain about any more, and as regular readers of this site will already be more than aware the threat of wholesale rebranding, renaming or removing a club from its home area remain very much on the agenda at several professional football clubs, including two in the Premier League. No-one, it can sometimes feel, is safe from the twenty-century football “blue sky thinkers.”
At Luton Town, however, the club has made an unprecedented move to distance itself from such unwanted “modernity.” At the end of last week, it was confirmed that this club would be the first professional club in England to give supporters the legal right to veto any future change to the club’s image. Furthermore, any decisive vote over such a change would be taken by the club’s supporters trust, Trust In Luton, with the club’s managing director Gary Sweet going so far as to say, “There is one caveat. The Trust must get stronger, because we can’t have so few members voting on these things. We’re also going to establish a share scheme for the club via the Trust so the Trust can buy more shares in the club at some point in the future.”
Such words from a member of senior management at a professional English football club are so rare that they require something of a double-take. On the one hand, the club is making a clear commitment to the notion that such fundamental ideals as changing the idea of a football club should be taken by the supporters of the club itself. On the other, meanwhile, Sweet is also making it obvious that the club itself considers Trust In Luton to be an ideal vehicle for this, whilst confirming that it is putting in a mechanism to enable the Trust to purchase a greater share-holding in the club in the future and encouraging supporters to join it in order to make it stronger.
There is a tendency for people on all sides of the spectrum to look upon club supporters trusts with a degree of parochialism. On the one hand, many club owners seem to treat trusts with little more than contempt, whilst there is even a tendency on the part of some supporters to talk about their club’s supporters trust in the third person, as if they are an alien object dropped into a football club from outer space with the intention of not doing what each individual critic wants at any given time. The idea that at many clubs the supporters trust is – or at least should be – “us” rather than “them” has proved to be a difficult one to dislodge in the minds of some people.
It should, however, be instructive to understand the differences between what has been going on at Luton Town and at, say, the holy trinity of football basket-casery in this country at the moment, Cardiff City, Hull City and Coventry City. At Luton, having made the eminently sensible managerial appointment of John Still (a stalwart of this level of the game who knows his way around it like the back of his hand), the club has made an effective statement that it trusts the supporters and its supporters trust, and that it can be a force for good within the club itself. Considering what Luton Town has been through before, as well as the ways in which trusts seem to have an uphill battle at so many other clubs, so see the managerment of a football club embrace its supporters so is extremely refreshing. That such a bold statement should be made at this time in particular carries a significance far beyond Luton Town Football Club itself.
We wrote a couple of weeks ago about the new mood of optimism that has been sweeping through Kenilworth Road over the course of this season, and it is encouraging to see that this mood has spread to those that are running the club at present. The Luton 2020 group took over a shell of the club which was horribly punished for the crimes of a group of individuals who, we can hope amongst hope, will never see the inside of a boardroom again. The end of the season can, of course, still turn sour for this football club. It can at any table-topping club at this time of year, of course. At least, though, the supporters of Luton Town can be happy that the owners of their club have their best interests at heart, and that’s more than can be said for more than some of their contemporaries at the moment.
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