Mad As A Hatter
Just two and a half years ago, Luton Town were playing for a place in the Premier League. Just outside the play-off places and having given Liverpool an almighty scare in the FA Cup, it looked as if a bright future might just be within their grasp. What has happened since then has been well documented elsewhere (suffice to say that this success was built upon a house of cards), but it culminated this week in the club, which has already been relegated into League Two having been docked ten points last year for going into administration, being docked another ten points for the financial irregularities that were in no small part to blame for them being in the predicament in which they ended up. If that isn’t bad enough, they could yet be docked a further fifteen points if they fail to exit administration before the start of next season. Such a points deduction would be almost unprecedented in the entire history of English football (only Port Vale, who were temporarily expelled by the Football League in 1968 over financial irregularities, and Leeds City, who were permanently expelled in 1919 for the same offence, come close), and would almost certainly mean the end of league football in the county of Bedfordshire.
At this point, I do have to declare an interest. At school in neighbouring Hertfordshire in the early 1980s, we would regularly receive free tickets to matches at Kenilworth Road. Also, in an era in which much of the football shown on the television in England was shown on a regional basis, Luton fell between two different television regions. Their matches were covered for ITV by London Weekend Television and Anglia Television, meaning that they were (or seemed to be) featured on the weekly TV highlights programmes every single week. They were promoted into the First Division in 1982 with a team (managed by David Pleat) that played attacking, attractive football, and their first season in the top flight ended with an escape from relegation that was sealed with a 1-0 win at Maine Road on the last day of the season that sent Manchester City down in their place and provided, in the sight of David Pleat running across the pitch in a beige suit and brown brogues, one of the defining football images of the 1980s. Their relative popularity amongst neutrals, however, was soon undermined by the actions of their odiously reptilian chairman, David Evans. A Conservative MP and acolyte of Margaret Thatcher, Evans almost seemed driven by desire to make Luton the most hated club in England. He installed a plastic pitch at Kenilworth Road and replaced The Bobbers Stand, which ran the length of one side of the ground, with executive boxes and nothing else (these are still in place at Kenilworth Road), and then introduced a membership scheme which effectively banned away supporters from the ground. They were relegated from the First Division on the eve of the formation of the Premier League, in 1992, and few neutral tears were shed.
Twenty years on from the worst excesses of Evans’ regime, the club’s reputation still suffers from the worst excesses of his legacy, even though Luton have spent much of the last ten years as one of football’s perennial “crisis clubs”. This has been further exacerbated by the activities of a minority of their support, who have further sullied the club’s reputation over the last few years. There aren’t many people that have a great deal of sympathy for Luton’s current plight. To take this attitude, however, seems to me to be missing the point of the FA’s judgement. Evans is long gone from Kenilworth Road, and Luton Town aren’t the only club to have troublemakers that have latched themselves onto their local club. More concerning still is that the FA have chosen to issue a draconian sanction against a group of people that are nothing to do with the mismanagement that took place at Kenilworth Road during the reign of former chairman Bill Tomlins. Tomlins himself (who, in addition to the charges brought by the FA, was the man that took them into administration in the first place) has been banned from football for five years and fined £15,000, and three co-defendants were also found guilty of misconduct. In addition to this, six agents were also warned about their future behaviour. None of those concerned, however, have been at the club since last year. Luton have been in administration since last November, with a new consortium (LTFC2020) being very close to completing a take-over of the club. There is no link between anyone from LTFC2020 and those that have been damned by the FA’s verdict.
The decision reached by the FA could have far reaching and unwanted implications for the game as a whole. LTFC2020 have been transparent in all of their dealings since they became involved at Kenilworth Road. We would that this were always the case. Any decision to impose sanctions against, effectively, the new owners of a football club for the misdemeanours of the previous owners will surely only serve to persuade people (and in particular people with nothing to hide) to shy away from getting involved in digging clubs out of the holes that they have created for themselves in the first place. If one is wavering over whether to get involved at a football club that is in trouble, the thought that one could end up paying (in many respects, both literal and metaphorical) for something that was nothing to do with them may prove to be the tipping point in driving them away from involvement and investment. Also, the FA would never even have known about what was going on at Luton had it not been for whistle-blowing from former manager Mike Newell and former club secretary Cherry Newbery. Such a judgement will surely only have the effect of deterring the likes of Newell and Newbery from calling attention to mismanagement within football clubs. This judgement has removed part of the incentive for people within football clubs to act honestly and report suspected misconduct.
One could almost be forgiven for thinking that this is what the FA wants – that it would be more expedient for them to be able to silence people from telling the truth and revealing more of the rotten core of the game than it would be for them to actually do anything about it that might cause them (or “The Game”) further bad publicity. I don’t believe this to be the case, but the FA certainly make it easy for us to interpret their actions in this way. They would be better advised to channel their efforts into setting a proper definition for the “Fit & Proper” test, which is supposed to determine whether someone is capable of holding a directorial position within a football club, but actually seems to merely have the effect of allowing the shysters and hucksters to carry on doign whatever they like with impunity. As it stands, only one man – Denis Coleman of Rotherham United – doesn’t pass the FA’s Fit & Proper test, because he inherited a financial mess at Millmoor which meant that he had to put the club into administration twice. Meanwhile, anyone else can carry on doing exactly what they like, secure in the knowledge that the worst that will happen to them is likely to be a slap on the wrist and a fine. I’m all in favour of on the pitch sanctions for off the pitch behaviour – they are, in many ways, the only way to beat football into cleaning up its act – but there comes a point at which sparing the rod and spoiling the child becomes something that looks like nothing so much as vindictiveness and, while I cannot believe that it was the intention of the FA for this to happen, that line appears to have been crossed on this occasion.