The announcement of the death of David Evans last week will send many people of a certain age on a trip down memory lane. Evans was the Conservative MP for the Welwyn-Hatfield constituency for ten years from 1987 until 1997, but to football supporters he was better known as “the man that banned away supporters from Kenilworth Road”. He represented many of the most obnoxious traits of modern Conservatism, and there are few outside the twinset and pearls world in which he moved that will mourn his passing. Is the world better off with or without people that make comments such as these? We’ll leave you to decide for yourselves.
Still, this is not a political site, so we’ll overlook this misdemeanours and focus on the sport instead. One of the things that I noticed when the extent of Luton was the extent of the badwill towards them. As someone that lived near Luton for many years but only visited the football club a couple of times in the early 1980s, I hadn’t really updated my mental crib card from them being a popular club playing entertaining football, but this is what they were in 1983. Promoted into the First Division with local rivals Watford in 1982, the two clubs’ fortunes the following season couldn’t have beem much different than they were. Watford’s brutal, long ball game took them to runners-up place in the First Division and into the UEFA Cup, but they won few friends amongst aesthetes. Luton, on the other hand, played open, entertaining football, but struggled all season until they beat Manchester City at Maine Road on the final day to stay up and send City down.
Evans took over as chairman in 1984, and demolished almost of the goodwill that had been built up in a period of just five years in charge at Kenilworth Road. Evans seemed to regard the club as a plaything that could be used to further his career as a prospective MP, and within two years, the club was starting to resemble a proto-Thatcherite vision of the nightmarish future that the game seemed to have. First up, he demolished the Bobbers Stand, which ran the length of one side of Kenilworth Road, and replaced it with a line of executive boxes which looked like cut price conservatories. The boxes are still there to this day, and Luton’s current position at the foot of League Two with a points tally still some way below zero is a testimony to the long term success of that financial wheeze. He took out the grass pitch and replaced it with an artificial monstrosity. Again, it’s difficult to see how Luton Town benefited much from this.
Most notable, however, was the banning of away supporters from Kenilworth Road. Evans had ambitions to be a Conservative MP, and hastily introduced plans to ban away fans after the much-publicised riot during an FA Cup match against Millwall in 1985. Margaret Thatcher’s government had talked of such a scheme for all matches and Evans, whose name always seemed to be preceded by the phrase “prospective Tory MP”, was only too keen to allow Luton to be used as guinea pigs for it. The club were expelled from the League Cup and threatened with expulsion from the FA Cup, being forced to allow away supporters in for matches in that competition. The ban stayed in place until 1991. If it had been Evans’ aim to use football to prove his use to Thatcher’s government, then it worked. He was elected as the Conservative member for Welwyn-Hatfield at the 1987 general election.
His final act as Luton’s chairman was possibly his most callous for the club itself. Having got the political post that he desired, he resigned as Luton chairman in 1989. However, before he left he sold Kenilworth Road to Luton council for £2.3m, keeping the money as repayment for loans that his board of directors had made to the club. To the club’s good fortune, the council have allowed them to play there rent free ever since, but the site of the ground is said to be worth £15m, which could have come in very useful in their perpetually abortive attempts to secure a new site. In this respect, Evans cashed his chips in too early. Luton narrowly missed out on the Premier League, being relegated at the end of the 1991/92 season (might they have survived had he stayed and put in extra money to help keep them up that season?), and Evans himself missed out on the windfall that the property boom that has only just come to a close by selling up at the time that he did. He lost his seat as an MP during the great Conservative clear-out of 1997.
As the reaction to Luton’s financial woes has demonstrated, football supporters have long memories. The game found its own version of the pugnacious Conservatism that Evans espoused, and is still gorging on the benefits of them, to a point. Whether Luton’s current woes are Evans’ legacy is open to serious question. The club has been open to much mismanagement since he left, after all. However, to praise him as a moderniser would be to assume that any sort of modernisation is a good thing. Perhaps the best thing to say about David Evans is to say that many of his viewpoints are now considered to be anathema – in public, at least.