“It was my hometown club growing up” – Luton Chairman Nick Owen on saving his club

Henry Cowen interviews TV presenter Nick Owen on how he became the Chairman of his local club Luton Town, and what the future has in store for the Hatters

The badge of Luton Town, the beloved club of Chairman Nick Owen. Image: eamonncurry123 via Flickr Creative Commons.

The badge of Luton Town, the beloved club of Chairman Nick Owen. Image: eamonncurry123 via Flickr Creative Commons.

Football is very often glamourised but the reality can be very different, and when you’re facing up to a second season out of the Football League the glitz of the Chelsea and Man Utd is a long way away. I spoke to Luton Town Chairman Nick Owen to find out how much work has gone into saving the football club and just how tough three successive relegations can be.

On Sunday, 29th October 2006 Luton were travelling to Portman Road to take on Ipswich Town. Under the stewardship of Mike Newell they were fifth in the Championship and had put five goals past Leeds United the previous week. The Sky cameras were present to witness the promotion chasing Hatters but on the day they crashed to a disappointing 5-0 loss and just four years later they’re facing the likes of Altrincham Town and Kettering and ambitions of once again playing in the top tier of English football are a lifetime away. Despite this those at Kenilworth Road aren’t despondent, primarily because in many ways they’re lucky to still have a football club at all.

A few months after that heavy defeat to the Tractor Boys, Luton found themselves relegated to the third tier of English football. Upsetting, of course, but worse was yet to come, as Owen explains: “we got relegated from the Championship because we just fell apart…the following season, administration and ten points deducted. Players having to be sold…and then the following season we’re in the bottom division. We have two hits, twenty points docked for having had three administrations in ten years and on top of that there was a problem with the FA about paying agents through our holding company and not the actual football club… and the FA chose to give us ten points for that as well.”

So having been docked forty points over three seasons Luton found themselves “out of the football league after 125 years of history”. It can’t be an easy position to find yourself in and Owen and the consortium he fronts had a lot of work to do: “When we took over the wage bill was about five million pounds a year and we had players on the best part of five thousand pounds a week. Our wage bill is now just over one million, so it’s a massive drop.”

Administration is common place in football these days and I asked Nick whether he felt it was fair that points are deducted as a result of financial mismanagement: “This is always the problem, the people who suffer are not the people who committed the sin…the people who suffer mostly are the fans, and the players…and in this case myself and my colleagues who came in and turned the club around.”

Owen is extremely modest about the role he’s played in Luton’s revival: “I have to say I must not take any credit because I’m a non-executive Chairmen, I was just a figure-head for the bid. It’s my friends who worked so hard”. Nobody could question the amount of work put in by those on the Luton board, turning around years of overspending and rebuilding a football club from scratch. Rewind five years and this was a team that boasted the talents of Rowan Vine, Leon Barnett, Kevin Foley and Carlos Edwards, tomorrow’s line-up against Kettering will feature the likes of Matthew Barnes-Homer and Jake Howells. It is these players who still shoulder the burden of fans who saw their club lift the League Cup at Wembley only 23 years ago.

However, it has not all been plain sailing for Owen and his consortium since they took over, as fans of York City will attest. Coming up against the Minstermen in the play-offs Luton were favourites but crashed surprisingly to a 2-0 aggregate loss. Incensed at the result Luton fans took to the pitch and began to throw objects at the York players who were forced to seek refuge in the stand in which their fans were housed. Owen admits the actions of his side’s supporters were unacceptable: “It seems a very small number got a bit out of hand and started throwing things…I can’t excuse it…we are embarrassed…but our fans generally are superb. I do apologise to York City football club because it’s terrible for football and very bad for the name of Luton Town”.

Whatever has gone before, things are certainly looking up for Luton now. The short-term aim of Owen’s consortium was to ensure the survival of the Hatters, which has now been done, and the club are now looking onwards and upwards. The long-term aim is to move away from Kenilworth Road into a purpose built stadium that can provide income every day of the week so that Luton can compete with the kind of clubs they fought toe-to-toe with not five years ago. Luton in the Premier League may sound like a fairytale but Owen dismissed any such talk: “Fairytale’s a bit strong because it’s very hard work, you know it really is hard work”. Luton fans will be hoping that with Owen at the helm the hard work continues and that consequently the club can begin to rise out of the ashes of their financial difficulties and climb up the leagues.

9 comments

  1. 17 Aug ’10 at 12:21 am

    Marcel Proust

    Well written article and despite being a Watford fan, i feel Luton has been hard done by and deserve to still be playing league football.

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  2. 17 Aug ’10 at 11:25 am

    Chris Macsweeney

    I can’t find words strong enough to compliment the luton board and all those involved in resurrecting the club over the last 3 years. I really hope they stay involved and continue the good work for years to come so they can see the fruits of their labour. Having supported Luton for almost 30 years through thick and thin i finally have genuine confidence for this season and can see nothing but good times ahead provided these guys stay in charge. Up the hatters!!!

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  3. 17 Aug ’10 at 12:20 pm

    Hatter Til the End!!!

    Being a relatively young Hatters fan (only 24 but still remember going to the old Wembley to watch Luton just lose out to Chelsea in the FA Cup Semi-Final, which seems like an absolute eternity ago), I have still experienced more Spine-Tingling highs and earth-shattering lows in the last 5-10 years than any fan supporting a Premiership team will have in a life time. I know I cant feel bitter that most other clubs have been run properly for a decade, I do however struggle to see why previous owners felt it right to treat the club so poorly. That is why Nick Owen’s (don’t believe him when he says he hasn’t been important) and the 2020 consortuim’s achievements can not underestimated or underappreciated. Without you lot, I dread to think where we would be floundering by now. Instead, we have assembled a team that is good enough to win the next 3 divisions (not an exaggeration) and Luton fans don’t have to go to sleep at night wondering what revelations would hit the headlines the next day about our beloved club. From all the true Luton Fans out there, I hope i speak for most of them, we say a massive Well Done & Thank You.

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  4. I to am a fairly Young supporter (25yrs) but in all my years watching the town, since 1993-94 I have experience many highs & a lot more lows. But I tell you I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

    I work in an office environment. Most of my colleagues get to see football either on the TV or via corporate invitation to the glitz & glamour of the Premier league, but with no real connection or history behind why they ‘support’/watch that club.

    I believe they hardly get to experience or suffer the mix of emotion that supporters of football clubs in the lower leagues go through. The butterflies on a Friday afternoon before the weekend knowing 3pm on Saturday is just around the corner (Not 12.15 or 5.35 what sort of kick off time is that ! ). Watching the clock come 4pm on a Tuesday evening, eager to get away from work, out that car park & beat the traffic down the M1, to rush through that turnstile & look out from the top of the stand & think… here goes…
    Would they be their breathing in the cold damp air on a mid November evening – you can’t experience that from an air chair (unless you leave the windows open I suppose ?)

    I know most probably they will not be seen by Nick Owen & 2020, but for enabling me to still experience the rollercoaster of emotions & giving me a football club to follow through thick & thin & across the country to such obscure places as Gateshead & Eastbourne .. on the off chance I just wanted to say thank you which I’m sure you’ll all agree can never be enough.

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  5. Excellent article, and as a lifelong Luton fan – couldn’t agree more about being ashamed of the idiots on the pitch last year – true fans would never do something like that to their club’s honour.

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  6. They deserved all the punishments imposed. It was just unfortunate it all happened in one season. Any other club would have been subject to the same punishments within that season.

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  7. As a hatters fan since 1968 I would really like to hear how the board sold 9 million worth of players 5 years ago , promised us a new stadium ( with exhibitions, models dtailed plans etc ) & weeks later went bust with debts of over 2 million !!

    I never ever heard any explanation for all this & would love to get one !

    Sincerly dave Roberts

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  8. I am extremely grateful and proud to have Nick Owen involved within the running of Luton Town FC largely because he is a fan at heart with the interests of fans also at heart. I have followed Luton since 1986 and despite some terrible times I believe we have experienced some marvellous highs too including promotions and cup final appearances not to mention some excellent cup results. All in all, I would say that it has been far more preferable to be in this postion as opposed to other teams some of whom like Rochdale have had to wait over 35 years to experience a promotion (which is bloody marvellous I must say!!!).

    With regards to Garys comments stating that we deserved the points deductions, then I find it hard to justify a -30 penalty to any club and feel that we were not only made an example of but also were forced out of the league in favour of a more ‘entertaining and exciting’ prospect located not too far away. Sanctions and penalties had to happen although I think that our financial problems may have surfaced during the summer of 1995 when we poured an unheard of (and unmatched) amount of money into the transfer kitty which was spent fairly poorly by Terry Westley. We struggled financially for a number of years thereafter and when times did become good again in the mid 00’s, players were sold off lock, stock and barrel with an estimated £15m going awol (this is before the Blackwell signings and based not only on transfers but TV revenue). My only anger is that people such as Tomlins and Mitchell were never reprimanded harshly and as such are free to walk into another football club and do exactly the same thing! I wouldn’t want this to happen to any football club yet this has unfolded exactly the same way at Portsmouth and nothing has happened. This owes much to the fact that the Premiership- as bloated and boring as it is- has to a large extent bailed them out. After all, what is bad for them is bad for the ‘greatest league in the world’.

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  9. 19 Aug ’10 at 11:39 pm

    Mike 'Fastest Champions League Hat-trick' Newell

    Cracking article

    worthy of a perfect hat trick

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