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.