Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Hatters Off

There is almost certainly a book to be written about the recent travails of Luton Town, which took yet another turn for the strange when they held Liverpool to a draw in the FA Cup Third Round on Sunday afternoon. Luton, once most famous as being the team that occasionally found their name being mentioned on national television thanks to the patronage of Eric Morecambe and more lately became one of the more hated clubs in the league, thanks to the ill-starred membership scheme introduced by Tory MP and Thatcherite David Evans in the 1980s, have had an eventful time of it over the last few weeks or so, but their biggest concern at the moment is whether they will actually be able to field a team for their cup replay at Anfield next week.

Those of us with long memories will remember when Luton were, for almost a full decade, mainstays in the top division of English football. Promoted alongside local rivals Watford in 1982, they were perennial strugglers against relegation in the old First Division, most famously in their first season there, when a late goal from Raddy Antic gave them a 1-0 win at Maine Road against Manchester City which sent City down and kept Luton up. They won the League Cup in 1988 and were runners-up in the same competition the following year, but missed out on a place in Europe because of the post-Heysel ban on English clubs in Europe. Arguably their most costly defeat, however, came on the last day of the 1991-92 season, when a 2-1 defeat by Notts County relegated them just before the formation of the Premier League.

Under the managership of Mike Newell, it looked as if they might just make it back to the Premier League. In their first season back in the Championship in 2005, they featured in the play-off positions for much of the season before tailing off, and (as many of you may remember) led Liverpool 3-1 in a live televised FA Cup Third Round match at Kenilworth Road before losing 5-3. However, all was not well behind the scenes - the club had already been in administration twice since 1999, so it's perfectly valid to argue that they were, if anything, somewhat fortunate to be granted a third spell in administration by the courts. In that respect, a ten point deduction by the Football League was the least of their problems. More significantly, the collapse into administration had followed the FA charging Luton with 55 offences relating to their investigation into corruption in football. The charges related to Luton using unregistered agents and a holding company, Jayten, to make payments rather than the club itself. The charges are a mixture of the serious and the relatively frivolous, but many inside the game have asked the question of why Luton have been singled out for such special attention when other, bigger clubs have been found to have been doing the same thing but have not been charged by the FA.

With Newell having been sacked in March 2007 for "gross misconduct", Luton fell into League One, and the former chairman Tomlins resigned, leaving many questions unanswered. Rumours are rife that Luton have a wage bill running into millions of pounds, and new chairman David Pinkney had no option but to take the club into administration in November, though he has had to renege on his promise to fund the club until the end of the season, leaving them staring down the barrel of a gun in terms of even being able to fulfil their fixtures for this season. They have been forced to take a scythe to their first team squad, returning all of their loan players and cutting the number of players from twenty-nine to not much over the sixteen, which is their bare minimum.

Against this background, a live, televised FA Cup match against Liverpool was little short of a godsend. Two years ago, they made £650,000 as a result of their home match against the same team in the same round. With the players having only been paid about one-third of their wages over the last three months, last Sunday's match entitled the administrators to pay out a little more to the players in terms of wages, and it might just have given them the liquidity to keep them going for a couple more weeks. However, the deadline for potential new buyers to reveal themselves was yesterday at 5pm, and as yet there has been no news on whether anyone has stepped in. An announcement is expected today. With the FA Cup replay at Anfield also to be shown live on the television, the hope is that such exposure will persuade potential buyers that Luton Town FC are worth taking a gamble upon. The alternative is oblivion for Luton Town, and a bye to the Fourth Round for Liverpool. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for a positive outcome to this because, as ever, it will be the supporters that really suffer if Luton Town goes to the wall.


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