While Premier League fans eagerly await a return date for their beloved teams I am in a different boat in hoping my team returns at all. Luton Town are a club that relies on game day income to keep moving forward and with that not currently happening you can forgive me for being a little nervous about the future. I hold out hope knowing that in over thirty years I’ve watched them become League Cup Champions and also slide down the English footballing pyramid to non-league football. I’ve seen nearly everything from a club that has never had the money to succeed but always found a way to cause an upset when needed.
Exhibit A. The 1993-94 FA Cup. As a First Division team (equivalent to today’s Championship) we beat Premier League sides Newcastle United and West Ham United on the way to the semi-finals at Wembley against Chelsea. Legends were born during that run. Scott Oakes, John Hartson, Paul Telfer, and David Preece all come to mind, although Preece had cemented his legacy previously in 1988’s League Cup win over Arsenal. That was the first time people talked to me without asking “Luton Who?” when I mentioned who my team was. Given I lived in Ireland where there were about five Hatters fans in total and not Luton itself.
Then there’s Exhibit B in 2013 when we became the first non-league side to beat a Premier League team in the FA Cup as we knocked out Norwich City 1-0 at Carrow Road in a fourth-round tie. JJ O’Donnell and Scott Rendell became instant heroes as Luton, led by manager Paul Buckle (aka Mr. Rebecca Lowe) showed that although it wasn’t the glory days of 1988 as we sat languishing in 8th in the first tier of Non-League football, we still had the pluckiness to cause huge upsets. We had beaten Wolves, now Premier League top ten but in the Championship then, in the previous round by the same score before eventually losing to Millwall in the fifth round.
Exhibit C was not one of our greatest days as we were bought by John Gurney and an unknown consortium in 2003. They kept telling us funds were there, talking of a new stadium with a formula one track around it and renaming the club London Luton after the airport, but could never actually show any with workers at the club going weeks without pay. Somehow the FA let it run on with Gurney holding a Manager Idol-style phone in to appoint Luton’s new coach after sacking Joe Kinnear.
While it may not have been our finest hour it brought one man to the forefront that would play a huge role in the future of the club… Gary Sweet.
At the time Gary Sweet was a member of the Luton Town Supporters Trust and wouldn’t become CEO of the club until 2008 but the seed had been planted with his objection to the clearly insane Gurney. It took another administration before Sweet and the 2020 consortium took control in which time Luton had begun spiraling out of control and down the leagues in England’s football pyramid. The renewed hope was enough to spur us on to another famous day at Wembley in 2009 but sadly wasn’t enough to overcome a 30 point deduction, ten after being found guilty of misconduct for paying agents via a third party and a further twenty after failing to satisfy the League’s insolvency rules. The deductions at the time were the heftiest ever placed on a team and remains so to this day.
After 5 years in non-league we have finally started to make our way back up the leagues and while this season was difficult at the best of times as we struggled to come to grips with the Championship the fact that we were there was an achievement in itself. But the recent stop has changed everything, especially for a club like Luton. They have furloughed their staff and late last week parted ways with manager Graeme Jones by mutual consent. Three of his coaching staff left with him.
These were all cost-cutting measures by a club that know where their limitations are and refuse to live above their means. Sweet told BBC Look East back in December “We’ve got a situation where the rules say you’re allowed to lose £39m over three years. So your starting point is, if you lose only £13m in one year, you’ve done well. You get a pat on the back. We are not in a position where we can lose £13m per year. We don’t have those people in the boardroom who can just throw dozens of millions or maybe hundreds of millions into the pot over a few years to try and get to that next level.”
Given we have some big names invested in the club, none bigger than Sony Music Group CEO Rob Stringer who is a lifelong Luton fan, but living outside our means burnt us too many times to rely on one man. That means Gary Sweet and the board have to make tough decisions to preserve the future of the club. Graeme Jones and his staff were but one of those decisions that will get ever more difficult as time goes on especially as we near the time of year when contracts expired.
So while the Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United’s of the world sit around eagerly awaiting the football season restart just remember there is a big old world outside those mega-rich billionaires who are just hoping they are around to see it.