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Jan 8, 2008

Living in hope

If Luton Town remain in existence beyond the end of January it will be thanks in no small part to the determination of one man. Despite having it as tough, if not tougher, than any manager in the game Kevin Blackwell has been performing heroics on and off the pitch.

His home town club were plunged into administration in November - for the third time in nine years. As a result they were deducted ten points and thus found themselves in the League One relegation zone.

Until Monday night, the Hatters were teetering on the brink of oblivion, haemorrhaging £400,000 every month on top of estimated debts of around £8 million. The club's players have not been paid in full since October and Blackwell, himself without a contract, has been paying the club's trainees out of his own pocket.

Luton also face 55 disciplinary charges from the Football Association relating to dodgy payments to agents; a sorry mess which owes its roots to Blackwell's predecessor Mike Newell. The former manager spoke out against 'bung culture' in football and questioned, justly it seems, the probity of certain former directors at his own club.

Newell, a pariah to some and a hero to others, is suing Luton for wrongful dismissal and could be in line for a six-figure payout, which won't exactly help the ailing club's balance sheet, nor would a hefty fine from the FA if it fails to answer the charges satisfactorily.

But despite the considerable financial and political problems that besiege Luton (time's too short to go into the failed planning permission for a new ground and the unscrupulous behaviour of a depressingly long line of former owners) 50-year-old Blackwell has somehow managed to galvanise his squad into something rather special, and thanks to a remarkable string of results and performances as many as four potential consortiums are offering salvation and a future for the club.

Since being docked 10 points in late November, Luton have lost just once in the league, taking 17 points from a possible 24 and should be flirting with the play-offs. There has also been a crucial FA Cup run; a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest set up the vital, money-spinning third round meeting with Liverpool.

The rub to this heartening story is that in order to survive in the short-term the club may have to dismantle the one thing that has seen them through this darkest of hours, the playing squad.

League performances alone had been raising eyebrows but following Sunday's inspirational 1-1 draw at Kenilworth Road with Liverpool it is little surprise that offers for the club's most valuable assets are flooding in.

Sadly for the administrators, the offers have largely failed to match the players' market value as circling vultures, all too aware of Luton's parlous finances, look to scavenge a bargain.

After the Liverpool game Luton skipper Chris Coyne, who might be one of the first to be forced out of the club to keep it afloat in the short-term through a £350,000 move to Colchester, admitted to the difficulties of being a Luton player but revealed that team spirit, friendship and a unity born out of adversity was keeping the squad together.

The cynical, who regard footballers as cash-crazed mercenaries, might say that Luton's players have been ripping up trees in the league knowing that the transfer window was on the horizon, and might also argue that players turned it on against Liverpool knowing that the game was being shown live on Sky TV, thus increasing their chances of being spotted.

And perhaps there is some truth in that, after all Blackwell has been fielding calls from the wives of his players, some of whom earn as little as £400-a-week (not a great deal in the world of football), worrying about meeting mortgage repayments. But, listening to the players it seems clear that they have taken their lead from Blackwell and that the last two months have been more about a collective search for security than an individual one.

While there remains a very real chance that players like Coyne could be sacrificed to meet Luton's ongoing running costs before a takeover can be agreed there is hope that such sacrifices, which would drastically undermine such camaraderie, will be unnecessary thanks to players altruistic endeavours.

Drawing Liverpool at home in the FA Cup guaranteed Luton a sell-out crowd and managed to tempt the TV cameras to cover the game live, thereby netting the club a £300,000 payday; £150,000 from Sky and £150,000 in gate receipts (in the FA Cup the home side splits the gate with the visiting team and kicks back a smaller slice to the FA.)

The 1-1 draw also guaranteed a replay at Anfield, which, with a 45,000 capacity, entitles Luton to a share of the gate receipts at a stadium four times the size of their own, and, better still, the replay will also be shown live on TV; all of which means the replay alone could net Luton £650.000.

In all, two games against Liverpool could be worth almost £1million to Luton. And it could have been more if Liverpool had acquiesced to Luton's plea that the Premier League giant forego their share of the Sunday's gate receipts and TV cash and donate it to Luton in a gesture of goodwill and solidarity.

Whether the FA Cup bounty will be enough to prevent the break-up of Blackwell's current squad depends on the next 48 hours as Luton's administrator assesses the bids on the table before announcing a preferred option.

Of the consortia in the frame one features the obligatory unnamed property developer, a fact which will surely ring alarm bells; another will be popular amongst fans as it features former national TV personality Nick Owen, himself a lifelong Luton fan who has a bar inside Kenilworth Road named after him and is also president of the Luton Town Supporters' Club. A third group features, amongst others, sports broadcaster Matt Lorenzo and former England manager Graham Taylor, who as Watford's most successful former manager may fail to win over certain section of the Hatters faithful.

While Luton's future remains far from certain the threat of extinction appears to have been averted, thanks largely to the manager's determination and his influence over a group of players who pulled together to defy the odds.

Without Blackwell's steadying hand, this latest crisis to befall Luton Town could have been transformed in a full-blown disaster. Certainly, events have left him jaded, angry even at football's authorities who he claims would be happy to 'let some clubs go to the wall [to] reduce the league' but instead of deserting the sinking ship Blackwell chose to hold fast.

'You have to live in hope and that hope was given by a fantastic performance by the players', said Blackwell after the Liverpool game. 'All we can do is the football but if we can make [the club] as an attractive proposition as we can, it must help a buyer come in and please God, we've done that.'


  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Phil Holland.