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Apr 15, 2009

Crime and punishment

To the surprise of absolutely no-one Luton Town have been relegated from League Two. The club always faced a gargantuan task to retain their proud 89-year Football League status after being docked 30 points ahead of the season and Monday's ignominious 0-0 draw at home to Chesterfield meant Luton finally succumbed to the inevitable.

Spurred on by a sense of righteous indignation the club battled against the odds all season, even managing a triumphant trip to Wembley in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy almost 20 years to the day since their last visit in 1989.

Alas, for the club and its supporters, memories of grand days out will be of little comfort when they begin the next season as a non-League side.

The club's current owners, who vehemently contend that they have been wrongly punished for the sins of their predecessors, are already looking to the future and are adamant that relegation from the League need not equate to a death sentence; citing as proof Doncaster Rovers, who battled back from non-League obscurity in 2003 and now play Championship football in a modern stadium.

If Luton can manage to bounce back, they will do so fuelled by a potent combination of impotent rage and a passionate belief that injustice has denied them what they consider to be their rightful place in the professional game.

But is this correct? Have the club been treated unfairly or properly punished? How you view the situation will most likely depend on how you view matters of corporate governance within the sport and the authorities' duty of care toward all clubs.

The Hatters' 30-point penalty was a combination of two separate punishments, one handed down by the Football Association and the other from the Football League; the seeds of each matter having been sewn over the course of 10 rollercoaster years of chaos and mismanagement, and long before the current owners took the helm.

In June 2008, the FA meted out the first punishment: a 10-point penalty and a £50,000 fine after the club was found guilty of 15 charges of misconduct following a year-long inquiry into illegal payments to agents.

The following month, the Football League then handed the club's prospective new owners what amounted to a catch-22 ultimatum: accept a draconian 20-point penalty and with it almost certain relegation, or be denied the right to start the 2008-09 season and thus face oblivion.

After picking up the pieces of a previous regime which had taken the club to the brink of bankruptcy in November 2007, the club's then-prospective new owners could not agree a Company Voluntary Arrangement with its creditors - a prerequisite for being granted the Golden Share and the right to compete in the Football League.

With Luton's failure to agree a CVA, coupled with the fact that the club had, thanks to the incompetence of previous owners, been in administration three times in a decade, the League decided to come down hard. Not just to punish the club, but to send a warning that administration should not be regarded as an easy way out of financial responsibilities.

While there is little doubt that there has been incompetence and malpractice at Luton the fans argue, with some justification, that with those responsible for previous wrongdoing having long since ended their association with the club, it is the fans who are now being punished.

In the case of the FA's charges of illegal payments the cruel irony is that the inquiry owed its genesis to the whistle-blowing of former Luton manager Mike Newell, who rocked the sport in early 2006 when he claimed that illegal payments were endemic in greasing the wheels of transfers and revealed that his refusal to break the rules was hindering the club in the transfer market. Newell left the club under a cloud after levelling accusations at the then Luton board. Subsequently Luton chairman Bill Tomlins resigned after admitting to the FA's inquiry that he had made irregular payments to agents. A key bone of contention for the fans remains the FA's refusal to be lenient, despite the club admitting guilt after realising unauthorised payments had been made.

In the FA's view, not handing out a punishment would have sent the wrong signal. It was a moot point to them that the guilty individuals were no longer associated with Luton when a punishment was finally decided upon; the FA had decided a zero tolerance message needed to be sent.

Likewise, in the case of Luton's multiple brushes with administration and near insolvency, these incidents happened under the stewardship of different incumbents who are no longer involved at the club.

But, for the Football League, Luton's situation presented itself at a time when the issue of administration needed to be addressed. With over 30 clubs having gone into administration in the last 10 years, the League feared that clubs had grown to regard the process as an easy option rather than a last resort and used the process to wipe out debts and gain an unfair advantage over other clubs.

For the FA and Football League the fact that the perpetrators had left the scene was an irrelevance, Luton's incumbents could not be exonerated. Those suffering the consequences are the 40,000 fans who were at Wembley two weeks ago. They cheered their team on while choosing to boo the appearance of Football League chairman Lord Mawhinney.

Such has been the club's demise in recent years that it is easy to forgot that Luton were in the top flight as recently as 1992 and were one of the clubs who voted in favour of forming the Premier League, only to be relegated before its inaugural season.

For the fans there is an undeniable sense that they are being penalised in the harshest possible way for the impropriety or incompetence of others. Without the deduction, Luton would have ended the season safe in mid-table with the promise of new owners keeping the club on an even keel.

Rightly or not, Luton are down and, with all recourse for appealing the decisions that led to the drop having been exhausted before the current season even started, must now look to the future.

Former Luton player, current manager and folk hero Mick Harford has already sounded the clarion call, and in typically bullish style. After trudging disconsolately from the Kenilworth Road turf on Monday he learnt of relegation with his players.

''I looked at the clock in the dressing room and said to the players 'remember this time. Five to five on 13th April, 2009. This is the rebirth of Luton Town Football Club''.

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