Keeping the faith?

Preparing the half time rant

Preparing the half time rant

Just over a week ago Luton Town came from two nil down, with ten men, away from home, to beat one of the strongest teams in the league. Lets just repeat that, two nil down, one less man, at the home of one of the strongest teams in the league and they won. Everyone would be delighted yes? Well no. In fact when seventy-two hours later they lost at home to a team ABOVE them in the league the manager paid the ultimate price. “Mutual consent” was the official line, but everyone in football knows that mutual consent simply means, “We want to get rid of you and here is a pay off – do you want it?”.

After the game against Cambridge I managed to grab 10 minutes with Mick Harford.  I had met him before at Morecambe last season and on both occasions he was more than willing to talk and take time out to pose for pictures.  Having got used to being blanked or ignored by players and managers in the course of my writing it made a refreshing change.  And that is why I still cannot understand the reasons behind his removal as manager.  Sure, I am no Luton die-hard but I know enough about football and business as a whole to recognise a decision based on logic and commercial sense, and one made without any assessment of the opportunity costs.

Let me take you back to January 2008. Luton Town, under Kevin Blackwell travel to Anfield for the FA Cup Third round replay against a weakened Liverpool team. The club are in 21st place in League One and are still under the control of am administrator. The club are still being investigated after comments made by previous manager Mike Newell who was hell bent to criticising everything to do with the way the club and football in general was run. The result was unsurprisingly a 5-0 defeat despite holding out for 45 minutes before conceding. A week later Blackwell announced he was going to leave the club in February, citing “financial instability” and the fact that the administrators had simply set up a fire sale to rid the club of some of their best players irrespective of their true value. The Administrators had other ideas and sacked Blackwell just days after the Anfield defeat.

With the club being purchased by a consortium led by Nick Owen, Mick Harford was appointed as caretaker manager, with a brief to try and keep them up. This was Harford’s second spell on the coaching staff at Luton, having previously been part of the successful Joe Kinnear era. Try as he could Harford could not keep the club up, but set about the difficult tasks of reducing the wage bill and getting the team in place and prepared for their first season at this level for eight years. He trimmed the wage bill significantly and said goodbye to many players.

As the club were preparing for a campaign where they felt they could reach the play offs at least, The FA announced that they would start with a ten point penalty relating to “irregular” payments made to agents under the previous administration. A situation similar to giving a speeding fine to a driver of a car that occurred when someone else owned it. Worse was to come as the club then had a further 20 points taken off them relating to the way they came out of administration. So essentially they were fined for keeping the club alive. There was no right to appeal either as the Football League said if they did they would withdraw their “share” essentially relegating them into the non-leagues. So Harford had to start with a young squad, a thirty point penalty and because the club were in Administration, no way to sign anyone new.

The fight went on long into the season but it was inevitable that 30 points was a bridge too far. Without the penalty it wouldn’t have just resulted in a mid table finish, but the club would have been able to attract better players, without the fear of relegation. The club did win its first cup final since Harford himself had inspired the club to a League Cup win in 1988 when they beat Championship bound Scunthorpe United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley.

So the club faced life in the Blue Square Premier. Twenty years ago when automatically promotion/relegation was introduced it was almost a given that the team coming down would bounce straight back up. Lincoln City, Colchester United and Darlington all proved that playing the Football League way was the way to success. But then teams started getting better, more traditional league sides slipped down the league and two clubs were relegated as of 2003.

So what did this all mean? Well as Luton entered the Blue Square Premier for the first time they had to prepare to meet eight other ex-league clubs. One can hardly say that Mansfield Town, Oxford United and Wrexham were small clubs but they had gone through the pain of relegation and set realistic expectations for their return. The passion of their fans had not diminished during their enforced exile but they had all endured the “big club syndrome” which essentially meant that most teams viewed their games against them as cup finals.

So day one came around on a sunny Saturday in August and Luton were drawn to play away at new boys AFC Wimbledon, another team creaking under expectation. Harford had retained many of the players who had vainly fought against relegation and they counted themselves desperately unlucky to get a point from the game after a late AFC penalty squared the score. Ten points from their next three games saw them top the table with Oxford United as of the end of August but from the three games so far at Kenilworth Road it was obvious that teams had come there to simply put ten men behind the ball.

September started with a three nil win at home to Crawley that lifted the club back into the playoff spots and keeping the pressure on leaders Oxford United who had started off as they left off last season. A draw away at surprise package Salisbury was not a bad result, but was then followed by defeats to league leaders Oxford United, and Wrexham before the epic victory against Cambridge United.

So going into the game with Stevenage Borough, The Hatters had won six, drawn four and lost two. Twenty-two points from twelve games. Pro-rata that out through the season and you would get to eighty four points, which has been the better than the amount of points needed to reach the play offs in every season since promotion to the Football League started. Stevenage arrived, parked their bus in the penalty area and scored on the counter attack with five minutes to go. Sure it was a local derby but was the abuse rained down on the manager necessary? Stevenage came into this game on higher in the table and just one defeat to their name (against leaders Oxford), having continued their play off form from last season. They are a good team at this level. Luton dominated the game but failed to put away any chances, a story that was similar to the games against Kettering Town, Chester City and AFC Wimbledon.

So why was it necessary to fire the manager? What did the fans and the board expect to happen? Interestingly enough a few days later a win at home to Tamworth took them back into the play off spaces. Did the team play any different? No – same players, same formation, same style of opposition but a little bit of luck saw them through.

The Blue Square Premier (Football Conference etc) is a difficult league to get out of. For a start only one team is guaranteed an automatic way out. It has been twenty years since Darlington bounced straight back up as champions to the Football League after being relegated out the season before. A few teams had gone up via the play offs after just one year including Shrewsbury Town and Carlisle United and surely that had to be the benchmark for this season? Sacking a manager when you are two points off this position (with a game in hand) smacks of a knee jerk reaction to me.

Harford had been in charge at Luton for essentially a season and a half. During that period the club had been relegated twice, but had also suffered over a year in administration (meaning no players could be signed and the most valuable ones would be sold). They had been docked a total of forty points yet still kept on fighting. They had been to Wembley, and won in front of an estimated thirty thousand Luton fans, yet where were they for the first home game against Mansfield Town in August?

The fickle foot of fate?

The fickle foot of fate?

Football is a fickle friend and very few decisions are made with long-term logic. Of course the club will say the acted in the “best interests of the fans” but what happens next? A new man is appointed, demands a transfer kitty of his own and needs “time to bed in his team” which essentially means if they miss the playoffs at the end of the season “it’s not my fault”. And if that happens? Well the club has to be prepared for two strong teams entering the league next season, fresh from the Football League and the whole process starts again.

Football defies all logic. In a business world, expectations in terms of success are set realistically, but also take account of externalities. Companies rarely change their day-to-day management because of one bad month (and that is what Luton had in September). They review at the end of the year. In a time when Football likes to think it is a commercial organisation decisions like this hardly give external stakeholders faith in how clubs are run and the long term viability of their investments. Perhaps I am too logical or have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

7 thoughts on “Keeping the faith?

  1. Having read your article I’m bemused to say the least about your comments, from an ill-informed outsider looking in the decision to “mutually fire” Mick Harford might have looked a strange one.

    Luton supporters have had a dreadful 3 years, going from the championship play-off positions in October 2006 to The Conference, 3 relegations on the trot.

    Under Kevin Blackwell, we endured terrible football from an old aged team picking up a final pay-day, recruited by Blackwell, who, when the going got tough, tucked his tail between his legs and ran away.

    Last season under Mick Harford was, in the main, exactly the same, apart from the age of the players, obviously winning the JPT was a great day out, but there are lingering doubts as to whether we would have won the Final if Mick was able to select his then first choice team.

    You state in your article

    “So Harford had to start with a young squad, a thirty point penalty and because the club were in Administration, no way to sign anyone new.”

    This isn’t actually true, the 30 point penalty aside we were able to sign players, in fact we signed
    Kevin Nicholls, Claude Gnakpa, Michael Spillane, Chris Martin, George Pilkington, Ian Roper, Asa Hall, Rossi Jarvis, Conrad Logan, Harry Worley, Wayne Andrews, Tom Craddock, Marc Pugh plus others either before or during the season.

    We then went out and played some of the most uninspiring, insipid football ever witnessed at Luton Town, and at no point made even the slightest indication that we had a chance of over turning the 30 point deduction, whilst other teams used their deductions as a rallying point and catalyst, we seemed to use it as an excuse for failure.

    So we come to this season, and you state the Mansfield, Wrexham and Oxford are not small names yet they have struggled to return to the league, the difference is, they were the worst team in the football league when they went down, and were not relegated by points deductions.

    This summer Mick Harford then signed, Liam Hatch, Alan White, Shane Blackett, Mark Tyler, Callum Reynolds, Andy Burgess, Adam Newton, and was able to retain all the contracted players he wanted to from the existing squad. He subesquently signed Fred Murray from Grays and George Donnelly from Plymouth (although never gave Donnelly a kick before his loan expired).

    As you can see the names listed are all decent lower league/conference players, many with decent conference experience.

    Although many supports were not pleased with Mick’s management from 08/09 the majority thought it was ok that he be given the chance to take Luton back up, without deductions etc, etc.

    So the season begins, and we are absolute garbage, bearing in mind the sqaud size and budget Luton have, the team could barely string 2 passes together and we struggled to break down or create chances against some awful teams.

    The football on show has continued to be as poor as the previous season and the team selections, formations and substitutions have been nothing short of bewildering. There were occasions where the team played well, 40 odd minuted V Mansfield, 35 Minutes V Crawley, and 45 minutes V Cambridge, apart from that it’s been pretty dire.

    All we could see was Oxford getting further and further away, Luton playing hopeless, unattractive football, and a manager seemingly unable to do anything about it.

    As for the Stevenage/Tamworth comparison again you are miles off.

    V Stevenage we played a 4-4-2 with Asa Hall a central midfielder upfront then switched to 4-5-1 with Tom Craddock upfront on his own, and played long ball Dave Bassett style football, despite having 2 forwards on the bench.

    V Tamworth we played 2 strikers up front (Hatch and Wright) and 4 in midfield, not a traditional 4-4-2 but it was a start, the goalkeeper was throwing the ball out to the full backs on occasion and the players attempted to play some decent football at times. Tamworth came back into the game slightly in the 2nd half as Hatch, Wright, Ed AA, and Nicholls tired but it was a hell of a let better than against Stevenage.

    Mick Harford is a Luton legend, but he was not doing a good job as manager and the change had to be made.

    If you want any clarification regarding future articles, email me on the email address provided or contact one of the supporters groups.

    Cheers

    • Hi Steven…Thanks for taking the time to reply. Can I pick you up on a couple of points. The article was written with what I would say is balanced research. I spoke to quite a few fans both after the games at Cambridge, Wimbeldon and Chester as well as last season when it was inevitable that relegation would occur. I also spoke to some who post on the Outlaws board. I tried to get comment from Harford (after the interview with Cambridge) and the club and its owners but to no avail. So it is as balanced as a neutral observer could make it.

      You state that Harford could sign players but my research shows otherwise – see the Times from July 2008 which was certainly written in the middle of pre-season last year. He was also left with players who were simply seeing out their contracts and were a burden on the wage bill. I do know that he cut the wages significantly in line with the need to reduce the financial pressure on the club as a whole – hardly conducive to putting a team out to play attractive football.

      However, I do not think anyone came into the season (club, players and fans) with a genuine idea as to how different this league is. I spent alot of time watching games in the BSP last season, as a neutral fan, a blog writer and in a couple of instances as a scout. The approach teams have is very different and I do not think the club realised that. The fact that teams simply do not bounce straight back up was ignored. Oxford United were without a doubt the best team in this league in the last quarter of the season and they have taken this form into this year. That is often the case and the reason why teams start so well. So as a Luton fan can I ask whether you would have liked to have seen a promotion, albeit via the play offs at the end of the season (which after all with a win in the game in hand versus York would have put you firmly in there) or attractive football. I am a West Ham fan and had to endure two seasons of Curbishley inspired crap at Upton Park but we finished 10th in his last full season, above Man City and Spurs – much bigger clubs than us. Ironically he left at a time when he had changed his style of play and we were 5th in the league. What would have happened if you would have won the game versus Stevenage? Would Harford have been sacked/left? I doubt it. I do know he is a very proud man and was Luton to the core – do you think any of his reasonings were misguided in any way or was he doing the best with what he had.

      He has been undone by the players this year as well. Discipline on the pitch has cost points – would the Oxford game had finished 2-0 if Nichols stayed on?

      I still cannot understand that if the club wanted a change why not do it during the summer when a new man could have had a chance to mould his own team.

      • I’ve had a quick look at the Times article, and it is correct in saying at the time we could not officially sign players, however it was just a case of waiting for the Football League to ratify the new owners and approve the CVA.
        We already had Gnakpa, Nicholls, Roper, Pilkington, Hall, Jarvis etc training and playing in pre-season friendlies.

        No-one is denying that Mick and Anthony Brown did a good job in re-moulding the squad, and yes we were left with a handful of players seeing out bigger contracts, Dean Morgan, Paul McVeigh and Sam Parkin (all now amazingly playing in League 1) however the likes of Robinson, Jackson, Goodall, Currie, Peschisolido(sp?) and Perry were all off loaded either into retirement or to poor unsuspecting clubs!

        The players signed, although cheaper were of a much higher quality than the no-hopers and journeymen that were released.

        I’m not saying we need to play “Total Football” but in most games we were barely competent, players played out of position, hopeless long ball football to 2 short forwards (Craddock and Gallen).

        I didn’t expect us to walk the division by any stretch of the imagination, but I did expect, given the standard of player we have signed, and the budget that we would perform a hell of a lot better than we have done.

        With regards to talking to Luton supporters, Mick Harford’s status within the club, as a legend, skews a lot of peoples opinions and they simply cannot be objective about him.

        Had we beaten Stevenage, it would have been a total injustice to Stevenage and also merely pro-longing the agony. I had stated previously on Outlaws and also “offline” that my fear with Mick was that the board would leave it too long to remove him and sections of the crowd would turn on him and also start to turn on the new owners, which is exactly what happened after the Stevenage debacle.

        With regards to Curbishley, it could be argued by keeping you up, and with his previous managerial record he earned the grace period of terrible football whilst he was reshaping the team?

        With Mick I honestly do not think he would have turned things around, during the 18 months he was in charge, we saw no improvement from a tactical point of view, team selections were often comical and in game management non-existant.

        Let’s take the Chester game as an example, we are playing at home against a team whose pre-season and start of the season was stalled due to off-field problems and they are playing a mixture of non-league rubbish and youth players. The team selection was shocking, and then to compound matters, when it is 0-0 Mick puts on 2 left backs! depsite having a youth team striker, Jordan Patrick, on the bench (who has been trailed and trialled with Liverpool) and he is left kicking his heels as we grind out a point in one of the worst games of football ever seen. Truth be told Chester could have easily won the game and created more chances than we did.

        The players are certainly not entirely blameless, Nicholls discipline is abysmal, already missed 4 games due to a tantrum and crowd incitement from a game last season, get’s sent off V Oxford, then tries to get sent off V Stevenage, however where does the discipline come from? The Manager.

        With regards to why the change was not made in the summer, I think the club and the vast majority of supporters, despite the misgivings wanted to give Mick a chance to turn things around, and whilst results were borderline acceptable, performances and actual management were not.

        Thanks.

  2. As a Luton fan of 30 years I was very upset at Mick Harfords departure but unfortunately it was the ONLY option, Mick had only managed a 25% win ratio which even without the points deductions would not have been good enough, also the football was awful (something we cannot deal with at LT).
    Under Mick promotion was only a slim possibility which is not acceptable because we all know the consequences of not getting out of this league at the first attempt (i.e. Oxford). Although another manager will not assure success the board must give us a fighting chance.
    This decision was an extremely difficult one for 2020 and not made lightly, surely the agreement to the parting by roughly 99% of fans who love the legend who is Mick Harford should have made you research this article better before publication?

    • Hi Russell. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree with some of your sentiment but I get the impression that no one at the club actually thought through the consequences of relegation towards the back end of last season. I spent alot of last year watching the teams in the Blue Square and how they played and it is very different to League football. Oxford United were undoubtably the best team in the league in the last quarter last season and they have kept that momentum going this year. It is also no co-incidence that they have a striker in form. I understand that people want to see good football (after all I endured 2 years of Curbishley at Upton Park) but surely the priority this season was promotion – and if that had to come via the play offs in a direct manner then is that no acceptable?

      I spoke to quite a few fans about this after three games this season and their view was certainly not that he should go. In fact I struggled to find one post on the message board after the win against Cambridge that was not gushing with praise for him – 72 hours later he was gone….that is what doesn’t add up.

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