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?
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?