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?

Taking the Mick – one last time….


A change in format this weekend….A match report first, followed by an exclusive chat with Luton Town’s Mick Harford in his last ever public interview as the Hatters Manager, the newest fan of the Blog.  And what a game it was.  Seven goals, appalling refereeing, a sending off, the first appearance of the season of the riot police, Football Jo on her best behaviour for some reason and a reality TV star…not often you can say you see all of that in 90 minutes of Indian Summer.  All that was missing was my EFW logo…Please forgive me Danny…

Cambridge United 3 Luton Town 4 – The Abbey Stadium -Saturday 26th September 2009
 

The start of the comeback

The start of the comeback

Forty three minutes into this game Liam Hatch needlessly challenged late for the ball in no-mans land near the Cambridge by line and was shown a second yellow card.  Luton were 2-0 down, playing against Cambridge and a referee who seemed to be blind to what had gone on before, and coming on the back of some important defeats on the road recently, had nearly two thousand away fans baying for blood.

The game had started well for the Hatters.  They passed the ball well, creating some early chances for Hatch and Gallen up front.  But in the twentieth minute it was the home team who took the lead against the run of play as Courtney Pitt turned in the ball from close range after Mark Beesley had squared the ball.  One became two thirteen minutes later when the referee saw a challenge in the box Anthony Tonkins that nobody else in the stadium saw and he awarded a penalty.  Liam Hatch protested too much and was booked for his haranguing of the official.  Holroyd made no mistake from the spot, and it looked all over for the visitors.  After recent away defeats at Oxford and Wrexham many of the fans had come expecting a better performance, and despite the efforts of the players, they had been done up like a kipper by the officials.  The away fans occupying the terrace along the side of the pitch let their feelings be known and some over zealous policing took a manageable situation to the brink of all out hostility.

On the other side of the pitch in the Main Stand the non-playing Luton Town players had had enough of the abuse being levelled at them, and led by Kevin Nicholls they attempted to head to the South Stand, only to be blocked by the police who insisted they went down the tunnel instead.  Harford looked in disbelief as Hatch picked up his second yellow and stayed behind on the edge of the tunnel to have “a word” with the referee, knowing that public opinion was definitely swinging against him.

What was said at half time will remain a mystery (we did ask him afterwards) but whatever it was it deserves to be up their with Al Pacino’s speech in The Whole Nine Yards. Three minutes were on the clock when the veteran Kevin Gallen turned the ball in from close range after the keeper had made a great save.  Luton went on the attack immediately afterwards, coming close to an equaliser before five second half minutes were on the clock.  They did have to wait though until the 60th minute for that.  Gallen picked up a loose ball outside the penalty area and squared it to Ross Jarvis who picked his spot and gave the Cambridge keeper no chance.  The fans went wild, quite unsure as to what they were seeing on the pitch.  The local police took the jubilation for some sort of mass violence and went into the crowd to try and remove a few of the most “boisterous” fans.  A minute later it was 3-2 to Luton as Kevin Gallen found himself one on one with the keeper, and despite his effort being saved, Jake Howells was on had to complete a remarkable recovering.  In the ensuing celebrations Howells hurt his leg and another twist to this amazing game took place as he could take no further part.

So three goals in eighteen second half minutes had left the home teams and fans stunned.  Martin Ling made a tactical change, and for the first time in the half Cambridge launched an attack against the ten men.  Two minutes after Luton had taken the lead it was 3-3 as the impressive Tyler in the Luton goal made a great save from Hatswell’s header only for Holroyd to smash the ball home form the equaliser.

Five minutes later Cambridge almost took the lead as another Tyler save rolled along the goal line just needing a touch from anyone.  The crowd were then treated to ten minutes to relative calm until the referee decided to take centre stage, awarding a penalty to Luton after some pushing and shoving in the area by Brian Saah, who in fairness had actually been booked for a similar offence a few minutes before.  Harsh, but equalling up the decision from the first half.  Up stepped Gallen and it was 4-3 to Luton.

Five minutes of injury time proved too much for many fans who could not watch, but the final whistle was greeted by jubilation from the 1,700 away fans (including Cerys Matthews from Catatonia), although the scenes of Riot Police on the field, police dogs outside the gates and a police helicopter flying overhead was hardly what you expect from Blue Square football.  Game of the season so far and a win that took Luton shooting back up the table.

The team here at The Ball is Round pride ourselves on our contacts within the game.  After a year of working with Danny Last and his magnificent Logo gallery with all of the good and famous in Non-League football, I though it was time I delivered a big fish of my own. After all it’s not what you know but what you know about someone else that you can use to your advantage that matters.  Now I am not revealing any of my sources, but when I approached Mick Harford, current manager of Luton Town and generally all round nice guy, he agreed to a chat within seconds after the game versus Cambridge United with Football Jo, Lolly and myself.

Harford build a reputation through his career as a no-nonsense type of centre forward.  Blessed with height and more than a match for most centre backs, he played for ten clubs over a career that spanned over 20 years, 600 matches and nearly 200 goals.  A goal every 3 games is a decent return in anyone’s book and coming in a time when the Premier League was at an embryonic stage and the foreign invasion had not yet started you can only wonder was he would have achieved in the modern game where training regimes would have strengthened his game, and the quality of the ball into the box would have been so much better for him to get on the end of.

He was also known as someone not to mess with.  Legend goes that when he joined Wimbledon in 1994 he was spared the usual new signing initiation ritual for the other squad members fear of reprisal – and this included a squad including shrinking violets such as Vinnie Jones, Robbie Earle and Marcus Gayle.  He stayed on at Wimbledon after his playing career ended at the grand old age of 38 and picked up his coaching badges, and working with Joe Kinnear.  When Kinnear went onto Luton a few years later Mick went with him and masterminded their promotion season in 2001/02.  Spells at Nottingham Forest, Colchester United, Rotherham United and Queens Park Rangers followed before the opportunity arose to return to Luton Town in February 2008.  He joined a club in turmoil from the previous management and coaching staff, a club destined for relegation and being investigated by the Football League for all sorts of “irregularities” he inherited.  Try as he could the club could not avoid Administration and the ten point penalty that went with it effectively ended all hope long before the final ball was kicked.

Happy with the interview

Happy with the interview

Worse was to follow in the summer when the club were hit with a massive 30 point penalty for various reasons by the Football League, including exiting Administration – which for some reason the footballing authorities deemed twice the sin as entering it in the first place.  Harford vowed the club would try to survive against all the odds, and pulled off a remarkable achievement in guiding the club to the Johnstones Paint Trophy Final at Wembley, and then beating Championship bound Scunthorpe United in extra time.  Without that penalty the club would have finished in 15th place in the division – justice? I don’t think so.

At what point last season did you realise all of your hard effort was in vain?
When I was told that we had been relegated after the match at home with Chesterfield in April.   Whilst we came away with a 0-0 draw from that game Grimsby Town’s 2-0 defeat of Notts County meant it was mathematically impossible with just four games left.

What did you say to the team when relegation was confirmed in the dressing room?
There wasn’t alot of talking going on but after a while when the players had realised the situation I said “Look at the clock and remember this time and date. This is the new beginning of Luton Town FC. Thanks for all your efforts and I’m sorry it was all in vain.”

For the final four games when you knew you were going to be playing in the Blue Square Premier, how did you motivate yourself and the team?
Motivation to go out on the field and play our best was never an issue because we are professionals and we had a responsibility to the fans and the other teams in the league who still had something to play for.

Turning the attention to this season, what will you class “success” in May?
Promotion.  Simple as that.  Getting Luton Town back into the Football League.

 

Preparing the half time rant

Preparing the half time rant

Tuesday 11th August 2009.  First home game at this level in front of an impressive 7,000+ crowd at Kenilworth Road.  Eighteen minutes on the clock and Mansfield take the lead. What went through your mind?
Here we go again! But the plan worked over the ninety minutes and a 4-1 victory was a fair reflection on the chances we created.

How much homework have you done on the division as a whole?
A lot and it’s an ongoing process.  There are quite a few teams we have never come up against and so homework is vital –  Watching games, speaking to other managers and players.  We only have one objective this season – Promotion.  That is what I will use as the yardstick for success.  In the first few weeks of the season it is obvious from the teams we have played (such as Forest Green, Gateshead, Kettering Town, etc) that they raise their game against us.  We are a big scalp for them, and for many it is their Cup Final.  The one game I am looking forward to is the one that wins us promotion.

Luton+Town+v+Scunthorpe+United+Johnstones+3VUvK3cbpY_lAfter your success in winning the JPT at Wembley Stadium last year, what about a nice cup run?
Of course I wouldn’t say know but the league is the priority.  If I had a hand in the draw I’d love to get Watford or Millwall – that would be quite an atmosphere!

 So was that final the highpoint of your career in football?
As a manager definitely.  Not many managers these days can say they have won a cup at Wembley.  I have been very fortunate to win one both as a player and a manager but the win last season was special as being a manager means you are responsible for so much more.  
My highpoint as a player was my second cap for England against Denmark at Wembley in 1989.  One of the lowpoints was the moment I realised that I couldn’t carry on playing.  After Wimbledon played Aston Villa in 1998 I damaged by Achilles again and realised that I would need an operation.  At the age of 38 1/2 I felt that was a step too far.

So you played for England under the late Sir Bobby Robson.  How did you find out you had been called up into the squad?
At the time I was playing at Luton Town, and we were on a great run (it was the year that we went on to beat Arsenal at Wembley in the League Cup Final).  England had a friendly coming up away to Israel in Tel Aviv.  I found out I had been selected for the squad after the FA sent a letter to the Club, and the manager Ray Harford (no relation I should add!) called me into his office and told me.  I made my debut in the second half when I came on for Clive Allen.  The game ended up 0-0.

So some of the best moments of your career have come at Luton
Yes.  Both as a player and a manager.  And that is why it was so disappointing to be relegated last season because even with the 30 penalty point I thought we could get out of it.  I had a great time with the club as a player and settled in the area.  My son was born in Luton, I have so many friends in the area and have built a strong affiliation with the people at the club.

Who inspired you as a player, and as a manager?
I was a Sunderland fan from boyhood and was greatly inspired to become a player by Bob Stokoes team that beat the great Leeds United team in the 1973 FA Cup Final.  Brian Clough stands out as a great inspiration as a manager – he wanted his team to play good football and never wavered or compromised.

 

Lolly and big Mick

Lolly and big Mick

Looking back on your career which I believe covered nearly 600 games for 10 different clubs, what stadiums stand out?
As a player I thoroughly enjoyed playing at Wembley obviously, as well as Old Trafford.  As a manager I remember going to West Ham’s Upton Park at Christmas in 2004 when I was at Nottingham Forest and that was one of the most hostile places I had been – no Christmas cheer for us there!

Best player you played with?
Chris Waddle without a doubt!  I was a strong, abrasive and technical player, and he was cultured and skillful.  What a combination!

 So lets turn our attention to the game today.  What do you think about the events at Manchester City and Real Madrid in the past few months?
Good luck to them!  But in the longer term it will push English players further down the ladder at Manchester City and could weaken our national side.  In terms of the whole Ronaldo saga I am not sure whether they wanted the player or the brand.  Either way £80million is a hell of a lot of money to spend on one person.

Talk us through some of your matchday preparations
I have a Lucky Suit that has seen me through some good times.  After the game I will sit down and watch the video of the game, look at the components of the team and individuals and plan some ways to improve and ways to eliminate the mistakes.  I then translate these into plans for training.  Alas my knee is too sore for me to take part myself! I do make a habit of never listening to the football phone ins!

So there we have it.  Mick has promised to give us more during the season, and we wish them well and officially appoint Luton Town our “Football Friend” of the Blue Square Premier League this season, and Mick an honorary member into the TBIR Hall of Fame.