Guests are still received in the Eric Morecambe Suite at Luton Town's cramped little Kenilworth Road ground, but life is not exactly a barrel of laughs these days. It has been a desperate couple of years for the club since their former managerMike Newell courageously broached the subject of bungs besmirching the game.
Newell was sacked last March after demanding details from his own board about irregular payments to agents. The chairman subsequently resigned, admitting that such payments had been made, and last November the Football Association issued 50 different charges.
A week later Luton went into administration, the compulsory10-point penalty sending them to the bottom of League One, six months after being relegatedfrom the Championship. Wages have been paid for only two-and-a-half weeks in the past two months, the current manager, Kevin Blackwell, foregoing his own so that Youth Training Scheme boys on 70 a week could buy some Christmas presents. Tomorrow the administrator is due to reveal which of two possible purchasers is his preferred choice.
The only humour to be found is of the black variety. Blackwell, born and bred locally, managed to make a joke of it when two new players turned up for training with huge suitcases, having been thrown out of their Luton hotel in case the club could not pay the bill; on the day that administration began, his assistant, Sam Ellis, moved into an expensive new house then discovered that all staff contracts had been declared null and void.
The manager and coaches' futures are now at the whim of a new owner. Having worked at Leeds United in the nightmare that followed on from "living the dream", Blackwell believed he had seen it all. "I think this is worse," he says, "because Leeds are such a big club that I always felt they will get back. You've only got to look at the support, the heritage, the history."
Consolation has at last come on the pitch. Of the 67 teams who spent the whole of 2007 in the Football League, only Bury and Bradford City won fewer games than Luton's 10, but they finished the year on an encouraging run and have turned in some excellent Cup performances. Beating Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup replay has meant hosting Liverpool in today's televised third-round tie for the second time in three years, the 350,000 that should be made being even more valuable than in 2006. On that occasion, the mad Hatters only succumbed 5-3 after holding a 3-1 lead against the reigning European champions.
This afternoon promises another tea party in FA Cup wonderland, even if Liverpool are not inclined to donate their six-figure share of the gate receipts. "It's a godsend for the finances and also for the players, a marketplace for them to show themselves in," said Ellis, who has his own bittersweet memories of the competition. His first Cup game was in the 1966 final as a strapping teenaged centre-half for Sheffield Wednesday, who led Everton 2-0 after an hour before losing 3-2.
Moving into coaching at Watford under Graham Taylor, Ellis later managed cash-strapped clubs such as Blackpool, Bury and Lincoln. "To do the job properly in the lower Leagues, you've got to be able to do it on a tight budget," he says. "Though not as tight as the one we have just now. But it's no good feeling sorry for yourself, in any walk of life. You accept the job and get on with it."
Only at Manchester City with Peter Reid in the early Nineties did Ellis ever have the luxury of what he calls "spending a bit of dough", whereupon his boyhood club finished fifth for two seasons running. Having been persuaded to rejoin Blackwell and the first-team coach, John Carver, after working with them at Leeds, he can only hope now that there will still be a club and a job at Luton.
"There's a lot of different factions among the supporters, and we need everybody to pull together," he says. "There's a lot of goodwill towards us as an old-fashioned football club, and if we could get everybody together it could be a smashing little club."
And what has he been telling the players about the task facing them today? "We know Liverpool's style of play, whatever formation they choose. So we say to them: 'Our home form's terrific, there will be a shock in this round, so why shouldn't it be us?' Especially if they want to tinker with their team."
Harry Kewell's presence in the Liverpool squad will offer a reminder of the mad old days at Leeds. "I remember being offered7 million for him one Monday, and then he went for 2m on the Friday," Blackwell says. Nobody is offering that sort of money for any of his current team, in which familiar names such as Chris Perry, Paul Furlong and Don Hutchison add experience to the younger brigade. Meanwhile, Luton have been forced by the Football League to return all their loan players and take back the expensive wage-earners they had managed to hire out.
To borrow from Morecambe and Wise, what do you think of it so far, Kevin? Rubbish? "It wasn't what I came here for. We deserve the 10-point deduction, I accept that, but since we've been in administration, any hurdle that could be placed in our way has been. I'm disappointed with the so-called football family. The one thing we can do is forget about everything else and concentrate on the Cup."
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