Graham Kelly: Mystery over who owns Luton has fans fearing worst

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The Independent Football

Luton Town's new "chairman [Roger Terrell] and deputy chairman [Lee Power] of football affairs", so described on the club's official website, marked their arrival at Kenilworth Road last week in a bizarre manner. They claimed they were nothing to do with the investors who had bought the club from the former owner, Mike Watson-Challis, and said they were re-considering their position after seeing the reaction of supporters.

Terrell, whom the website described as a former Peterborough United chairman and who, like Power, has acted as a players' agent, although he is a respected Peterborough solicitor, said: "We were asked by the consortium to assist in the running of the football side of things. We would not be paid and have no investment in the club. We would be looking to appoint a manager in the next seven to 14 days."

Power, a former player with Norwich, Bradford, Peterborough, Hibernian and Dundee, said: "We thought we were coming here today to be appointed but, after what happened on the way in, we are re-considering our position."

There was no indication who the members of the consortium were, but the reason over 300 fans protested outside the ground, the venue for the supposed inaugural board meeting, was the summary removal by the new owners of the manager and his assistant, Joe Kinnear and Mick Harford, who had achieved promotion from the Third Division at the first attempt then finished a decent ninth in the Second Division last season. Those supporters represent some of the most loyal - and the most vocal - in the League. An average of over 1,300 travelled to away matches last season.

The departure of Harford, a Luton idol from the Littlewoods Cup triumph in 1988, hit the fans particularly hard, though similar iconic standing did little for Ricky Hill whom Watson-Challis appointed in place of Lennie Lawrence when he bought the club from the previous owner Cliff Bassett, in 2000. The team suffered a disastrous season, and, when Kinnear was recruited from Oxford United in February 2001 on a lucrative contract, it was too late to avoid relegation to the Third Division.

Watson-Challis, in his recent statement on becoming life president after transferring ownership, claimed the club had been on its knees when he took over. Now it was back on its feet it could realise its potential, he intimated.

I joined the Luton board as a non-executive director at Watson-Challis's invitation and it has always been clear that the potential he refers to is the new stadium planned on the Stockwood site he bought at Junction 10 of the M1.

When you mention Luton Town to people outside football, their faces light up and they say: "Eric Morecambe." Inside the game, the reaction is different: "When are you moving?" is the question.

The club put out a bullish statement recently indicating the new stadium could be ready for the 2005-06 season, but it became clear to me that, although the chairman was a man of considerable means, he could not continue to pour money into the club the way he had done. I reluctantly decided to resign after a rollercoaster three years, mainly because I was unable to influence affairs sufficiently.

I was very sad to leave, because I was proud of my association with Luton, who were the south's first professional club, founded in the century before last and before some of the current giants of the game. But their ground has always been their Achilles heel. Kenilworth Road, or Kenilworth Stadium to accord it its proper title, was constrained even when it opened in 1905, and anyone who has visited will understand that the club must move if it is to make progress in the modern commercial game.

There have been compelling reasons for a move for 30 years, but ever since the Dunstable relief road took part of the land behind the main stand - a misnomer if ever there was one - the stadium has resembled ever more a hotch-potch of add-ons and take-aways, as the story of make do and mend has prevailed.

Needless to say, the fans are now worried sick. They have no idea who owns their club, which is astonishing. Why the big mystery? If I had bought a club with a proud tradition I would be shouting it from the rooftops even if they were a bit rickety.

I contacted the Football Association about the relatively minor matter of Messrs Power and Terrell's possible agency activities (neither is licenced) and we ended up discussing the governing body's inordinate delay in introducing a "fit and proper persons" criterion for the ownership of a football club.

Luton's supporters have seen so many proposals for a new ground that they really do worry whether the new stadium will ever be built, despite Watson-Challis' honourable intentions. The Kohlerdome, named after the ex-chairman David Kohler, never got off the ground. The council's local plan for the Junction 10 site recommends sports facilities, "preferably a new home for Luton Town", but with planning issues, of course, nothing is certain, and supporters fear a possible ground share proposal with a certain peripatetic First Division club whose name I vowed never to utter again.

If the new owners were overseas property developers, the difficulty for the football authorities would presumably be drawing up the necessary rules to protect the game. Stock Exchange examples would, I suppose, be the ones to follow.

Watson-Challis, in a statement later in the week in response to fans' concern, said: "The actual identity of the people involved is far less important than what they are able to do for the club. Many top business men prefer that knowledge as to where they place their money is kept strictly confidential. No wall of silence exists."

The supporters are naturally very grateful for the erstwhile owner's millions, but I'm afraid they don't share his apparent philosophy about where the soul of a football club lies.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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