The Nick Townsend column: This penalty won't bring sunshine into murky waters

Draconian punishment meted out to Luton goes against principles of natural justice for a club who tried to make up for past mistakes
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Over the years the face of Luton Town has contorted itself into so many expressions it could win a world championship gurning contest. Among them, unconfined joy as a beige-suited David Pleat dashed across the pitch at Maine Road after the club retained top-flight status. Indignation that anyone should object to their artificial surface. Abject misery at recent relegations. And, inevitably, the laughter created byEric Morecambe, at one time a club director.

You wonder what he makes of it all as he surveys recent developments from his celestial stage. The story goes that the crowd chanted, "What do you think of it so far?" during a dire performance by his beloved team. "Rubbish," he cried, reverting instinctively to his comic persona. His opinion on how football's governing bodies have treated his club in recent weeks would possibly be similar.

If this whole imbroglio did not exhibit both the FA and Football League at their most vindictive, if it did not diminish the national game in the eyes of anyone caring to cast even a cursoryglance at the situation, it would indeed provide the same kind of belly laughs that the comedian once elicited from his audiences.

We have heard much recentlyof cricket's IPL and EPL. Now English football is set to deliver us the MPL: the Minus Points League, at the basement of League Two, with three clubs – Luton, along with Bournemouth and Rotherham, who are likely to be deducted at least 15 points over similar insolvency issues – scrapping with the brutality of bare-knuckle fighters. One survives, two exit the League.

Luton, unable to buy players because they are in administration, and starting on minus 30, could achieve a unique notoriety by becoming the first club to end the season on minus points. Having contributed to the creation of such a scenario, Lord Mawhinney, the chairman of the Football League, solemnlydeclares: "We have to respect and maintain the integrity of our competitions." Priceless.

So how have Luton arrived at this nadir? Although they now exist in another galaxy from that in which Cristiano Ronaldo complains of slavery, it was only two seasons ago that the Hatters, under Mike Newell, were poised to make a challenge to join the Premier League. In early June, the League One club were deducted 10 points by the FA for breaches of regulations regarding payments to agents. Yet not only is the chairman, Bill Tomlins, who oversaw that administration, long gone from the club, but it was Luton themselves who shone a torch into the murky depths when the club secretary, Cherry Newberry, alerted the FA. A suspended sentence was clearly more appropriate.

Luton appealed, and voices of sanity, including those of the former FA mandarin David Davies and the former Aston Villa chairman and FA councillor Doug Ellis, spoke out. Their wisdom in such matters was ignored. The appeal failed on Tuesday.

West Ham only received a fine from a Premier League independent commission for their breach of regulations over the acquisition of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. It is hard not to conclude, like Jonathan Swift: "Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through."

The Football League had already deducted 20 points from Luton for failure to comply with their insolvency policy. That is the price that Luton Town Football Club 2020, a consortium trying to take the club out of administration, have to pay to allow them to compete in League Two next season. The previous November, Luton had been deducted 10 points for going into administration, which effectively relegated them. It means, in total, they have received a total of 30 points in penalties from the Football League.

Leeds' punishments now seem relatively benign. They were deducted 10 points at the end of the 2006-07 season for going into administration but it was meaningless, as they had already been relegated. They then agreed a 15-point deduction for not going straight into League Two.

Let it be stressed, this column does not belittle the reasons why such draconian punishments were introduced. Clearly, clubs who go into administration should not place themselves at an advantage over those who run themselves prudently. It is similarly desirable that transfers should be conducted transparently, rather than in conditions akin to a dark sidestreet.

That said, it would have made sense (a quality apparentlyabsent in the thinking of either the FA or Football League) for the sentences, at least in part, to have run concurrently, in view of the fact that all Luton's financial problems and misdemean-ours can be traced back to the previous administration. Instead there has been an attitude of "Bang 'em up and let 'em rot" (conceivably Luton could go out of business) which pays no heed to the efforts of those desperatelytrying to remedy matters.

This contempt for natural justice provoked one Rotherham fan to suggest: "I'd love to see all 23 clubs in League Two throw their match at Luton to send a message." That sentiment does serve to emphasise the contempt in which these rulings are held. Even the law of the land will consider mitigatory factors, and seeks to aid the worst criminal who is intent on atonement. Whatever a club's "crimes", there must be hope. Not total abandonment. Without it, the League as a whole falls into disrepute.

BOA must stand firm on drugs despite judge's words

So Dwain Chambers moves on, belatedly, to ponder the ultimate wisdom of accepting a seven-drug cocktail at Victor Conte's bar. And – who knows – a casting in a TV reality show, perhaps in the Australian jungle, the sprinter's bid for I'm A Drug Cheat...Get Me Out To Beijing having failed at the High Court.

Though there will be almost universal relief throughout sport at Mr Justice Mackay's refusal to grant an injunction temporarily suspending Chambers' lifetime Olympic ban, there will be concern that his form of words in articulating that judgment has damaged rather than strengthened the British Olympic Association's stance, despite chairman Lord Moynihan's belief that it had achieved the latter.

It presents the BOA, and British athletes who will be consulted on the issue, with a dilemma. The judge's contention that "many people, both inside and outside sport, would see this bylaw as unlawful" suggests that the BOA's imposition of a lifetime ban on anyone who has failed a drugs test being part of a British Olympic team could be successfully challenged in court. Chambers is highly unlikely to follow that course now, but it does not preclude another home athlete, at some stage, doing so.

The International Olympic Committee member Sir Craig Reedie said he believed the IOC are "moving in the general direction of the BOA's philosophy" but he also raised the spectre of a worldwide lifetime ban being challenged in foreign courts.

The consequence could be pressure on the BOA to follow the lead of the IOC, who last month agreed a new rule that any athlete who receives a ban of six months or more for a doping-related offence will miss the next Olympic Games after their suspension ends. Its proponents would argue that, under that disciplinary procedure, Chambers would have still missed both the Athens and Beijing Olympics, having tested positive for the designer steroid THG in 2003 and received a two-year ban in 2004. Any British athletes who find themselves up against rivals who are proven drug cheats may be persuaded to take a view that a pragmatic hand should trump one of principle.

Yet to do so would be to dilute the strength of the argument that those who have transgressed should never don the GB vest at an Olympic Games. As usual, m'learned friends will probably have the last word. Be that as it may, the BOA must do their utmost to hold the line, and press to establish the hardline sanction against drug cheats worldwide.

Comments