As we havent got a game this week and as there are no daily crises to report on because of the stability LTFC2020 have afforded us, I thought I would indulge in that thing which football fans excel in: nostalgia.
I thought perhaps I could put a few thoughts down about our old manager Mike Newell. Now heres an interesting football character if ever there was one. I think most Luton fans could write a book on the Newell years (June 03 to March 07) and split it into two parts: on the field and off the field. Im not sure how much time I have to write this, so I will try and squeeze both in, without crashing the server.
If you recall Newell had been selected by the cringingly embarrassing and obviously fixed phone manager poll during those mad weeks when following the club really was like watching a ludicrous soap-opera. More about Gurney another time, but I remember watching a sheepish Newell on the Trouble at the Top documentary which gave an insight into those mad times, but when he was appointed I was fascinated to find out what he would be like as a manager. He certainly served us (and himself) well as a player in the 80s his hat-trick against his favourite team, Liverpool is stuff of legends. And while his short time with us and his record (18 goals in 63 games ) was good, he never quite ascended into legend status himself.
I remember a self-righteous Hartlepool fan posting on the unofficial message board (the precursor to Outlaws, which itself got its name after an anti internet rant by MN), not long after his appointment and advising us to watch out for two things: a slavish adherence to 4-4-2 and his alleged drinking. The monkey-hanger was certainly right about the 4-4-2. I can only recall him not playing 4-4-2 on one occasion a 4-5-1 against Tranmere in the 4th round of the cup in January 2004 when Enoch was the only available striker and we had no choice. We were robbed that day, the ref whose surname began with M gave me genuine reason to believe he was taking money.
The drinking was a different matter clearly there is no smoke without fire. Players, manager and people in general dont get a reputation as a drinker without some sort of reason to believe it might be the case. Certainly with Newell there were tales of his drinking sessions with others on the staff or where people had been in the same pub as him. Certainly his mood swings were because of something. But enough about that, I personally had heard nothing but rumours so it would be unfair to comment further without evidence.
It seems to me that there are two schools of thought on team selection, pick a team to suit the players you have available or make the players fit a formation. Harford tries to do the former, Newell always did the latter. Personally, I think that for lower-league players especially, to keep things simple and to repeatedly drill the roles and and expectation that each position entails is more suitable and practical than constantly chopping and changing formation depending on who is available that week. Accommodating favourites – rather than having the balls to stick them on the bench – is a dangerous game. Just ask Sven Goran Eriksson.
Such was Newells adherence to 4-4-2 week in week out you knew exactly what each player was supposed to do in that position. Two wingers two central midfielders, full backs overlapping when and where possible. Take the time when we had both Underwood on the left, and Brko on the right, whilst Underwood linked up brilliantly with Sol on the left, Brko spent much of the promotion season pushed so far forward from the right he was almost (almost, not quite) part of a front three. No wonder he got so many goals that year. In the middle, Newell didnt really play with a player in the hole behind the front two something that let him down on occasions the central midfielders did what it said on the tin, stayed in the centre, with the likes of Nico holding slightly more, and the likes of Robbo pushing forward a bit more, but never in the way that perhaps Asa Hall did last year under Big Mick. I may be over analysing this a bit, especially as Newell famously said in an interview I dont do tactics. But this was one of the things that caused us a problem once Nico was sold, we didnt have a ball winner (well we did, but he was on the bench, covering for Foley at right back) and played with two central midfielders in the middle with the same tactic but with different results.
Newell brought an old-fashioned and somewhat refreshing ethic back to the field. Under him, there was no writhing around the floor if you got a tap on the ankle, you stayed down if you were genuinely injured otherwise you got up and helped your team mates. I cant remember too much diving either but perhaps the mists of time have made me forget. It was our honesty and willingness to get on with it that caused such a contrast with Watford last time we played them at home. Watford (managed by Boothroyd Hoofroyd – a footballing disgrace) were happy to lump it forward, to stay down when tackled, to manage the game, to time-waste and to harry and pester the ref for the whole game. Whilst Luton played attractive, attacking, (naive?) football, stayed on their feet and generally got pissed off by the cheating and gamesmanship. We lost the game, but no self-respecting Watford fan (if such a thing could exist) could ever argue that it was a victory for footballing skill and fair play. That day we were like the speccy middle class kid in the playground. The bullies came and smashed our glasses, stole our lunch, stuck our coat in the bin and teacher turned a blind eye; but as we went home we knew we were in the right and reminded ourselves how cruel life can be.
Thinking about it again was Newell vs Boothroyd a modern version of the good vs evil, beauty vs the beast, Pleat vs Taylor clashes of the eighties?
Off the field Newell exhibited what he viewed as traditional or old-fashioned stance on things. He was close to his father and espoused a strong family ethic. He believed that managers should manage and coaches should coach. That those involved in football should be true to their word and honest in their dealings that people should take responsibility for their own actions and not blame others, unusual indeed for a scouser. He detested agents, saw them as leaches. For this reason Bill Tomlins went behind his back to pay agents to indulge Newell with the players he demanded. His famous spat with Amy Rayner which dominated the sports news for a week and brought unwelcome publicity for Luton got him into trouble with the FA, his employers and all of the Guardian readers of the world. Let us not forget, Rayner had a shocker that day, not because she was a woman, but because she had a poor game. Newell famously said If people call be sexist I am sexist meaning that he believed men and women should have traditional old fashioned roles, that chaps should hold doors open for ladies etc. It is not recorded what Mrs Newell thought of all this, but I suspect she had her hands full because MN has about five kids!
Newell was lucky to inherit a good core to the team, Nico (whom he knocked into shape from being an attack-dog under Kinnear), Coyne, Stevo, Robbo, Brko, Sol and Emmerson Boyce were all at the club he inherited. Waiting in the wings were the likes of Keet Keane, Kevin Foley, Curtis Davies, Leon Barnett and to a lesser extent OLeary, Leary and Dean Brill. He also had a supporting cast of sound players at that level such as Peter Holmes, Russ Perret, Alan Nielsen, David Bayliss etc.
As a club we were in such a state and such a pickle when he inherited the team that the performance against Crystal Palace in that sweltering pre-season friendly in July 2003 was a refreshing revelation, a bolt out of the blue, in otherwise depressing and gloomy times. Despite being in admin, unable to sign players and Enoch playing for expenses, at least the team could play good, attacking football to give us some hope for the future, whatever was going on off the field.
That season (03/04) it really was backs-to-the-wall time, it really was a nobody likes us, we dont care mentality. The team spirit (notwithstanding Nicos bust up with Newell over being made to play on the left) was excellent. With such a limited squad each game had a sort of last-ditch, make-do and mend mentality and things seemed to work out well. When a player was out with injury one of the youngsters came in and had that initial burst of eagerness, energy and luck but then the original player was back just in time, before the youngster started to get found out and started to make consistent errors due to his inexperience. Leary was a good example of this he stepped in for Nico for a few games I seem to recall, and just about did okay and then Nico was back before too many of Learys faults could be exposed by too long a run in the team.
In Newells first season we finished a remarkable 10th which bearing in mind the utter turmoil there had been over the summer and the delays over coming out of admin was a remarkable achievement.
I think my point is though, it is much easier to do it coming from a position of strength with a good core of players and a great crop of youngsters than perhaps from a standing start, such as Big Mick had to do last year. In fact, putting this in historical context, if you ignore the unfair and unjust 30 point reduction last year our finishing position would have been not too bad, bearing in mind the dismal starting point.
Of course the following season we went from strength to strength, going unbeaten for the first 12 league games and going on to win the league. He had brought in players like Underwood and Vine and suddenly we were going places. But this early success and the ability to tempt excellent players into joining Luton was the start of the problem. Like a junkie needing more and more to get the same hit, and to keep the drive onwards and upwards the following season in the Championship we saw Heikkenen, Morgan and Carlos Edwards join over the summer, as well as Feeney who had come the previous season. None of these came cheap, but we were in the big boys league now. Playing well and thriving in the Championship. Not for us a seasons consolidation or two! I think this drive to recruit more and more players masked what was going on behind the scenes. As long as Newell had a good team and could recruit decent players and improve the squad things went well. It was once the rug had been pulled from under him that he started to flounder. No manager can succeed when all around him players are being sold, but some are better with no money than others, and Newell was shown up once he was unable to continue to build the team along the lines he wanted. I think that, notwithstanding the fact that some more signings were made in the next couple of years once the board lost its bottle (more of this in a second, bear with me) and started to sell, beginning with Curtis Davies on 31 August 2005, it was the beginning of the end, or perhaps to quote Churchill the end of the beginning.
The first championship season saw some memorable games, the victories over Southampton and Palace, whacking Preston, going 4-0 up in the first half against Norwich, and of course the memorable 3-5 in the cup against Liverpool in January 2006. This game, more than any other demonstrated Newells approach to football. Newells sides were incapable of sitting back on a win. They werent incompetent, it was the attacking ethos drilled into them. The way to protect a 1-0 lead under Newell was to go 2 up. There was no fallback. It made so some fantastic and some frustrating games. We were 3-1 up against Liverpool with 28 minutes to go. Liverpool were European Champions at that time. Only three sides had scored three goals against them since December 2003, AC Milan, Arsenal and Chelsea we were in good company. Without appearing to be disloyal though, at no time did I think we would win even when 3-1 up. I could think of some football clubs down the M1 who would have spoilt the game as a spectacle from then on and got away with a win. Not Luton under Newell. You know what happened next, so I shant go over it again. Only last Friday a Liverpool fan came up to me and spoke about that game and wished us well. It was nice that it meant as much to them as it did to us.
For me, there are three types of manager: those who do well with money to spend, those who do well with nothing to spend or on a budget (David Pleat is a good example of this), and those who are rubbish even though they have lots to spend (Bryan Robson). Newell in his stint at Luton seemed initially at least to be in the second category, ie good on a budget, but this was because he inherited a good team.
Actually, Newell was only good when he had money to spend and could improve the team, and there lies the problem. And it was this that shaped the position we are in today.
Imagine for a second, that you are Bill Tomlins. Hard to do I know, but imagine the strategy you have. You are a local man, you love the club, you have a young manager, who the fans have warmed to, and who is playing good football and who is bringing success. The fans would lynch you if you got shot of him, so you go along with him and his little ways. In order to retain players and to recruit new ones you have to spend more and more on wages, living beyond your means, but on the other hand you are having success, moving up the league, and goodness me, suddenly you are in the play-off positions with an outside chance of getting into the Premiership and say £20m a season for just being there. As a business man (okay try and stay with me, I know this is Bill, bless him, but stay with me) do you (a) hold your nerve and go all out for that Premiership place, incurring more and more debt on the way but with the £20m carrot dangling in front of you; or (b) despite having come this far and incurred the debts you have so far, start to cut your losses and to sell your assets, attempting to balance the books with player sales, moving to sustainable wage bills in the longer term, but realising that you are weakening the team in doing so, and therefore reducing the chances of obtaining the big prize.
Now I know it isnt as simple as this and there were a 1001 other factors involved, including the land at J12, Mitchells grubby paws and general financial incompetence. But looking at it in the cold light of day Bill bottled it when he sold Curtis Davies. Once you start to dance with the debt devil, he will always have the last say. It was always going to end messily, unless we reached the Premiership. Bill had the opportunity of Shit or Bust and opted for neither, and ended up going bust anyway. Selling Curtis Davies was the footballing equivalent of falling between two stalls. It was as I said earlier the end of the beginning. There was no exit strategy. He was in a position of his own making, having indulged his manager he now had to keep up the pretence of Championship aspirations and find some money from somewhere or move to Plan B which would have been selling the family silver, getting a sustainable playing squad and a less ambitious and demanding manager.
It was a mishmash Bill didnt properly do anything. He sold off the family silver but kept his manager (for now) but didnt keep tabs on the sustainability of the playing squad. Whatever happened next would have meant one or two relegations, but there was a world of difference between holding your hands up and acknowledging a sensible scaling down of ambition and finances and what he did do. He sold a pup to that fool Pinkney, who was way out of his depth and within a year the club was in administration.
Now, by saying that Bill bottled it by selling Curtis on that August evening rather than going all out for the Premiership, dont think for a second I am advocating living beyond your financial means. If we had clung onto Curtis but not made the Premiership we would have been in an even bigger financial mess. Though football clubs traditionally dont make a profit and are rich mens indulgencies – unless you have someones retired millions to play with gifted to the club a la Blackburn once you go into debt (and I dont mean everyday overdraft because of cashflow) but serious debt where outgoings exceed income in the medium term, you are treading a dangerous path these days. It was different in the past when football was not the multi-million (billion?) pound sport it is now, and when you could put a good team together for next to nothing in Division 3 or 4 and happily work your way up to the top flight like Swansea or Carlisle or even Luton. But what happens when you get to the top? Even in the fifties, sixties and seventies you had to recruit players to maintain your position or sell them and face the drop. But once a club like Luton with a finite income (because of the size of the ground) tries to live with and compete on the same terms with clubs who can generate twice the income then there are going to be serious problems.
This is why what LTFC2020 are doing (and what other clubs like Doncaster and Exeter have done) is so important. Never again do we spend what we dont have and run an unsustainable business. Im not sure if the FA/FL would accommodate a fourth administration, whatever the circumstances of the previous three.
So in the second Championship season having delighted us with a 10th finish in the first one,it remained an exciting time. Yes, we had sold key players and the spine of the team, such as Howard and Nico (Im ashamed to say I was interviewed on Sky Sports and described their sales as good business never trust my judgment again) but we were still hopeful. We signed Langley, Parkin, Boyd and Porno that summer. Newell seemingly, despite depleted resources went from strength to strength, culminating in a 5-1 home win over dirty-Leeds. I remember looking at the next few fixtures after that game and plotting our route to the top. But then, even if you dont agree that Curtis Davies being sold was the turning point for Newell, you must agree that Sols stroke and the subsequent 5-0 drubbing by Ipswich started a downward spiral from which we have never recovered, and only now 3 years later have just arrested for the first time.
And this too was the beginning of the end for Newell. Like Mrs Thatcher, he went a bit mad at the end. His outbursts became more and more extreme, he sought and got more and more publicity. His team selection became more and more bizarre (Leon Barnett upfront anyone?) His tried and tested 4-4-2 and attacking policy couldnt arrest the decline. There was no holding player in midfield and thus no bite at the back. The goals werent coming up front and by that stage he was merely rearranging the deckchairs. The writing was on the wall. In his dying throes he managed (God knows how) to sign Beresford and Robbo his (drinking?) buddies on new two year deals when both were now past their best. It was as if he wanted to punish his employers by hobbling them with yet more expense as he went out the door. Perhaps he was just looking after his mates, albeit with someone elses money.
So I am in two minds about the Newell years. By saying I enjoyed them is almost condoning what went on. On one hand, if you look at it one-dimensionally he treated us to some wonderful memories, some flowing football, some great games, some good players and a stonking promotion year. But because of how he was and how he behaved, he was indulged and allowed to sow the seeds which ultimately put us in the position we are in now. It was Newells recruits whose wages incurred costs at the club – along with incredible business incompetence and greed by the board , the suicidal appointment of Kevin Blackwell and the wastes of space he recruited which led to the debt which led to the administration which led to the relegation. Yes, it didnt have to happen that way at the end, but rightly or wrongly Newells success was built on an unsustainable financial lie. His time is sullied, because realistically it should never have happened that way: because it would always have ended up in tears somehow. It was a three and a half year bender that led to a monster hangover.
His time at the club was like we were driving a stolen Ferrari around a council estate, enjoying it whilst it lasted, but always knowing that we would either crash or get caught by the Police. In the end, of course, we did both…