Below are the programme notes written by Hatters chairman David Wilkinson and 2020 Developments director Michael Moran from Saturday's edition of Our Town.
DAVID WILKINSON - CLUB CHAIRMAN
Good afternoon everyone and welcome to today’s game against Birmingham City.
We lost 2-1 earlier in the season to the Blues at St Andrew's, so we look forward to revenge today at home.
It’s 2020 and this is our first home game of the year, a very special one for our club, so could I take this opportunity to wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous new year from all of us at Kenilworth Road.
At this time of year it makes sense to reflect upon the past, re-examine our aims and ambitions, and review our mistakes. The past decade has seen incredible progress on and off the pitch, and to start a new decade we need to remind ourselves of that as a point of reference.
Undoubtedly the most important thing was Gary Sweet and Stephen Browne finding like-minded people to invest in the Club and lift it out of administration. From day one there was a vision to relocate, climb up the leagues and create and manage a sustainable and morally defensible football club for the benefit of our fans, our town, the community and ourselves.
However, unbeknown to us we were almost immediately hit by our first bump in the road when we were punished with a deduction of a total of 40 points for previous owners’ breaches of rules and financial profligacy. This decision, which still rankles to this day, cost the club many millions in lost revenue and missed opportunities.
Undaunted and in high spirits we had one of our best days ever winning the JPT at Wembley managed by club legend Mick Harford, but then suffered an almost inevitable relegation to the Football Conference (now National League).
In the Conference we received no central funding and no contribution or protection for our academy. The significance of this was that, having decided to continue to operate as a fully professional club and not just maintain but rebuild our youth system, we lost seven-figure sums every year. For clarity, these losses were to keep the infrastructure going for when we regained our Football League membership, rather than buying our way back.
Despite this, as you know, we took five years to get promoted, losing four managers in the process, including the legend that is Mick Harford. Our time there saw many disappointments from play-off defeats to poor results against smaller clubs, but we are Luton Town and we persevered.
We also suffered the loss of young players from our academy for minimal reward, many of whom have subsequently gone on to be talented and valuable participants in the Premier League and elsewhere. Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis at Norwich, for example, were both in the successful youth teams at the same time as James Justin, but along with many others left for peanuts at a young age.
There are former Luton youth players scattered all around the Leagues, and although we will probably always have to be a selling club, we shouldn’t have to be a gifting club.
We take this area as seriously as any and as Gary has already told you, we have applied for EPPP category 2 status, which will move us into the Premier League U23 games programme and further protect our youngsters from being picked off for next to nothing by bigger clubs. It will also provide a league games programme in which our players not in the first team can get match time, because at present there is almost no competitive football between leaving the academy at 18 and being picked for the first team. The crazy games schedule in the Championship requires a bigger squad, but too many don’t get regular football.
None of this comes for free and we must install an indoor dome with an artificial turf pitch at the training ground amongst other things as a condition of being approved for this level.
We then managed three promotions in five years, with all sorts of records being broken last season in League One. It can be argued that such progress may have come too quickly and that we didn’t have time to adjust to the enormous and growing gap between League One and the Championship. However, we all know that momentum can carry you beyond your expectations.
Even before we were promoted the management were advising the Board as to our ability to compete in the Championship, a division which has changed markedly since we were last here. We have the smallest budget in the league by some margin.
Financial Fair Play, which governs clubs' spending, allows clubs to lose £39 million over three seasons and, of course, some clubs are helped by having parachute payments when they are relegated from the Premier League amounting to eye-watering proportions. To give an idea, the value of Premier League parachute payments to Championship clubs would completely fund the player budgets of Leagues One and Two for well over two seasons. This though, is further complicated by them having to pay Premier League wages in the Championship. It is trickle down economics and the monstrous wages paid in the Premier League are affecting almost every level of the game.
We cannot and will not compete with these losses so it follows that we simply cannot compete with salaries or transfer fees. With a new stadium and other sources of income and a thriving academy all on the horizon, we will much more able to be competitive and, by then, the effects of less prudent clubs over-spending in the Championship will be being felt quite hard if the authorities implement the rules as they should be. Remember we have been in those shoes too often before and probably wouldn’t survive another.
Having said all this, reality is only just beginning to filter into the system and clubs are still trying to find ways around the current rules so to hope for wage caps, limits to agent fees and break-even accounts could be some way off.
In the meantime, we as a Board are proud of what we have achieved over the past decade. We are Luton Town so we can’t expect an easy ride all the time, and I for one wouldn’t want one. I always say to friends of mine who are Arsenal fans, how boring it must be to have never been promoted or relegated and just worried about whether you are or aren’t in the top four. We, on the other hand, have experienced more ups and downs in the 21st century than most clubs have in their entire existence.
Gary asked for patience regarding the stadium and associated developments and I, on behalf of the Board, ask the same for football. We are all fans, mostly Lutonians, and the club is deeply embedded in our hearts. We are not short-term players and have gained some valuable experience over the past 11 years making us one of the most experienced operational boards in football. We will get where we want to be, but maybe not as quickly as some may hope for because of the nonsensical delays to planning permissions caused by Capital & Regional, amongst other things outside our control.
“No great thing is suddenly created” – Epictetus
Finally, before I sign off, it’s an honour for us to welcome John Still, the man who took us out of the Conference, as our guest in the Boardroom today. He will always have a special place in our hearts.
Enjoy the game
Come on You Hatters
MICHAEL MORAN - 2020 DEVELOPMENTS DIRECTOR
I’d like to start by saying what an honour it is to be given the opportunity to pen these notes which is a fleeting departure from those you usually read.
I have been asked to write these as a director of 2020 Developments, and as a result of the High Court’s decision to unequivocally dismiss Capital & Regional’s challenge of our planning applications to such an extent that our opponent didn’t see the point in appealing. This means that we are now able to proceed in delivering Luton Towna brand, spanking new, shiny, modern football stadium.
Whilst not a Lutonian I am completely committed to the values of the town and its people, and I understand how much this club means to so many of you.
I began working with Gary Sweet back in 2013 to draw up a long list of potential sites for a new stadium. The board wanted a clean slate approach and I remember vividly the discussions and the demands to come up with a site and a plan that was true to both the club’s history and its ambitions.
I certainly never thought back then it would take us so long to get to this stage and on hearing the news this last week that all final legal challenges from Capital & Regional had failed, it was a mixture of emotions; relief, anger at the wasted years, and excitement for the future. I’d describe it as much about “vindication” as about “celebration”.
From the very outset we put together a plan that we honestly felt was best for the club, the town as a whole and its people. We assembled a brilliant team of advisers and consultants to help and guide us, and it is a credit to everyone that after all the years of challenge and scrutiny from opponents, not one single technical or legal flaw in our planning applications was found.
Why then has it taken so long to get to this stage? Unfortunately, it’s been a mixture of both circumstances and also well-funded opponents “playing the system”.
The pressure applied by Capital & Regional on Luton Council from the start meant we went head-first into a major review of the Local Plan when all experts at the time felt we were destined to fail. There was a window to get the plans through before the 2017 Local Plan review, even back in 2016 we could have done it, before Brexit and the first of two destabilising general elections, but for the actions of that said company.
It’s possible to say that these opponents were merely defending their commercial interests. That works to an extent, but Gary and I spent an awful lot of time many years ago engaging with all parties offering to work together for the good of Luton, but we were dismissed out of hand by just one obstinate objector.
We knew that after decades and decades of failure to deliver a new stadium, it would take something ambitious to achieve our goals. We felt strongly then, as we do now, that the best place for the club is in the heart of the town that it serves. The best plans are not always the easiest plans.
It’s important to draw a line on the past and look forward now to a bright future. The years in planning have galvanised the team and our relationship with Luton Council is stronger than ever. We have seen first-hand the impacts of central government budget cuts on local authorities, but the senior leadership in the Town Hall and their planning officers have been fantastic in the face of all challenges, despite a host of changes in personnel that have had to be managed.
So, in the face of adverse curveballs of local plans, general elections, Brexit and all that comes with it, call-in challenges, judicial reviews and generational market corrections that have all been thrown our way, we stand firmly together, unscathed and energised and enthused, ready to Power On and deliver the visionary scheme we imagined from the outset.
So, what next in the process? Firstly, we can properly engage with the occupiers and investors we have been talking to over the years. Our designs and plans are over four years old. Retail, leisure and housing markets have all seen change in the interim. We need to work these through as we produce our detailed plans. In any assessment of investment value that adage of “location, location, location” remains as true now as ever. On that score there are few, if any, better sites coming forward in the UK than 20 acres adjacent to a station 20 minutes or so from Central London; and 40 acres right on Junction 10 of the M1 that speaks for itself.
Of course, there are risks and challenges ahead, as with any development project. But be assured we have a first-rate team around us who now just need a little bit of time to work to bring things together.
I’d also like to say a huge thank you, on behalf of the whole development team, for the incredible unstinting support and belief from the club’s supporters and supporter groups that has been so apparent and important through these times of drawn-out challenge. It has helped to cement the idea of it always being a case of “when” not “if” we’d get there.
The last word, of course, needs to be about the club’s custodians on the board of 2020. I simply cannot imagine there is another club in the country with such a unified sense of purpose and commitment to doing things in the right way for the long-term benefit of this great club and town.