Today, Luton Town are playing Premier League football for the first time ever, but it wasn’t long ago that The Hatters found themselves in a seemingly never-ending crisis. Under the leadership of John Gurney the club went into a 55-day meltdown. Gurney, who was charged with importing cocaine in February of 1999 had a long history in non-league club ownership having stints at Farnborough Town, Southall and Ashford United, and rugby club Bedford.
The three non-league clubs would not have any kind words to say about him, Gurney leaving them in a financial mess upon his departure, but it was at Bedford where his penchant for horrific club ownership would be on full display. After sacking the manager upon his arrival and numerous run-ins with the fans and the board, he attempted to sell the club to Coventry City before he was forced out. In 2003, he led a consortium that managed to purchase Luton Town for the princely sum of £4. The club were in the Third Division at the time and hemorrhaging money after the failed ITV Digital deal did not deliver the money promised to clubs around the country.
Upon his arrival at the club, he immediately sacked popular manager Joe Kinnear and his assistant, Mick Harford and proceeded to blame the chief executive of the club for this decision. He also banned the local newspaper Luton on Sunday, which had broken the story of the sackings without the club’s approval. With such an unusual way of endearing yourself to the fanbase, Gurney went one step further promising a new 70000-seater stadium, which would be nothing new for a new chairman, but Gurney being clinically insane or just one of the biggest pranksters in world football took it a million steps to far.
The proposed stadium would be suspended over the M1 motorway and would have a removable pitch that would sit exactly over the highway. This pitch would be leased out to NBA and NFL franchises in what Gurney imagined to be a festival of sporting extravaganza. The extravagant promises did not stop there, as Gurney, seemingly wishing to cover all available sports also promised a brand-new Formula 1 track that was to surround the stadium.
The name of the club was also poised for change to better reflect the links to local attractions. The only problem was that the chosen attraction would be the nearby airport and the club’s proposed name was set to be London-Luton Football Club. With the name and the stadium set Gurney only had one more thing to solve, and that was who would lead the club to promotion. Of course, Gurney being Gurney, he was already working behind the scenes for a potential merger of Luton with Wimbledon, and blabbering to every TV station about it.
The managerial issue was to be a tad more difficult, his nominee Terry Fenwick received opposition from the fans and the club’s new chairman and vice-chairman were pelted with fruit upon their arrival at Kenilworth Road. As always, Gurney saw a problem and decided to employ the most unusual solution possible: he set up a premium phone line where fans could spend 50 pounds to vote for their favourite managerial candidate and called it “Manager Idol”.
The farcical ownership came to an end however, when the Luton Town Supporters’ Trust managed to convince local sponsors and supporters to boycott games and bought up shares in the club’s major creditor. The club entered administration, Gurney left and was declared bankrupt in 2008. The whole ordeal was best summarized by the chairman of the Supporters’ Trust, Liam Day who said the situation would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so serious.
By: Eduard Holdis / @He_ftbl
Featured Image: Tom Jenkins / Guardian