An avid Luton Town supporter, I was at Kenilworth Road on Monday 3 April, to watch the eagerly-anticipated second leg semi-final Blue Square Premier play-off match against York City. With the winner of the two legs playing for an appearance at Wembley to fight for a return to the Football League, the game was always going to be played with passion in a tense atmosphere. The match itself was very frustrating to watch (for the Luton fans) as Luton had the majority of possession without being able to create any clear-cut opportunities. Full credit to York however, as they put in a battling defensive display, producing the perfect away performance as they scored a sucker punch goal to deflate the wishes of the near-capacity crowd, and condemn Luton to another season in the Conference.
The following day brought with it much media coverage, although it did not focus on the match. Instead, the Luton supporters were branded hooligans due to a small minority invading the pitch to confront the away fans, who were celebrating joyously in the Oak Road End. Personally, I was very disappointed to see so-called Luton fans behaving in this way, and do not condone any of the actions they took. Despite this, the coverage of such an incident was largely blown out of all proportion, and also out of context. It was unlucky for Luton that there was no other football being played that day; if it had been any other footballing day, the actions that unfolded would probably have avoided mention, and would definitely not have made the back pages of both broadsheets and tabloids. It must be remembered that there was an awful lot riding on the game, and that some fans may have got carried away in such an intense game. The fact that York centre forward Richard Brodie was hit on the head by a coin is deplorable, but what has not been widely documented is that he was celebrating topless amongst the away fans at the time. It is likely that he was caught in the crossfire between the opposing fans and was unfortunate enough to have been struck by such a missile.
Once again, I do not support the violent actions of any fans, but fellow football supporters and pundits should recognise that there are always some idiots who are attracted to big matches like that against York, with the sole intention of causing trouble. This season has witnessed several outbreaks of fan disobedience: recently in the Championship survival match between Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace (documented by Danny Arter – “Hillsborough hooligans mar survival Sunday”), and also in the Carling Cup between West Ham and Millwall in August. I do believe that the FA and Football League should carry out reprisals to prevent such behaviour. However, I believe that punishments should be given to the individuals rather than the club; for example, life bans or fines could be handed out. If this procedure is not followed, then ordinary fans who have no control over who attends games are the ones punished if their team is given a fine, or worse a point deduction, and this is surely not good for English football.
Luton are a club that has suffered more than most at the hands of harsh action from the FA and the Football League. The past ten years has seen the club go into administration on three occasions and the club has been dealt points deductions because of the actions of past owners trying to run the club like a profit-making business. The 2006/07 season saw Luton relegated from the Championship in 23rd place after having played against teams like Sunderland, Birmingham, Wolves, Stoke and Hull, all now playing in the Premiership. The following season saw Luton suffer a second successive relegation, partially due to a 10-point deduction that demoralised the squad, for falling into administration. The 2008/09 campaign saw the biggest challenge thus far for Luton; the club were docked twenty points by the Football League for failing to comply with its insolvency policy, and were then docked a further ten points by the FA for financial irregularities. These two severe penalties made it almost impossible for Luton to avoid relegation, and ended Luton’s 89 year spell as a member of the Football League.
It would be foolhardy to defend the actions taken by some Luton fans by saying that the club has suffered substantially in past years, but it is certainly something that should be taken into account. The pressure upon the team to re-gain immediate promotion following three consecutive relegations was immense, and many Luton fans expected the club to win the title with ease this season. The season started poorly by the club’s high standards, resulting in then manager Mick Harford leaving the club by mutual consent in October 2009 after indifferent performances that saw defeats against Oxford, Wrexham and Stevenage, the eventual winners of the league. Richard Money, former Newcastle Academy Director took over in November and after a hugely successful second half of the season that saw Luton score goals for fun, including an 8-0 defeat of Hayes and Yeading, he guided Luton into second place. The fans’ frustration at the club’s failure to be promoted after defeat against York is understandable, especially for a club with such a rich footballing history, but the actions that a small minority undertook are completely indefensible. Football fans should be free to celebrate any victory, be it at home or away, and they should not feel threatened by home supporters. But a certain amount of perspective is needed. No-one was seriously hurt, no significant damage occurred and only a small number of fans were involved. If the club does prosecute the main protagonists, I hope that the FA and Football League do not take further action against a club that has already suffered its fair share of disappointment.