'The problem was we couldn't afford the £500 Luton's Kevin Blackwell tells Daniel Taylor why visit of Liverpool could dig the club out of a big hole
Saturday January 5, 2008 The Guardian
Kevin Blackwell is still in his slippers when he comes to his front door. He has been suffering from a heavy cough and, with respect, looks bloody awful. It is the third time, he explains, that he has had a bug in the last nine months and, as he slumps into a chair and puffs out his cheeks, it is tempting to wonder whether it might be stress-related. There is no football club in the country where the manager is not under strain, but Luton Town? This is a club that should come with a government health warning.
Tomorrow Blackwell will be out of his sick bed as Luton take on Liverpool in the FA Cup, a tie that will earn the League One club around £500,000, which, to put it another way, at least means the players will be paid for another month. The FA Cup is supposed to be about glamour and romance but, at Kenilworth Road, there are men in suits (administrators) who, without exaggeration, would rather the club did not pull off any giant- killing exploits if they can get a draw and a money-spinning replay at Anfield.
For Blackwell, it has been another difficult experience following his spell in charge of a financially shipwrecked Leeds United, where the boardroom buffoonery was so extreme he likens the Peter Ridsdale regime to a scene from Blackadder. "You can see Baldrick," he says, slipping into character. "We've lost £40m but, aha, I've got a cunning plan, let's buy another £40m and put it in the hole. Don't worry if there's a new hole over there because here's another cunning plan: we'll get another £40m. That's what it was like."
Luton, his home-town club, also appear to have operated by the theory of chaos, culminating in "Black November" when the Football Association announced 55 disciplinary charges concerning payments to agents, two directors resigned from the board and, most damagingly for Blackwell, the club fell into administration.
"I had 15 minutes to get hold of all the players before it was announced," he explains. "I told them there was nothing we could do about it, but that's not what they wanted to hear. A lot of these lads aren't on the money that people assume. I've got lads on £7,000 a week but others on £175 or £400. They weren't paid in November and, overall, in the last nine weeks they've had 2½ weeks' wages - under 30%. These lads have got mortgages and bills and it doesn't take a genius to work out they're going to be under a lot of pressure at home. One or two of their wives were crying, and understandably so. It's unnerving for everyone."
The current debt is not clear, but Luton's financial position can be accurately described as dire given the story Blackwell tells about the suppliers of their match balls ringing the club after one game. "We hadn't paid for the balls," he says, "and the firm who supplied them wanted them back."
Another story is of the club appealing against one of their three red cards from a 1-1 draw at Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day. "The problem was we couldn't afford the £500 fee," says Blackwell. "We chipped in together because we thought it was important. But the FA upheld the ban and added another game because, in their words, it was frivolous and we were wasting their time. That was another £500 gone."
Forgive Luton, then, if their priority against Liverpool is about finance rather than the sense of occasion, especially at a time when Blackwell's predecessor, Mike Newell, is suing for wrongful dismissal and could feasibly win a six-figure sum. "It could be seen as one of the bigger games in the club's history because without the half a million quid we would be in serious, serious trouble," says Blackwell.
"It gives us time to bring in a buyer. But administration has come at a bad time for us: in the middle of a season, coming up to the transfer window. We haven't got a buyer in place and we've somehow got to raise enough money to get us through to the end of the season. Which means selling players. We've already had two concrete offers and, in our position, we can't stop our players talking to the other clubs. We hope they don't go, but we can't even guarantee them their wages."
He says he would never have joined the club if he "had known what it was going to be like" and is appalled by what he perceives as a chronic lack of help from the authorities. For starters, he says the Football League has ordered Luton to cut the squad, originally to 20 players and then 16. "Pathetic" is the word Blackwell uses. His loan players have had to return to their clubs and the administrators have calculated they can save £5,000 by stopping overnight stays before away games. "We went to Port Vale last Saturday and didn't get there until half two because of a smash on the motorway."
Blackwell, it is important to note, agrees with the 10-point deduction the Football League automatically imposes when a club goes into administration, but the 49-year-old also has a dark theory. "Luton have been in administration three times in nine years," he explains. "In other words, we've caused the authorities more problems than any other club. And from that perspective we're not arguing. But you have to question whether the football authorities are actually quite happy to see football shrink.
"Natural wastage, you could say - let some clubs go to the wall and reduce the league. I'm being deadly serious here. Do these people genuinely want to keep the league intact? If you're ill, you get medicine. But are we getting any medicine? Not a bit. They don't give a damn whether or not we're in the league."
The problems are comparable with those Blackwell experienced at Leeds, where the club were £119m in debt at one stage and he can remember having "four different chairmen in one month". Elland Road was a nest of vipers and it was probably a miracle he lasted as long as he did given that the chairman Ken Bates, with his famous tact, once declared that ex-goalkeepers usually made bad managers.
Blackwell actually did a pretty good job at Leeds, taking them to the Championship play-off final while working against a constant backdrop of uncertainty. "From my first game, there were other managers sitting in the directors' box. Vultures. Batesy, to be fair to him, told me, 'I've had loads of people ringing me for your job.' People thought I would fail but we got Leeds within 90 minutes of the Premier League in a season when we were favourites to be relegated."
Blackwell is a popular member of the managerial set but, as can happen when Bates is involved, things ended on bad terms. Lawyers have been involved and Bates has seldom missed an opportunity to snipe at his former employee. "I have to be careful what I say because Bates will sue me," advises Blackwell. "But it says it all that when I went back to Leeds with Luton I got a standing ovation from 30,000 fans. And when I joined Luton I got 2,500 emails and messages of good luck from Leeds fans. I know the job I did at Leeds and I also know that, without a 10-point deduction, Luton would be in with a great shout of the play-offs. Nothing more needs to be said."