Back and beaming, the glad Hatter
FOR someone who spent more than ten years waking up a bleary-eyed Britain alongside Anne Diamond and Roland Rat, you’d think Nick Owen would be a familiar face.
Not so when the TV-am – later Good Morning With Anne And Nick – presenter once tried to get into a bar at his beloved Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road. A bar named after him that is!
“I was heading there for a drink with my sons before kick-off and the doorman stopped me going in,” Owen said in 2008.
“He said it was too full. I just walked away, but apparently another guy waiting to get in said to the doorman, ‘do you know who that was?’ And the doorman said he hadn’t a clue. So the guy said, ‘look above your head, it’s there in bloody great letters’.”
The Nick Owen Lounge had long been a Hatters watering hole before he became chairman. The tribute was revealed to him live on BBC One thanks to his numerous Luton name-drops on TV.
Despite being a journalist, like all passionate football fans, Owen found it nigh on impossible to hide his allegiances.
“I remember once presenting Midweek Sports Special and our main game was a cup replay, Southampton v Luton,” said Owen, who currently presents on BBC Midlands.“When I made the introductions, I was so enthusiastic that we got letters of complaint saying viewers worked out the result, because of my buoyant mood, that Luton had won and that it completely spoiled their enjoyment of the programme.”
Owen’s own story began in 1969 at the Doncaster Evening Post. He then moved onto the Birmingham Post, BBC Radio Birmingham before making the jump to the sports department at ATV Network – later Central TV – where he commentated on the 1980 European Championships in Italy and the 1982 Spain World Cup.
It was then he moved to TV-am to be the sports presenter. It was panned by its critics and within six weeks the current FA chairman Greg Dyke, then brought in as director of programming, handed Owen the main gig.Who did he want to sit alongside every morning? Anne Diamond.
With his V-neck jumpers and their boy-girl next door relatable style, the duo were a success.
“I’ve interviewed seven Prime Ministers, which I’m quite proud about, and some great sports stars – I had several nights out with George Best and survived! I saw Pele and I still hold that Best was the best footballer who ever lived,” he said.
But forget all-time football legends like Pele and Best, Owen was just as happy watching the likes of Ricky Hill, Brian Stein and Mick Harford.
Like every other mad Hatter he endured the highs and lows. And when things got really bad in 2008 he ended up getting more involved than he’d ever imagined.
Luton were at breaking point. In administration, relegation looming and question marks over their very existence, Owen became the front man of a consortium, Luton 2020.
He wasn’t putting in money himself, but the group were determined to save the club. Their club.
Owen’s involvement even had to be cleared by the BBC director general.“It was decided that as I was presenting a news programme in the Midlands, it was feasible for me to be a chairman outside the Midlands,” he said.
“The BBC did stress that I must not hire and fire, though.”
The tough times weren’t over. Luton were given an unprecedented 30-point deduction for breaching insolvency rules and irregular payments to agents.
“We can’t believe the tribunal can be so vindictive,” Owen said at the time.“What are they thinking, trying to destroy us like this?”
It almost did. Luton suffered inevitable relegation into NonLeague at the end of the season.
“We didn’t come out of administration until the Thursday before the first Saturday of the season, and within 24 hours we signed 11 players,” Owen said. “In the programme we had ‘tbc’ all over the place.The team were almost introducing themselves to each other in the tunnel.”The dark cloud’s silver lining was a Wembley trip. In front of 40,000 of their own fans, the Hatters beat Scunthorpe to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
When the bubbly had gone flat, however, Luton had to face up to life outside the Football League. Fuelled by injustice there was an insistence they would bounce straight back.
It didn’t go to plan. Managers Harford, Richard Money, Gary Brabin and Paul Buckle came and went. They twice lost in play-off semi-finals, lost a final at Wembley to York City and then missed out all together.When John Still arrived he found a club in a “malaise”.
But Still stopped the rot as they finally ended five years of League exile. The chant that became familiar as the title drew ever closer summed up the feeling at Kenilworth Road.
“F*** the FA, we’re on our way back.”
Perhaps it is fitting to return to a quote from Owen in 2008 when he first became chairman, following in the footsteps of comedy hero Eric Morecambe.
“You know, when I was a little boy, football was all about smalltown clubs,” Owen said. “Blackpool, Ipswich, Burnley, they won things, they were at the top.
“Now, the power and the money is increasingly being centralised to the big cities, Manchester, London. You might call me old-fashioned but I think the small-town club is one of this country’s great institutions. It is worth fighting to preserve.”
SCREEN GEMS: Anne Diamond and Nick Owen in 1983