Back and beam­ing, the glad Hat­ter

The Football League Paper - - NICK OWEN - By Matthew Bad­cock

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.

In­sol­vency

“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

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