Opposition Profile: Luton Town
A comprehensive view of Luton Town's current situation so you can be in the know.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all image sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
Many pundits, and myself, pointed towards Luton Town as dark horses this season. The Hatters have been on an upwards trajectory in recent seasons. Until surprisingly recently, Luton Town were a below average League Two football team but a bundle of promotion campaigns later and they are now competing in the Championship. While their progression up the leagues has slowed down they have still been making steady progression from staving off relegation at the last and last season’s mid-table finish. It was this upwards trajectory and the unique environment around Kenilworth Road that drew the intrigue of many football pundits. The clubs results at the back end of last season also implied that they were indiscriminate about the sides that they overcame, a key feature of a successful promotion charge (see the previous Opposition Profile on Luton Town for more details). However, while Luton Town are far from out of the promotion race their form to date indicates that Luton may be starting to stagnate. Currently in 10th, the Hatters are tied to the mid-table category as things stand and an upturn in form will be needed if they want to push for a playoff position this season. The clubs astronomical climb is even more impressive in the context of their noughties ownership struggle.
It’s May 2003. It has just been announced that an unnamed consortium headed by John Gurney has taken over Luton Town. There was little known about the negotiations with former owner Mike Watson-Challis but rumours would surface that the transaction had cost John Gurney just £4. There was instantaneous concern within the fanbase that Gurney’s purchase would lead to a dark time for the club. Their concerns were valid. A number of smaller clubs had faced serious difficulties following similar types of purchases as the owners and directors test was considerably less strenuous and detailed as the one provided to modern club owners.
These concerns were only heightened when Gurney axed popular figures Joe Kinnear and Mick Hartford. With the managerial position now open, Gurney searched for a new appointment but each was met with extreme hostility by the fans. In an attempt to get a buy-in from the fans Gurney introduced an American Idol inspired competition: Manager Idol. The shortlist was whittled down to three options: Joe Kinnear (who got ~70% of the first vote), Mike Newell and Steve Cotterill.
The competition instantaneously fell into disarray as the club failed to agree provisional terms with Steve Cotterill while Joe Kinnear, on holiday following his sacking by the club, was unreachable. Despite the illusion of some form of democratic vote the decision was already made. The hand was forced. Mike Newell would become Luton Town manager. It will come as little surprise that the vote was swayed in Joe Kinnear’s favour, the fans had recently protested his sacking at the football ground, and any semblance of democracy was set to be crushed and with it any remaining trust the fans had in the ownership. However, a surprise and perhaps mysterious late swing, along with the boards own vote (which equaled 1/4 of the votes: general public was one 1/4, season ticket holders another 1/4 and the players were the final 1/4) meant that Mike Newell was confirmed as the manager by the vote. Gurney thanked his lucky stripes as he marched his new manager before a sceptical crowd of journalists.
The vote only caused further friction between the club and its supporters. The fracture was only widened by the Luton Town Supporters Trust. The trust recommended that the fans should not support the club financially. This was a vital move in the narrative as the summer drive for season tickets is a primary way to keep a club ticking through the summer and, as such, the club was running at a considerable monthly debt. Meanwhile, Gurney had begun the process of outsourcing different departments within the club including the club shop as a means of cutting costs at the expense of quality service and creating a larger profit. These actions were ultimately useless though as the club continued to rack up a debt and the consortium’s refusal to pay general and playing staff their wages was the final straw for the supporters trust.
The Luton Town Supporters Trust devised a clever plan. The club owed a considerable amount of money to a company, Hatters Holdings, a debt that has remained in place since the previous owner. The trust members and prominent supporter spokesperson Gary Sweet bought shares in the company in order to call in the debt and so forcing Luton Town into administrative receivership. Gurney was subsequently forced out with little further damage despite threats of destroying the club in reaction to the receivership.
But would a Gurney run Luton Town be that bad? To put it simply, yes. Gurney, himself, explained the fundamental flaw in the consortium’s ownership of the club when he stated “at the end of the day it’s just business”. These words, spoken to a ITV camera crew filming Trouble at the Top would be particularly telling. The episode focused on the chaos surrounding the Manager Idol but it also built context about the overall management of the club. His desires were revealed to be quite simple: to maximise profit from the club with little respect to the heritage or history of the club and the fans be damned if they don’t conform. The purchase came with an advantageous plot of land that Gurney’s plans orbited around. He wanted to add a F1 track, a stadium on stilts and a shopping centre on the land. The club’s move to the new position would lead to a name change London-Luton while a merger with Wimbledon was discussed with the expressed desire to fast-track up the leagues. Finally, to aptly summarise his behaviour. The ITV crew asked Gurney about whether he was concerned about if the club would find out about his shady behaviour to which he replied: “Who is the club?”. Clearly the idea of a temporary custodian as owner was lost on Gurney and the very nature of a football club as a business was ill-suited to the man who was dubbed to be set to “destroy us”.
After the eventful 55 day reign of Gurney and the consortium, the Trust became a more integral part of the club ownership structure helping to give the fans a voice within the club and preventing a similar situation from reoccurring. Their power within the club was momentarily displaced some years later but the Trust was shortly reintegrated. It is from this solid basis that the club has since flourished.
Another key figure in the meteoric rise of Luton Town is Nathan Jones. The Welsh manager joined the club when it was dwindling in League Two. Three years later, he had lead his side to promotion into League One and into the mix for a second further promotion. It was at this point that he caught Stoke City’s eye. Nathan Jones agreed terms with the Potters in January 2019 leaving the club under a cloud. David Wilkinson, the Hatters chairman, would describe this departure as “abrupt” and “unprofessional”. However, after accepting his mistake and apologising to the individuals behind the scenes that were effected by his decision to leave the club decided to rehire the manager.
Jones managed to succeed in his short term goal of keeping the club in the Championship a feat that has been dubbed “the Great Escape” by some. He then built on the impressive 4 wins and 4 draws in 9 games by leading the side to a mid table finish last season.
Nathan Jones’ tactics do share a similarity in their focus on traditional man-to-man marking. This fluid style of defending has been particularly vital in optimising the effectiveness of Jones’ high press. This is particularly pernicious for clubs that prefer to play out from the back as he will freely give the man on the ball time and space but remove his passing options forcing him to make a considered long ball which are meat and drink for his centre back pairings. Meanwhile, almost ironically, Jones prefers his teams to play from the back and so favours a ball playing defender at the heart of the defence who can spray passes to varying distances and a good ball carrying fullback should the central option fail. Once in the final third, Jones’ sides use short fast passes to create openings in the opposition’s defence for his attackers to exploit.
Despite this general tactical outline, Jones has fluctuated the system, the details and individual instructions during his career meaning that the side may present itself differently against Middlesbrough.
Nathan Jones will look towards 26 year old winger Harry Cornick going forward. The number 7 has been directly involved in 8 goals from the last 15 matches as his ability to run at a defender and fashion chances makes him a danger against most Championship clubs. The onus will be placed on Cornick to make up for the injured Elijah Adebayo too. The top goalscorer was forced off with an unfortunate injury last time out and he isn’t due to return until late November.
Kal Naismith has been particularly impressive in defence so far this season. While he is a centre back by trade, he is also comfortable at left back and left midfielder which has provided vital knowledge and context that has augmented him in the left centre back role this season (in essence playing both centre back [when in a mid-block] and fullback [when covering for the marauding left wingback Amari’i Bell.
Meanwhile, James Bree is the young talent on display against Middlesbrough. The right sided player is comfortable in both right back and right midfield roles but he has taken to the roll of a marauding right wingback like a duck to water. A very consistent performer, one of the primary issues with younger talent, Bree is the ideal ball carrier for Jones’ system. He is a player with pace to burn and a stamina that will let him run the flank for the whole 90 minutes. He is also a threat in the final third as there are two assists by his name.
Luton Town present a serious challenge for Middlesbrough. A battle between two mid-table sides is often overlooked but there is more at stake in this fixture. A win for either of these sides will help to push them closer to contention while the other faces the double blow of losing and seeing one of their closest competitors take a leap towards the playoffs.
Naturally, I am going to back Middlesbrough to win the game but this optimism does come with a few caveats: 1) Neil Warnock needs to address the issues that arose in the previous game, 2) Martin Payero and others need to return to their best, 3) Don’t get caught up in Jones’ tactical spider web.
Prediction: Luton Town 0-1 Middlesbrough