To start this article, I’d like to mention two numbers: 13 and 76. Why are they significant? Because they’re the simplest way of showing that Luton Town are one of the best run football clubs in the United Kingdom.
Luton ended the 2013/14 season in first place in the Conference Premier League, the fifth tier of English football. In the ten years since their return to the Football League they’ve climbed a total of 76 places, currently sitting 17thin the Premier League.
The best part? Their net spend over that decade has been £13m. That’s the lowest in the Premier League by £20m (Brentford in case you were wondering) and is actually lower than ten Championship sides.
Remarkable, why hadn’t I heard of this before? Well, it’s a long and complicated story that goes right to the heart of the club. It also didn’t start getting airtime until they got promoted to the Premier League. I’ll see if I can do it justice. But first, some context.
Small Revolutions – The Luton Story
To understand how Luton have done the impossible, you have to understand the club. A team that’s rooted in the community and has a strong culture of fan involvement. To do that, we’re going to go back to 2003. Like all good origin stories, this one starts with a villain. A man named John Gurney.
John Gurney was the head of a consortium that purchased Luton on 20th May 2003 for the princely sum of £4. Then the fun started. Notable episodes from his tenure as chairman included:
- Sacking popular manager Joe Kinnear by post.
- Plan for a 70k capacity stadium, suspended above the M1 Motorway and surrounded by a F1 track.
- A planned merger with Wimbledon FC, 40 miles away.
The final straw for fans came when he attempted to choose the club’s next manager via fan phone in, he had to go. So, fans decided to do something unorthodox. They formed a cooperative, a member led not for profit, called Trust in Luton. Using donations the cooperative then purchased the club’s largest creditor, Hatters Holdings, and used their leverage to force Gurney out after 55 days.
Unfortunately, supporters subsequently sold the club. What followed over the next five years made Gurney look like a saint. Fast forward to 2008, and the club had been placed into administration, facing a 30-point deduction for financial irregularities. We’ve had the villain; it was time for a hero.
This came in the form of Luton Town 2020 Ltd, a consortium of local businessmen, heavily supported by, you guessed it, Trust in Luton. They bought the club in 2008. While the new owners couldn’t stave off relegation to the National League there was hope. The club had stability at the top again.
The rebuild was on and the message was simple. Get the club back to where it belonged. Interestingly, that’s why they’re called Luton Town 2020, that’s when they vowed to be back in the Championship. The charge up the table started slowly; it took Luton five years to get out of the National League. They finally did so in 2014, thanks in no small part to a 30 goal season by a little known striker named Andre Gray.
Nathan Jones: The Welsh Savior…and Villain?
For two years, the club appeared to be destined for midtable obscurity in League Two, that all changed in 2016 when they hired this man. Nathan Jones, a former Luton Town player, had a simple managerial philosophy. What might be called ‘Route One football’.
- The team played a defensively minded 3-5-2 formation
- They relied on counter attacks
- Passes were vertical and direct, straight to big, imposing ‘target man’ strikers. Sexy? No. Effective? Definitely.
Direct ‘Punk’ football combined with meticulous planning and an incredible ability to identify a bargain (Barnsley mostly) saw the club return to the championship in 2019, a year ahead of schedule, reaching playoff places by 2022. Then, in 2022, Jones left to manage Southampton (a mistake for all involved).
Did the club panic? No. In November 2022 they appointed recent Watford manager and unlikely sex symbol Rob Edwards as their new manager. Rather than upset the apple cart, Edwards decided to do what’s sometimes the hardest of all: he didn’t change anything.
This proved to be a genius move because by the end of the 22/23 season Luton had achieved the impossible. The club who’d been in the National League 9 years earlier, whose record signing cost them £2m had won the Championship playoffs. They were going to the Premier League.
We Made it to Heaven, Now What?
Luton had done it. From non-league to the Premier League in ten years. Now they had a different problem, how do you stay there? Thankfully, CEO Gary Sweet had a plan, “what gets you there is usually good enough to keep you there.” So, thrift and pragmatism it was.
10 years ago, Ross Barkley emerged as one of the most promising attacking midfielders in Europe for Roberto Martinez’s Everton.
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) December 24, 2023
It’s estimated that promotion to the Premier League is worth around £100m in your first season. But, what to do with the money? Well, pragmatism came first, they used around half of the money to:
- Secure long term funding for a new 19k all seater stadium in Luton town centre
- Renovate Kenilworth Road, one of the oldest stadiums in the country, to meet Premier League standards.
Pragmatism done, onto player recruitment. It was thrifts time to shine. The strategy was simple, we can’t compete financially, so why bother? Let’s rely on the squad we have. Since we’re likely to be relegated, let’s supplement the team with players that’ll help us get promoted again. Per Transfermarkt, they’ve made 15 signings since promotion: As you can see there are some key themes:
- They’re all either relatively cheap or free
- Most of them are 25 or under
- They’re mostly proven Championship-quality players
- At the time, some of them appeared to be a gamble
So How Did This All Translate to on the Field?
Before the season started Luton were largely expected to the worst team in the division. If only someone had told them that. Relying on direct football, team chemistry and home atmosphere, Luton are in 17th and have accumulated 20 points, almost as much as the other two promoted sides combined. So what’s the secret? Simple, the system..
Promotion didn’t change anything; Luton were sticking with what they knew. Defend well, be direct, get the ball into the box the target men will do the rest. Simple yet effective, it’s paying off. They’re out of the relegation zone and have the chance to move 4 points clear. They’ve taken points off teams like Newcastle and Brighton and have more points than Arsenal since 22nd December.
The players are excelling too, perhaps none more so than Elijah Adebayo and Ross Barkley. Luton play 8% of their passes directly into the opponent’s box, the most in the Premier League. This has allowed Adebayo to do his thing. A career poacher, Adebayo has the best shot conversion rate in the Premier League. Such an abundance of balls into the box has allowed him to score 9 goals, including against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Newcastle.
Before the season started, Ross Barkley looked destined for the scrap heap, having failed to conquer Ligue 1. Luckily for him, Luton specialise in players with a point to prove. Moved into a more central role and tasked with ball progression, Barkley has excelled. He leads the team in progressive passes, progressive carries and open play chances created. There’s even been talk of an England call up.
Luton aren’t out of the woods yet. They’ve been helped massively by Everton’s 10-point deduction, they still have to play the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, and they have just lost 3-1 to Sheffield United. But write them off at your peril. Proving a point has become second nature to the Hatters.
By: Kieran Alder / @The_Own_Goal
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Mike Egerton – PA Images