How Luton Town Defied The Odds with a Moneyball Approach
Luton Town, a team often written off by opposing fans, teams and even the bookies. According to an article from YorskhireLive on 31 May 2021, the Hatters were fourth in the bookies’ favourites to be relegated to League One at 3/1. A prediction that they blew out of the water, finishing in the playoff places to get within a chance of reaching the Premier League, an achievement that would’ve sent shockwaves across the English Footballing League.
For a club that was plying their trade in the Conference, or the fifth tier in 2013-14, Luton’s march up the English footballing pyramid gives inspiration and hope to any team that they can make it to the top, no matter what league they are currently in. As long as the correct decisions are made when it comes to players and managers to lead the team — it will be a straight one-way road, only going up.
Between the seasons of 2017-18 and 2018-19, back-to-back promotions were achieved for Luton Town, mainly under Nathan Jones’ first tenure. With Jones leaving the Bedfordshire club on 9 January 2019 to join Stoke City in the Championship, Mick Harford then took on the role, where he would lead the Hatters to promotion after taking the reigns for the second half of the season before deciding to step aside for Graeme Jones to be appointed.
A disappointing season under Jones saw Luton Town stranded at second from bottom in the league before the Championship was suspended due to the COVID pandemic. This would see Graeme Jones depart the club with Nathan Jones being re-appointed to commence his second tenure at the club.
Few people gave Luton any chances of escaping relegation, but they nevertheless battled against the odds and picked up four wins and four draws from their last nine games. They would finish 19th in 2019/20 — 3 points above relegation.
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Luton Town have never boasted a massive transfer budget, and they have never been able to compete with other clubs when it comes to wages, especially in the Championship. But they still need to bring in the correct players to improve the team, which they have done year in and year out.
For Luton Town to go one further than playoffs and reach the Premier League, it would send a statement throughout the nation — a team who were playing non-league football less than ten years ago making their way to the highest tier of English football. The message: rising through the ranks and making it to the top is possible: not by spending the most money on the best players, but by doing it correctly and working hard to achieve their goals.
Eager to avoid another relegation fight, Luton made quick work in the summer 2020 transfer market with James Bree joining from Aston Villa for an undisclosed fee, whilst other players like Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Rhys Norrington-Davies joined on loan. Other players such as Jordan Clark, Tom Lockyer and Joe Morrell arrived for next to nothing as The Hatters reinforced their squad.
However, arguably Luton’s two best deals from the 2020/21 season would come in January; Elijah Adebayo joined from League Two side Walsall for a fee of around £250,000. He would go on to score 16 goals in the following campaign, and at 24 years of age, he could be set for a big move away from Kenilworth Road this summer.
Adebayo’s market value has increased to £4.05 million, per Transfermarkt, and selling him for that amount — either this summer or the next — would bring in a massive jackpot and see them pump more funds into their transfer budget to aid their promotion push.
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The other player is Kal Naismith, who had just left League One side Wigan Athletic by mutual consent. Many eyebrows were raised when the 28-year-old made the move to Luton on January 15, 2021, but Nathan Jones envisioned a perfect role for the Glasgow native, with Naismith becoming a stalwart center back who could transition into a six if need be, before leaving for Bristol City on a free transfer this summer after rejecting a new contract.
The 2011 film Moneyball details the true story of the MLB team Oakland Athletics and their attempts to compete with teams who have far more money than them such as the New York Yankees with their unique, data-driven recruitment. By bringing in players who were overlooked by other teams but who could perfectly fit the system, they were able to achieve more with less, and that is exactly what Luton have done.
They have been clever in their recruitment — they haven’t dumped millions of pounds on a single player but instead have picked up lesser-known players and inserted them into a system that has gotten the most out of their abilities. It is precisely this ‘Moneyball’ approach that has allowed Luton to rise through the English footballing pyramid and reach the cusp of the Prem.
Following a 19th-place finish in 2019/20, Luton would finish 12th in the following season before bringing in various players such as Cameron Jerome, a 34-year-old striker with ample Premier League experience. Whilst Jerome is no longer the slim chicken he once was, he has nevertheless proven a shrewd addition in coming off the bench and mentoring younger players.
Similar to Jerome, Henri Lansbury’s arrival on a free transfer brought plenty of question marks, but Lansbury has nevertheless utilized his experience and veteran leadership and proven to be a calm head to lead his team into battle or to calm games down that seem to be going out of control — it’s these figures that are vital in cultivating an excellent, balanced squad dynamic.
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In tandem with the ‘Moneyball’ theory, Luton Town have brought young and upcoming stars into their squad as seen with the signing of Carlos Mendes Gomes from Morecambe, a player who, despite not yet displaying a massive impact on the pitch so far, will show his worth no doubt sooner rather than later.
Born in Senegal to a family of Bissau-Guinean descent, Mendes Gomes moved to Spain at a young age and began his career with spells at Getafe and Atlético Madrid before moving to West Didsbury & Chorlton A.F.C. in the ninth tier of English football, scoring seven league goals in 50 games across two seasons.
He would then move to League Two side Morecambe in May 2018, and after playing a sporadic role in his first two seasons as they finished 18th and 22nd, he remained an unknown quantity for Morecambe, who were widely tipped for relegation.
However, Mendes Gomes would nevertheless silence the doubters with 15 goals and 3 assists in 43 league appearances for The Shrimps, who achieved their first-ever promotion to League One in 2020/21 as an extra time penalty from Mendes Gomes saw them narrowly defeat Newport County in Wembley to achieve promotion.
Whilst Mendes Gomes managed just 1 goal and 1 assist in 14 appearances in 2021/22, he is still just 23 and will be expected to play more in the coming season. After all, for a young player who just arrived at the club, there are few tasks harder than breaking into the team during a promotion push.
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Following a 12th-place finish in 2020/21, Luton Town dared to dream and chase glory. A 2-0 defeat at Sheffield United on January 22 left them 13th in the table, but they would nevertheless string together an impressive second half of the season, beating Nottingham Forest, Coventry City and more to finish sixth in the table, five points clear of seventh-place Middlesbrough.
After drawing 1-1 in the first leg, Luton lost 1-0 to Huddersfield Town via a late goal from Jordan Rhodes, with the Terriers progressing to the promotion final before losing to Forest at Wembley. A disappointing finish, but Luton fans won’t mind too much — they didn’t expect to get anywhere near the playoffs, and they’ve been treated to a historic campaign.
They do not have the biggest budget to attract the best players in the division and as such, they have to look towards players that may have been overlooked by other clubs. This is where Luton Town step in and show their expertise in getting the very best out of these players. In doing so, they have sent a message to these same smaller clubs with financial restraints that this ‘Moneyball’ approach can breed results.
Nine years after playing non-league football, Luton Town defied the odds and came within inches of a Premier League berth. They have dug themselves out of the hole and can almost see the promised land, and if they can return to the top-flight for the first time in three decades, they will stamp themselves into history as one of English football’s greatest underdog histories. If there’s one thing you don’t want to do, it’s underestimate Luton Town.
By Oliver Hargreaves / @olihargreavess
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Dan Istitene / Getty Images