Looking at Luton’s recent past, Kenilworth Road hasn’t always been such a positive and passionate place. The 2008-09 season saw The Hatters fall down to the National League, a 30 point deduction due to financial difficulties effectively sealing their fate before a ball was even kicked.
Managed by club legend Mick Harford at the time – the Luton icon still at his beloved club to this day – it was the darkest time to be associated with The Hatters.
They would even find themselves marooned in non-league for a number of years, the dark cloud over Luton never showing signs of lifting.
Yet, ever since winning the National League title in the 13-14 season, momentum has been with The Hatters to restore pride to a club resigned to failure for too long.
Two promotions on the bounce would see Luton back up to the Championship, the stage they once held before years of turbulence.
The magic wand of Nathan Jones secured these back-to-back promotions, the 18-19 season seeing another title triumph occur – this time, Luton were back to the second tier.
Many of the same players who restored pride to Luton by climbing back up to the Championship remain there today, the likes of Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu seeing all the highs and lows first hand.
Even with all the promotions he’s secured as a Hatters player, the prospect of Luton going up to the Premier League must still be surreal for the man who started off as a Hatter back in non-league. Now, he’s a star in the middle for Luton who occupy a spot in the Championship playoffs.
How have Luton managed to put all their past turmoil to one side, coming out the other end determined and resilient to upset the odds once more? For me, under Nathan Jones, the fans and players believe anything is achievable.
The unbelievable nature of their rise to surprise Championship promotion contenders didn’t happen overnight however, a few seasons of consolidation at the level they hadn’t been at since the 06-07 season enabling them to dream.
Nathan Jones’ men scraped by in their first taste of second tier football for well over a decade, keeping their heads just above water in 19th place.
This season was also a learning curve for Nathan Jones himself, initially leaving Luton behind for Stoke City before inevitably returning back home to Kenilworth Road after his few months with The Potters failed miserably.
Luton were thankful for the return of Nathan Jones, a bond between Jones and the club forming. Perceived from the outside as a little cringeworthy on the touchline – the former Brighton coach extremely passionate and animated on a matchday – he just wants to deliver all the success he can for a club he now sees as his true home.
Forget his torrid time with Stoke, his main aim now after returning was to deliver unprecedented success for Luton in the Championship. Slowly but surely, Luton showed they were capable in the second tier after years of misery had engulfed the club.
After narrowly avoiding relegation – just three points between The Hatters and the final spot in the drop-zone at the end of the campaign – Nathan Jones knew time was of the essence.
To avoid another struggle, foundations were put in place to strengthen Luton in terms of acquisitions to the club. Survival was the top priority after years of struggle, now Luton had to prosper at Championship level and progress.
Rather than breaking the bank for the flashiest players on the market, Nathan Jones went about recruiting the style of player he specifically wanted – the transfer window before the 20-21 season kicked off saw the likes of Elijah Adebayo, James Bree and Kal Naismith join The Hatters who all remain first team regulars to this date.
It’s not about instantaneous success at Luton, not all about throwing millions on players to pursue immediate glory, but instead creating a team who can improve over time and add a few players every season to fit that core group.
Losing a striker like James Collins – Luton’s top-scorer three seasons on the trot before his departure – could have derailed the Hatters, but Adebayo has stepped up and Collins’ absence has barely been felt.
Luton would finish mid-table in their second season back in the second tier, an unremarkable finish but one that allowed for further consolidation.
This season, Nathan Jones is reaping the rewards for his methodical approach. Luton’s play style could be viewed as rather negative – often looking for the long ball up top to Adebayo – but it’s far more complex than these simple observations.
In players such as Harry Cornick and Fred Onyedinma, there’s skill up top for The Hatters with both pacey options to complement the physical options such as Adebayo who has double figures this season after a goal-shy first season in Bedfordshire.
Likewise, the wing-back options allow Luton to be expansive when they counter-attack – summer recruit Amari’I Bell impressive down the flanks, the former Blackburn man a regular after finding minutes at Ewood Park hard to come by.
With Luton now above Blackburn in the division, Bell’s decision to leave has been justified. Allan Campbell is another summer recruit that has impressed in Luton’s surprise surge to the playoffs this campaign, a battling presence in the middle who constantly wins the ball back for Luton.
Critics could label Luton as not the prettiest on the ball, but under Nathan Jones, hard work and determination is key and a huge factor as to why Luton can dare to dream near the top of the league alongside Fulham and Bournemouth.
They might not have a Harry Wilson-type figure nor a Dominic Solanke, but the collective team spirit means they’d run through a brick wall for their boss.
Emboldened by consistently picking up wins at this level, Luton don’t look like surrendering their grip on a playoff spot any time soon.
In a league where big money spending has nearly resulted in the extinction of various football clubs, just look at Derby County’s plight as a pressing example, Luton are showcasing that you can challenge for promotion out of the Championship without just blindly throwing money at it.
With a new 23,000 seater stadium in the works, the future is very bright for a club that nearly went under all those years ago. Even if an unlikely promotion doesn’t transpire, Luton fans will know that this model will bring even more success further down the line.
In an age where football has lost some of its charm in the money-rich landscape we’re in, The Hatters stick out as a club working within their means and daring to dream in the process.
By: Kelan Sarson / @SarsonKelan
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Dan Istitene / Getty Images