TOn an hour before the start of their league duel with play-off rivals Middlesbrough, the Luton Town club shop is packed. The little building off Kenilworth Road is like a temporary prefab classroom, and inside it’s cozy: once you’ve bought a shirt, mug or beanie, you’d better be on your way to make room for another. person.
It’s a different world to the extravagance of the Premier League. Tottenham, for example, boasts the biggest club shop in Europe: half an acre of pure Spursy-ness, selling everything from Spurs-encrusted party bowls to the Spurs Monopoly board game, complete with a 100-seat auditorium to consume even more Spurs from comfort. of a soft chair. These two clubs seem to exist on different planets, and yet they could very well be rivals in the same league next season.
Luton have come in consistently punching above their weight. The club’s full wage budget, around £6m, would allow for a Manchester City substitution. They’re always swimming against the current and the small but mighty Kenilworth Road is a monument to that: intimate and intense, like a particularly evocative cow barn, with 10,000 seats that sound like 50,000 when the linesman misses a free-kick.
Luton’s long-awaited move to a new site at Power Court is still a couple of years away. So what the hell will the Premier League giants do with this ground if Luton goes up, when their fans parade through an alleyway and up a metal ladder that hangs over neighboring gardens? “They’ll think it’s a tip,” smiles Alex Teunion, a Luton season ticket holder who works in the club shop. He has been coming here since 2005, sitting in the same seat since he was three years old, which he will run to when the whistle blows. “But she is our advice.”
Despite his reputation as one of the most brilliant managers in the Football League, Rob Edwards expected some hate from Luton fans when he took over in November. He had just left Watford, his bitter rivals, so when he sat down for his first press conference as Luton Town’s new man in charge, all he could do was try to defuse a potentially volatile situation. “It’s not like he left Watford a club legend,” he quipped.
Edwards was referring to the way he was spat out by Watford after just 11 games, a familiar story to managers who dare to work for the trigger-happy Pozzo family. But far from holding a grudge, the Luton fans seemed to enjoy themselves hitting their rivals with one. “Welcome Rob,” read a banner at his first game in Middlesbrough, which eased the anxiety somewhat. His first home game at Kenilworth Road, a Boxing Day win over Norwich City, ended with the entire field chanting his name.
It would be the first win of many with just two league defeats since, to leave Luton third in the Championship and in the play-offs for the second successive season. A club with a tight-knit squad and a tight budget have improved their league position every year for eight years in a row, climbing from the Conference in 2014 to the higher echelons of the Championship, and are now within arm’s reach of level superior. for the first time in 30 years.
At the heart of their rise is continuity: midfielder Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu has been with the non-league club, careful planning. Losing manager Nathan Jones to Southampton was a sudden blow, but Edwards was already on the radar. Luton had looked at their League Two title-winning year in charge of Forest Green Rovers and discovered it was no fluke: the underlying numbers showed a manager displaying the kind of fast-paced, aggressive football Luton used to dominate Leagues One and Two. They also looked at his 11 games at Watford and found some good things in the team Edwards was building, despite his quick sacking.
Preparation has also been key in the transfer market. Led by club legend Mick Harford, head scout Phil Chapple and analyst Jay Socik, Luton have made a habit of identifying savvy signings from across the Football League and some inspired Premier League loans too. Right-back James Bree left the club in January, but Luton replaced him seamlessly with Cody Drameh on loan from Leeds, and the addition of Aston Villa’s Marvelous Nakamba has brought solidity in midfield. Buying Carlton Morris from Barnsley last summer was crucial, and he has racked up a career-high 20 league goals.
They recruit a specific type of Luton: as well as being technically sound and good-natured, they must be athletic, able to sustain a high pace for 90 minutes and outplay their opponents. After all, this is what Luton is: a club that squeezes every last drop out of what it has. No Championship team have won more final third tackles than Luton this season, and the result is a team that can be difficult and horrible to play against.
Edwards has found a balance between a pragmatic approach and a team that can also play football. A direct route to goal is always an option with the power and strength of Morris and the towering Elijah Adebayo up front, and Luton have found that they don’t need to dominate possession to win games. That could be a useful trait in the top flight.
But what really stands out is how Luton run off the pitch. No billionaire benefactor here: the club was saved by its own fans and is now owned by its supporters, and the people in charge (CEO Gary Sweet, Chairman David Wilkinson and majority shareholder Paul Ballantyne) are deeply committed to Her future. As a staff member said the independent this week: “Our owners give a lot, and that’s not always the case in football.”
Bill Cole has worked for Luton for five years and visited Kenilworth Road for 76. He will be missed, but he won’t shed a tear when he’s gone. He recounts half a century of plans for new stadiums that ended in disappointment, saying Power Court is exactly what the club has been clamoring for far too long. “I hope they build a metal pillar in front of the press box to remind us of The Kenny,” he smiles.
Behind the pillar an entertaining game takes place between two teams equipped to compete with the lower rungs of the top flight. Luton are caught on the counter and Middlesbrough take the lead, but the second half is different. Tom Lockyer heads the equalizer and the stadium comes to life. Morris falls under what looks like light contact from a reckless challenge from the goalkeeper, and slips in the penalty to win the game 2-1.
Full-time enthusiastic Luton fans take to the narrow lanes that wind down the hill into the town. Luton will almost certainly finish third now, and Boro fourth, and if these two teams are going to contest the play-off final, the so-called richest game in football, then perhaps this victory has set the tone. However, Cole has seen it all before and has a warning. “In 1959 we played Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup final,” he recalls. “Two weeks before we had played them here at Kenilworth Road and we put them 4-0. But at Wembley, we never showed up.”
But win or lose the play-offs, Luton is unlikely to change much. This is going in the right direction and its progress is not the result of a large investment but of good administration. Amid the financial bonanza of the game that benefits only a few elite clubs, Luton is showing that there is still room for a bit of meritocracy in football.