First Touch

Luton Town Ready For Survival Fight

As Storm Dennis battered the region,  nothing could prevent Championship strugglers Luton Town from recording back-to-back 1-0 wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough. The win at the Riverside Stadium ended a run of 12 successive away defeats for the Bedfordshire team.

By Anthony Crewdson

Following a promising run which saw Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate pick up his first Championship manager of the month award in December, they have failed to win since New Year’s Day and are now just six points clear of the relegation zone.

But what of Luton Town? newly promoted to the Championship after a turbulent period in the club’s history. The Hatters’ last appeared in the second tier of English football in 2006/07. But three successive relegations saw them drop out the Football League at the end of the 2008/09 season.

Points Deductions

Luton were, at that time, hamstrung by financial problems which saw the Football League impose points deductions from which they failed to recover- 10 points during the 2007-08 League 1 campaign and 30 the season after when in League 2. The Hatters’ remained in the fifth tier for five seasons before John Still led them back to the Football League after winning the Conference in 2013/14.

There followed a four-season period of consolidation in League 2 before promotion to League 1 under manager Nathan Jones at the end of 2017/18. The Hatters needed only one season in League 1 and walked away with the title at the first time of asking last May, their third promotion in six seasons.

They racked up 94 points in winning the league and overcame the disappointment of losing Jones in January after he decided to take up Stoke City’s offer to manage in the Championship. The Welshman’s departure was somewhat acrimonious, however, and was described by chief executive Gary Sweet as “a little bit unethical”.

Big Mick

Chief Scout Mick Harford was installed as caretaker boss and the Hatters’ didn’t look back. The Club’s legendary ex-striker managed to steer Luton to the League 1 title in May.

At the conclusion of their title-winning season that included a 28-game unbeaten run, Luton announced Graeme Jones as their new manager on a three-year contract.

Luton is Jones’ first managerial position after having been a highly regarded coach for more than a decade, primarily working alongside current Belgium boss Roberto Martinez at Swansea, Wigan and Everton. He then became assistant coach of the Belgium national team in August 2016 after the Spaniard’s appointment. Jones remained with Martinez, and Belgium, for two years before joining WBA as assistant to Darren Moore.

Jones left the Baggies following Moore’s sacking in March of the 2018/19 season and Luton chief executive Gary Sweet was delighted to give Jones his first crack at management.

He was effusive in his praise on appointing Jones; “Graeme is a very highly regarded coach and assistant amongst his peers and has caught our eye over the last few seasons as someone who is very hard working, very methodical and thorough in his approach, and a coach who sets his teams up in a manner Luton players and supporters will be accustomed to”.

Budget Woes

With little money to spend during the summer, Jones brought in six players on free transfers and £1.5 was spent on Croatian keeper Simon Sluga. Of the free transfers, Callum McManaman, a winger, caught the eye after having previously played under Martinez and Jones at Wigan Athletic. Veteran centre-back, Martin Cranie, a former England U21 international, joined from Sheffield United. The central midfield areas were bolstered with the signings of experienced duo Ryan Tunnicliffe, from Millwall, and Derby County’s Jacob Butterfield. Brendan Galloway, a Zimbabwean born former England U21 left-back, was also signed from Everton.

In addition, the talented Izzy Brown, joined on loan from Chelsea, as did full backs Luke Bolton and James Bree from Man City and Aston Villa respectively. Jones was also able to retain the services of Irish international James Collins, the 2018/19 League One EFL Player of the Year, after scoring 25 goals in their title winning campaign.

Survival Challenge

The task facing Jones, and Luton, became all too apparent after picking up just a single point from their first four games of the season. Successive wins at the end of August, against Barnsley and newly relegated Huddersfield Town, gave Luton’s season some impetus but the Hatters’ recorded just four wins in their next 19 games going into the New Year.

Three recent wins against Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Wayne Rooney’s Derby County, however, have given Luton fans cause for optimism. Jones was also able to bring in Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers during the transfer window, on loan until the end of the season.

Facing the very real possibility of relegation back to League One, the Luton board still plan to give Jones time to establish his footballing philosophy on a squad which comprises a number of new faces and those who served Town well in the lower leagues. Luton go into matchday 34 on 30 points, just 4 points adrift of Stoke in 21st place. Jones will be keen to continue this relatively good run of form and reign in those teams currently occupying the positions above the relegation zone.

Luton Town
Lutons Ryan<br >Tunnicliffe centre celebrates scoring the winner at Middlesbrough
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