Luton Town ‘are very much awake’ as the Hatters’ optimism shines through ahead of Aston Villa clash after side face season battle against relegation with just five points from nine games
- Luton Town have struggled to find their footing in the top flight so far
- They’ve won just one game and drawn two in the opening weeks of the campaign
- Optimism is high for the club, who are hopeful they can avoid relegation in May
It is just past 9am at The Brache, Luton Town’s training ground and Ross Barkley is tucking into breakfast at the canteen. Goalkeeper Tim Krul wanders in and, seeing strangers perched in the corner, comes over to shake hands.
Winger Chiedozie Ogbene enters and comes over to introduce himself. Director of football Mick Harford is next, charm and positivity personified.
Manager Rob Edwards comes down from his office, though his greeting is more expected as he knows we are coming.
Training will not start until 11.15am but most of the players are here, in the snooker room next door or wandering to the gym, where Andros Townsend is doing weights and ‘activation’, the pre-training exercises to fire up muscles.
The playlist is distinctly 1970s/80s — George Michael’s Faith and Rocket Man by Elton John, life president of fierce rivals Watford: staff have seemingly hijacked the playlist from Gen Z players.
Everybody should know Luton’s story by now. Relegated from the top flight in 1992, they sank to the depths, played in non-League for five years, went into administration three times, were docked 40 points and came close to extinction
Elijah Adebayo of Luton Town celebrates scoring their sides second goal with team-mates
Rob Edwards, Manager of Luton Town, celebrates at full-time following the Premier League match between Nottingham Forest and Luton Town after his side secured a 2-2 draw
This is a snapshot of Luton as they prepare to take on Aston Villa today, another day in a season battling relegation. Yet there is a curious optimism here. Maybe because it is half-term and the Under 16s are in every day, bringing their youthful energy. Or perhaps it is the selected fans who have come to watch open training. If fighting relegation is meant to be a slog, this feels the opposite.
Everybody should know Luton’s story by now. Relegated from the top flight in 1992, they sank to the depths, played in non-League for five years, went into administration three times, were docked 40 points and came close to extinction. Rescued by fans who still run the club, such as CEO Gary Sweet, they worked their way back, winning access to football’s promised land last summer via the Championship play-off final.
Edwards, 40, came here via Telford United, England U16s, Forest Green and, with an irony relished by Luton fans, a five-month spell at Watford, where they decided he wasn’t up to scratch. He moved up the M1 and welcomes Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool to Kenilworth Road a week today. Watford travel to Huddersfield on Saturday.
On Tuesday, he was up at 5am, driving from Birmingham where he lives with his wife and three children, 18, 15 and nine. He is in the gym with assistants Richie Kyle and Paul Trollope at 7am. ‘I need to look after the body. I’m getting a bit old,’ he says. ‘It’s great to get some circuits in and the heartbeat up. I wasn’t doing that much last year. I’d come to a new job. We did well but probably to my health’s detriment so I made a conscious effort this season and we got a competition going among the staff.’ Goalkeeping coach Kevin Pilkington won that, not Edwards. ‘But I need that bit of competition!’
Rob Edwards’ side have been the most successful out of the three newly-promoted sides
Luton Town’s Sonny Bradley lifts the trophy during the Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final match between Coventry City and Luton Town at Wembley Stadium
Pre-training meeting among the staff in their bright, open plan office is post-gym about 8am, with coffees to fire the imagination. ‘Normally in the morning I feel bit more alert,’ says Edwards. ‘I can be thinking about something at night, leave it and realise it will come to me in the morning. It might be driving in, which is thinking time. It might be in the gym.
‘The staff I work with, Richie, Trolls and the rest of the group we inherited, are amazing. Mick [Harford] is very calm, very supportive, which I need because you can have a lot of doubt and worry weighing you down at times. I like to ask questions and they are always willing to give their opinion, which is great. I feel you get the best out of staff if they feel they’re valued.’
I mention that many players came over unprompted in the canteen. ‘It is important for us, that,’ he says. ‘I want us to be good people, humble and respectful. There’s more important things to life than football. We’ve got a brilliant group and, when we have tough moments, we can come back together. Because we’re giving so much away in this league, we need to have a unique selling point and that will be our character and fight.’
Of the jibes thrown Luton’s way after spending £20million in the summer then losing their first four games, one that stings is the claim they are sleepwalking back to the Championship. ‘I don’t find it disrespectful if people say: ‘They’re going down’,’ says Edwards. ‘I get it — we were a small team in the Championship, we came up through the play-offs, we’re going to be favourites to go down.
‘But people can talk about us in a different way and maybe have more respect for what the club has done. The owners picked this club up when it was on its knees in the National League and they don’t want to go back to those dark times, so we’ll have a plan and stick to it and they have had four promotions in the last decade by doing that.
‘Is there an ideal amount of money to spend where it’s not frowned upon? ‘How can you spend hundreds of millions on football? it’s obscene in this day and age when people are starving’. But if we don’t spend enough it’s: ‘They’re sleepwalking to the Championship’. Maybe we should have spent £60m or £70m and it would be: ‘That’s good, well done’. Nonsense. We’re concentrating on what we do.’
As training begins, the one-touch drills are ferocious, rare failures greeted with hoots of derision. They move on to a small-sided game, crosses and finishing practice. Townsend checks his data on an iPad as he leaves. Players who need extra running will set off for sprints along the touchline.
Luton Town manager Rob Edwards speaks to Elijah Adebayo at the end of the Premier League match at The City Ground, Nottingham
Luton Town have won one game and drawn two since the start of the campaign
About an hour and 45 minutes in, they are done and Edwards and players wander over to fans. After an hour, he picks up some chairs to stack as he walks across to watch the Under 21s play Notts County. Also watching the game is chairman David Wilkinson, part of the consortium that rescued the club in 2008. His first game was West Ham at home in 1958, watching Billy Bingham score. On Monday, he was dressed up as club mascot Happy Harry at a community event at a dementia home.
Left-back Amari’i Bell walks over to join the small crowd and Wilkinson greets him warmly, inquiring about his injury and his games for Jamaica over the summer. Meanwhile, Edwards is keeping eyes on first-team players coming back from injury and youngsters coming through.
Today, he will be going to Villa Park, to face the club at which he trained as a schoolboy and where he made his Premier League debut at 20. Nine games later, his ankle was smashed at Goodison Park. ‘I was never the same,’ he says. ‘I had reconstruction but I was never able to flex it the same again.’
Edwards still had a sound pro career — 100 games for Wolves, reaching the Premier League with Blackpool. ‘That’s sport,’ he says. ‘I’m not moaning. The sun’s out, I’m watching a game, working with brilliant people. I’m really lucky.’
It does not feel like they are sleepwalking. Luton feels very much awake.
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