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- Re: The athletic - Ches Fordroad 25/9/2023, 15:55:21
By Oliver Kay
Sep 25, 2023
“It’s like a different sport,” Rob Edwards said when invited to reflect on the challenge Luton Town have faced in their first five games in the Premier League.
“Everyone is way better. The decision-making, the quality… I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone in the Championship, but it really is. The speed things happen, the decision-making, the execution. It’s hard to really comprehend. You can watch lots of Premier League football, and I have done, but then you stand on the touchline — or if you’re a player, you feel it on the pitch — and it’s like a different game.”
For the three clubs promoted from last season’s Championship, it is certainly looking that way.
By Saturday evening, having played five games apiece, Luton, Burnley and Sheffield United occupied the Premier League’s bottom three places. Twenty-four hours later, Sheffield United had been humiliated, beaten 8-0 on their own pitch by Newcastle United.
The combined record of the promoted teams? Played 16, won none, drawn three, lost 13. The league where anyone can beat anyone? Hardly. A loss of competitive balance has been a long-term issue in top flights across Europe, but never in the Premier League has it felt quite as stark as this.
Paul Heckingbottom and Stuart McCall after Newcastle United scored their eighth goal (George Wood/Getty Images)
That “different sport” statement was all the more striking coming from the man in charge of Luton, a club who have spent the past decade defying conventions, shattering expectations and winning four promotions in 10 seasons to rise all the way from the fifth tier to the Premier League.
But this is a very different top flight to the one Luton were last part of in 1992. A different Premier League to the one in which Edwards played a couple of times for Blackpool in 2010-11. That Blackpool team, managed by Ian Holloway, won seven of their first 17 games, including victories at Liverpool and Newcastle. They ended up relegated, but were eighth at the turn of the year.
Thirteen years on, it has taken Luton five games to get their first point, with a hard-earned 1-1 draw at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.
By every metric, Edwards’ team dominated the game — “on the front foot, being aggressive, entertaining, everything we wanted to be,” he said. But, even with a one-man advantage after Jean-Ricner Bellegarde’s red card late in the first half, they struggled to make their superiority tell and then fell behind after a rare lapse from Tom Lockyer was ruthlessly punished by Pedro Neto. This is what Edwards meant about speed, decision-making and execution.
“It shows how good the Premier League is,” Edwards says. “You have to be almost perfect to get anything from it. Today we were close with how we wanted to play, but we haven’t won.”
Luton might have lost had it not been for the penalty they were controversially awarded in the 65th minute for handball against Wolves midfielder Joao Gomes. Carlton Morris (pictured top) converted it and at that moment, according to Edwards, “there was a win there for us”. But they couldn’t take it, hence his players feeling “flat, deflated” at the final whistle, sensing an opportunity missed.
Some might choose to point the finger at the promoted teams, saying that they simply aren’t good enough, that they should be doing better, that they’re naive, that they’re showing too much respect and not enough fight.
Alfie Doughty prepares to launch a throw-in (Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
Former Arsenal and England defender Martin Keown wrote in his column for the Daily Mail last week that Luton had “sleepwalked to the bottom of the table” and needed to “cut loose and show some of the personality and character which got them to the Premier League in the first place. More shots, more crosses, more headers”.
A convenient diagnosis, perhaps, but one that ignores the financial divide that exists between Luton and Wolves, never mind between Sheffield United and Newcastle, never mind between Burnley and Manchester United.
There was no shortage of personality in Luton’s performance on Saturday and certainly no lack of attacking intent. They had 20 goal attempts to Wolves’ three. They dominated possession (56 per cent), won more tackles (21 to 14), made more interceptions (eight to four) and produced far more of the crosses Keown was looking for (44 to six). In terms of expected goals (xG), it was also one-sided: Luton 2.0 Wolves 0.6. Even before the red card, they had mustered seven goal attempts to their opponents’ none.
The threat was varied too. At times they played it long to Morris, but they also built up cleverly through midfield, particularly when combining through Alfie Doughty and Chiedozie Ogbene on the left. Ogbene, a free transfer from Rotherham United of the Championship this summer, excelled on his first start at this level, registering nine shot-creating actions — defined as the two attacking actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls.
It isn’t about intent or personality on the pitch. Nor is it about ambition off the pitch.
Former Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur forward Garth Crooks said on the BBC that he “can’t take Luton seriously”, accusing them of having “no serious intentions” of staying in the Premier League having done “only the bare minimum” in the transfer market after winning the play-off final in May.
It is an easy accusation to make when a promoted club contributes less than one per cent of the Premier League’s total £2.36billion ($2.89bn) transfer expenditure this summer — six transfers for a total of £20m (five of them arriving from EFL clubs), plus two free transfers and two loans — and when their wage bill will be in the region of £30m.
But perhaps when it comes to Luton in particular, Crooks and others need a reminder of where they have come from. This is a club who have been in administration three times, suffered three consecutive relegations in the late 2000s and played non-League football as recently as 2014.
Even by the standards of some of English great rags-to-riches stories in recent times — Wigan Athletic’s rise under Dave Whelan’s ownership, Bournemouth under Maxim Demin, Brighton & Hove Albion under Tony Bloom — Luton have done it on a shoestring budget. Their £17.8million wage bill last season was the third-lowest in the Championship. To put it in context, there are players in the Premier League who earned more than that on their own.
It would be very easy to get overexcited after reaching the Premier League, like someone on an adrenaline rush in a late-night casino, hurrying from one table to the next, taking one wild, uneducated punt after another — a little like Nottingham Forest last season, perhaps.
Luton chief executive Gary Sweet made clear from the start that they would not do that. They were never going to stray far from the strategy, principles and formula that got them here in the first place.
Fans wait outside the back of the club shop at Kenilworth Road (Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
Burnley, back in the Premier League for the seventh season out of eight, spent almost £100million this summer, signing six players in the £10m-£20m range. Sheffield United sold two of their standout players (Sander Berge to Burnley and Iliman Ndiaye to Marseille) but still signed Cameron Archer from Aston Villa for £18.5m and Gustavo Hamer from Coventry City for £15m.
Even these figures, paltry by Premier League standards, are far beyond Luton’s means.
Much is made of the minimum £90million broadcast revenue for every season a club spends in the Premier League, but Luton’s biggest outlay this summer, about £13m, was investing in the infrastructure to ensure Kenilworth Road met the standard required in terms of media facilities, parking, disabled facilities and floodlights. Even with a stadium move in the pipeline, Sweet describes the renovation work as a “herculean task” that involved shedding “blood, sweat and tears”.
In the transfer market, Luton’s biggest buy was a projected £5million deal to sign Ryan Giles from Wolves. Beyond that, they signed goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski from Blackburn Rovers, defender Mads Andersen from Barnsley, midfielder Marvelous Nakamba from Villa, wingers Tahith Chong from Birmingham City and forward Jacob Brown from Stoke City.
Add in a handful of free transfers (notably Ross Barkley and Ogbene) and a couple of loans (midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga from Arsenal, defender Issa Kabore from Manchester City) and, though it might sound like bargain-basement stuff, these are serious investments for a club of Luton’s size, breaking their transfer record four times in one summer.
It is not Luton’s fault that the top flight they have returned to is a world of excess, a land where Wolves fans can feel concerned by a lack of firepower when their club have spent more than £100million to sign Neto, Matheus Cunha, Hwang Hee-chan and Fabio Silva from Lazio, Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig and Porto. None of this can distract Luton club’s directors or supporters from their own bigger picture.
“So much of the media narrative around the Premier League is about spending money,” says Ollie Kay, co-host of the We Are Luton Town podcast. “It’s like, ‘What better way to show how great we are than by spending all this money?’. People want to shame us for not blowing our brains out financially to try to stay in the division.
Ollie Kay from We Are Luton Town
“So many fans of other clubs, outside the Premier League, understand what we’re doing and admire what we’re doing. But inside the Premier League bubble and the mainstream media bubble, it’s, ‘Let’s all laugh at Luton! Look at their stadium! Oh, and also, why aren’t they spending more money?’. They haven’t taken the time or made the effort to understand where Luton have come from and how we have got here.”
And if even Burnley, after spending five times more than Luton since winning the 2022-23 Championship by a 10-point margin, are struggling to get points on the board, doesn’t that reflect less on the clubs in question and more on the financial chasm that exists between the second tier and top flight?
Isn’t that the real issue here — a timely reminder as the Premier League clubs agonise over the precise terms of the “New Deal for Football”, which will see an increase in solidarity payments to the EFL?
Last season, all three promoted clubs stayed up. But Fulham had only gone down a year earlier, Bournemouth 12 months before that, and even having spent almost £200million on new players, Forest still had to defy the odds to finish 16th.
The £200million option doesn’t exist for Burnley or Sheffield United this season and it certainly doesn’t exist for Luton, whose long-term business plan is based around the construction of a new 19,500-capacity stadium on the site of the Power Court car park next to the town’s railway station. The long-term objective — to be a stable, progressive Premier League club in the Brighton mould — will not be well served, they feel, by taking wild risks in the hope of staying up this season.
That is not to say Luton are content to make up the numbers, happy to take this season’s TV money in the knowledge that there will be £80million in parachute payments over the next two seasons if the worst happens. There is realism and rational planning. That is not the same thing as resignation.
Luton could not be accused of lacking the right attitude or mentality on Saturday. If it was purely a question of the character and personality Keown had accused them of lacking, they would have won the game comfortably. That they didn’t was down to a difference in the quality and execution Edwards spoke about, the difference between Neto, who took his one chance ruthlessly, and a Luton forward line that, assembled on a far smaller budget, didn’t have quite the same killer instinct.
All of which makes it rather galling for Luton that, on a day when so many things fell into place for them, they couldn’t get the win their efforts arguably deserved. After all, this is the time of the season — with momentum and the element of surprise in their favour — when promoted teams usually find points come a little more easily.
But where is that first win going to come from? Away to Everton next Saturday? At home to Burnley in that rearranged game three days later? If not soon, then when?
Edwards felt his players had been “close to perfect” against Wolves in terms of imposing his ideas and their talents on the game. That it still wasn’t enough was a stark illustration of the gap they are trying to bridge. But at least they appear to be improving game by game. With a little more composure in front of goal, they might have won at Fulham the previous weekend and could certainly have claimed three points on Saturday.
Already the sneering has started in some quarters, though. It hasn’t taken long for the warmth that characterised the media coverage through the summer, after Luton’s nerve-fraught victory over Coventry in the play-off final, to give way to more withering comments, as if the club is somehow letting the Premier League down by sacrificing their newfound financial security at the altar of excess.
“I don’t care,” Edwards said. “We’re not doing this to prove anything to anyone else.
“I would probably think the same if I was looking from the outside and didn’t know much about Luton. I get it.
“We were a small club in the Championship and we got promoted, so we’re going to be a small club in the Premier League. We’re going up against mammoth, giant clubs. In a way, we probably shouldn’t be.”
But Luton are here on merit. Their ascent from non-League to the Premier League is one of the most inspirational stories the sport has seen.
There will be, among some, a rush to define Luton by what happens this season rather than everything they have done to battle back from the brink. Their underdog story deserves so much better than to end up a punchline in the Premier League soap opera.
And if that is how it ends up this season, it will say less about them and more about the harsh, unforgiving, money-mad place English football became in the three decades Luton were away.
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