Luton aim to ‘bring a little chaos’ to Premier League’s established order
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Luton aim to ‘bring a little chaos’ to Premier League’s established order

Jun 19, 2023

Rob Edwards’ newcomers are busy preparing for life in the elite and intend to keep playing to their strengths

Every now and then the sound of drivers beeping their way along the A1081, the dual carriageway that overlooks Luton’s training base, can be heard as preparations for the Premier League ramp up on the pitches below. If there is still a party mood among supporters, then excitement levels around the squad are understandably more restrained, but there is an undoubted feelgood atmosphere.

“There is an extra buzz around the place,” says the captain, Tom Lockyer. “A lot of us have had to grind in non-league and we have had to appreciate the journey, which makes it all much sweeter. It’s sink or swim now, isn’t it?”

It is 11.03am on Monday. Training has just begun but the head coach, Rob Edwards, arrived more than four hours ago, starting with a “half-hour blast” in the gym. “In this job you have to try to look after yourself,” he says.

At 8.30am, Edwards and his assistants, Paul Trollope and Richie Kyle, discussed the plan for the 90-minute session. By that point Jared Roberts-Smith, the head of sports science, has liaised with medical staff about loading. In the main office analysts are flicking through data reports and studying opposition patterns.

Luton know worldwide scrutiny awaits. There is global interest in their incredible rise from winning the Conference Premier title to reaching the top flight inside nine years. And, of course, in Kenilworth Road, their charismatic stadium where £10m worth of renovations continue. Gary Sweet, the chief executive who 20 years ago helped form the club’s supporters’ trust, tells how curious Feyenoord fans recently took a detour from the nearby airport to have a peek at Luton’s creaking 118-year-old home.

“Why disrespect the old girl?” he says. “She is going to put a nice dress on for her swansong and then we’ll move on.”

Mick Harford is Mr Luton. His title is chief recruitment officer but from lending Ryan Giles, signed last month for a club-record fee of about £4m, house-hunting advice over a veggie omelette at breakfast to fishing balls out of the net and working out on the pulley machine – “little and often,” the 64-year-old says, smiling – his impact runs far deeper. Every player makes a point of embracing Harford as they head into the canteen, including another new arrival, Issa Kaboré, who played for Marseille in the Champions League last season.

Sweet describes Luton competing in the top tier as facing a tidal wave without a surfboard. Kevin Dearden, the head of goalkeeping and a de facto player liaison who also takes care of first-team administration, is, Edwards says, the glue of the operation. A recent visit from Howard Webb, the league’s chief refereeing officer, talking VAR heightened the sense of reality. “You watch the Premier League and think: ‘Oh yeah, yeah,’ but now we’re in it you realise what a huge machine it is,” Dearden says. “We’ll embrace it, enjoy it and we’ll be Luton in it.”

Half an hour before training it is quiz time in the revamped treatment room courtesy of the head of medical, Simon Parsell, whose 13th season promises to be one to remember. Parsell asks the defender Dan Potts to have a stab at naming Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu’s teammates on the day Mpanzu made his debut for the club 10 years ago at Staines. “We’ve known him man and boy,” Parsell says.

When Parsell joined, he and the masseur, Darren Cook, moonlighted as chefs, cleaners and kit men. There are the stories of Luton’s old training ground, a series of portable buildings on Ely Way, being burgled and burned down, dog walkers interrupting sessions and even a rat devouring medical records. “You’d get back from a game and everybody would be unloading the coach,” Parsell says. “That was the start of it all and that laid a foundation. We pride ourselves as the Orange All Blacks. When we go away, we make sure the dressing room is left spotless.”

Jaunts to Hyde and Fylde have been replaced with trips to Old Trafford and Anfield. At the outset Luton, who visit Brighton on Saturday, are nestled between Liverpool and Manchester City in the table. Their first home match is against West Ham in September. “It will be rocking,” Parsell says. “Under the floodlights, it moves, I tell ya.”

Scholars train under the guidance of the academy manager, Paul Benson, and coaches Alex Lawless and Adrian Forbes, all of whom played for the club. The under-18s striker Oliver Lynch, a Luton fan, applies a clever finish at the front post. Lynch was a ballboy when Luton beat Sunderland to seal passage to May’s playoff final and Edwards referenced him in a team meeting in the buildup to the win at Wembley.

“We zoomed in on his celebrations for the two goals,” Edwards says. “He was proper giving it some, which was great.”

Before the first team train it is pre-hab, time to activate muscles to prevent injury. Giles jumps on the Wattbike and others reach for foam rollers. Elton John plays over the speakers. “It gets a mixed reception round here because of the … connection [with local rivals Watford],” says Elliott Plant, a strength and conditioning coach. At 7am he was among the staff who joined Edwards in the performance centre, which opened in February. The second week of Fat Club, as Plant puts it, is go.

Every Monday, several staff jump on the scales and whoever has shed most weight at the beginning of the October international break will be crowned the inaugural champion. Chocolate is forbidden and they have agreed to fast between 8pm and midday. “If you don’t do it then it’s £20 into the integrity box. It’s looking sparse at the moment, I think there’s some cheating going on,” says Edwards, who has agreed to pay for the winner to go on a weekend away. “Kev Pilkington [the goalkeeping coach] looks pretty strong, very disciplined. But I’d like to think I’ll be in the mix.”

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Luton have not veered from their diligent approach since promotion but have broken their transfer record three times. “We’ve seen success for 10 years by doing it this way,” says Sweet. “It’s still prudent, it’s still budget-constrained. We have clear, defined boundaries. We have lost players because we have refused to budge on that, but when that happens that tells you they are not the right player for us.

“We have found a formula that fits – other teams have tried to copy it but it can’t just be ‘borrow that Excel formula from one spreadsheet, put it on another’.”

The sports scientist Luke Sanders leads a group, including Lockyer, who are stepping up their return to fitness through a warm-up. Reece Burke stays inside to continue his rehab. Out on the pitches, Trollope feeds Tahith Chong the first ball of a two-touch drill. “Let’s get bright,” he says.

A four v three exercise follows, with an emphasis on second phases and one v one duels. Kaboré hounds the ball off “Bez”, Luke Berry, one of five players here since League Two days. “Unselfish runs sometimes, keep the space for others,” Trollope says. Roberts-Smith keeps abreast of the live numbers – including distances and maximum velocity – via GPS vests on each player.

Lockyer was cleared to resume playing after surgery for an atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat, that led him to collapse eight minutes into the playoff final. His father, Steve, inadvertently went viral for posting an image of Lockyer toasting promotion from his hospital bed on social media.

“It’s some photo, innit?” Lockyer says. “I cried so many times that day, more than I have done in my entire life. It was always good knowing what [Christian] Eriksen went through and seeing him back playing. My first 90 minutes last week was tough on the old lungs and legs, but fine on my heart.”

Edwards leads the next exercise. “Let’s not play with blinkers on,” he says, encouraging his players to spy space. Marvelous Nakamba, signed from Aston Villa, translates for Kaboré, the Manchester City loanee. Chong, Harford says, destroyed Luton in Birmingham’s 5-0 win last season and will bring speed on the transition. The session ends with a round of six-a-side matches.

“Winners, it’s what we do,” Mpanzu says, flexing his biceps as he heads in for lunch, where burritos are on the menu. Apple crumble is a squad favourite.

Luton have been widely written off and Edwards says they must remember “you can lose 18 games and still have success”, citing Nottingham Forest last season. “We’re going to have to talk about it as a group: how do we manage setbacks where maybe you don’t win for a month and how do you deal with that? It is about keeping that belief.”

Edwards insists Luton must play to their strengths. He has implemented different systems in his career, from coaching Manchester City Under-16s and England youth teams to leading AFC Telford, Wolves Under-23s and Forest Green Rovers, where he won League Two. Luton’s aggression, bravery off the ball and counterattack threat were pivotal to last season’s success.

“The players understand that we need to be fitter, stronger and more resilient than ever before,” he says. “We have to maintain a threat somehow. We want to have a go. Why would we just roll over and give the opposition the game they want? In the Premier League there is a lot of order, and I want to bring a little bit of chaos to that and do things our way.”

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