Luton Town's Remarkable Journey from Playoff Heartbreak to Redemption
The 2021/22 season playoff semi-final loss against Huddersfield Town was a devastating blow for Luton Town, although fans certainly did not expect to reach the promised land, considering we had finished 12th the season before, at the time we all thought the same thing. 'That season was lightning in a bottle, there's no chance we are going to get this chance again'. Well, fast forward 12 months, and here we are again, only the most optimistic of Luton fans would have guessed that we would be having another playoff push, and even these optimists couldn't foresee how much conviction we would show when rocking to a 3rd place finish under the management of Super Robbie Edwards.
Rob Edwards with Jordan Clark | Picture courtesy of Gareth Owen
Now let's rewind again to the end of the 2021/22 season. Nathan Jones, the club's manager, faced an injury crisis during the two legs, leaving his squad with limited depth, especially in the striker department. We were left with Danny Hylton, Cameron Jerome and Harry Cornick as the starting strikers, with supporting roles of the bench for Carlos Mendes Gomes (currently on loan at Fleetwood) and a crocked Elijah Adebayo who came on in the 90th minute barely unable to walk. However, fast forward to the present, and Luton Town has undergone a remarkable transformation. The upcoming first leg against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light showcases a vastly different squad, with only three players likely to retain their starting positions from last season's heartbreak. This article delves into the inspiring journey Luton Town has undertaken to overcome their challenges and emerge as strong contenders in the playoffs this season.
The Injury Crisis and Squad Depth:
Heading into the playoff semi-final against Huddersfield Town, Nathan Jones faced an injury crisis that severely affected his team's preparations. With a lack of squad depth, particularly in the attacking options, the absence of Elijah Adebayo, who had netted an impressive 16 goals in the 2021/22 season, was a significant blow. Luton Town struggled to compensate for his absence, which ultimately contributed to their playoff exit. In addition to Elijah Adebayo, we were missing; Luke Berry, James Shea (and Jed Steer), Fred Onyedinma and Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu. Even with all these absentees, over two legs, we certainly were the better of the two teams. This is how we lined up over the two legs. It's a stark contrast to how we are likely to line up for these playoffs.
Since that disappointing defeat, Luton Town has undergone a significant squad evolution. Only three players who started the second leg against Huddersfield Town are likely to retain their starting spots for the upcoming first leg against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. With Ingram only an emergency loan, the contract expirations of; Kal Naismith who jumped ship for Bristol City, Robert Snodgrass moving to Scotland, Danny Hylton moving to Northampton and the clear out of Cameron Jerome to Bolton, so he could be closer to family, Harry Cornick and James Bree to Bristol City and Southampton, respectively, so we could cash in on them before their contracts expired. Also Henri Lansbury and Reece Burke are unlikely to start against Sunderland due to the squad depth in their areas, (for Burke) in particular the emergence of Bell, Lockyer and Osho as a three man back line.
This dramatic change is a testament to the club's determination and quality to identify, rebuild and improve.
Carlton Morris and Elijah Adebayo, they are ready to take on the playoffs | Photo courtesy of Gareth Owen
The continuing brilliance of old stars:
Luton Town has made astute signings and acquisitions to strengthen their squad for the new season. As mentioned above, when Kal Naismith jumped ship, let's be honest Hatters, we were all crushed, his ball progression from the left centre back position was spectacular, and playing him there was a bespoke positional masterstroke from Nathan Jones. Bristol City fans were laughing at us, BUT WHO IS LAUGHING NOW?? However, an unsung diamond from this season is Amari'i Bell, with his positional change from left wing back to left centre back providing increased penetration from the defensive line, due to his athleticism allowing more underlapping box penetration than Kal Naismith could ever offer.
In addition to Amari'i, Allan Campbell and Jordan Clark have developed into key contributors in the midfield engine room. Their performances during the current season have been exceptional, earning them a place in the starting lineup for the upcoming playoff encounter, along with Pelly-Ruddock who may also fit into the midfield, after cruelly missing out on last seasons playoffs due to injury. Rotation of these three will be key to ensure that the Sunderland midfield are kept reeling and don't know what will hit them over the two legs.
Allan Campbell will be looking to keep his starting position for the playoff semi finals | Photo Courtesy of Gareth Owen
The new faces and their impact:
The recruitment has been sublime. Adding Carlton Morris who has been a perfect foil for Elijah Adebayo up top was a master stroke. Although Elijah hasn't hit the goalscoring heights he did last season (7 goals this season), Morris arriving at the club has taken a massive burden off Elijah's shoulders. Morris has contributed 20 goals, laying on a further 7 assists. As discussed he is the current record signing at Luton, and if he can find the goals in the playoff semi final, or assist Elijah, then it will be money well spent.
Another top signing is Alfie Doughty, who has created 54 chances this season, and is an absolute terror up and down the left hand side (and occasionally the right), in tandem with January addition Cody Drameh, who assists Doughty in stretching the midfield. However, I can't fail to mention Marvelous Nakamba, who Rob Edwards has mentioned is currently his favourite player in world football. I described him as the difference between making the playoffs and missing out. Now I believe he is the difference between winning and losing the playoffs.
Marvelous Nakamba battling with Manchester United Loanee Hannibal | Photo Courtesy of Gareth Owen
Nathan Jones deserves credit for our position in the Championship. However, I simply do not believe we would have kicked on following the World Cup break had he not left to take the Southampton Job. Would we have brought in loanees Marvelous Nakamba and Cody Drameh? I guess we will never know. It is quite overt how our playstyle has changed, even without the fancy analytics, under Nathan Jones ball progression was long ball up the line for Morris and Adebayo to chase and controls in the channels, whereas under Rob Edwards, we progress the ball low and through the middle of the park. Sure we will clear lines with a Dreyer special when required, but Edwards has instilled a calm throughout the squad.
The journey of Luton Town from the disappointment of last season's playoff semi-final loss against Huddersfield Town, after limping into the playoff in 6th place, to their current position as strong contenders after storming the league as the best of the rest and finishing 3rd, is truly remarkable. The club has continued to evolve and has been a force to be reckoned with this season in the Championship, and I get the feeling we aren't just done yet. I can see us going one step further and getting to Wembley.
But first as Luton Town faces Sunderland in the upcoming playoff clash, they carry the weight of their remarkable journey, seeking redemption and a chance to etch their name in the annals of English football.