Nathan Jones: A tale of two spells
It’s been 303 matches, 142 wins, 83 draws, 79 losses, 2 playoffs, a relegation scrap and a promotion* over two spells as Manager of Luton Town. We bid farewell to our nail biting, instruction yelling, touchline Tasmanian devil of a manager, as he sails off to the Premier League in order to take the reins at Southampton.
A coach with no managerial experience Luton Town appointed Nathan Jones as manager on the 6th January 2016. WHO??? Every Hatter around the globe said at once, as no one had ever heard of the Brighton coach, and they certainly didn’t remember him from his time at Luton Town under David Pleat, when he made exactly zero appearances after being signed from Merthyr Tydfil in 1995. Nathan Jones took over from John Still after a poor run of form left Luton in 17th position, after a solid 8th place finish in the prior League 2 season. In this first half season under Nathan Jones, we lost 7 of our remaining 21 games, finishing 11th.
Nathan Jones was signed by David Pleat in 1995, but only played for the reserves | Photo copyright of Gareth Owen/LTFC
This was where the story starts.
Nathan Jones set about dismantling the team assembled by John Still, releasing 12 players and signing 8 new players. Out went players instrumental in our promotion to League 2; Scott Griffiths, Jake Howells, Matt Robinson Paul Benson and Alex Lawless (the latter two coming back as youth coaches at Luton recently). Amongst those in were; Danny Hylton, Glen Rea and Alan Sheehan (recently departed with Nathan Jones), who formed the basis for the upward trajectory that followed. In the 2016/17 season, we played some great football, and we were very hard to beat, losing only 9 matches during the season, fewer than the 11 lost by Portsmouth, Plymouth and Doncaster who were all promoted automatically. Our downfall was the high number of draws (17), which ultimately resulted in us falling short of the automatic promotion positions, but still 6 points ahead of Exeter who finished in 5th place. Unfortunately, that season we lost over two legs in the playoff semi final to Blackpool, with former Hatter Mark Cullen putting us to the sword over the two legs, with our fate sealed by our keeper Stuart Moore scoring an own goal.
However, we picked ourselves up again and Nathan Jones tasked himself with adding more players who he personally believed could take us to the Championship. A recent interview with Jack Stacey, one of the players to join in the 2017/18 season, he stated “This is how I see you fitting in and in two years’ time we’re going to be in the Championship and you’ll be playing every game for us”. In addition to Stacey, in came; James Collins, Alan McCormack, Elliot Lee, James Shea, Harry Cornick and Luke Berry, the latter three still very much part of the Championship squad. We took the league by storm with free flowing attacking football. Some of the best performances were an opening day 8-2 victory over Yeovil Town, a 7-1 victory over Stevenage, and a 7-0 thrashing of Cambridge United, which included Olly Lee scoring a goal from another postcode. Accrington pipped us to the title in a fine season, however, the bottom line stats showed that we lost fewer games, 8 to their 11, we scored more goals than them, 94 to their 76. Luton Town fans didn’t care, we were promoted to League 1 in second place.
The 2018/19 season loomed in front of us, looking at the teams we would be competing with was exciting, big clubs like Sunderland, Portsmouth, Charlton and Barnsley, all with bigger budgets and all former Premier League clubs that had at one time or another fallen on tough times. Again, our transfer business was smart, both Sonny Bradley and Matty Pearson were brought in to add steel to the defence, Andrew Shinnie brought in permanently after a decent league 2 loan with us for trickery in the midfield, and Kazenga Lua Lua, for speed and chaos up front. After a slow start in the league, where we gave a good account of ourselves considering we had just been promoted from League 2, we had played 13 games, won 5, drawn 4 and lost 4. And then, from the 20th October 2018, our season took off like a rocket, in the remaining 33 games, we won 22, drew 9 and lost 2, this was enough to secure back to back promotions, finishing as Champions of League 1 during our first season. This was even more remarkable considering on January 6th 2019, Nathan Jones decided to leave for Stoke City.
Betrayal When Nathan Jones left us to join Stoke City, it united the fans and the board in their anger toward the Welshman. The board claimed that an underhanded approach was made for Nathan Jones, with strong rumours that he had even brought the Stoke directors to Kenilworth Road under false names, before permission had been given by the club for negotiations to be carried out. The board were angry, with claims that Nathan Jones was not the man, he professed to be. Nathan Jones always talked a big game to the players, fans and board about returning the club to the Championship, but the reality was, he jumped ship for a very lucrative offer as his stock was high, and he was receiving National acclaim due to the way Luton Town were playing football. This was seen as a betrayal from a man who was well on course to being one of the greatest managers in the history of our Football Club.
A managerial poaching can either collapse your season, or force everyone to rally around the flag. Fortunately, under club legend Mick Harford we did the latter. The players picked themselves up, and finished the job that Nathan Jones had brought them all to Luton to do, become Championship players.
Luton Town recruited Graeme Jones to take over for the 2019/20 season, our maiden season back in the Championship. He arrived with pedigree as a great coach with experience at Wigan, Everton and the Belgian National Team. However, he was unable to transfer his success as a coach to the managerial hot seat. His press conferences lacked the fire and passion that we had grown accustomed to under Nathan Jones. Luton Town were handed a dues ex machina, with a global pandemic that halted the season with 9 games to go, and Luton Town looking dead and buried at the foot of the Championship table. Graeme Jones was shown the door, in order for Luton Town to batten down the hatches, and prepare for the financial strain they could see approaching as a result of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Nathan Jones had already been shown the door after 10 months, unable to have their Stoke squad buy into his footballing philosophies. With the season due to resume, Mick Harford forced Nathan Jones and Gary Sweet to bury the hatchet, which paved the way for Nathan Jones to return to Kenilworth Road with relegation the most likely conclusion to the season.
Nathan Jones started with a monumental task of 9 games to get us out the relegation places, with Gary Sweet highlighting that Luton would face “financial oblivion” if relegated from the Championship. Against all odds and with games behind closed doors, due to the pandemic, Luton Town played pragmatic football, grinding out the results needed to secure safety. The entire team and board celebrated on the pitch, remarking on what a great escape it had been. This was part 1 of Nathan Jones’ apology to the fan base and the board of directors.
The entirety of the 2020/21 season was played behind closed doors, which unfortunately meant the Luton fans missed out on watching Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall in the flesh. However, this season was an easier watch for the fans, even if it was over ifollow, because Nathan Jones guided Luton Town to midtable mediocrity. The safety of a 12th place finish, more defensive stability and 62 points on the board was a welcome change from the season before where we were looking dead and buried under Graeme Jones for almost the entire season. Nathan Jones didn’t change much this season, no players were released other than Andrew Shinnie who wanted more game time. The only additions were Jordan Clark, who has since become an important player for the club, and Tom Lockyer who has only now overcome his injury problems. Again we played pragmatic football, although we looked toothless up top, which was remedied with the January signing of Elijah Adebayo, who has since become a revelation at the club. For the tail end of the season he offered us something different to James Collins.
In 2021/22, came Nathan Jones’ second big player overhaul. Similar to the squad churn from the 2016/17 season where we pushed for the League 2 playoff. We brought in players that could specifically play high pressing football. Nathan Jones together with our fantastic recruitment department focussed on bringing in “proper athletes”, one player that perfectly reflects this is Allan Campbell, who never stops during a match. During this season we performed above all expectations and finished 6th in the league, grabbing a playoff place. It surprised every Luton fan, but not Nathan Jones, who believes we should have finished higher, and claims at the beginning of the season he had set our points target at 75, which is exactly what we finished on. Unfortunately due to a huge injury crisis at the tail end of the season, we limped into the playoff semi final against Huddersfield, and came up short. This season culminated with Nathan Jones winning the Championship Manager of the Year award, which was well earned taking into account the stellar job he had done with Luton Town on one of the smallest budgets in the League.
The parting of the ways
And so, this brings us to the current season 2022/23, where after 20 games, sitting 9th in the table, the time has come for Nathan Jones to leave our project. However, he leaves us an established Championship side, looking up rather than down, with exciting young players, and a squad with many highly valued assets.
In contrast to the first time he left us, he now leaves with his head held high, comfortably regarded as one of the greatest Luton Town managers in the modern era, alongside John Moore, David Pleat and Ray Harford. He leaves us with a big mission accomplished, a win percentage rate of 46% (averaged from both stints), and all Luton Town fans wishing him success. For Luton, it’s now time have a refresh, take their time to pick the right manager to not only reinforce the the hard working ethos implemented by Nathan Jones but build on the extremely strong foundations that he has built.