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The Mad Hatters

Luton’s recent promotion to the Premier League, after beating Coventry in the Championship Play-Off Final on penalties on the 27th May, signals their return to the English top-flight for the first time in 31 years. Their downfall and subsequent rise since then have been well documented, and they were still playing in the Conference League, the fifth tier, less than 10 years ago. With a stadium capacity of just 10,356, the away stand of which literally requires fans to walk through steps in someone’s back garden, their newfound status in the Premier League has unsurprisingly been heralded as a magnificently bizarre fairy tale. 

Whether they will be able to survive immediate relegation back to Championship football next season, however, is up for debate. Some have already written off their hopes of survival, but the extent of success of fellow relatively footballing minnows such as Bournemouth and Brentford in the Premier League over the past decade is a testament to how an intelligent, and well-run club can potentially flourish, regardless of the league’s notorious difficulty. Brentford, in particular, has operated on a rather shoe-string budget, with a net spend of just £781,000 over the past five years, considerably lower than that of all other Premier League sides for the 22/23 season over the same period. Chelsea, for example, who finished 15 points lower than the Bees last season, have a net spend of £653.21m over the five years, over 836 times the amount. In a footballing climate in which the uber-rich tend to dominate accordingly, such remarkable figures clearly show the potential to succeed without spending extortionate amounts. 

Can Luton replicate the success of clubs such as Brentford, then? The speed and extent of their recent success would suggest that they are indeed a well-run club. Complex financial difficulties afflicted the club in the late 00s and resulted in inexplicably high points deductions, causing them to fall from the second tier of English football to the fifth in successive seasons. Yet, since then they have stabilised with the ownership system of a fan-backed consortium ‘Luton Town Football Club 2020’ in 2008, which issued 50,000 shares to the Luton Supporters’ Trust. Chief Executive Gary Sweet recently won the Championship Chief Executive of the Year award, too, further emphasising the effectiveness of the current footballing hierarchy in place for the Hatters.  

Not only have Sweet and co been able to steer Luton smoothly away from such a financial mess, but the quality of recruitment of late, too, has been nothing short of exceptional. In the 22/23 season, they utilised the loan market superbly, with key first-team players such as Cody Drameh, Marvelous Nakamba, and Ethan Horvath, all being brought in from Premier League sides and playing pivotal roles in their promotion. There is, of course, the perennial concern with successful loan spells that their parent club will want them to return and Luton will miss out on the opportunity of signing such players on a permanent basis, or indeed be priced out by the superior financial might of their parent clubs. If this does ultimately prove the case, then they will be required to be equally shrewd in the transfer market this summer, in order to bring in the necessary Premier League quality to thrive in the league.  

The majority of non-Big Six Premier League sides regularly face the issues of losing their standout individuals, however, and are often able to adapt accordingly and cope with the issue. Brighton are perhaps the most glowing example of such a business model, regularly selling their greatest assets to bigger sides for large fees, and consistently bringing in more than capable replacements for comparably small fees. One particularly impressive example of this arose out of their sale of Marc Cucurella to Chelsea last summer for £65m. While Cucurella has struggled in West London, Brighton’s replacement of Pervis Estupiñán, bought from Villarreal for £17.8m, a fraction of the cost, has arguably been the league’s best left-back this campaign.   

Luton, therefore, will need to be similarly impressive over the coming months to stand a chance of survival. Their manager, Rob Edwards, has undoubtedly done an exceptional job since replacing Nathan Jones in November, as has his squad, to achieve promotion, but as of right now, it is clear that they are likely not comparable in quality to those they will be competing against next season. In many ways, their activity over the summer will be crucial in defining their season – before a ball has even been kicked. It is likely that they will base their bid for survival on defensive solidity, first and foremost. They conceded just 39 goals in the Championship last season, the joint second-best defensive record and this foundation will have to remain relatively sturdy for them to stand a chance.  What they do also possess, however, is an immense sense of team spirit, a bizarre yet intimidating stadium, and a sustained track record of impressive recruitment.  

These factors, combined with necessary signings to bolster the squad, may very well prove enough for them to avoid the drop in the Premier League next year. But regardless of how the Hatters fare in the season to come, it is a breath of fresh air to see them competing at the pinnacle of English football once more. The likes of Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne will be competing in a stadium that’s stands overlook the washing lines of locals. It is weird and wonderful and a thrilling proposition for a league that has for too long been plagued with talk of Super Leagues and million-pound-a-week contracts. Football in its purest form.

Image Credit: Dave Gunn // CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

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