Luton Town Season Preview: strong defence

lutonLuton Town have one of the highest budgets in League Two, but in the last two seasons they’ve finished below the play-offs. Will this be their year? To discuss this and more, The Football Lab spoke to supporter Dave O’Flanagan, who you can follow on Twitter @LTFC_Dave.

You had been quite critical of the defensive style of football under previous manager John Still. Are there any signs of that changing under Nathan Jones?

It’s difficult to say really. I’ve not got an issue with playing defensive football when the situation warrants – for example we had a “textbook” away day performance at Leyton Orient where we won 1-0 under Nathan Jones, however there were occasions particularly earlier in the season when John Still was very cautious and a series of late goals early on in the season cost us (I believe Oxford came from 2-0 down, Bristol Rovers got a late winner, and Plymouth amongst other all scored decisive late goals at Kenilworth Road) and with football being a results business that’s going to reflect badly against Still, especially when we ended the 14/15 season in poor form. I think, especially now he has begun to accumulate his “own” squad, we will see more positive football from Luton especially at home.

Luton finished 11th last season, disappointing given the club’s budget. Do you think the problem was signing too many players last summer? If so, does the more selective business this time suggest you’ll have a more stable squad?

No, I don’t think the amount of players we signed was the issue, I think we were unfortunate and unlucky that a lot of “big” players didn’t really perform. When we signed the likes of Scott Cuthbert, Danny Green and Craig Mackail-Smith to name a few, fans of other clubs were talking about how Luton were nailed on for promotion, however all 3, had very disappointing seasons by their standards, whilst a signing that probably slipped under the radar in Jack Marriott was probably one of our best players for the campaign. Saying that, I think the signings this year are generally very promising, and whilst football isn’t played on paper, I would expect a better season this time around.

Some feel recruitment has been a plus point of Jones’ reign to date. What sort of an impact did defenders Glen Rea and Alan Sheehan make last season?

Nathan Jones used the loan market very well last season, bringing in Alan Sheehan and Glen Rea, who have both now signed permanently, which helped shore up a defence that was leaking goals. The loan signing of Jonathan Mitchell from Derby, to replace Mark Tyler who deservedly was allowed to return to Peterborough after his time at the club was also very impressive, and whilst we couldn’t sign him on a longer deal, it does show he has a good eye. In the interests of fairness, Joe Pigott was brought in on loan and didn’t exactly set the world alight but 3 out of 4 isn’t bad going by anyone’s measure

Jones worked with Christian Walton at Brighton’s development squad, but the goalkeeper did not have the most successful stint at Bury last season and is largely unproven. Was it risky to bring him in as a number 1?

I think this is one of those ones where it depends how you look at it. Granted he hasn’t done brilliantly at Bury or at Plymouth but he’s still a highly-rated young ‘keeper. Nathan Jones worked with him for ya while and obviously knows how good he is, and knowing that he’s coming here where he’s realistically got a full season of being Number 1 ahead of him (our only other goalkeepers are youngsters who’ve never played a League game) could do him the world of good.

Centre-back Johnny Mullins started 39 league games in Oxford’s promotion campaign last year while forward Danny Hylton scored 29 goals for the U’s in two seasons. You must be pleased both have signed?

I was delighted with both those signings. The potential for a Hylton/Marriott partnership provides lots of ready-mate hotel puns! Seriously though both players have pedigree at this level, and the experience of winning promotion from this League as well, and I think it highlights how much of a draw we are that both men wanted to come here. Although Scott Cuthbert has been named as club captain I wouldn’t be surprised if Mullins is the favoured centre back come August 6th.

Hylton will compete with Walsall arrival Jordan Cook and 16-goal man Jack Marriott. Do you expect to have a lot of firepower this season? Is there even still time for Craig Mackail-Smith to live up to his initial billing?

Mackail-Smith is currently out injured and will miss the first few months of the season so at the moment he isn’t in contention really. It’ll be interesting to see how we go about it, as we certainly have plenty of options, and I’d expect us to add at least one more attacking player, if not two, before the season begins. As mentioned earlier I’d like to see us be more positive at home this season, for example playing a 4-4-2 with Marriott/Hylton up front and Jordan Cook operating on the left, however there may be occasions, especially away from home, where it’s logical to go with a 4-5-1 (or whatever derivative of it you want to use) with Hylton leading the line

Second to Marriott in the scoring charts last season was Cameron McGeehan, who netted 14 from midfield. Can Jones find a system that allows McGeehan to push forward, whilst also starting two of the aforementioned strikers?

I’d like to see McGeehan played “in the hole” whether that’s behind a lone striker, or a pair, sort of similar to the role Frank Lampard had major success with at Chelsea. His goal tally – even with penalties included – is very impressive in what was a fairly poor season in terms of our ambitions. However if we are going to play two up front, then he may have to play a more conventional midfield role, so it’s another interesting dilemma for Nathan Jones in terms of getting the tactics right.

Nine players have been released this summer, including long-serving midfielders Alex Lawless and Jake Howells. Do you disagree with any of the departures?

In a word, no. There’s no denying that the likes of Lawless, Howells, Scott Griffiths and Paul Benson did their job in getting us into the Football League and that can’t be underestimated, but in terms of a League 2 side wanting promotion and beyond, they were more than surplus to requirements. It’s always difficult to lose players who have been associated with a successful time at the club, but I don’t think we will miss any of them.

Paddy McCourt was a Still signing a lot of fans were excited about, but hasn’t quite delivered. Do you feel a midfielder like Pelly Ruddock M’Panzu gives you more pace and dynamism?

McCourt – like many others we signed – was a fantastic signing on paper, but really didn’t deliver the goods on the pitch. Saying that he did add a touch of quality to our game at times, but unfortunately those times were all too infrequent (McCourt has now left the club to be closer to his wife who is seriously ill and I would like to take this opportunity to give them my best wishes)

Pelly is a difficult one, I’m probably one of his harshest critics, certainly on social media anyway, and I wasn’t overly relieved when he signed a contract extension. On his day he can be brilliant, and his presence can really dominate a game, however he was plagued by injuries which meant he never got a serious run in the team. If, and it’s a big if, he can keep his fitness, he could really have a great season and leave me with egg on my face.

What are your thoughts ahead of the League Two season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

A lot of sides have done some good business in the summer. I think the two newly promoted sides will do enough to comfortably survive without threatening the play offs, and I think only Doncaster from the sides relegated from League 1 will threaten the top of the table. Portsmouth have to get it right sooner or later, and although your general League 2 would like to see them spectacularly fail again, I think they’ll click this season. It’s difficult to pick a dark horse with a lot of transfers still to be done but I think Hartlepool will put their recent lower half struggles behind them and do well this year.

Where will you finish?

Anything less than the play offs would be deemed a failure. I’m confident we’ll have a successful season finishing 3rd and will be celebrating promotion (alongside Portsmouth and Leyton Orient).

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Luton’s tight-knit squad will allow for tactical consistency. With a strong defence and a well-rounded striker in Hylton, the Hatters will be a force. 2nd

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