Luton Town 2019-20 Season Review with Dave O’Flanagan, Ed Parker and Lewis Williams

Gabriel Sutton spoke to Luton Town fans Dave O’Flanagan (@LTFC_Dave), Ed Parker and Lewis Williams (@LewisT_Williams) about the Hatters’ 2019-20 outing in the Championship and what the future holds.

Gab: It was always likely to be difficult for Luton Town to compete at Championship level, having been a League Two club as recently as 2018. What do you make of your efforts?

Dave: Overall it has been slightly disappointing but I don’t think it’s quite as severe as some people have made out. Unfortunately this Covid-19 outbreak came at a time when we were in our best form of the season and Hull who were sitting just outside the relegation zone were in freefall. One line that I’ve used a lot on Twitter is that I’d have taken the disappointment of this season + the success of last season over two seasons of midtable nothingness in League One.

Lewis: I believe we’ve given it a real go in the Championship. We started the season very brightly, but with injuries to key players in the middle part of the season we just couldn’t cope with the lack quality in depth within the squad. Now we’re at the business end of the season and key players have returned the effort levels have gone up a gear.

Ed: Can’t complain. As fans we would have taken finishing 21st. Anyone that understands football knew it would be difficult. Given that half the squad had played in League Two 15 months earlier, it would be fair to say that is quite a leap and a few have been exposed as being just good enough for the lower divisions within the EFL.

How do you feel about the ownership of the club? What sort of job are David Wilkinson and Gary Sweet doing?

Dave: Honestly the job they’re doing is absolutely fantastic. You see all these articles and reports that clubs in the Championship are running at insane losses because of the financial rewards the Premier League brings and it makes me thankful we’ve got two genuine supporters of the club in charge. Personally I feel they could have been a little more ambitious in the January transfer window but I appreciate the risks that were attached to this.

Lewis: A brilliant job. They’ve taken the club to another level. Improving the training facilities under Nathan Jones and upgrading the academy under Graeme. Don’t forget the stadium approval as well! We don’t have a lot of money, so we rely on our scouting network in Mick Harford to bring in that right type of player. Our owners love everything about the club, would rather have them in than some millionaire who doesn’t turn up to games.

Ed: 2020 have done a wonderful job given the budget they have to deal with. From where the club was eleven or twelve years ago, going through administration and five seasons in the conference, the clubs achievements both on and off the pitch should be applauded. The Club has been competing on half the matchday revenue of every other club in the championship and despite what Bowyer says, Luton Town have the smallest budget. The club is often praised and mentioned in a positive light when it comes to how a football club should be run. So that says the club is doing it right. How can you fault that. And it helps that every member of the board is a Luton Town supporter.

You’ve had planning permission accepted for the new stadium. Given that this is something that had been on the cards for the club since 1955, are fans excited to see their club at their new home? Will it help the club logistically? Will you be sad to say goodbye to Kenilworth Road?

Dave: Absolutely fans are excited. Anyone who knows football knows Kenilworth Road is one of the most ‘Marmite’ grounds in the Football League but if we’re going to look to progress then a new ground is an absolute necessity. Obviously it’ll be gutting for fans when we do move, but the benefits a new ground will bring – in absolutely every aspect – is huge for the success of the football club. The revenue it will bring is massive, the potential for outside events is huge financially and gives us more of a chance of competing with clubs who have far bigger budgets than we do.

Lewis: In order for the club to progress and compete with the bigger teams in the Championship then we need a new stadium. Fans are very excited to go in the new stadium but will miss our home in Kenilworth Road. Tuesday night games at the Kenny are amazing and will certainly be missed going into our new ground. With a bigger stadium, more revenue will come in as more fans will be able to attend games. With the ground being in the town centre it’s going to be a lot easier for people attending the matches.

Ed: The fans are all delighted that a new ground is on the horizon. Given the present financial impact of covid-19 the development will be delayed for a few seasons and its more likely that Luton will remain at Kenilworth Road until deep into the 2020’s. But it’s not just ground that excites some fans, an academy upgrade is close to be achieved which will allow the club to have an under 21/23 academy and hopefully this will lead to a few more James Justins coming through the academy whereas at present only one or two stay on pro contracts once they are 18. It’s great to see talent emerge in to the first team that has come through the clubs age groups.

Graeme Jones left the club around six weeks into the lockdown. Would you have been open to giving him a chance next season, potentially in League One, or do you believe his exit to be for the best?

Dave: Yes. Personally I would have given him a chance even if we were in League One. Whilst there’s a lot that he has done has justifiably bought him criticism, at the same time there had clearly been a definitive improvement in our performances and I do feel he has been a little unlucky, for example Izzy Brown getting injured at 5-0 down to Brentford summing it up, but whilst every club has injuries we have had key players out for long periods of the season.

Lewis: Yes, but only on the agreement he would get Luton back up to the Championship at the first time of asking. However, if he failed then he would have to go. Jones’ job was to keep us in the Championship and I do believe we were on the verge of getting out of those relegation places under his management. The exit of Jones is a positive for majority of Luton fans. The positives are he didn’t connect with the fans, football wasn’t the best of times and his departure has freed up money from the wage bill.

Ed: I’m sure that Graeme Jones would have done well in League One. He had before the season interupted just started to get the team playing their best football which coincided with a near full squad and he and the board were confident of escaping the bottom three given the form of the previous six matches and what games were left to play. It was faair to say that he divided op[inion among the fans, a ‘marmite’ manager. He was never going to satisfy the fans as it’s not ‘all about him, but its about the clubs, whlie his pre and post match interviews never radiated fist beating of the chest and kissing the badge which some fans love. Despite how some fans want to see his departure, it was completely on a financial basis. If Luton Town get relegated it’s fair to say his wages would be inappropiate for League One while at present the club have to find ways to save costs.

Goalkeeper Simon Sluga had a tough first half of the season and made some high-profile errors, so he was unable to justify the club record fee straight away. Do you feel he’s improved since Christmas?

Dave: Absolutely. Whilst he’s made plenty of errors, it’s easy for people to forget that he was making plenty of world class saves in that time as well. Take the Boro game on the opening day, everyone remembers him being at fault for Boro’s 1st goal because it gets shown 1000 times but no one remembers the world class save he made later in that match for example. I do feel he was very unlucky that nearly every error he did make resulted in a goal and whilst I’m not superstitious it was almost a case of whilst his luck was out, it was horrifically out. There’s been some rumours that he’ll move away but I’d love to see him stay regardless of what League we’re in as I feel – even in the Championship – he could easily be one of the best in the division.

Lewis: Yes, because he has now settled at the club. Shea should’ve started the season to give Sluga time to adjust to life in a new country and to analyse Championship football. Since Christmas he has been a very important player by making key saves in many games and keeping more clean sheets. Sluga will continue to improve while he is at the club.

Ed: Simon struggled to settle at first in England and adapting to the speed of the championship. If you see the saves he pulls off in training your left scratching your head to why he made the errors he did. His form was solid late in the season and Luton Town fans will see the real Simon Sluga next season.

The glaring issue, of course, is the full-backs: granted, Jack Stacey and James Justin were hard to replace but the players brought into those positions, Luke Bolton and Brendan Galloway, have started 10 league games and none respectively. You’re clearly weaker in that area and presumably this is a factor behind your struggles?

Dave: I’m reluctant to be too critical of players but Luke Bolton simply isn’t a Championship right back and I think that’s been highlighted by the lack of game time he has had despite being fit whereas Galloway is at the other end of the scale and has been injured all season (which goes back to my earlier point of the bad luck we’ve had as with all due respect to our other full backs I imagine BG would have started if he was fit). Some may say that’s the risk you take with him as he had injury problems but at the same time, you could have signed a player who never had any injuries his career and he could break his leg in his first game. That being said, we’ve had other options at full back this year in James Bree, Dan Potts and Martin Cranie and I don’t think either of those have covered themselves in glory either.

Again there’s an argument that they could have been replaced better but I think that does Justin and Stacey a disservice. I’m fortunate enough to be friends with Jack’s family and the progress he’s made has been phenomenal. He had already made 11 PL appearances and had the season not been delayed because of COVID-19 I don’t think it would be unfair to say he’d probably have 20 appearances under his belt when he was playing L2 football less than 2 years prior.

Lewis: 100%. Galloway has been unlucky due to injuries. Bolton is trying to transform from an attacking winger to a fullback, while Bree and Potts have been poor all season. Martin Cranie was our only experienced Championship defender at the club, but he’s been in and out of the team due to injuries. We were never going to bring in better players than Justin and Stacey to the club. With more Championship experience in those positions we’ve done better.

Ed: Galloway was a strange appointment although given his previous time with Jones its one that can safely be filed as a manager’s pick as Galloway had been at Everton when Jones was number two to Martinez. I say strange as its been a long term policy of the club not to sign players that have a history of injuries and it’s fair to say Galloway falls into that bracket. And as fans expected Galloway had a season ending injury that will see him out until at least Christmas back in end of November 2019. The two young lads on loan Bree and Bolton from Villa and Man City were out of their depth. Bolton is a winger who City are trying to convert into a full back. He looked good going forward at his delivery was fair but his defending was questionable. Bree improved througout the season and was able to play left back aswell which helped fill a void in position through injuries to Potts and Galloway. I don’t expect either lad to be breaking into their parent clubs first team anytime soon and their level is perhaps in the Championship.

You’ve conceded just six goals in the five games that Tottenham loanee Cameron Carter-Vickers has started. Does it help that he is more accomplished in possession than Sonny Bradley and Matty Pearson?

Dave: 100%. Pearson especially and Bradley are quite rightly cult heroes for their parts in our recent success but they are definitely your ‘old school’ centre back and whilst that’s not a bad thing necessarily, once the opposition pick up on this, it makes them a target. Again there’s an argument that if Pearson and Bradley had Stacey and Justin alongside them even in less attacking roles then the situation may be different, but the composure CCV brings when he has the ball at his feet has been a massive bonus.

Lewis: Overall, he is a better player than both of them. As he has come through the ranks at a Premier League club he is used to controlling the possession. Whereas Pearson and Bradley are more used to hitting across the field to the strikers. Vickers’ impact on the team has been vital for us in getting points in recent games. We were after him before the season started, but he went to Stoke.

Ed: CCV was an excellant addition and it goes to show how one player can struggle at one team (Stoke City) but flourish at another within the same season in the same league. Fingers crossed that CCV will be seen in a Luton shirt next season on a further loan deal. Cameron is better with the ball at his feet and his breakup play and keeping possession is excellant, but isn’t that what you would expect from a young lad that has come through a top class premier league teams academy. Let’s not forget that both Sonny and Matty have played a season or two in league two. That’s not a slight on Matty or Sonny but neither lad has had the amount oe depth of technical coaching that CCV would have had coming through the Tottenham Hotspur system.

The defensive improvement has also coincided with Glen Rea’s return to fitness, following a loan spell at Woking. Is he more suited to playing at the base of the diamond than a more expressive but lackadaisical performer such as Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu?

Dave: Simply put, yes. For whatever reason Graeme Jones was reluctant to play Jacob Butterfield despite him looking decent on the odd occasion when he did feature, but Pelly is a far, far better player playing in a more advanced role. To call a man that has won 3 promotions with the club lackadaisical may not make you too popular with Luton fans but there’s definitely certain attributes that you need to be a success at the base of a diamond midfield and Pelly may lack a few of those.

Lewis: Glen Rea is excellent sitting in front of the back four. Pelly is a box to box midfielder who is very hard to get the ball off – Rea is there as cover if Pelly or Tunnicliffe lose the ball. I’m fully convinced if Rea was fit at the start of the season Luton would be nowhere near the relegation zone. His stats have been amazing since coming back from Woking.

Ed: Glen is a work horse, reads the game well, a leader and always barking orders. A player that Luton Town will be keen to re-sign this summer. His best position is as a defensive midfielder, sitting in front of the central pairing, helped no doubt by his days in Brighton academy playing as a centre back.

Ryan Tunnicliffe I thought was unlucky to be released by Millwall and he seemed to start the season ok. Does he offer some value in terms of his tenacity?

Dave: Bar Sluga, Tunnicliffe has probably been criticised more than any other Luton player this season. Personally I felt he did alright and was made a scapegoat because fans didn’t want to target players that had won promotion but similarly at the same time, until his winning goal vs Middlesbrough, I’d struggle to recall a meaningful contribution he had made to a game this season.

Lewis: On paper it’s a very good signing to have on a free transfer. However, his performances have been poor, and I can understand why Millwall decided to release him. I know in recent games he has picked up a bit of form, but for the majority of the season he has been poor. Sometimes he takes that extra touch or overthinks decisions he makes.

Ed: Ryan is workmanlike and started every league fixture this season. His form was steady however his best spell came in the second half of the season where he was able to express himself more which coincided with Rea playing in the holding role or having Craine sitting in behind him.

Aside from Mpanzu and Tunnicliffe, you’ve used 13 different players in midfield this season and none have started more than 14 league games. Was this instability a factor behind your poor first half of the season?

Dave: I think that played a part for certain but similarly I don’t think anyone really stamped their authority when given the chance to play there and made a spot their own. Obviously I’ve mentioned Jacob Butterfield above who was probably given a rough ride by Graeme Jones, and personally speaking I think Andrew Shinnie has also been very unlucky not to feature more this season, but when they – and others – have played they’ve not really done anything majorly impressive.

Lewis: I think we were trying to find that right balance in midfield. Without Rea in the side, we lack some defensive cover and that was a huge problem in the first half of the season. I think the likes of Butterfield and Shinnie have been unlucky not to play more games.

Ed: It can be put down to a number of factors. Injuries to players, restricted minutes to some players earlier in the season, Jones trying to find his best system and players that were on further deals for completeing a said number of league games. (Was Butterworth on an appearance incentive option, making 15 or 16 appearances – last being against Bournemouth in FA Cup in January???)

One of the contributing factors to the above issue was the injury to Izzy Brown; we’d probably be raving about him as much as Pablo Hernandez and Matheus Pereira if he were playing for Leeds or West Brom. His two-month winter absence must have been a huge problem?

Dave: If Izzy stayed fit all season we’d be sitting comfortably clear of relegation and whatever did or didn’t happen in the next few weeks wouldn’t bother us because we know we’d playing Championship football next season. The stats show he creates as much as any other player in the division pretty much per 90 minutes and I think that speaks for itself.

Lewis: The same situation with Rea, if Izzy was fit all season Luton would not be in the relegation zone. He creates so many chances in the team. Just needed him to add more goals to his game. Compared to everyone in the squad, Brown is levels above them.

Ed: His two month absence was a huge loss to the club, over the nine league game stretch Luton won and drew just once, a total of 4 points from 27 available. Was it a coincidence that his first appearance back Luton beat Derby County 3-2? I let others make their own decision but the stats and performances say he was a loss. Was his period of being out of the team the difference of staying up or getting relegated? Perhaps…

There were question marks over James Collins’ capabilities at League One level and he answered them. After bagging 11 league goals in the Championship this term, has he defied his doubters once again?

Dave: Absolutely. The cynic in me will point to the fact that a few of those are penalties but I think the goal return from him – and Harry Cornick especially has been a big plus this season. There was a lot of talk that we should have splashed out on Isaac Vassell especially after he scored a late winner against us in the second game of the season but a recurrence of his injuries plus Collins finding the back of the net on a regular basis put that argument to bed. If we did end up in L1 last season by whatever means I wouldn’t be surprised to see a ‘bigger’ club take a punt on him.

Lewis: Yes. Collins is a natural goal scorer; he doesn’t need many chances to score. If Izzy was fit, I’m very confident Collins and Cornick would’ve got more goals this term. Collins’ work rate is one of the best in the league, the amount of distance he covers is unbelievable.

Ed: There will be always a group of fans that say player ‘x’ isn’t good enough or player ‘z’ should be playing instead of player ‘y’, that’s what’s so great about football, it has many debating points. What I would say about Collio is that he is a goalscorer. His hard work on the training ground pays off on the field. He has an engine and is so unselfish working for the team. The result of Collio’s efforts this season has left those doubting, doubting no more.

Callum McManaman, I thought, was terrific on the opening night against Middlesbrough. Has his form gone cold a little bit since then?

Dave: McManaman has had his moments this season but generally speaking, like a lot of other players this season, has probably been a bit disappointing on the whole. I don’t think our system particularly suited him which has obviously played a part as well.

Lewis: He’s not consistent enough. For some reason he can’t have a run of games playing well. He lacks any confidence when 1 v 1 with a defender. I thought under his old coach in Jones we will see the old McManaman, but we haven’t. However, he does pop up with the odd goal in crucial moments.

Ed: Cal has had continual injury issues since MOM for Wigan in 2013 FA Cup Final and those injuries have prevented him fullfilling the potential he showed on a consistant basis back in the early years of the last decade. Luton Town had Callum on a slow/gradual fitness programme to help him through the season and try and prevent these little injuries from reoccuring. He had several niggles that ruled him out for two or three games at a time and then it was slowly does it nursing him back. Appeared effective coming off the bench and playing for 25-30 minutes producing a greater impact on the game than if he started. If he manages to get a proper injury/niggle free pre-season in to his body then I’m sure Callum will produce the form he showed for Wigan in those early seasons of the 2010’s. He is out of contract at season’s end and I don’t see Luton offering a further deal.

Putting aside the outcome for a moment, how do you reflect on 2019-20 overall? Have you enjoyed seeing the club compete at this level? Or have you been disappointed that it has not competed as strongly as it perhaps might have done?

Dave: It’s been an experience. Obviously it’s ultimately disappointing that we will probably end up going back into League One but like I mentioned earlier I’d have taken the highs this season has bought over two seasons of doing nothing in L1. The chance to see us go head to head with the likes of Leeds, Stoke, West Brom when we were Non-League 6 years ago is something that really has to be cherished.

Lewis: I always enjoy Championship football, it’s so exciting. With the limitations at the club I feel we have competed well at this level. I personally think if key players like Izzy and Rea were fully fit all season Luton would not be in the relegation places right now. Also, bringing in Vickers from the start would defiantly confirm my statement. I feel Jones has been unlucky this season, recruitment should’ve been better at the start of the season, but I can understand why we didn’t bring certain players due to finances.

Ed: I knew this season would be all about survival, I said it in last season’s preview. You can never get ahead of yourselves in football and you have to manage with what you have. Losing both full-backs to premier league teams was a huge loss and one the club failed to properly address last summer. It’s been spoken about by the club that every player they went after as a full back signed for somewhere else or were asking for terms that were beyond Luton‘s players budget. From the games that I have seen there have been periods in games where the teams performance deserved more than they got, but that’s football. Putting my analyst hat on, you can see the progression the players have made and this will hold them in good stead moving forward. There is one player in the Championship that has a weekly salary that includes his signing on payment that is spread over the length of his contract is more than a combinded Luton match day squads weekly wage. The imbalance in the Championship is huge and needs addressing.