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Free-scoring Luton make solid Championship return - Interview
Thursday, 12th Sep 2019 11:35 by Clive Whittingham

Luton have scored three goals in a game four times already this season, and arrive at Loftus Road on Saturday on a run of three straight victories. LFW spoke with Hatter Matt Storey...

How did you rate the summer business done to prepare Luton for the Championship?

I was on the fence with our summer business when the deadline passed, but I think results, performances and improvements already have shown it to be a good window. Plenty of money is thrown about in this division, yet we brought in six players on a free, signed three on-loan, re-signed Kazenga LuaLua and our only outlay was a club-record £1.3million on Croatia number two keeper Simon Sluga. It does show what we’re up against. After a nervous start, Sluga has grown into the Championship and has been taken into the heart of Luton fans. Championship experience was the buzz-phrase in pretty much every post-transfer interview that Graeme Jones gave and Ryan Tunnicliffe, Martin Cranie, Callum McManaman and Jacob Butterfield all have that. Might be considered journeymen by some – I did question a couple of the signings – but have already shown their quality in different games. On deadline day we brought in Izzy Brown, James Bree and Luke Bolton on loan from Premier League clubs and they have all had an impact. If Brown gets fit, then he could be the difference-maker for us.

Ins: Simon Sluga, GK, 26, HNK Rijeca (Croatia), £1.3m >>> Martin Cranie, CB, 32, Sheff Utd, Free >>> Brendan Galloway, LB, 23, Everton, Free >>> Ryan Tunnicliffe, CM, 26, Millwall, Free >>> Callum McManaman, RW, 28, Wigan, Free >>> Jacob Butterfield, CM, Derby, Free >>> James Bree, RB, 21, Villa, Loan >>> Luke Bolton, RM, 19, Man City, Loan >>> Izzy Brown, CF, 22, Chelsea, Loan

Outs: James Justin, RWB, 21, Leicester, £6m >>> Jack Stacey, LWB, 23, Bournemouth, £4m >>> Arthur Read, CM, 19, Brentford, Free >>> Luke Gambin, LW, 26, Colchester, Free >>> Alan McCormack, DM, 35, Northampton, Free >>> Aaron Jarvis, CF, 21, Sutton, Free >>> Jack James, RB, 19, Released >>> Jack Senior, LB, 22, Released

How would you assess the team's start to the season?

If I was grading it, I’d probably give it a B. The Boro game on the opening night was mental and just had everything. One of those nights you’ll look back on in years to come. Yes, we then lost three in a row but nothing disgraceful or worrying about them. Cardiff was a 97th minute winner, WBA was a poor six minutes and Sheffield Wednesday was one mistake in an otherwise drab game. The two wins before the international break, or three if you include a 3-0 win at Cardiff in the Caramel Cup, have given the players so much confidence and restored some amongst the more fickle fans too. Seven points from six tough opening games is not a bad haul and we’re still scoring plenty of goals.

What did you make of the appointment of Graeme Jones and how has done so far?

I think the Graeme Jones appointment was intriguing, more than anything. I wasn’t worried that he hadn’t been a number one before and it’s been clear for a while that he is seriously highly rated in the game. That was mixed with some concern; firstly because Roberto Martinez’s sides were not known for a tight defence and secondly WBA fans were not particularly fond of him – although I do think their views are biased because Darren Moore is a club legend and they didn’t like him failing. So far, he’s done very well. Throughout the summer he interviewed well and little things like referring to journalists by their first name in press conferences came across well – I appreciate that’s odd, but before meaningful games are played you have to take everything you can. On the pitch the side are still getting to grips with some elements of his style, but the atmosphere in the squad, which has been so good for the past two to three years, seems the same and our upward trajectory has not been halted yet.

What has he changed from Nathan Jones, and why hasn't Jones been able to replicate success at Stoke?

We still use the diamond formation that Nathan Jones implemented and won us so many plaudits over the past two years. The main differences between last year and this campaign appear to be James Collins dropping slightly deeper, and sometimes wider, whilst his partner upfront has also played wider. McManaman and Harry Cornick have done that role. We’re also less reliant on our full-backs, mainly because we had two Premier League quality full-backs in Jack Stacey and James Justin last year and we don’t now. I suspect your crowd will get excited at times when our defenders take risks in our own 18-yard box passing it about and, in all honesty, it has cost us already this year and could again.

I think Jones’ issue at Stoke might be that when he came into Luton’s dressing room, it was a mid-table League Two side with some good young players and some deadwood who had lost a bit of direction. They were, to a certain extent, all playing for their careers and he found it easier to get rid of those he didn’t want. Stoke, it seems, are a squad filled with egos, players who wanted to be in the top-flight and those who thought they were better than they are. They earned big cash and weren’t prepared to put in maximum effort. They were also harder to shift. While the Luton group were receptive to a young coach coming in with his intensity, drive and enthusiasm, I can’t help but feel the Stoke squad have essentially looked at him and gone ‘who the f*ck are you?’ The fact the whole negative feel in that fanbase appears almost impossible to turn around has not helped either.

There was – and still is – lots of bitterness towards him at Kenilworth Road, but I’ve seen some Luton fans claim he was never that good for us. Don’t be fooled. He is a very good manager and he’ll enjoy success in the top two tiers.

How has the team been setting up (formation) and playing (style) so far? Certainly seem to be scoring a lot of goals...

As I mentioned, we still play with a diamond formation and it’s certainly a side intent on playing the ball along the floor and trying to take the game to the opposition. We’ve scored in all but one game and conceded in every game, which says all you need to know really. I don’t think we’ll change that approach this year, it’s not Graeme Jones’ style and it’s why we have enjoyed success. I imagine Luton will be involved in a fair few thrillers this year, as the opening night 3-3 draw with Boro showed.

Results so far…
Luton 3-3 Middlesbrough (Bradley 17, Cranie 24, Collins 85 – Fletcher 7, Assombalonga 37, Wing 68)
Cardiff 2 Luton 1 (Flint 52, Vassell 90 – Pearson 86)
Luton 3 Ipswich 1* (Jones 8, Lee 17, Shinnie 55 – Dobra 74)
Luton 1 West Brom 2 (Cornick 15 – Diangana 48, 51)
Sheff Wed 1 Luton 0 (Harris 54)
Barnsley 1 Luton 3 (Wilks 72 – Butterfield 2, Collins 4, Cornick 31)
Cardiff 0 Luton 3* (Hoilett og 43, Sheehan 63, Jervis 70)
Luton 2 Huddersfield 1 (Collins 57, Shinnie 66 – Grant 47)

Stand out players and weak links in the side?

James Collins is without doubt our star man. He’s scored bucket loads of goals in the lower leagues and fully deserves his chance at this level. He’s a goalscorer, but his work-rate is phenomenal and his link-up play has come on leaps and bounds since he moved to Kenilworth Road. Three goals already is a good start – add to that one on his Ireland debut against Bulgaria on Tuesday - and if we’re to avoid a relegation battle, he’ll need to score 15+ again. Collins is just proof that good things come to those who work hard. Andrew Shinnie is probably the best footballer in the squad and if he plays well, we invariably get positive results. Picks out passes nobody in the crowd has seen, can find the back of the net from outside the box regularly and is not afraid to muck in and make a crunching tackle. The Shinniesta nickname is well-earned.

You’d have to say that defence has been the weak area so far and we’ve got the worst record outside the bottom three. It is a well-established centre-back pairing in Sonny Bradley and Matty Pearson - although question marks remain in my mind as to whether the latter is Championship quality – but they do need to stop switching off at key moments. That’s true for the entire defensive unit though. A real weak point is the first ten minutes after half-time, we’ve conceded five goals in that period already.

James Collins, CF, 28
Darlington, Aug 09-May 10, 7(2) apps, 2 goals
Villa, Aug 10-Jan 11, 0(0), 0
Burton, loan, Oct 10-Jan 11, 11(1), 5
Shrewsbury, free, Jan 11-Jun 12, 57(16), 24
Swindon, free, Jun 12-Jul 13, 29(22), 18
Hibs, £200k, Jul 13-Jun 14, 31(9), 6
Shrewsbury, Undisclosed, Jun 14-Jul 16, 72(9), 24
Northampton, loan, Jan 16-Jun 16, 16(5), 8
Crawley, free, Jul 16-Jun 17, 50(1), 22
Luton, free, Jun 17-present, 94(5), 48

Prediction for the season ahead?

Safe, but not by a massive amount. I think we’ll just about avoid a real relegation scrap and end up somewhere in the top half of the bottom half. It’s going to be a fun season whatever happens and we’ll certainly upset a few of the bigger boys along the way, however there will be weeks we’re on the end of heavy beatings.

What's the latest with a new stadium - how long we going to have to keep climbing into the away end through somebody's front window?

Ah – the most photographed place in English football. The way some clubs have gone on about the away end and the fact they have to go to Luton this season, you’d think we were a plucky non-league club who are experiencing this level for the first time. Amazing what a new stadium or few years in the top-flight does to you. Anyway, the new stadium is still a way off. Permission has been granted and it’s happening, but due to it being built on an old power court there is more work needed than for your usual stadium. It’s why a town centre spot has been empty for so long but it’s worth it, because the location will be so much better than so many new grounds. Luton will still be at Kenilworth Road for a good three or four seasons yet, so hopefully a few more ‘big’ clubs will enjoy a day out at the country’s best ground.

Links >>> Luton Town official website >>> Hatters News – Blog >>> Luton Outlaws – Message Board >>> Supporters Trust

The Twitter @StoreyMatt, @loftforwords

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