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How Luton Town are defying the doubters with a ‘cutting edge’ transfer strategy

It was deadline day of the winter transfer window in 2021 and Luton Town wanted a striker, but only had £250,000 to spend.

Nathan Jones, the manager at the time, was keen to find a “project” player – someone who was young, raw, malleable, but possessed strength and pace. So he put some feelers out and word came back about a player at Walsall.

The forward had been released by Fulham aged 21 but was impressing in League Two. Not the most prolific – he had scored 18 times in 57 league appearances – but there was something there, a hint of superior quality waiting to be coaxed out.

Jones watched some of his games and it was decided that in the worst-case scenario they could loan him back out and get their money back.

“And that was Elijah Adebayo,” says one source with knowledge of the deal. “He was a complete punt.”

Four years later, in many ways Adebayo has come to epitomise Luton’s approach to recruitment that has made them a refreshing addition to the Premier League. They have won over neutrals with their brave football, relentless pressing, thrilling scorelines, punching skywards without taking a punt on the club’s financial security.

Luton, promoted via the play-offs last season, were written off by practically everyone before a ball had been kicked but, after remaining true to values underpinned by the determination not to let promotion suck them into the financial vacuum that has consumed so many before, with three months remaining of the season they remain one point clear of the relegation zone, with a game in hand on their nearest rivals for the drop.

If Nottingham Forest and Everton, above and below them, face points deductions for breaching financial regulations (Everton have already been docked 10 this season for a previous financial breach) it would be another major step towards safety.

On display when they host Manchester United at Kenilworth Road – their 11,000-seater stadium – Sunday will be two vastly different sides of football’s financial spectrum.

United were declared in a Uefa report last week as having the most expensively assembled squad – at £1.19bn – in history.

In the period in question, Manchester United were spending more than £100m on Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and bringing Cristiano Ronaldo back for that disastrous second spell. By contrast, Luton were in the Championship and signing players from Barnsley, Hibernian and Tottenham Hotspur Under-21s.

Luton’s philosophy, i was told by well-placed sources this week, since the League Two days has been to recruit players for the league above. After four seasons in the fourth tier it saw them secure successive promotions into the Championship. But the leap from Championship to Premier League is far tougher.

LUTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: Ross Barkley of Luton Town during the Premier League match between Luton Town and Sheffield United at Kenilworth Road on February 10, 2024 in Luton, England. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
Ross Barkley has proven to be an inspired signing (Photo: Getty)

In League One and Two they played out from the back, were expansive, 4-4-2 with overlapping wingers, scoring 90 goals a season. But in the Championship everyone was playing good football, only with much bigger resources.

So in summer 2020 they changed tack. They decided “to recruit athleticism and power, press the life out of everyone, run over teams, be horrible, hard to beat, big, strong, aggressive, really athletic,” a source explains.

A couple of weeks after Adebayo was signed, the club established a new recruitment department, bringing in the highly-rated Phil Chapple as head of scouting operations.

“His eye for talent is excellent,” Jones said when Chapple joined the club. “He’s right at the cutting edge of things with his decision-making and what he sees is very good.”

Jay Socik also joined as head of recruitment analysis. Mick Harford, the club legend, remained heavily involved in identifying players. His current role is chief recruitment officer, although one Luton source described him as more “like a director of football without doing the paperwork”.

Many of their signings are still playing for the club. Alfie Doughty, the 24-year-old midfielder, has made 27 appearances this season. Carlton Morris, whose career includes spells at Oxford, York and Hamilton, has scored three in his last four Premier League games.

After signing Amari’i Bell for free from Blackburn Rovers they were warned he didn’t have the heart for it – the defender has made 18 Premier League appearances.

When you consider that Nottingham Forest spent more than £100m the summer after promotion and now face charges of financial breaches that could culminate in relegation, Luton have resisted that itch admirably.

Manchester United let Teden Mengi, the 21-year-old defender, go after disappointing loan spells at Derby County and Birmingham City. Then there was the free transfer of Ross Barkley from Nice – one signing many felt was indicative they’d lost the plot. Instead, Barkley has been sensational, arguably a contender for player of the season if voters could look beyond the Big Six.

“I think he might’ve just needed a bit of love,” a source who knows the player said.

And there are the transfers that predate the Chapple era. Gabriel Osho, signed from National League club Yeovil Town, played for Luton from League One up, the defender recently scoring in the 4-4 draw with Newcastle. Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, offered a chance after being let go by West Ham’s academy a decade ago, has played for Luton in every league from the Conference to the top flight.

The athleticism, strength and speed that runs through a group exceptionally well-organised by current manager Rob Edwards – emerging as one of the most promising English coaches in the country – has enabled them to surprise plenty of opponents.

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