OPINION: A look at Graeme Jones' testing 11 months in charge of Luton Town
Hatters boss left the club by mutual consent last Friday
The news that Luton had cancelled manager Graeme Jones’ contract by mutual consent last Friday was definitely something that caught both supporters and journalists by surprise.
Although chief executive Gary Sweet had been talking about a need to reduce the cost base during a coronavirus pandemic which will undoubtedly reset the finances of football, it wasn’t expected that would include a change at the helm.
However, that was exactly what did happen, with Jones and three of his coaching staff, Gary Brabin, Inigo Idiakez and Imanol Etxeberria all moving on.
‘Testing’ is one way to describe Jones’ first foray into management at Kenilworth Road having served his apprenticeship as a number two to Roberto Martinez at Swansea, Wigan, Everton and Belgium, while also being Darren Moore’s assistant at West Bromwich Albion.
There had been signs that after a tough start, the Hatters in the bottom three when the season was postponed, they were finally starting to look capable of making a fist of it.
One defeat in six, wins over Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough and Brentford had breathed some much-needed optimism into supporters and the players themselves, as although safety was still some way off, it was beginning to look attainable.
That was in stark contrast to the rest of the campaign, which had seen the odd victory dotted around, but they were far from the norm, Luton suffering 21 defeats from 31 matches at one stage.
Bringing in a first time manager, although always a risk, was a route that Town had gone down before, with good success, Nathan Jones’ first post leading to a promotion from League Two, plus second spot in League One when he controversially decided to move to Stoke.
So despite the new Jones’ lack of experience as his own man, an impressive CV including time with the Belgian national team and working with stars such as Eden Hazard and co, meant there weren’t many eyebrows raised over the appointment.
Luton had initially made their move during the previous season when Jones was still with the Baggies, prepared to pay compensation to get their man, but although the assistant was interested, commendably he refused to walk away from his role at the Hawthorns, leaving Moore in the lurch, until the campaign had finished.
Town were happy to bide their time as well, as rather than the players left reeling from the old Jones’ exit just days before a trip to Sunderland, they responded magnificently to Mick Harford’s spell in charge.
As the team went from strength to strength under Harford, Jones, now sacked by West Brom along with Moore, eased into his position, assessing the players and looking at possible new signings, essentially doing Harford’s old role from March onwards.
As the games were ticked off, the board saw their new manager’s position change from taking over a top end League One side, to being thrown straight into the Championship melting pot as the Hatters put together a club record run to reach the second tier.
That meant his job immediately became a far harder proposition, as Town were now in with the big fish, and gone was the opportunity of cutting his teeth at the managerial game in League One.
Before a ball was kicked, he was to lose two of his main assets as well, James Justin and Jack Stacey, the pair going to the Premier League.
In an instant, the double departure massively reduced Town’s attacking and defensive capabilities, as the pair were easily the best full backs in League One, and having watched the Championship for three quarters of a season, it’s fair to say they are unrivalled as a partnership there as well.
Although Town pocketed more than decent fees for both, they couldn't go and splash the cash to get ready-made replacements, what with a new stadium on the horizon and promotion bringing with it others costs too.
Jones had to work within a strict budget to bolster his squad with the Championship experience he craved, utilising the free agents marker, although did break the club’s transfer record to bring in Croatian keeper Simon Sluga.
Press-wise, Jones was absolutely fine to deal with from the moment he was introduced, always having time for the media, although his comments didn’t always go down too well with followers of the club.
Regular statements such as ‘little Luton’ began to grate with a fair few, as it wasn't that long ago fans were witnessing their team go to places like Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Derby County etc, plus sides of an even higher stature and actually win.
Everyone expected a relegation battle this term, it was always going to be that way, such was the huge leap in coming up from League One and going up against teams who can somehow afford to bring in Wayne Rooney, or keep an Aleksander Mitrovic on their books.
Town's wage budget was tiny in comparison, but let's not forget, Hatters are a big club in their own right too.
As this was a team that 32 years ago last week were seeing off Arsenal to lift the Littlewoods Cup at Wembley, something that the manager never quite seemed to fully grasp.
Constantly stating that Town had to be at their best and hope the opposition had an off day for Luton to win can’t have gone down well in the dressing room.
Remember, this was a Luton side who had become habitual winners under Nathan Jones and Harford, used to being talked up and told what a top side they were.
Instead they were now going into matches being labelled as underdogs before kick-off during press conferences, or that they needed Izzy Brown, as talented as he is, to stay fit in order to have any chance of remaining in the division.
Jones made a big thing of players never being outside his circle too, but waiting so long for Danny Hylton to be fit, only to then never use him was particularly surprising.
While Luke Berry, Elliot Lee and George Moncur were seemingly cast aside at the start of the campaign, only Berry managing to win a place back and that’s before the increasingly baffling exclusion of Jacob Butterfield, particularly when someone like Ryan Tunnicliffe, although now through his difficult spell, was clearly struggling.
Town fans could accept losing matches, and were expecting to see more defeats than they were wins, but there is a certain way of going about it.
To be fair, Luton acquitted themselves fairly well in the early stages, the highlight being a 3-0 win over Bristol City, before it starting to get a hell of a lot tougher.
Conceding goals was always a massive issue, although worryingly not according to the manager, who often stated he would rather win 10-9 than keep a clean sheet, a tactic that was questionable at best.
Some bitterly disappointing performances served against Hull, Nottingham Forest, Reading, to name just three was starting to test the patience of even the most optimistic of supporters.
While Kenilworth Road was never quite the fortress it needed to be, those travelling fans, were beginning to wonder if they would see another victory, Luton losing 12 in a row on the road at one point.
Luton fans stayed, on the whole, behind with the manager, even after a particularly bizarre team selection at Reading, with Jones opting to rest a number of players and hand defender Lloyd Jones a league debut, seemingly out of nowhere.
The tide started to turn at Griffin Park though, in one of Jones’ increasingly disliked three game weeks, as they were humiliatingly thumped 7-0 by Brentford.
A painful walk to the changing rooms right in front of an away end who had stayed until the final whistle, that he failed to acknowledge, which he explained afterwards was due to his own embarrassment, went down like a lead balloon.
Unlike many managers, he didn’t take full responsibility for the defeat either, publicly at least, preferring to call out his players for the performance, which became a theme as the campaign wore on.
Nine games without a win saw Town drop to the bottom and Jones’ strained relationship with fans, who he still never went over to after matches, looked to have reach breaking point.
He was booed off after an insipid 2-1 home defeat against Birmingham in January, something that managers done often come back from.
But come back it was looking like he was doing, as although it could never be said he had the popularity his predecessor enjoyed, he was winning a few supporters back onside, even having his name chanted after the excellent home victory over Brentford.
That coupled with a new found solidity, Luton becoming far harder to beat and finally keeping the ball out of then net, was clear evidence of some much-needed green shoots in their relegation battle.
Having said all that about Jones, it’s easy to look past some of the good things that he did do in his time at Kenilworth Road.
Harry Cornick for one now looks a genuine Championship player, while the faith in Sluga, after taking him out of the firing line up and bringing him back appears to have paid off handsomely, the keeper now showing his class between the posts.
Matty Pearson too has got better and better as the season wore on, while there is no question about his coaching methods, with a number of the players, such as James Collins, stating how good sessions at the Brache were.
With nine games to go, Town and facing some 'easier' opposition, Jones remained steadfast in his unwavering belief that Town would be able to beat the drop.
Whether that would have happened, or if would have even got the chance, with the season facing a real chance of being postponed due to the virus that ultimately cost him his job, we'll never know.