By Chris Dunlavy
For most managers, watching their team is nail-biting, nerve-shredding torture. For Nathan Jones, manager of swashbuckling Luton Town, it is the highlight of his week.
“I’ve watched over 200 League Two games this season,” reveals the 44-year-old Welshman, whose side clinched promotion to League One last weekend.
“That’s five games a week – and ours is always my favourite. I’m not being disrespectful to anyone else. But when I watch us, I see our philosophy in action. I see scintillating performances that defy our level. I see a wonderful football team, and I’m proud of it.”
As he should be. Since trouncing Yeovil 8-2 on the opening day, the Bedfordshire Barcelona have plundered 94 goals – more than any team in England with the exception of Manchester City.
Stevenage were smashed 7-1. Cambridge 7-0. Five were slammed past Swindon, whilst the scoreboard has ticked past three on 13 separate occasions. Danny Hylton, the 22-goal top scorer, is one of 18 different players to register in the league.
And it isn’t just the goals. Like Pep’s Premier League champions, Luton have done it in breathtaking style, refusing to take a backward step against even the mightiest of foes.
That much was obvious in January, when Luton travelled to play Newcastle in the FA Cup third round.
Though the Magpies eventually triumphed 3-1, they were played off the park for long spells and were lucky to see a Hylton goal wrongly ruled offside.
“I’ve had people – good people in football – say to me, ‘That’s a Championship side there’,” says Jones. “That may be an exaggeration. I don’t know.
“But we played Swindon and I had people from Premier League clubs texting to say, ‘That’s as good a performance as I’ve seen outside the Championship’. I had someone from the LMA (League Managers Association) tell me yesterday that they’d never seen a game like our 7-1 against Stevenage.
“I know we can play in League One and we’ll prove that next year, because I’ve got players who could play in the Championship. To suggest anything less is doing them an injustice.
“I’ll turn down maybe seven or eight offers for my players from Championship clubs in the summer. Guaranteed. We’re turning them down right now. That’s the calibre of this side.”
Luton, who sealed promotion with a draw at Carlisle, are a side built in the image of their manager, a man of zealous conviction in both his faith and his principles.
A committed Christian, Jones believes everything in his life – from an itinerant playing career at Yeovil, Brighton and Spain’s lower leagues to his current success at Kenilworth Road – was preordained.
“Good or bad, I think everything is God’s will,” explains Jones, who took charge at Luton in 2016 after several years coaching at Brighton and Yeovil.
“I don’t think anything happens sporadically. Lots of things occurred in my career to bring me to this point that I don’t believe would have happened if I hadn’t stepped out and shouted that I had faith in God.
“I rejected Coventry when they were in the Premier League to sign for Luton and I was probably the least successful player that David Pleat brought in. But I just felt compelled.
“I loved the club. I knew the club. I didn’t want to leave. Then I went to Spain and learned the language. And because I spoke Spanish, that gave me an opportunity to work with Oscar Garcia at Brighton.
“From that I worked with England under-21s, built a reputation. Then the door opened here – a club I knew from all those years back. Some of my decisions, people thought, ‘He’s crazy’. But it always felt right and I strongly believe that God was guiding me.
“My faith is such a vital part of what I do. It gives you an equilibrium in your life, a constant when everything else is in flux.
“God gives me the strength to face challenges. He gives me the desire to tackle them. He gives me a shoulder to lean on. He helps me to avoid certain pitfalls. He helps me to treat people with humanity. He’s a massive part of what I’ve achieved here.”
On the pitch, Jones’ faith in his attacking philosophy is equally unshakeable.
“I don’t like people who say, ‘Oh, they play the right way’,” he says. “There’s no right way of playing.
“It’s about educating people in your beliefs. I believe in this way of playing. I believe I can get the best out of my players this way and I make them believe it, too.
“We have a saying, and it’s something my assistant Paul Hart uses all the time. He says, ‘You have to put the ball at risk’.
“We ask people to be brave. We ask them to demand the ball, to look after it. We ask them to move it quickly, to think first and foremost ‘How can I cause the other team problems?’.
“We ask them to think, to solve problems. For instance, if people press us, what are the solutions to break that press?
“It’s tiring work and you have to be brave, especially in the early stages. I’ve had staff say to me in the past, ‘Look, we might not be able to do this. We might need to change this or that’. But I said, ‘No – they have to learn’. And they do.”
And much like Guardiola’s City, the apparent freedom of Luton’s players on the pitch is a product of rigid principles and ethics off it.
“Players conform, we don’t bend,” says Jones, who describes himself as an educator rather than a coach. “All people see is the 90 minutes. The style, the goals, the passes. But that’s more than just training. That’s the culture of the club – discipline, respect, the way we train.
“How I treat players is how I want to be treated. I’m not always going to tell a player what he wants to hear. But I will always tell him the truth.
“People say you can’t do certain things, that you have to treat players this way or that way. But in my experience, players want discipline and structure.
“When I played, I didn’t want anarchy around our dressing room. I didn’t want indiscipline around the club. If someone stepped out of line, they’d be told in no uncertain terms, ‘No – that’s not acceptable here’. All of that feeds into the way we play.”
And speaking of being a player, doesn’t Jones wish he was still out there on the turf rather than poring over endless matches and stealing cat-naps on his office sofa?
“I never thought I’d ever say this, but I love managing more,” he insists. “I thought I’d miss playing like crazy because I was the most enthusiastic player. I sucked the life into my playing career.
“But I absolutely love this job. It’s harder. It’s a lot more stressful. Longer hours, more work. But I wouldn’t swap it.
“I love what we’re building here. I want to leave a legacy. I want to do great work. I’m not a fly-by-night manager. I’m not looking for easy money or quick jumps. I don’t want to play snakes and ladders. I’m building a club and I’m building a career.”