Rob Edwards: ‘If Luton stay up, I don’t want it to be because of deductions’

Estimated read time 10 min read

When Arsenal went top of the Premier League against Luton last week, it wasn’t their fans who were celebrating. Comfortable in their two-goal lead, the home crowd were slipping out before the end and the stadium was empty soon after the whistle. But not entirely. Clustered in the south-east corner, nearly 3,000 Luton fans stayed to serenade their beloved manager. Oh for someone who looks at you the way a Lutonian looks at Rob Edwards.

It was Luton’s eighth Premier League defeat in 10 games and their 19th of the season. The Bedfordshire side sat 18th in the table, three points adrift of Nottingham Forest. And yet nothing can sour the love. “In this situation, if they turned, it would be really, really tough,” Edwards said after the game. “It gives me a lot of belief, that they’re with us.”

Belief is a hard-working word in Edwards’s vocabulary. It underpins the never-say-die approach that has defined his team’s performances, and which his supporters so appreciate. And it may yet keep them up. Three days after the Arsenal game, in their must-win match against Bournemouth, it was 0-0 at half-time and Luton were a goal down seven minutes later. If Jordan Clark’s equaliser sent a bolt of electricity around Kenilworth Road, then Carlton Morris’s 90th-minute winner threatened spontaneous combustion.

Late goals have become Luton’s speciality: 17 of their 45 Premier League goals have come after the 75th minute. Arsenal match that proportion and only Liverpool surpass it. Of the Hatters’ 19 defeats, 13 – including those by Tottenham, Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and the reverse fixture against Arsenal – have been by a single goal. This month they battled for 86 minutes before Son Heung-min deprived them of a point at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Sitting at the club’s training centre, on the site of the former recreation ground for Vauxhall’s car plant, the 41-year-old Edwards describes the past month as a “difficult period”. “I would really struggle if we were losing and we weren’t performing, we weren’t competitive,” he says. “But we have competed, and competed with the best.”

Other relegation-threatened managers might be philosophical after losing an early 1-0 lead at Spurs – Edwards looked genuinely heartbroken. He also takes umbrage at reports that Arsenal had “cruised” to victory at the Emirates. “The position they’re in now, you can’t tell me they didn’t want to get four, five, six goals. And we didn’t allow them to do it.”

Luton Town manager Rob Edwards celebrates after Carlton Morris scored a last minute winner against BournemouthView image in fullscreen

Those performances deserve even more credit given Luton’s injury list. Since the loss of their leading scorer, Elijah Adebayo, to a hamstring injury in February, the squad have been stripped to the bone, with 11 first-team players unavailable against Arsenal including their inspirational midfielder Sambi Lokonga and winger Chiedozie Ogbene, who has registered the second-fastest sprint speeds in the league this season. The 16-year-old academy player Christian Chigozie found himself on the bench – his manager had to curtail a post-game chat with Mikel Arteta to get him home for his GCSE revision.

Edwards takes pride in what the team have achieved “with one hand tied behind our back”, but he wants more. The man who took Forest Green Rovers to the unprecedented heights of League One at his first attempt, and got Luton promoted from the Championship 12 months later, speaks repeatedly of “not wanting to let people down”. “In the last couple of years I’ve been really lucky to be involved in a really successful couple of seasons, but this year we’re going to be judged on our position on the final whistle on the last day, not just a win here or there.”

A fairytale finish doesn’t always mean a happy ending. Climb the beanstalk from the Conference and there’s every chance you’ll get chased straight back down by giants. After four consecutive defeats in their opening games, some feared Luton would be the Premier League’s worst-ever side. “I can’t take them seriously,” wrote the BBC Sport columnist Garth Crooks; his pronouncement that they would be “down by Christmas” still elicits ire and scorn around the town centre.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” says Richie Kyle, who has followed Edwards as assistant manager from Forest Green – and an abortive stint at Watford – to Luton. “You can watch as many Premier League games as you want but until you’re actually in it, you don’t realise how quick it is. What we’d been doing in the Championship wasn’t working, Rob realised that and adapted tactically.”

Luton improved fast. In November they held Liverpool to a draw, and in December they pushed Arsenal to the limit in a spectacular seven-goal fiesta. It is worth remembering that Edwards’s first permanent senior managerial post was in 2017, with the then Conference North side Telford, in the town of his birth. “When I think how quickly Rob’s developed to work at this level, and deal with the demands of the Premier League, it’s amazing,” says Kyle. “Two years ago we were in League Two. And he looks like he’s been doing this 10 years already.”

Edwards names the 1-0 win at home against Newcastle, seven days after their captain, Tom Lockyer, nearly died of cardiac arrest at Bournemouth, as his most special moment. “The emotional toll that week took on us, I was really pleased how the whole football club responded to that.”

Luton’s players warm up wearing T-shirts honouring Tom Lockyer before the match against NewcastleView image in fullscreen

Lockyer often speaks of Edwards’s empathy and kindness towards his players, an observation echoed across the club. When Teden Mengi was considering his move from Manchester United in the summer, it was Edwards’s interest in his family that convinced the centre-back to head south. “I just knew this man actually cares about me,” he said. Edwards, who with his wife Kerry has a 19-year-old, a 16-year-old and a nine-year-old, travels to training from their home in Birmingham, because he didn’t want to uproot his children’s school and social lives.

He is as strategic about the environment he creates as he is about tactics and has spent the past 18 months building a supportive atmosphere where “it’s OK to make mistakes”. “We’re all learning, we’re human beings – I want us to take risks and be brave. That allows players to be themselves and hopefully play without too much fear.”

Kyle believes Ross Barkley has been one obvious beneficiary of the Edwards touch. “If he gives the ball away with a risky pass Rob’s not one to jump on him and say: ‘What you doing?’ He says: ‘Go and get it again.’ Mad as it sounds, I think Ross is just playing like a kid again. He seems to be enjoying it that much.”

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That’s not to say Edwards is “all nicey nicey”, adds his assistant. “He’s also got an edge that people may not necessarily see. If something’s not done the way he wants, or someone’s not working hard enough, he’ll make it known.” Edwards grins when he admits that occasionally “a skip may need to be kicked”. He has been a thoughtful and engaging presence at press conferences and an entertaining one on the touchline. Against Bournemouth last weekend he sprinted halfway down the pitch to celebrate the winning goal, and YouTube is crying out for a supercut of his array of hand gestures.

Luton’s popularity outside the LU4 postcode is not based on their underdog status alone – there has been genuine pleasure in their attacking, don’t-die-wondering football. Back in the Championship, Edwards and Kyle had laughed about the possibility of pressing Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton at Kenilworth Road. In the run-up to January’s match the joke evolved into a real-life ambition, and bore fruit with two goals in the first three minutes.

The 4-0 final score was also one of only two clean sheets for Luton in the league this season. “Against a team like that we were relatively comfortable, which was a nice feeling because that’s not been the case in any other games,” Edwards says with a laugh. A week later, Luton drew 4-4 with Newcastle at St James’ Park. “Even when we lost at Manchester United, I really liked what we were starting to become. I thought we looked very competitive and we were actually getting some results. I felt at that moment: ‘We are not a bottom three team,’ I really did.”

Luton’s Ross Barkley shoots at goal against BournemouthView image in fullscreen

But that is where they are. Edwards’s players value his honesty and consistency; he’s as truthful with himself. “We’re there for a reason – we’ve conceded too many goals and too many big chances.” The Bournemouth result has put them level with Nottingham Forest, who are ahead on goal difference. While Saturday’s date at Manchester City, fresh from their fire-breathing appearance at the Bernabéu, may offer little, a run-in against Brentford, Wolves, Everton, West Ham and Fulham keeps them hoping.

Edwards has kept silent on the latest instalment of the Everton saga, with Monday’s additional two-point penalty dropping the Merseyside club two places to 16th, two points above Luton. He says the subject is not discussed in front of the players, although “what they talk about in the dressing room I can’t control”. On Monday evening, Andros Townsend told Radio 5 Live that the system “doesn’t make sense” and “makes a mockery of the Premier League”.

“I understand why they’re huge talking points,” says Edwards, “because it’s unprecedented what’s gone on this year and of course we’re in that mix that are all going to have an interest in what’s going on. But we can’t lose sight of what’s important, which is what we can do here and now.” With uncertainty surrounding the appeals process, he and his team worked, until recently, to a league table that took no account of the points deductions. “If we stay up, I don’t want it to be because of deductions, I want it to be because of what we’ve achieved.”

Edwards has made no secret that he has always wanted to work at the elite level (Kyle says he can already see him evolving into “one of the best young managers in Europe”). “I’m ambitious, we all are,” he says. “I’ve loved this season so far, it’s been tough, it’s been great, it’s been … arrrrgh!” He clutches his forehead and laughs. “Everything you’d expect. But I feel we’ve been comfortable in this environment, the players, the staff. I’ve felt good here and I just want more of it.”

What, then, might relegation mean for him personally? Edwards has attracted many admirers this season, including Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, and it is not hard to imagine another Premier League club making him an offer soon. “This is clearly where I want to be,” he says, “but I want to be here with Luton Town. If the worst happens and we go down we’re in a brilliant position to bounce back – we’re a really well-run club.”

For now, however, he’s not entertaining the notion. “I don’t want to go back to the Championship, and I know the lads don’t either.”


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