Luton Town's Premier League production line
Written by Greg Broughton — July 16, 2019
AWAY fans climbing the steps between two rows of terraced houses into the Oak Road end at Kenilworth Road will not realise they are walking above a small room built into the underbelly of the stand.
It measures approximately 15 feet by six and has no straight walls or natural light. Hung across the middle there is an old torn badminton net. Yet for four decades or more, this slightly shoddy space has helped hone the touch and technique of many future top-flight players.
Among them are Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis, the young full-backs who starred in Norwich's promotion campaign last season, and are now attracting covetous glances from the biggest clubs in the country. Another is Jay Dasilva, the England Under-21 defender who signed for Bristol City from Chelsea earlier this summer.
During the 1980s, under David Pleat’s leadership, Luton developed the first generation of homegrown players who would go on to grace the top level. The team that reached the FA Youth Cup Final in 1983 contained Mitchell Thomas, Tim Breacker, Mark Stein and Garry Parker. A few years later, Matt Jackson, John Hartson, Kingsley Black, Kelvin Davies and Matthew Taylor broke through.
In the 1990s, Terry Westley and Jeff Vetere were the architects of a Luton team that reached the 1997 FA Youth Cup semi-final and included Matthew Upson, Emmerson Boyce, Gary Doherty and Matthew Spring.
I was fortunate to work in this environment for six years, from 2006 to 2012, first as Head of Academy Recruitment and then as Academy Manager, and it shaped my footballing philosophy. Here's how.
When I arrived at Luton, the first team was riding high in the Championship with a team built around the most recent batch of Academy graduates. Players such as Curtis Davies, Kevin Foley, Leon Barnett and Keith Keane had broken into a team that had won consecutive promotions.
Coach Stuart Smith and I were given complete autonomy to shape the recruitment strategy for the Academy and we focused on three key areas:
1. Having an outstanding pre-Academy:
This ensured that local players wanted to be part of the club. From this programme alone, the following 10 players, born between 1997 and 2000, were identified and are now professionals in either the Premier League or Championship:
- James Justin (Leicester City)
- Max Aarons (Norwich City)
- Jamal Lewis (Norwich City)
- Cameron McJannet (Stoke City)
- Tyreeq Bakinson (Bristol City)
- Freddie Hinds (Bristol City)
- Jay Dasilva (Brentford via Chelsea)
- Arthur Read (Brentford)
- Cole Dasilva (Brentford via Chelsea)
- Frankie Musonda (Luton Town)
2. Identifying the late developers or players who had fallen out of the system:
By focusing on talent identification of youngsters aged 12 to 15 we were able to recruit the following players who brought in transfer fees:
- Cauley Woodrow Barnsley (via Fulham)
- Dave Moli (Liverpool)
- Tarum Dawkins (Arsenal)
- Michael Cain (Leicester)
- Janoi Donacien (Ipswich via Aston Villa)
3. Working with as many players as possible for as long as possible in the best environment possible:
We set up eight development centres throughout the region, with no barriers to entry. This allowed us to continue to work with almost 500 eight to 16-year-old players each week. It also allowed us to identify and develop coaches in a low-pressure environment. The programme played a part in developing the following players and coaches:
- Ciaran Jones (player, Norwich U23s)
- Louis Lomas (player, Norwich U23s)
- Akin Famewo (player, Norwich U23s)
- Jon De Souza (Colchester Academy Manager)
- Stuart English (Birmingham Assistant Academy Manager)
- Tony McCool (Charlton first team scout)
- Andy Elderton (Victoria State senior coach)
- Pip Davis (Norwich lead Academy coach)
Identification of potential is just one piece of the jigsaw, however. As an Academy, we had to ensure this potential was developed, despite limited resources that grew even scarcer following relegation from the Football League.
Luton Town undoubtedly has a good catchment, but this is also the case for many clubs in England. As TS Eliot said, "The great ages didn’t contain more talent, but they wasted less."
Ensuring that talent was not wasted underpinned everything we did.
In 2008, I was promoted to Academy Manager and along with Stuart and the rest of our staff, we created three key principles for the youth programme that were engrained in the DNA of the club:
1. Get everyone working in the same direction:
Luton Town played a brand of attacking passing football that requires players to be comfortable in possession and to have athleticism in key areas of the pitch. The development programme had to focus on this and we were able to employ great coaches who developed this further. Dan Walder (current Luton Town U18 coach) and Eizo Sugino (current Director of the Mie Soccer Academy in Japan) were both employed as individual skills coaches and helped ensure that players in the foundation phase stayed on the ball whenever possible. In the older age groups, we were able to work with ex-players such as Wayne Turner to make sure players didn’t stray too far from the club’s playing principles.
2. Create a learning environment:
Ensuring that a Socratic method (described as co-operative argumentative dialogue) was the dominant teaching style encouraged individuals to become unconsciously competent in their decision-making. In addition, we embraced an internship programme for coaches and analysts that exposed them to the front line rather than shielding them in the background. This helped bring through the likes of Jordan McCann (now Head of Coaching at Luton), Scott Smith (Head of Foundation Phase, Norwich City) and Paul Quilter (first-team analyst, Chelsea).
3. Train to win:
By exposing young players to a mixture of development fixtures and highly-competitive tournaments at all age groups, players were exposed to the importance of winning while making sure development remained at the forefront. An U11 team including Jay and Cole Dasilva, Jamal Lewis and Frankie Musonda beat Bayern Munich in front of 3,000 people in the Aarau Masters, a televised five-a-side tournament in Switzerland that also featured the likes of Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund. You can see a news report about the tournament in the video above. The following weekend the team were playing Leyton Orient in front of 20 people in a regular game. Playing fixtures against grassroots opposition on a regular basis as part of the training programme also exposed players to a different challenge.
EPPP has changed the power balance in English football and ensuring that Luton’s magnificent tradition of youth development continues will be a big challenge for the club over the next decade.
Knowing the leadership in the 2020 ownership group, along with the quality of the coaching staff still at the club, I know this is something they will be well prepared for and will excel at.
In fact the owners have made youth development a core part of their mission statement, setting a target that the first team should contain, on average, three players from the Academy, each having joined at the age of 13 or younger.
"The Academy strives year or year to supply players that the town can be proud of."
Gregg Broughton was Academy Manager at Luton Town from 2008 to 2012 and at Norwich City from 2014 to 2017. He has been Academy Director at Bodø-Glimt since November 2017.