There’s an almost mystic accuracy to the statement Nathan Jones made during his first Luton Town managerial interview in 2016, as he now takes over as Southampton Men’s First Manager.
“Within four years, you will be a Championship club. And you won’t just be a Championship club – you will be a Championship club playing a certain way with a younger group of players than you have now. We will fill the stadium, we will recruit in a certain way, we will train in a certain way, and we will create a new atmosphere, a new culture.”
Hailing from the Rhondda Valley, Jones delivered on the focal objective of two promotions back to the second tier in 2019 (half-a-year ahead of his opening gambit), ending the Hatters’ 12-year exile from the Championship.
When the former left-back - who amassed just shy of 500 senior appearances across a 17-year playing career - stepped into the breach in Bedfordshire his first priority was to arrest a run of just one win in nine, turning form on its head to claim 11 wins from the final 21 and finishing 11th in League Two.
Spending just one week outside of the top seven in his first full season in charge, the cruelty of the play-offs struck to blight an otherwise standout 2016/17, before the Welshman’s philosophy took full effect the following season.
A thumping 8-2 victory on the opening day set the tone, as the Hatters went on to become the first club in EFL history to win by seven or more goals on three separate occasions before Christmas.
With more goals than any other English club by December (no less than 63), Christmas came early as promotion seemed forecast. A second-place finish was confirmed in late April, returning Luton to League One for the first time in a decade.
The momentum of promotion can bolster any club, but combined with Jones’s perfectionist nature and ability to grind every ounce of potential out of his squad, the Bedfordshire outfit raced to second place in League One by January 2019, maintaining their free-scoring trait with more goals than any other side.
The key to Luton’s unceasing rise? Perhaps in part their manager’s approach to philosophy, based less on formation and tactics and more on endeavour and environment.
“I know I will have to tweak certain things to adapt to different environments, but your philosophy is not your preferred shape or how you want your teams to play – it’s how you act, how you train, the culture you create. It’s a lifestyle.”
The above quote, from an interview with The Coaches’ Voice, outlines the approach that no doubt caused Championship outfit Stoke City to lure Jones to Staffordshire in January 2019.
Jones did not just depart Kenilworth Road a division higher than we he arrived, but with the distinction of having the highest Football League points per game ratio of any manager in the club’s history.
The Welshman arrived at The Britannia with the club in a state of flux, operating in the Championship for the first season after a 10-year stay in the Premier League.
A difficult 38-game charge at the helm ensued, before his departure in November 2019 signified a first scar from a ruthless industry.
Wounds heal quicker with the right antidote and the 49-year-old found his cure with a return to Luton almost exactly 18-months after his departure.
This was no fairy tale from the off, though. Sitting 23rd in the Championship, six points from safety and with a fanbase to win over once again, Jones’s philosophy was put to the test.
It produced. Safety was secured on the final day of the season, teeing up a 2021/22 campaign with all the hallmarks of a Jones team.
Given time over the summer to reinstall his approach, the club’s highest points total in the second tier since 1981/82 was confirmed, with 62 points earning a 12th-place finish.
Then, a decision that hit the headlines catalysed a 2021/22 campaign that saw the Hatters set fire (there’s a reason for this analogy).
Upon his return to Kenilworth Road, an attempt to change the culture took physical form in the act of burning a table tennis table.
“We had to smash it up first to get it flammable, and once it was flammable we put it to good use. I’m all for recreation, but at the time that was taking precedent over the real business.”
Speaking to TalkSport at the time, the impromptu bonfire acted as a metaphor for truly marking a new era, one that saw Luton soar into the Championship play-offs last season, earning Jones the accolade of EFL Championship Manager of the Season.
Losing once again in the lottery of the play-offs, the fact remained that Luton had overachieved under Jones’s tenure.
Now moving onto a new challenge in the Premier League, he will be hoping to have the same transformational effect in SO14, with or without the need for recreational equipment to perish.