Things never run smoothly at the Hawthorns and the start to this season has been no different. After frustration during the transfer window, the opening day victory was followed up with a successful deadline day but, since then, a draw and a defeat against Millwall has brought back the doubts. On Saturday, Slaven Bilić takes his side to Kenilworth Road to face newly promoted Luton Town.
Having been relegated from League Two in 2009, the Hatters spent five seasons out of the Football League, returning after winning the Conference in 2014. Back-to-back promotions masterminded by Nathan Jones have seen them return to the Championship for the first time in 12 years, but it is a different Jones that is in charge at Kenilworth Road for this season. Former Baggies assistant head coach, Graeme Jones, took over in the summer in his first role as a number one, and it certainly gives this fixture a little more meaning than it might otherwise have had.
When Nathan Jones left Luton to take over at Stoke City in January, it was soon clear that his namesake, Graeme, was at the top of the list of possible replacements. Darren Moore’s assistant spoke to the Hatters at the time, but opted to stay at the Hawthorns and Mick Harford was put in charge for the remainder of the season guiding Luton to the League One title. Moore and Jones were subsequently sacked amidst rumours that a key reason was Jones’s undue influence over tactics and many Baggies fans put more blame on him for the failure to win promotion than on Moore or anyone else at the club.
As a result, there will certainly be a bit of needle surrounding the game on Saturday afternoon with Jones still looking for his first league win as a manager – Luton followed up their opening day home draw against Middlesbrough with defeat at Cardiff City.
The Hatters’ window was fairly quiet with the only money spent on goalkeeper, Simon Sluga, but perhaps their best piece of business was to hold onto last season’s top scorer, James Collins. The former Villa youth player has scored more than 20 goals in each of his last three seasons for both Luton and Crawley Town, and totalled 25 in the last campaign which was his first in the third tier. It remains to be seen whether he will be a success in the Championship but he has already opened up his 19/20 account with a late equaliser against ‘Boro.
Jones did not manage to hang onto all the promoted squad with midfielder, Jack Stacey, moving to Bournemouth for £4m and right back, James Justin, making the switch to Leicester City for a fee rumoured to be in the region of £8m including add-ons.
A right back moving to Kenilworth Road will be familiar to Baggies fans – Zimbabwean, Brendan Galloway, spent an unsuccessful season on loan at the Hawthorns in 2016/17 and has moved to Luton on a free transfer from Everton. Another former Baggie, Izzy Brown, is also in Bedfordshire on yet another loan from Chelsea while Callum McManaman also moved to Luton this summer on a free transfer from Wigan Athletic. The latter has started both league games so far this season, while Brown and Galloway made their debuts in the 3-1 EFL Cup victory over Ipswich Town in midweek.
After opting to exclude his new signings from the league game with Millwall last weekend, Bilić gave three of them their debuts in the EFL Cup tie against the same opposition on Tuesday evening, as well as giving a first taste of action to Darnell Furlong. Obviously, it didn’t go to plan as Albion went out thanks to two set piece goals, but both Austin and Diangana impressed, as did Pereira when he came on from the bench, and the head coach will have to consider changes for this weekend’s game.
Ken Zohore would seem to be the first obvious casualty with Charlie Austin almost certainly to start with the Dane failing to impress in his two games so far. Phillips and Edwards are harder to leave out for either Diangana or Pereira, however, but there will certainly be some exciting options on the bench for Bilić irrespective of who he starts.
One player who once again failed to take his chance was Oliver Burke. Slav has certainly given him a chance as he is one of only three players to have played some part of all three games this season. The Scot is yet to impress in an Albion shirt and, having been given a start against Millwall on Tuesday, his performance left much to be desired. There are rumours of a potential return to Germany with the European windows still open, but there must be significant doubts as to whether Albion will ever recoup anywhere near the £15m that they paid for him.
One player who has always impressed on the few appearances he has made is backup ‘keeper, Jonathan Bond. He made a stunning double save on Tuesday night and there are, once again, calls from some quarters for him to get some time in the Championship. He has played in every cup game since he signed last summer, but is yet to displace Sam Johnstone in the league. Johnstone has made a couple of errors this season and, while it might be harsh to drop him just yet, Tuesday was a timely reminder that there is a capable replacement waiting for his chance.
As a newly promoted club, Luton will not be expected to be tough opposition but we all know that there are no easy games in the Championship. Bilić has much to ponder ahead of the match with Albion having been very impressive between the penalty areas so far this season, but less so in each box. Charlie Austin will hopefully make the difference up top, but the Croat needs to find a way to cut out the errors that have cost the Baggies goals this season. They really should be sitting joint top with six points having dominated the league game against the Lions last weekend, but another away victory this weekend would see that disappointment start to fade.
Despite the concerns and the doubts, there is still plenty to be positive about at the Hawthorns. From what we have seen, Slaven Bilić’s brand of football seems to have the right balance between adventure and pragmatism and, while you cannot judge the transfer window’s success for a few months yet, there are early signs that Dowling has done a decent job.
The EFL Cup exit was unwelcome, if only because it removes an opportunity to give more game time to fringe players, but I’m sure we’d have all taken four points from the opening two league games – seven from three would be very welcome!
On Saturday, the Baggies make their first trip to Kenilworth Road for more almost 13 years although the clubs did meet last season in the Carabao Cup at the Hawthorns.
In the 2006/07 season, both clubs found themselves in the Championship and the league meeting in Bedfordshire took place in September. Albion were without their key central defender, Curtis Davies, who had been signed from Luton for £3m the year before, and were also without a permanent manager after Bryan Robson had been shown the door after the previous weekend’s home draw with Southend United.
Nigel Pearson’s spell as caretaker had started with a 3-1 win over Cheltenham Town in the League Cup in midweek, but the trip to Kenilworth Road proved to be a tougher challenge. Davies’ absence was highlighted for the hosts’ opener just before the half hour as Rowan Vine sprinted away from both Paul McShane and Chris Perry to fire in a low shot that Albion ‘keeper, Pascal Zuberbühler, couldn’t stop.
A few minutes later, the visitors were back on level terms. Chris Perry played a pass into Nathan Ellington with his back to goal about 25 yards out and he laid the ball into the path of Darren Carter. The former Blues man took the ball on and fired a powerful shot into the corner of the net from the edge of the D.
Parity didn’t last long as the Hatters re-took the lead before half time, with Vine once again the scorer. This time he flicked home a free-kick that had been fired low across the box from the right-hand side, beating Zuberbühler at his near post, to send Luton into the break 2-1 up.
Albion’s second equaliser came just after the hour mark. Paul Robinson fired a dangerous cross in from the left wing that fizzed across the six yard line. Ellington failed to connect centrally, but Zoltan Gera was on hand at the far post to fire the ball high into the net.
It finished 2-2 which was the only game that Pearson failed to win in his time as caretaker. Albion went on to lose to Derby County in the play-off final that season, while Luton were relegated to League One.
All competitions; most recent game on the right
14 Aug 2018 – League Cup 1st Round
West Brom 1 (Burke)
Luton Town 0
Last meeting at Luton Town
23 Sep 2006 – League Championship
Luton Town 2 (Vine (2))
West Brom 2 (Carter, Gera)
Last win at Luton Town
14 Oct 1995 – League Division 1
Luton Town 1 (Harvey)
West Brom 2 (Ashcroft, Hunt)
Albion’s Record against Luton Town