Remaining faithful in the eye of the storm
Nathan Jones is back in the Luton Town managerial hot seat after a whirlwind year that tested his resilience, abilities and desire to succeed. He talks to Stuart Weir about a challenging period that helped him discover a lot about himself and the God he trusts.
There are just under 15 minutes to go in Luton Town’s home Carabao Cup Round Three tie with Manchester United. The visitors lead 1-0 from a first half penalty but the game is evenly poised. Luton manager, Nathan Jones, is about to introduce his first subs, Elliott Lee and Harry Cornick, to try to force an equaliser. Out of the corner of his eye he notices that Man U are also about to introduce substitutes: Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford are waiting to come on. ‘£200million worth of talent’ as Jones puts it. Predictably Rashford and Greenwood score late goals.
Nathan Jones was born in Wales and first played for Merthyr Tydfil in the Conference. As well as two seasons in the Spanish Second Division, he played over 450 games in the English Football League for Southend United, Scarborough, Brighton and Hove Albion and Yeovil Town, in a professional career lasting 23 years. His five seasons at Brighton (2000-05) were eventful as the club started in League Two, were promoted twice to reach the Championship, relegated and then promoted again. He played in play-off finals at Wembley and Cardiff’s Millennium stadium.
Even as a player, he was thinking ahead: ‘I knew I would become a coach. I knew I wanted to stay in football, so I was preparing for my first job after playing. I always enjoyed working with players and I was always interested in the tactical side of the game. So, I knew, I wanted to go into coaching, but I didn’t know at what level it would happen. While I wanted to play for as long as I could, I was also preparing for another career.’
While playing for his last club, Yeovil Town, he coached the Ladies team and later became player-assistant manager of the men’s team. After serving as Under-21s coach at Charlton Athletic and assistant head coach back at Brighton, he was appointed as manager of Luton Town in 2015, then in League Two. He got them promoted to League One in 2018 and assembled the team which was to be promoted to the Championship the following season. However, Jones had left in January 2019 to become manager of Stoke City. His time at Stoke was not a success and he was fired after ten months, returning to Luton Town in 2020.
In his book Living on the Volcano, Michael Calvin describes how in one year there were 63 managerial changes in the 92 clubs in the four divisions of English football. Why would anyone want a job with no job security? Jones told me that he loved being a footballer and never thought he would find anything to beat playing, but he has: ‘I get more of a buzz as a manager than I did as a player. I enjoy my responsibilities and all I do.’ That said, he recognizes the demands: ‘It consumes your life and it consumes every part of your day. It helps when you win. I had four days off at the last international break and was able to switch off completely and be with my family. But it helped that we had started the season well and had won the last game before the break.’
He works long days: ‘I’m usually up about six and I start by praying and reading the Bible – I do that every day. Then I take some kind of exercise – running or on a bike. I get in to work just after eight and I am there until 6.30 or 7.00pm so it’s a long day. First thing we’ll have a staff meeting to discuss the day and prepare training. Then we all get on with our jobs. The players come in about 10 and train 10.30 to 12.30. After that, for me, it’s a day in the office, watching games, evaluating our last game, evaluating training, preparing for our next game, possibly player recruitment. It’s full on. I would normally have an evening at home with my family but I’m currently living away from my family because they are still up north.’
I asked him what he enjoyed about the job. ‘Winning!’ was his quick answer. He elaborated more thoughtfully: ‘To be honest, I enjoy all of it. I loved playing beyond anything, and I never thought there could be anything as good but honestly, Luton is a fantastic club. Nothing beats preparing your team for a game and seeing your plan come together, and when you win a game or you get promoted. I enjoy developing players and seeing them get better. Luton is a very hands-on development club.’
The challenges of the job include: ‘the highs and lows and the pressure. You try not to get too high and you try not to get too low but it’s very difficult. You work all week and a defeat or a bad performance tends to sour how you feel and what you do. Picking yourself up from a defeat is probably the biggest challenge. Particularly as you, as the manager, have to be a positive influence for everyone else. Even though you are hurting, you can’t let that show because everyone else is hurting and you are the leader. And you have to lift others. There’s never a time you can relax even if you have won. I find it hard to sleep after a game – good or bad result – because you are thinking about it. So, I tend to watch games in the middle of the night. Then you’re looking ahead to the next game. The more successful you want to be, the harder and the smarter you have to work.’
Growing up in a Christian family, faith was always part of his life. ‘My parents are Christians and from a young age they taught me the gospel. When I got to about 16, I had a choice. I could remain in the faith or I could leave it. But I knew that I wanted to continue trusting in God. It’s the only way to live. I had a lot of choices to make and after 16 a lot of my football was on Sunday. I remember praying: “God, I want to be a Christian. I want to remain in the Christian faith, I want it to be at the forefront of my Christian life. But I also want to be a footballer, show me the way.” I made the choice and I played on Sundays. I was playing for Cardiff City youth team and a lot of our games were on Sunday, so I had to play on Sundays if I wanted to progress. It’s been a constant fight for me, keeping the Sabbath, but now it’s something that I am reasonably at ease with.’
He continues: ‘I think God is interested in every part of your life – whether you’re a footballer, bricklayer or nurse or a politician, God cares for you. God’s love is for everyone. I do believe that God cares about everyone and that everything is God’s will. I also believe that if you’re a public figure, there is an opportunity to do God’s work on a global scale. I have been very privileged in the lifestyle that I’ve had. I’ve been blessed to do what I absolutely love. And I think it’s only fair that I give something back to God. I couldn’t do the job without my faith and there have been moments when I have categorically known that God was with me. So, I do think he cares about football because he cares about everything.’
Being a Christian in a macho world like football is not always easy. ‘There are a lot of temptations in football, temptations to stray from the gospel, to stray from the straight and narrow path. I was never ridiculed but there is friendly banter. People used to call me “God squad” or “Bible basher” or ask “What is God telling you today?” There are difficulties but I think now, if you’re a Christian, there is every opportunity for you to be open about your faith.’
He believes that it is just as important to live as a Christian in the football club as it is at church on Sunday: ‘I try to be honest and to be upright. I am honest with people. I don’t tell people things they want to hear just because it’s easier to do that. I try to have integrity in my decisions and to show compassion in what I do. Those are Christian characteristics but it’s also what I’ve been brought up in. I forgive easily. I don’t forget, but I forgive. These are human traits that I have learned through a great Christian upbringing. That has made me the manager I am – whether that’s a good manager or bad manager. That is definitely the type of manager that I am. I’m very passionate about my job. I can be angry and vociferous. I like the human side of the job. I like to get to know my players and for them to know that they can trust me. They may not like me, but they can respect me. So, honesty, integrity and the human side of me stem from my Christianity.’
Going back to the game against Manchester United, he told me, Luton Town always take pride in taking on teams from higher divisions and want to test themselves. ‘We had a game plan for Man U and we wanted to be positive against them. And to be fair, for 88 minutes we really tested them. We were 0-1 down from a penalty and had a glorious chance to equalize but it was kicked off the line. But for 88 minutes we took one of the best clubs in the world to the wire. They brought some big hitters off the bench, but we had gone in with a really positive mindset of trying to upset them and trying to win the game. We could have seen that game out and lost 1-0 and lost admirably but that’s not the mentality here. We really wanted to try to take it to penalties, to take a scalp against a very, very good side. We were very proud of the team on the night and the score flattered Manchester United somewhat.’
At the time of writing Luton Town are well placed in the Championship but that is not the height of Nathan Jones’ ambitions for the club: ‘We have to establish ourselves in the Championship first. But in the medium term, we will be looking for promotion to the Premier League. When we get our new stadium in two years, we should have the finances to punch a bit harder. And then we’ll be able to be more competitive in cup competitions and also trying to get into the top six of the Championship to have a chance of getting into the Premier League.’ Whether they make it, time alone will tell but you can be sure that the manager will give it his best shot – and he will do it with Christian integrity.