WHEN Tahith Chong goes to work at Luton’s training ground, he heads round the back of an Aldi store, down a gravel path, over a bridge — and slap bang into an airport flightpath.
And when boss Rob Edwards gives instructions to his players, he has to stop every few minutes due to the deafening noise of planes taking off and landing just a mile away at Luton Airport.Tahith Chong is ready for his Prem career to take off at Luton[/caption]
It’s not what you’d expect at a Premier League club but then the Hatters — who kick off their adventure at Brighton tomorrow — are the ultimate underdogs in the world’s richest league.
This week I headed into ‘enemy’ territory to see my pal Tahith, Luton’s star signing this summer, who is finally fulfilling his ambition to be a Prem starter.
His new club has such a friendly, family feel that, even as a long-serving former captain of their bitter rivals Watford, I’m made to feel welcome.
Just nine years ago, this was a non-league club — and their Kenilworth Road home is a tiny, cramped, old-school ground which could intimidate the big boys.
All eyes will be on ‘Chongy’ — the 23-year-old former Manchester United midfielder from the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao — a £4million signing from Birmingham, where we shared a dressing room for the past two seasons. I think he’ll cope with this pressure.
When I ask him to describe himself in one word, he says ‘laidback’ — and I wouldn’t argue. As we chat in the club’s gym — stopping every few minutes while one of those planes goes overhead — Tahith says his new club are revelling in their status as rank outsiders.
“Being underdogs is something we will embrace,” he tells me. “We know ourselves from last season that Luton were even underdogs in the Championship and now they have come from non-league football to the Premier League.
“I’ve been speaking to Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu, who’s been at Luton since their non-league days and it’s remarkable to hear this part of the story, the journey they have been on.
“We want teams to come to Kenilworth Road and get a different feel from what they’re used to in the Premier League — and hopefully we can use that intimidation factor to our advantage.
“For most of the players here, this will be their first taste of the Premier League — I’ve come on for United here and there but not too much. Now I feel like a kid before his first day at school — you’ve got your clothes laid out ready to put on — I’m so excited to get going.”
Chong made 16 first-team appearances for United, having won Player of the Year awards at youth and reserve-team levels.
But after loans at Werder Bremen, Club Brugge and Birmingham he joined the Blues on a permanent deal last summer — and I asked if he feels his return to the Prem vindicated his decision to leave Old Trafford.
He said: “At such a big club like United they’re buying players every year and as a young player you get to that stage where just training with the first team might not be enough, you need game-time, you need to play — whether on loan or on a permanent basis.”
He said: “Mata was unbelievable, one of the best I’ve ever seen, but also off the pitch, he is always speaking to you.
“As a young player you are going to have disappointment and Juan really helped me off the pitch, which was massive.
“You walk around with a backpack and you put all these experiences in there and you can go back to that backpack and pull them out when you need to.
“I’ve matured and changed positions, I was more a winger, now I’m more a No 8 — I can still dribble, go forward and be exciting, while working hard for the team.”
Mick Harford, the club’s chief recruitment officer, pops into the gym to say hello.
He is Mr Luton, a hard-as-nails centre-forward for the Hatters in the top flight and their manager on a couple of occasions, including when the club were deducted 30 points and relegated from the Football League back in 2009.
Tahith said: “It’s such a family club, there is such a bond between these people, these players and I’ve been welcomed with open arms, I feel part of it already.”
So does that mean he has been playing it safe with his flamboyant clothes since arriving? Because this is a kid with a seriously loud fashion sense.
He said: “We went away for pre-season and I wore something nice, the boys liked it. The players had seen my Instagram, so I think they were expecting something outrageous.”
Tahith says he became a fashionista because of his mum’s love of clothes when he was a kid — and speaking of his parents, I wonder whether one of them is in the car park waiting to give him a lift home, as they always did at Birmingham.
Then comes some bombshell news: This summer, aged 23, Tahith finally passed his driving test! He said: “I went back to Curacao and passed my test there.”
Sometimes we forget how young and inexperienced in life some top footballers still are. Tahith has just moved away from his parents into his own Hertfordshire home, got his driving licence — and now he’s got the responsibility of being a key player at a Premier League club.
I tell him he’ll have to get used to a new level of scrutiny — Luton Town’s matches will be shown in 130 countries and dissected on 180 different talk shows.
If they lose, he will hear about it on Saturday, Sunday and in the review shows on Monday and then, by Thursday, they will be previewing the next match and saying ‘ah Luton lost last weekend’.
Oh, and if you listen to pretty much any pundit, Luton are already relegated. I’ve been there when Watford were promoted to the Premier League.
“You might as well not bother turning up,” I tell him, tongue-in-cheek.
He said: “Everyone gets that motivation when people doubt you, but in the Premier League, you don’t need extra motivation, you’re playing against the best.
“You want to be at the highest level, which is the Premier League, and everything that comes with it, you take it on the chin. Because once you don’t perform, those cameras can go away as quickly as they came.”
I tell him that if he plays a big part in keeping Luton up, they will treat him like a God.
“I wish you and Luton all the best and I mean it,” I say, “even though Watford fans will hate that.”
And then another plane goes overhead and we say our goodbyes — round the back of that Aldi, where Premier League miracles are being planned.