When it was over the beaten players of Luton Town lingered for a few minutes, marched around the pitch and made sure to thank the crowd for their magnificent support. The home fans had done everything to make Kenilworth Road’s first taste of the Premier League an occasion to remember, keeping the volume high from start to finish, and it would have been quite something if Carlton Morris had taken a late chance to equalise moments before Kurt Zouma scored the goal that carried West Ham back to the top of the table.
Unfortunately for Luton their big night would end with another lesson about the harsh reality of life at the highest level. West Ham punched through with fleeting moments of quality, Jarrod Bowen putting them ahead after meeting a lovely cross from Lucas Paquetá shortly before half-time, and stayed resilient during a testing second half. Luton, who remain pointless after three games, simply lacked the flair to hurt tough, experienced opponents.
Yet while Rob Edwards’s side look a long shot to stay up, even at this early stage, at least nobody can accuse them of a lack of heart. Luton kept fighting after going 2-0 down, Mads Andersen setting up a frantic finish by pulling a goal back in stoppage time, and might have had a reward for their defiance had John Brooks, the VAR, decided to take a closer look at James Ward-Prowse appearing to handle in West Ham’s area during the closing moments.
“I’ve only seen a freeze frame,” Edwards said. “If it was a penalty I’m disappointed it’s gone against us. Those are the moments you need at this level. But I’m not going to complain about that. We need to look at ourselves and see where we can get better. I’ve seen some good things and progression. Ultimately that’s got to lead to points.”
Not since April 1992 had this inimitable ground hosted a game in the top flight. Luton have been through so much since then, from the agony of dropping out of the Football League in 2010, to the ecstasy of last season’s improbable promotion, and in that context it hardly mattered that a few renovations were required before they could finally play at home this season.
West Ham had to earn the right to play. Luton pressed, Marvelous Nakamba and Tahith Chong working hard in midfield, and kept aiming long balls towards Morris. Alphonse Areola, West Ham’s goalkeeper, had to be alert. The Frenchman gave his team one early scare, flapping nervously at a cross from the left, and was relieved to see Ross Barkley drag a shot wide.
As the opening period progressed, though, doubts grew over Luton’s quality in the final third. Morris and Elijah Adebayo were a blunt pairing up front and West Ham settled thanks to the composure of their new midfield pairing of Edson Álvarez and Ward-Prowse.
Firm in the tackle and calm in possession, Álvarez went close to opening the scoring from the edge of the area. Gaps were opening. Bowen and Saïd Benrahma shot wide and the breakthrough soon arrived, Luton paying a heavy price when they gave Paquetá time to cross in the 37th minute.
They will know better than to let a £51m Brazil international lift his head next time. There was no pressure on Paquetá and he took advantage by picking out Bowen, who peeled away from Amari’i Bell before heading past Thomas Kaminski, who fumbled the ball into the net. “Jarrod took his goal well,” David Moyes said. “He’s always a threat. We’ve brought in a lot of positivity from winning the European trophy last year.”
Luton needed more belief if they were to deny West Ham a second consecutive away win. Their response was positive, Morris glancing a header wide, Chong going close, but the attacks remained predictable. Zouma kept heading crosses away and West Ham threatened at the start of the second half, Emerson Palmieri’s goal disallowed for offside, Benrahma denied after meeting Ward-Prowse’s low cross.
Luton took heart from those near misses. Alfie Doughty had a shot deflected over after cutting in from the right and Ryan Giles nutmegged Paquetá. Then a mix-up between Nayef Aguerd and Areola almost gifted Adebayo an equaliser.
West Ham could feel their control slipping away. It was not a surprise when Moyes introduced the discipline of Pablo Fornals in place of Benrahma. West Ham needed to stiffen up and were soon using their know-how to slow the game down, with Álvarez repeatedly dropping into defence to help Aguerd and Zouma.
The openings dried up for Luton. They needed sharpness when one finally appeared but Morris lashed over when the ball dropped to him in the box. It was a pivotal moment. West Ham scored with their next attack, Ward-Prowse swinging in a corner and Zouma’s header momentarily silencing the locals. Andersen’s goal counted for nothing.