The final spot in next season’s Premier League was sealed at the weekend when Luton Town clinched promotion with a penalty shoot-out victory over Coventry City in the Championship play-off final at Wembley Stadium.
The Sky Blues’ Fankaty Dabo blasted the 12th spot kick over the crossbar to send the Hatters back to the top flight of English football for the first time since being relegated at the conclusion of the 1991/92 campaign – the last season before the commencement of the Premier League.
The Bedfordshire outfit accomplished their win despite suffering a major shock and potentially damaging set back early in the game, when inspirational captain Tom Lockyer collapsed with no player near to him and after lengthy treatment left the field on a stretcher, before being taken to hospital for tests.
As recently as 2014 Luton were floundering in the National League, which is the fifth tier of English Football League (EFL). They had fallen out of the EFL in 2009 amid a financial meltdown and the club came very close to liquidation.
Promotion means their unique home at Kenilworth Road, with a capacity of only just over 10,000, surrounded by terraced houses in tight residential streets, will now require urgent modifications – estimated to cost around £12m – carrying out in the three months until the start of the 2023/24 season, to enable it to be fit to host Premiership football.
Skipper stretchered off in worrying incident
The blow of losing their skipper could have seriously dented confidence, but it only proved to galvanise the rest of the Luton team and they proceeded to dominate the first half of the contest and could – and probably should – have been out of sight by half-time.
Coventry reacted positively and drew level mid-way through the second period; then extra-time could not separate the two teams, but the Hatters won through in the end.
Both sides recovering from difficult recent years
Whichever team had won the game would have completed a remarkable comeback from alarming positions that these two clubs had found themselves in over the past couple of decades. Coventry had slipped to the fourth tier with their own financial difficulties and were forced to play their home games in Birmingham, 25 miles away.
It turned out to be Luton’s day and their manager Rob Edwards was keen to dedicate the victory to his 28-year-old captain, Lockyer, immediately after the match. “I just feel for ‘Locks’, who has been our best player this year. It feels a bit wrong to celebrate” he said.
Captain feeling better
Lockyer was feeling much better after the game and was able to speak with his teammates. “I would just like to say a massive thank you to the amazing physios and doctors at Luton and Wembley for the swift and thorough response; I am sure it was a much scarier moment for everyone else than it was for myself.”
Fourth promotion in 9 years
The victory concluded an amazing recovery for a club which the Hatters chief executive Gary Sweet admitted had come exceptionally close to going under, and had struggled to get themselves back into the EFL, after surrendering their place in 2009. They eventually climbed back out in 2014, gathering over 100 points and scoring over 100 goals in the process.
They had to wait until 2018 to get up to League One, but with great momentum they won a second successive promotion the following year, and after a struggle in the first year in the Championship, they have been in and around the play-off positions ever since.
Ground will prove a culture shock to many
Promotion will put the spotlight on their old stadium which is a throwback to a bygone era of English football grounds. Next season some of the best players in world football will get something of a culture shock when they arrive, with the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United and all the rest of the elite League, set to step out at the cramped venue.
The 10,356-capacity ground is not really suitable, but for now will have to suffice. Visiting supporters will be astonished at their entrance is through turnstiles sandwiched between a long row of terraced houses, with a metal stairway that overlooks the back gardens of the adjoining homes, taking them to their seats.
Improvements urgently required before thoughts can turn to new stadium
Luton’s owners say they will now need to spend around £12m getting the ground ready. Improvements will include pretty much rebuilding one stand in less than three months just to comply with Premier League’s broadcasting requirements and some facility requirements.
However, Mr Sweet said: “Much has been made of the cost mainly on changing Kenilworth Road for media needs; but broadcasting rights in the top flight brings in revenue of more than £100m, so that won’t be an issue.”
Indeed, promotion may now speed up the move and essentially pay for a new stadium, which has planning permission and work is expected to commence some time next year with a target completion of 2026, regardless of the club’s position at that time.
One player samples the whole journey
Incredibly, one player has been on the journey all the way from the non-league days, right up to an appearance at Wembley, to complete his own remarkable story. Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu made his Luton Town debut in a Conference game at Alfreton in December 2013, and could not have believed that 10 years later he would walk out at Wembley Stadium, representing the same club for a place in the Premier League.
Mpanzu was substituted during extra time against Coventry, and is regarded as an iconic figure within the football club. He said: “It’s been a great rise and everyone has played a part. I’m a Premier League player; I told you we were going to do it and it’s going to be a party all summer in Luton.”
That party began as soon as Coventry missed their 6th penalty kick in the shoot-out and as Mpanzu remarked, will go on right the way up to the beginning of next season, and probably all the way through the campaign, as a celebration of a remarkable football club’s recovery.