Football’s richest game has been billed as “one for the romantics” as Luton and Coventry clash for a place in the Premier League on Saturday after decades in the wilderness.
Just five years ago, both clubs were languishing in fourth-tier obscurity.
Now one of them will leave Wembley this weekend having achieved a fairytale promotion worth an estimated £170 million ($210 million).
“This weekend’s contest at Wembley offers the biggest financial prize in world football,” said Zal Udwadia, assistant director of Deloitte’s Sports Business Group.
Coventry manager Mark Robins recognises the appeal of a rags-to-riches tale.
“People talk about journeys, where we’ve both come from,” said the former Manchester United striker.
“It’s one for the romantics.”
Luton last featured in the top flight in 1992 and their Kenilworth Road stadium, with a capacity of a shade over 10,000, set among rows of terraced houses, would be the smallest in the Premier League era if they go up.
“The supporters have been through some dark times,” said Luton boss Rob Edwards. “To get to Wembley is special. Hopefully we can go there and celebrate again.”
Luton enjoyed three successive top-10 finishes in the top flight in the mid-1980s and won their first major trophy when they beat Arsenal in the 1988 League Cup final.
But the Hatters’ decline was painfully steep as they plunged down the leagues.
Hit by punishing points penalties after a series of financial problems, cash-strapped Luton were in dire straits after suffering three successive relegations from 2007 to 2009.
They spent five years in non-league purgatory before winning promotion from the Conference (National League) in 2014 to kick-start their renaissance.
Successive promotions in 2018 and 2019 took them back to the second-tier Championship.
Then Edwards, hired in November after his sacking by Luton’s local rivals Watford, led the Hatters to a third-place finish this term before they beat Sunderland in the play-off semi-finals.
“We believed from day one we could achieve something. We’re one game away from the Premier League. It sounds surreal saying it,” Edwards said.
– ‘Tough road’ –
Like Luton, Coventry’s golden era came in the 1980s.
The Sky Blues spent 34 seasons in the top flight until relegation in 2001, with their most iconic moment coming in 1987 when they stunned Tottenham in the FA Cup final to earn their only major trophy.
But those memories of Keith Houchen’s diving header and boss John Sillett dancing with the trophy on the Wembley pitch gave way to images of angry fans and empty seats during Coventry’s troubled 22-year spell outside the top tier.
Coventry’s plight was worsened by the decision to sell their Highfield Road stadium — they subsequently moved into the Ricoh Arena in 2005.
As their debts mounted, the club were saved from being wound up by London-based hedge fund Sisu Capital two years later.
But relegations in 2012 and 2017 sent Coventry into the fourth tier for the first time since 1959, while Sisu became embroiled in a damaging row over ground rent that twice forced the club into exile.
Coventry were forced to share Northampton’s ground during the 2013/14 season and played at Birmingham from 2019 to 2021 before finally returning home.
Local businessman Doug King bought the club in January this year, ending Sisu’s unpopular reign.
But it is Robins who has been the catalyst for Coventry’s revival since taking over as manager in 2017.
Robins’ team won promotion via the League Two play-offs in 2018 and went up from League One in 2020.
“Luton have come from the National League. I remember it well. It’s been a tough road for them but it’s been a tough road for us,” said Robins, whose fifth-placed side beat Middlesbrough in the play-off semi-finals.
“We’ve got our own tales of woe over a number of years. But we’re one game away from the Premier League. To be part of that is fantastic.”