Dreams really do come true. Today, two mighty minnows of the football world battle it out for a place amongst the stars. The fans of both sides have lived through ups and downs only genuine supporters of the beautiful game could possibly appreciate.
If promoted, Luton Town or Coventry City stand to see a revenue windfall of at least BD85 million across the next three seasons, according to Deloitte’s Sports Business Group. That could rise in excess of BD145m if the club survives the first season in the Premier League.
Their odds-defying stories are a big draw. The game at Wembley Stadium is regarded as one of the richest matches in English football history. But forget the money, this afternoon means so much more.
Luton have climbed their way up from non-league football nine years ago, to League 2 four years later, to now being on the cusp of the glittering pinnacle of the game in England.
And, Coventry can become the first team to go from the Premier League down to the fourth tier and back up to the top flight. They only came out of fourth-tier League Two via the playoffs in 2018 after one year and went on to win League One and reach the Championship two years later.
After spending years dodging homelessness and extinction, and, even now, coping with one of the second tier’s lowest budgets, Coventry are one game away from returning to the top flight after 22 years.
Like all Sky Blue supporters it’s been a rollercoaster ride for Coventry fanatic Joe Mulleague, a teacher of Art and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lead at St Christopher’s School Bahrain.
“I started supporting Coventry in 1978,” he told the GDN. “They were my local team and I was taken to a match by a mate whose dad played for Coventry. It was a 4-0 win against Birmingham City – I was hooked and had no idea of the decades of pain ahead ... although 1987 was quite a good year! (The year they won the FA Cup Final beating Spurs 3-2).
“The last six years since the appointment of Mark Robins as manager have seen incredible progress after nearly two decades of despair.
“We have had three relegations, two ground shares at Northampton and Birmingham, the stadium that was built for the club being sold to a rugby team, points deductions, and a descent into the fourth tier of the football league – and that’s just the good bits!
“Just getting to the Championship Play-off Final five years after being in League 2 is a fantastic achievement and pride has been restored.
“I feel nervous and excited in equal measure. I think we’re the underdogs in the final, but you never know. If we do manage to go up it will be a challenging season in the top flight!”
Mulleague is not the only Coventry fan in the family. Married to primary school teacher Kerrie, they have two sons, Louis, 20, studying at Newcastle University and Cormac, 17, who are both ‘huge fans’.
“We watch the Sky Blues ‘together’ every week on iFollow,” said the 53-year-old. “Even Kerrie has jumped on the bandwagon recently and is learning how to pronounce the surname of our Swedish striker Viktor Gyӧkeres.”
He predicts an edgy 1-0 victory ‘fingers crossed’ and added: “Luton have also achieved amazing growth in recent years and they are a very strong side. They were also in League 2 in 2018 and have had to overcome huge challenges to get to where they are. Whoever wins on Saturday, this Championship play-off final is a great story for hope in sport.”
The GDN Media’s managing editor Stanley Szecowka agrees. As a young sports journalist he was tasked with covering Luton Town for two seasons.
“Luton were in the second tier of English football and the first home game I covered they were thrashed 3-0,” he recalls.
“It looked like it was going to be a long season.
“In those early 1980s, footballers weren’t multi-million superstars with flash agents. I interviewed the players in the dressing room after the game, played pool with them after they had showered and changed, regularly called into goalie Jake Findlay’s home for coffee and a chat as he lived near my apartment in Milton Keynes, and coach David Pleat was warm and welcoming and always made a bee-line to say hello, especially when I travelled to away games.
“After that first loss, the Hatters, as they were nicknamed because of the town’s historical connection with the hat making trade and a variant on the now rarely seen straw-plaiters, rarely lost a game again.
“An incredible run of victories saw them promoted to the top league. It was an amazing footballing journey.
“They famously stayed in the top flight with a goal against Manchester City back in 1982/83, the last game I covered before my career in journalism took me on to daily newspapers.
“Man City only had to win or draw the game to stay safe. The loss saw them relegated instead of the Hatters. Hard to imagine that happening nowadays!”
There were rumours the club would move from their ramshackle home in Luton to Milton Keynes but the development corporation got cold feet after visiting Millwall fans smashed up the town.
The stadium in Kenilworth Road is still the subject of much disbelief, debate and derision.
Opinions of Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road stadium run the gamut from charming and cosy to a ramshackle dump, but the club’s former manager John Still believes it could be one of the team’s most potent weapons if they reach the Premier League next season.
Playing in the top flight conjures images of Manchester City’s well-heeled manager Pep Guardiola and goalscoring star Erling Haaland pushing through the rusty turnstiles of Kenilworth Road.
Kenilworth Road’s owners have said stadium upgrades will cost BD5 million.
The 10,356-seat stadium built in 1905 would be the smallest in the Premier League. The seats are an array of colours with no rhyme or reason, like spilled Lego. Some are so worn the original colour is a mystery.
The executive boxes resemble greenhouses and are barely an arm’s length from the team benches.
But it is the away fans’ entrances to the Oak Road End that flummox and draw sneers from visitors. Views of recent TikTok posts of the infamous entries number well into six figures.
The stadium is wedged so tightly into a residential neighbourhood that visiting supporters climb a metal staircase that goes up and over the back gardens of the modest terraced homes. Luton narrowly missed out on the Premier League’s inaugural season, having been relegated from the old First Division in 1992.
Promotion would see Luton tie Wimbledon’s record of going from non-league to the top flight in nine years. And, midfielder Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu is poised to write history on Saturday at Wembley Stadium as part of Luton Town’s fantastical story about defying the odds.
If the Hatters achieve Premier League promotion, he will become the first player to go from non-league football to the top flight with the same team.
A five-year exile from the Football League, after they were relegated from the fourth tier having had points deducted due to financial irregularities, ended in 2014.
A rags to riches story, said long-time supporter Kevin Harper, would be just reward for the team’s turbulent times.
“It was very tough, we were pushed into oblivion really... (but) there was always hope,” said Harper, who kept up his season ticket payment of BD200 during the Covid-19 pandemic, despite no fans being allowed in the stadium.
“I think the whole town is going to thrive from Premier League promotion. The football club is reflective of the town. It’s multicultural, it’s diverse, it’s hardworking, it’s industrial, and it’s kind of asked the community to come with the football club and the community has responded.”
Good luck to Coventry City and Luton Town.
Whatever the score, the true winner of this wonderful fixture is … football.