Luton Town v Coventry City: Football’s ‘richest game’ offers $360m Premier League play-off final jackpot

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It has been dubbed the ‘richest game in football’, but for Luton Town and Coventry City, Saturday’s Championship play-off final means a lot more than just money.

The match at London’s Wembley Stadium guarantees a place in next season’s Premier League, but also marks a dramatic rise for both teams, who played each other in the fourth tier of the English football league pyramid just five years ago.

According to Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, the winner of Saturday’s Championship play-off final will receive $211m (£170m) over the next three seasons through “projected increases in its own commercial revenue and match and event revenue central Premier League guaranteed revenue’.

This will rise to $360m (£290m) if the club avoid relegation in their first season.

After a long, grueling season – consisting of 46 league games and two semi-final play-off games, Saturday will judge a team’s rise and potential transformation and, for the loser, disappointment and frustration.

From the ashes

The journey from the lower echelons of English football to the brink of the Premier League has been a long and fascinating journey for both clubs, who have faced financial difficulties, relegations and constant failures.

Luton were one of the founding members of the Premier League in 1992, having been in the top flight of English football the previous season and voting for its formation. He was relegated the season before his induction.

“That was embarrassing because we voted for the Premier League to be created but then we got relegated so we’ve never set foot in it, we’ve never tasted any of the financial riches that have come that way, the profile of the Premier League Kevin Harper, a Luton supporter of more than 35 years and a member of the Luton Town Supporters’ Trust, told Senior Sport Analyst Darren Lewis on CNN this week.

Over the next almost 20 years, the club suffered five relegations, three administrations and were penalized with a total of 40 points deducted as they slipped further down the rungs of the English football pyramid.

The descent has been so steep that 10 years ago, Luton were in the fifth tier of English football and out of the Football League. Harper described the club as “on its knees”.

But through experienced signings, effective managers and a new ownership group, the club has slowly but surely climbed the leagues.

Welshman Nathan Jones has led the side to success over two spells, but it is compatriot Rob Edwards who has brought the club within 90 minutes of arriving in the promised land of the Premier League.

The prospect of Premier League stars lacing up their boots and playing at Luton’s old stadium at Kenilworth Road could be a bit of a culture shock for them.

The ground, built in 1905, has a capacity of just over 10,000 and has many old-fashioned features – including wooden stands and an entrance that overlooks the roof gardens bordering the stadium. It remains a novelty in a sport that is constantly modernizing.

The club are set to move into a new stadium in a few years but, in the meantime, Luton chief executive Gary Sweet told CNN Sport that the promotion would mean the club would have to spend around £12.4m dollars (£10m) to improve Kenilworth Road to ensure it meets Premier League standards.

Sweet – a lifelong fan of the club as well – said promotion to the Premier League would do much more than stabilize the club financially.

“That will beat Luton. It will change the face of Luton, it will change the perception of Luton almost overnight,” Sweet said of the town, which is 29 miles north of London.

“But it’s not always about money. We have proven that with the club. It’s not necessarily the money, but what you do with it. It is actually what you do with perception that we are most concerned with Luton’s perception.

“Luton is the most charitable city in the UK. It has a huge beating heart, it has a real soul in this place. It is a great example of how diversity can coexist here. It has so much positivity, but what people talk about is negativity all the time because they’re not looking at anything but their own skin.”

One man who has personally experienced Luton’s rise through the league system is Pelly-Ruddock midfielder Mpanzu.

Mpanzu signed for the club when they were in the fifth division, playing a key role in Luton’s rise through the ranks and could become the first player ever to play for the same club in each of England’s top five divisions.

Harper says a goal from Banzou in the playoff final would be “the pinnacle of this story.”

“If he scores the winning goal, history is written – it’s a fairy tale, it’s a movie script.”

Returning
Coventry also had enough of a trip to reach the play-off final.

A regular in English football’s top flight from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, with iconic players in his side – from Steve Ogrizovic and Brian Boroughs to Dion Dublin and Trevor Peake – the club slowly slowly fell into the league system.

Like Luton, financial difficulties were a key reason for Coventry’s decline.

The club was rescued from administration in 2007 with a last-ditch buyout by a consortium called SISU Capital.

However, things did not improve much for the club under the new owners, with spending constrained, crowds suffering and the team unable to play games at their home ground, the Ricoh Arena, for over a year.

The club ended up having to share a ground with Northampton Town – a team 34 miles away – over a dispute over unpaid rent.

The club effectively disbanded in 2015 but was allowed to continue operating. Results suffered further, with the team relegated to League Two – the fourth tier – where they met Luton.

Then Mark Robbins came back.

The former Manchester United striker was re-appointed Coventry manager in 2017, three years after his first spell at the Midlands club.

The Robins have achieved a remarkable rise through the league system, winning promotion from League Two in his first season and promotion to England’s second tier just a year later.

What made his tenure as manager even more successful was his ability to produce positive results in the face of adversity.

The club once again faced more pitch problems in 2019 when they were forced to play their home games at St. Andrews by Birmingham City after owners SISU and Wasps – the rugby club that owned the stadium – could not reach an agreement.

As a result, Coventry had to play games away from their fans for two years before, in 2021, they could return.

With Robbins at the helm, Coventry have improved season on season, with Saturday’s play-off final perhaps the highlight of his six-year spell so far – the team have lost just once since February 3 and climbed to fifth table position before beating Middlesborough in the play-off semi-finals.

Coventry achieved the feat with a group of relatively unknown players with previously unassuming experience.

Swedish striker Viktor Gyökeres scored 21 league goals to be high on Premier League clubs’ shopping lists should Coventry fail to get promoted, Gustavo Hamer and Jamie Allen boosted the midfield and Jake Bidwell, Callum Doyle and Ben Wilson. always present in defense and in goal.

Captain Liam Kelly has been with the club throughout their promotion from League Two. he played the entirety of the 3-1 win over Exeter City in the League Two play-off final that started that resurgence.

On the eve of possibly once again playing at Wembley Stadium with promotion on the line, Kelly recalled that performance five years ago and the pressure that came with it.

“I remember that everything went very quickly. The day goes by and kickoff arrives before you know it,” Kelly told his club’s official website. “We know what we have to do on the day and we have to make sure we are on the right end of the crucial moments as they will decide the game. These moments will win or lose us the final.

“There’s more attention around it but, on a personal level, it’s the same for me. One difference is that we were expected to be promoted from League Two and indeed from League One. This time, very few people would have predicted us to reach this position.

“We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It will be a big day for the players and the fans.”

Robbins called the prospect of facing another club that had an unexpected trip a “romantic story.”

“They were in the National League with points deducted to deal with. It took them five years to get back to the EFL and what madness has happened since then,” he told his club’s official website.

“It was always a year ahead of us, but now we meet here on the biggest stage. We are both on the same field at the same time. It’s a fantastic story, that’s for sure.

“We’ve been building things season after season, despite the well-documented problems we’ve had. The club kept me in when I could have been taken off at difficult times but we came out the other side staying focused, both the club staff and the fans.”

With a place in one of the world’s top leagues on the line, these two historic clubs with more than 135 years of history each will no doubt push all the way in the world’s most lucrative football game.

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