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- Wall Street Journal article pasted
Writer Jason Robinson. WSJ 27 May (sorry, couldn’t copy and paste the picture).
“For a soccer team that has nearly gone bankrupt at least twice this century, Luton Town isn’t too worried that the greatest day in club history came with a bill for $12 million. When you complete an English soccer miracle, that’s just the cost of doing business.
The reason is that Luton, which was playing in the fifth tier a decade ago, won promotion to the Premier League on Saturday with a dramatic victory over Coventry City at Wembley Stadium. The win, which came in a penalty shootout after the game ended 1-1, completed an incredible climb from the obscure depths of English soccer to the top in just nine years.
The problem is that the club’s ancient, 10,000-seat stadium hasn’t quite kept up with the times. Known as Kenilworth Road, it sits in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood, hard up against red-brick row houses where every goal makes the teacups shake.
So now, there is some remodeling to do to comply with the standards of the richest soccer league on Earth. An entire stand essentially needs rebuilding. More floodlights have to be installed. And broadcast areas must be expanded. Rule K of the Premier League handbook demands all of it.
“We have no complaints as it’s part of the inclusion of the membership,” club chief executive Gary Sweet said before the game. “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it properly.”
Even Luton Town never expected to be in this position so soon. The club, based in a commuter town outside London mainly known for its international airport, was created during the reign of Queen Victoria and has spent most of its existence outside the top tier of English soccer. Its last taste of the high life came in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded. And since then, its history has been spent on a grand tour of the lower leagues.
“I never would have thought in my lifetime I’d see Luton Town playing top-flight football,” former Luton defender Leon Barnett said on BBC Radio.”
Luton was sitting in the second tier in 2006-07 before financial troubles sent the club sinking through the divisions like quicksand. Back-to-back relegations dropped it into the fourth tier, known as League Two. And things only got worse from there. Before the start of the 2008-09 season, the English Football Association handed down a crippling 30-point deduction as punishment for financial irregularities by the club’s previous ownership group. In other words, Luton Town would need to win 10 matches just to get back to zero points in the standings.
So few people were interested in turning out for the club on the pitch that in August 2008, it had just six pro players on the books.
“At the start of the season, when you are deducted 30 points it is very, very hard to attract players to a football club,” Luton head of recruitment and former player Mick Harford told reporters. “It is very difficult to say, ‘Come on, come and join us in League Two.’”
Relegation was practically inevitable. Luton dropped into the fifth tier, among the semi- and barely professional, on the edge of financial oblivion. The club stayed there five years.
If there was any glimmer of hope, it’s that meteoric surges back up through the divisions aren’t as rare as they might seem—provided you don’t go broke first. A club injects a little money, finds a strong mix of players, and hires a manager with clear ideas of how to play and momentum starts to build. Putting all of those things together is ferociously difficult, but every so often, it happens.
Watford, for instance, was languishing in the fourth tier in the mid-1970s until it was purchased by a local musician who had supported the club since childhood. The club was then promoted three times in the space of five years under manager Graham Taylor and reached the modern top flight for the first time in eight decades of existence. That local fan’s name, by the way, was Elton John.
A few years later, the Wimbledon team of the 1980s, nicknamed the Crazy Gang, climbed through the Football League in just 10 seasons. With Luton’s win on Saturday, the club nicknamed the Hatters pulled off its stunning climb one season faster.
“You’ve got to have a plan, you’ve got to have consistency, you’ve got to recruit well, you’ve got to be savvy,” manager Rob Edwards said. “And then know what you are and try to be good at it. That’s what we’ve done really well.”
Luton’s opponent, Coventry City, was on a revival journey of its own. The club from the West Midlands was a top-tier mainstay from the late 1960s through the 1990s, until dropping out of the Premier League in 2001. That’s when it entered the familiar cycle of relegated teams: financial trouble, near bankruptcy, another relegation, and several changes of ownership.
In Coventry City’s case, the catalyst was an expensive stadium project that assumed the club would stay in the Premier League. When it didn’t, its new home turned into an albatross. And as recently as 2018, Coventry was playing in the fourth tier—right alongside Luton Town.
Just five years later, Saturday’s match had both sides dreaming of the top tier’s land of bounty. The Premier League’s redistribution of its colossal television rights earnings is the most generous in soccer—a single season of membership can change the course of a club’s history. Take Norwich City, which finished the 2021-22 season dead last with just five wins in 38 games. The club still took home $124 million in payments from the league and then earned tens of millions more in “parachute payments” on its way back down.
For Sweet, Luton’s chief executive, that would more than cover the upgrades to Kenilworth Road. It might even be enough to start construction on a new 23,000-seat ground the club has secured planning permission for nearby. First, there was one more game to win. And the Hatters knew better than most that promotion and relegation might be the most humbling processes in sports.
“You have got to do the right things and show a lot of respect,” Harford says. “You have got no divine right to be at the top of the pyramid.”
On Saturday, Luton Town finally made its way back there—the hard way.”
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