How Luton Town and Coventry City have an embarrassing thing in common as they face off in £200m Prem battle
THE biggest-money game in football isn’t the Champions League final for the top clubs in Europe – it is the one to get in to the Premier League.
And on Saturday afternoon two teams who couldn’t be further removed from the glamour of Manchester City or Italy’s Inter Milan will battle to triumph in a match estimated to be worth more than £200million to the winner.
Luton Town, who will have to knock down one side of their dilapidated 118-year-old ground to meet top flight standards, will face Coventry City, who keep getting evicted from their troubled stadium.
If Luton win, they will be the first side to go from the non-league up to the Premier League. On the other hand, Coventry were just 15 minutes away from going out of business a decade ago because they didn’t have anywhere to play.
As former Manchester United striker Mark Robins, 53, who manages Coventry, says: “It’s one for the romantics.”
Premier League fans have been shocked by the prospect of watching the beautiful game at Luton’s Kenilworth Road. The turnstile to the cramped away end goes through Victorian terraced houses.
Multi-millionaire stars such as Man City’s Erling Haaland will make their way to the tiny dressing rooms via a potholed car park and a door under a concrete bridge.
This week the club’s chief executive, Gary Sweet, joked about the way in under people’s homes, saying: “Haaland isn’t going to walk through that entrance, he’ll go through the other s*** entrance we’ve got.”
Away fans hoping their section of the ground is going to be redeveloped will be disappointed.
The club plans to knock down the neighbouring Bobbers Stand, containing executive boxes, and put up a temporary one in 14 weeks at a cost of £10million to fit in cameras and pundits.
The headache faced by Coventry isn’t much better.
Their stadium is owned by retail magnate Mike Ashley, 58, much hated by Newcastle United fans when he owned their club.
Ashley, who isn’t part of Coventry’s football set-up, bought the Coventry Building Society Arena in November last year. He is now leasing it to the football club for five years.
Whatever happens with the stadiums, fans of both sides will just be excited by the prospect of a return to the big time for two teams that were at their peak in the 1980s.
Coventry pulled off one of the greatest FA Cup final shocks in 1987, beating Tottenham 3-2.
A year later Luton defeated Arsenal by the same scoreline in the League Cup final.
The past two decades have been a struggle for survival for both clubs.
Twenty years ago, Luton was taken over by chairman John Gurney, whose pie-in-the-sky plans included building a Formula One racetrack around a 70,000-capacity stadium over the M1 motorway.
He held a Pop Idol-type vote for a new manager, charging fans 50p to take part, and talked about merging with rivals Wimbledon.
Even though the fans wrestled back control of the club from Gurney, their problems were far from over. In 2006 their then-manager Mike Newell promised to tackle a “bung scandal” in the game, which led to an investigation of the club’s dealings with players’ agents.
Two years later, they were deducted ten points “for paying agents via a third party”, then docked a further 20 points for being in administration, when they had no money but those put in charge believed they had a chance of saving the business.
They started the 2008-2009 season in the fourth tier with minus 30 points — then the worst penalty ever handed down by the Football Association. Their then-manager Mick Harford was unable to prevent relegation to non-league status.
But former England striker Harford, 64, who played in Luton’s League Cup final, saw it as the moment the Bedfordshire club was reborn, because it was in the hands of devoted fans. He told The Sun: “I said to the players, this is the time the new Luton Town starts.”
The club had so little money that the players trained on a public field where locals complained when balls hit their dogs.
Midfielder Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, 29, who has been with Luton since their non-league days, recalled: “We were on a dogs’ field with a few Portakabins.”
He was part of the team that won promotion back into the football league in 2014 and will be the first player to climb up all the divisions with one club if Luton win today.
Locals know how much Premier League action will mean to the team and the town.
The stadium’s wooden boards that make up some of the stands rock when the fans roar.
Musamoth Lucky, who lives in a housing association property over the ground’s entrance, felt the walls shake when the team won the home clash that put them in the play-off final. She said with a smile: “My living room was vibrating.”
The town council owns Luton’s Kenilworth Stadium and is considering plans for a new 20,000-capacity ground which would be owned by the club.
All the shareholders are local businessmen and Luton Supporters’ Trust has a one per cent share.
Kevin Harper, from the trust, says: “It will be sad to leave, but if we are to have any chance of competing in the Premier League we need a bigger stadium.”
Coventry City appear to be a cautionary tale for any club thinking of a stadium upgrade.
In 2001 there were plans for a 90,000-capacity ground with a retractable roof, but that was soon scaled back.
In the top flight for 34 years until May 2001, rising debts from the new ground forced Coventry to sell their best players.
Before the stadium was even finished, it was sold by the club in 2005 to property developers and rented back at a high cost.
In 2013 the club was forced to ground share with Northampton Town following a rent row.
Supporter Ian Davidson, 70, says: “I was told we were 15 minutes from going out of business before we went to Northampton.”
The club have had points deducted for going into administration and failing to fulfil fixtures due to the state of their pitch, which they used to share with Wasps rugby club. In 2017 they were relegated to lowly League Two, before climbing back up the leagues.
Premier League status would be a much-needed boost for Luton. It is estimated that half a billion pounds has poured into Brighton since they made it into the world’s richest football league in 2017.
Nearly a third of all children in Luton live in poverty, and its jobless rate of 8.5 per cent is almost twice the national average.
Gary Sweet praised the local community, saying: “It’s an industrial town, tough, hard-working and kind-hearted. More is donated to charity than anywhere in the UK.”
Neither Coventry nor Luton have splashed cash in the promotion push. Their wage bills are in the lowest three in the Championship.
Gary claimed: “A couple of Championship clubs spent more on agents fees than we did on players.”
For that reason their rise has been described as a fairytale.
Mick Harford, who is in charge of recruitment at the club and is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, concludes: “They should make a film out of it if we win.”
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