In an era of chronic overspend, transfer embargoes and points deductions for breaking financial rules, how refreshing that two teams who live within their means will contest the Championship playoff final, the English Football League’s showpiece event and a game worth at least £170m to the winner. Not so long ago Luton Town and Coventry City, clubs with a rich tapestry of top-flight moments, were black and blue – it is only five years since they were lining up against each other in League Two – but now they are on the verge of the bells and whistles of the Premier League.
It is the reason the Coventry manager, Mark Robins, described Saturday’s final at Wembley one for the romantics. Coventry spent 34 years in the top tier before being relegated in 2001. Luton were relegated in 1992 after a 10-year stay. Coventry lifted the FA Cup 1987 and Luton the League Cup the following year. Mick Harford was part of that Luton team in 1988. The club’s former manager, assistant manager and now chief recruitment officer says Luton’s story, from stomaching a 30-point deduction that brought relegation to non-league in 2009 to being this close to the big time, is fit for a film. But who would play Harford? “Who’s got a broken nose and dodgy knees?” he says, smiling. “It’s got to be Brad Pitt, hasn’t it?”
Too many Championship clubs have bet the ranch and lost, with Derby arguably best qualified to tell the cautionary tale. Others, such as Aston Villa, who won promotion via Wembley four years ago, have got away with it over the years. One chief executive recently declared the division a hellhole, so bleak is its financial picture. Some League One clubs have bigger budgets than Coventry and Luton. Both of their most recent starting lineups were assembled at a cost of little more than £2m, with clever use of the free agent and loan market. Several Championship clubs spent more on agent fees alone from February 2022 to January 2023. “You have to try to remain competitive without killing the club,” Robins says.
Both clubs have been smart in terms of recruitment, with data, due diligence and character references key steps in the scouting process. “They look into you as a person and they really do leave no stone unturned,” says Carlton Morris, who became Luton’s record signing last summer after they paid an initial £1.3m to buy the striker from Barnsley. “I’ve been in situations where there can be bad eggs in dressing rooms and it doesn’t take much for the vibe and the energy to change. It’s like a delicate ecosystem, a changing room. It’s important to keep it healthy.”
Luton, who reached the playoff semi-finals last season, finished third this campaign despite operating with a bottom-three budget. Coventry have not spent much more. “Us and Coventry are proof that you can succeed in our pyramid even if you don’t risk your club,” says Kevin Harper of the Luton Town Supporters’ Trust. “I think that is a massive message that everyone, particularly in the Championship where people are spending obscene amounts chasing the dream, could learn from. We are a working-class town and we know the value of a pound coin. The club live up to that.”
Both teams have shown they are capable of absorbing disruption. Coventry have been plagued by off-field problems. Luton lost last season’s player of the season, Kal Naismith, to Bristol City last summer and their manager, Nathan Jones, to Southampton in November. Rob Edwards, sacked by their rivals Watford, succeeded Jones and has pushed Luton on again. “Someone said to me: ‘You’ve got the winning formula,’” Edwards says. “I’ll tell you what it is: it’s good people; I’m around good people. You have to have consistency, you’ve got to recruit well, you’ve got to be savvy. Know what you are and try to be good at it and that’s what we have done really well.”
Luton and Coventry playing out the final should humble division rivals with bigger pockets. “If you go back 31 years when the Premier League was formed, we voted for it to go ahead but got relegated that season and never set foot in the place,” Harper says. “In the back of the mind there has always been that sense of: ‘We helped to create this, but we’ve never had a slice of the pie.’ Just to have one season in the Premier League would be massive.”
A trip to Wembley is sure to stir emotions and evoke memories – good and bad. Luton last visited in 2012 for the Conference playoff final, which they lost to York City, Coventry in 2018, when they clinched promotion from League Two. But this time the game is worth so much more. Gary Sweet, the Luton chief executive, cites the £500m boost to Brighton’s economy since that club’s promotion in 2017. This week the tributaries of Kenilworth Road were abuzz with excitement and nervous energy. “Crazy busy, but good busy, exciting busy,” says a member of ticket-office staff. “We’re going to Wembley, Come on You Hatters,” reads a digital sign on the A1081, a dual carriageway into Luton off the M1.
There has been worldwide interest in the occasion and these clubs, despite their past, have never experienced such profile. Supporters are set to fly in from Scandinavia, Sydney and Argentina. Luton’s remarkable story – in particular their Oak Road away entrance – has gone global. “Erling Haaland’s not going to walk through that entrance, he’s going to walk through the other shit entrance we’ve got,” says Sweet. “We’ve got to embrace it. We will.”