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Soccer: Forty years after Pleat's joyful jig, Luton eye return to top flight

Soccer: Forty years after Pleat's joyful jig, Luton eye return to top flight

A view of Luton Town's Kenilworth Road stadium, Luton, Britain, May 23, 2023. REUTERS/Carl Recine

LONDON : Luton Town have had some magical moments in their chequered history but one remains lodged in the memories of football fans of a certain vintage - the David Pleat victory dance.

There are others of course, namely Brian Stein's last-minute winner against Arsenal in the 1988 League Cup final at Wembley to earn Luton their only major silverware.

But the image of former coach Pleat, resplendent in a beige suit, hopping and skipping, arms aloft, across the old Maine Road turf 40 years ago after Radomir Antic's late goal against Manchester City is part of English soccer folklore.

That goal not only preserved Luton's top-flight status for another season, it also sent City down.

Both clubs have experienced rollercoaster rides since, although for City the only way has been up since being bought by Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour in 2008 and they stand on the cusp of a treble having sealed a fifth Premier League in six seasons.

For Luton, it was mainly down after they were relegated from the top-flight after a 10-year stay in 1992 - the season before the Premier League began with its accompanying riches.

The downward spiral really accelerated in the mid 2000s as successive relegations left them in the fourth-tier and in financial turmoil, leading to demotion from the Football League for the first time in the club's history in 2009.

Luton were to stay in the Conference division, the fifth-tier, for five seasons but now, after a dizzying rise they stand one match away from re-joining England's elite.


On Saturday, they face Coventry City, a side whose story of decline and resurgence is almost as remarkable, in the Championship play-off final, with the largest financial prize in world football awaiting the winner.

According to Deloitte's Sports Business Group, whoever grabs the last place in the Premier League on Saturday will enjoy a 170 million pounds ($214.56 million) revenue boost across the next three seasons, rising to in excess of 290 million pounds if the club avoids relegation.

"With both sides eyeing a return to the top flight for the first time in over two decades, the stakes are high," Zal Udwadia, assistant director in Deloitte's Sports Business Group, said.

"Both Coventry City and Luton Town were playing each other in League Two five seasons ago - a testament to the strength and opportunity in the English Football League pyramid."

For Luton, promotion could be transformational as they look to leave their ramshackle Kenilworth Road home, that Tripadvisor rates as the worst visiting fan experience in English football, and move to a gleaming new stadium.

At least they have had a regular home. Coventry have been forced to play home games in Birmingham and Northampton in recent years because of disputes over the CBS Arena.

For all hype and history and sub-plots, Saturday's final boils down to 90 minutes, and possibly extra time and penalties, between two clubs who have slogged through a season in Europe's most competitive league for a chance of glory.

Former Luton forward Mick Hartford, a key member of the 1980s top-flight side and now the Chief Recruitment Officer, says there are many similarities between manager Rob Edwards' current squad and the Pleat vintage.

"Spirit, togetherness, camaraderie, a desire and a passion to win, hard-working team, players who get on and a real diligent group who built the culture of the football club," Harford told the club's website.

If victory is achieved on Saturday, a repeat of the Pleat jig of joy will no doubt be reprieved by the 36,000 Hatters fans and those back home in the Bedfordshire town.

(This story has been refiled to correct grammar to say 'years' in the headline)

Source: Reuters


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