By Ben Morse and Darren Lewis, CNN
(CNN) — It’s been dubbed soccer’s “richest game,” but for Luton Town and Coventry City, Saturday’s Championship play-off final means much more than just money.
The match at Wembley Stadium in London guarantees a place in next season’s Premier League, but also signals 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 would receive $211 million (£170 million) across the next three seasons through “projected increases to their own commercial and matchday revenues and secured central Premier League revenues.”
That would increase to $360 million (£290 million) if the club avoids relegation in its first season.
After a long, grueling season – comprised of 46 league games and two playoff semifinal games, Saturday will decide one team’s ascension and possible transformation and, for the loser, dismay and disappointment.
From the ashes
The journey from the lower echelons of English football to the brink of the Premier League has been a long and winding trek for both clubs, who have battled financial difficulties, relegations and constant setbacks.
Luton was one of the founding members of the Premier League in 1992, having been in the English football’s top flight division the previous season and voted for its organization. It was relegated the season before its introduction.
“That was annoying because we voted for the Premier League to come into existence but then we got relegated, so we’ve never actually set foot in it, we’ve not tasted any of the financial riches that have come that way, the profile of the Premier League,” Kevin Harper, a fan of Luton for over 35 years and a member of the Luton Town Supporters’ Trust, told CNN Senior Sport Analyst Darren Lewis this week.
Over the next almost 20 years, the club suffered five relegations, three administrations and was penalized with 40 total points worth of deductions as it slipped further down the rungs of the England’s soccer pyramid.
The descent was so precipitous that 10 years ago, Luton was in English soccer’s fifth tier and outside of the Football League. Harper described the club as being “on its absolute knees.”
But through savvy signings, effective managers and a new ownership group, the club has risen through the leagues slowly but steadily.
Welshman Nathan Jones led the team successfully over two stints, but it is his compatriot Rob Edwards who has brought the club to within 90 minutes of reaching the promised land of the Premier League.
The prospect of Premier League stars lacing up their boots and playing at Luton’s old-school stadium, Kenilworth Road, could be a bit of a culture shock to them.
The ground, built in 1905, has a capacity of little over 10,000 and has many old-fashioned features – including wooden stands and an entrance which offers a view into the gardens of the terraced housing which border the stadium. It remains a novelty in an ever-modernizing sport.
The club is scheduled to move into a new stadium in a few years’ time but, in the meantime, Luton chief executive Gary Sweet told CNN Sport that promotion would mean the club would be required to spend approximately $12.4 million (£10 million) to improve Kenilworth Road to ensure it meets Premier League standards.
Sweet – a lifelong fan of the club too – said that promotion to the Premier League would do so much more than financially stabilize the club.
“This will transcend Luton. It will change the face of Luton, it will change the perception of Luton virtually overnight,” Sweet said of the town, which is 29 miles north of London.
“But it isn’t always about money. We’ve proved this with the club. It’s not about money necessarily, its about what you do with it. It’s actually what you do with the perception because we’re more concerned about the perception of Luton.
“Luton is the most charitable town in the UK. It’s got a massive beating heart, it’s got a real soul to this place. It’s a great example about how diversity can live together here. It’s got so much positivity yet what people talk about is the negativity all the time because they don’t look at anything other than skin deep.”
One man who has personally experienced Luton’s rise through the league system is midfielder Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu.
Mpanzu signed for the club when it was in the fifth tier, playing a key role in Luton’s rise through the divisions and could become the first player ever to play for the same club in each of England’s top five tiers.
Harper says that a goal from Mpanzu in the play-off final would be the “crowning part of this story.”
“If he scores the winning goal, the story is written – it’s a fairy tale, it’s a film script.”
Coventry has also had quite a journey to reach the play-off final.
A regular in English football’s top flight between the late 1960s and the early 2000s, with iconic players in its sides – from Steve Ogrizovic and Brian Borrows to Dion Dublin and Trevor Peake – the club slowly fell down the league system.
Like Luton, financial difficulties were a key reason for Coventry’s decline.
The club was saved from administration in 2007 by a last-gasp takeover from a consortium called SISU Capital.
However, things didn’t improve much for the club under the new owners, with spending limited, crowds suffering and the team even not being able to play games at its home ground, the Ricoh Arena, for over a year.
The squad ended up having to share a ground with Northampton Town – a team 34 miles away – over a dispute over unpaid rent.
The club was actually dissolved in 2015 but was allowed to continue to operate. Results suffered further still, with the team relegated to League Two – the fourth tier – where it met Luton.
Then Mark Robins returned.
The former Manchester United striker was reappointed the manager of Coventry in 2017, three years after his first spell at the Midlands club.
Robins has overseen a remarkable rise through the league system, winning promotion from League Two in his first season and a rise to England’s second tier just a year later.
What has made his tenure as a manager even more successful has been the ability to get positive results in the face of adversity.
The club once again faced more stadium issues in 2019 when it was forced to play its home games at Birmingham City’s St. Andrews after owners SISU and Wasps – the rugby club which owned the stadium – couldn’t come to an agreement.
As a result, Coventry had to play games away from its home fans for two years before, in 2021, it was able to return.
With Robins at the helm, Coventry has improved season upon season, with Saturday’s play-off final spot the possible crowning moment of his six-year stint so far – the team lost just once since February 3 to rise to fifth in the table before beating Middlesborough in the play-off semifinals.
Coventry has achieved the feat with a group of relatively unheralded players with previously unassuming experience.
Swedish striker Viktor Gyökeres has scored 21 goals in the league to put himself high on Premier League teams’ shopping lists should Coventry fail to get promoted, Gustavo Hamer and Jamie Allen have provided thrust from midfield and Jake Bidwell, Callum Doyle and Ben Wilson have been ever-present in defense and goal.
Captain Liam Kelly has been with the club throughout the rise from League Two; he played the entirety of the 3-1 victory over Exeter City in the League Two play-off final which kicked off this resurgence.
On the eve of possibly once again playing at Wembley Stadium with promotion on the line, Kelly remembered that appearance five years ago and the pressure that came with it.
“I remember it all went really fast. The day flies by and kick-off arrives before you know it,” Kelly told his club’s official website. “We know what we need to do on the day and we need to make sure we’re on the right end of the critical moments, as they will decide the game. Those moments will win or lose us the final.
“There is more attention surrounding this one but, on a personal level, it is the same for me. One difference is that we were expected to be promoted from League Two, and even in League One. This time around, very few people would have predicted us to get to this position.
“We have got nothing to lose and everything to gain. It will be a great day for the players and the fans.”
Robins called the prospect of facing another club who’s had an unexpected journey “a romantic story.”
“They were in the National League with a points deduction to deal with. It took them five years to return to the EFL and what a run it has been since,” he told his club’s official website.
“They have always been a year ahead of us, but now we meet here on the biggest of stages. We’re both on the same pitch at the same time. It’s a phenomenal story, that’s for sure.
“We’ve built on things season-on-season, despite the well-documented issues we had. The club have kept me in post when they could have removed me during difficult periods, but we’ve come out the other side by staying focused, both the club staff and the supporters.”
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 until the end in the world’s most lucrative soccer game.
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