SoccerSoccer Angles

Little, luckless Luton still have a shot at one of the great Premier League feats

On Saturday Manchester City will host a team that, despite relatively meagre resources and a long injury list, could yet play their way to survival among England’s elite

On this weekend a year ago, Luton Town won 2-0 at Rotherham United. The win kept Luton third in the Championship behind Burnley and Sheffield United.

This is where Luton Town were, this is who Luton Town were. The Premier League barely gave them a glance and when it did, it was to say your ground’s not big enough.

Twelve months on Luton travel to Manchester City as one of the stories of the Premier League season. The Hatters have defied expectations, used Kenilworth Road to their advantage, overcome punishing injuries, losses and in mid-April are still in with a shout of staying up. Those clubs who finished above them a year ago – Burnley and Sheffield United – they’re all but down.

Luton? Today they go to the European champions. They have not played at the Etihad stadium before.


True, they are in the relegation zone. But it is only on goal difference and Luton are one of five clubs with a realistic aim of being in the division come August. Nottingham Forest, Everton, Brentford and Crystal Palace will not have anticipated being chased all the way by a team who won a Wembley play-off on penalties, a club with minimal resources and a stadium whose capacity is 12,000.

When Luton lost their first four matches by an aggregate of 10-2, those clubs existing in lucrative mid-table cosiness will have been reassured of another season of spectacular income to further buttress their squads and maintain their comfortable status quo.

Then on the last day of September, Luton won at Everton, Goodison Park shivered and a few other clubs felt a tap on the shoulder. Luton, a club who had not been in the top flight since 1992, had their first Premier League-era victory.

The Hatters’ first goal that day came from Tom Lockyer, their captain. Lockyer had also scored the winning goal in the play-off semi-final against Sunderland that got the Hatters to Wembley. A clever, ball-playing centre-half, Lockyer gave his side aggression, wit and passing rhythm. Now he gave them belief the season might be more than a visitor experience.

Three days later Luton lost at home to Burnley and the “learning, growing, adapting, evolving” that manager Rob Edwards had spoken of after Everton suddenly sounded premature. Others looked away again.

By December there had been a second victory and a first at Kenilworth Road – against Palace – but when reigning champions City made their way to Bedfordshire in December Luton had nine points from 15 games and their Premier League status still felt temporary.

They took the lead against City, though, through Elijah Adebayo. While Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish won the game for City, Luton had scored against Pep Guardiola’s Treble winners.

That was a small landmark in the season’s journey; another, rather more significant, was that the game also marked Lockyer’s last major involvement. The following week he collapsed at Bournemouth, just as he had done after 12 minutes at Wembley and while Lockyer, who suffered a cardiac arrest, lost most, his team-mates, his coach, his club, lost a leader. This was not just a personal injury, this was a traumatic incident for the club.

Rocked, Luton reacted by beating Newcastle 1-0 and going to Bramall Lane and scoring three. They were still in the bottom three but now had 15 points from 18 games, a ratio that offered a glimpse of what could be.

As perceptions of the club changed, Brighton were beaten 4-0 – with an Adebayo hat-trick – and though it has been hard since, one win in 11 plus a 6-2 home defeat by City in the FA Cup, when Erling Haaland scored five, Luton go to City as Premier League competitors. The odds say otherwise – they’re 30/1 to win – but having scored in both games against City so far, they know they can at least do that.

Luton also know that three of their last five matches are at their old, raucous home and Brentford, Everton and Fulham will not be looking forward to their trip with any glee.

The fact is Luton Town can stay up and there’s a reasonable argument it would be English football’s greatest escapade since Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016.

It is unwise to downplay their achievement, but Leicester had players of the experience of Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, signings of the calibre of N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez and a striker in Jamie Vardy who scored 24 goals in 36 games. And crucially they all stayed fit.

Edwards last week counted 11 players out, including Chiedozie Ogbene, Adebayo, Amari’i Bell and Jacob Brown – and Lockyer. They all played in that breakthrough win at Everton. It’s why Christian Chigozie was on the bench at Arsenal 10 days ago. He’s 16 and still at school.

Ross Barkley has provided some Premier League pedigree, as have Marvelous Nakamba and Sambi Lokonga, though the latter pair are also out. You would have to say that, on Saturday, all this offsets Rodri saying he and the City players are feeling weary.

Rodri said this – understandably – after City’s 3-3 epic at Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday night; it’s a long, long way from Kenilworth Road.

It is a quirk of the fixture list that City’s run goes Real Madrid, Luton Town, Real Madrid, but Luton deserve this profile. It may feel unfeasible to travelling Hatters who watched their club enter the 21st century in the third tier, on a downward spiral that took in administration (2007), an incredible 30-point deduction (2008) and the inevitable loss of Football League status (2009). Even in 2018 Luton were playing in League Two.

But the manner of their adjustments (plural) this season is admirable. Edwards has a claim on being manager of the year and in talismanic centre-forward Carlton Morris, Luton have a contender for footballer of the year. He won’t win it, of course, but Morris has impressed in the same way Neil Redfearn did for Barnsley in their lone Premier League season of 1997-98 or Charlie Adam did for Blackpool in the 2010-11 season. (Blackpool were relegated on 39 points.)

Relegation, Luton and Manchester City – it takes you back to 1982-83 and one of English football’s unforgettable scenes. On the last day of the season Luton’s Yugoslavian midfielder Raddy Antic scored an 86th-minute winner. It kept Luton up, sent City down and had David Pleat skipping across Maine Road. Managers didn’t really do that sort of thing then.

“What an amazing act of escapology,” says John Motson, commentating for Match of the Day.

If 2024 Luton Town stay up, it will merit repeating.