Fourteen long years after being thrust into the non-league amid anger, bitterness and a 30-point deduction, Luton Town celebrated their return to the big time amid firecrackers and ticker streams golden.
It’s been quite a journey. Rarely scenic but certainly the long way after crashing out of the top flight as the Premier League launched and took on the world as Luton were sent out to fight for their very existence.
“They had dark, dark times,” boss Rob Edwards said after Luton clinched promotion at Wembley Stadium, eventually overtaking Coventry City on penalties after a dramatic few hours, which began with the collapse of their captain Tom Lockyer in the field.
Lockyer was rushed to hospital, from where his father sent a post-match photo of the 28-year-old Wales international celebrating the win to everyone’s relief, including Edwards, who was broke down in tears in the middle of a live TV interview.
The teammates held the captain’s number four shirt aloft as they paraded the play-off trophy in front of their cheering fans.
Luton Town earned promotion to the Premier League after beating Coventry City in a penalty shootout at Wembley
Hatters players run in celebration after winning a tense penalty shootout that ended in sudden death against Coventry
Jordan Clark opened the scoring for Luton in the first half at Wembley as he found himself at the end of an Elijah Adebayo cut-back
It had been hard won and the decisive moment was a Coventry miss under Fankaty Dabo after the first 11 penalties found the net.
The promotion belonged to Luton and with it £180m of Premier League riches.
“I hear Neymar is available,” Edwards joked before adding, more realistically, that the club won’t “go crazy” in the transfer market as the bounty will go towards securing the club’s future in a new stadium in the center of the city. .
Until then they will host the Premier League at Kenilworth Road, their beloved home so dilapidated since 1905, and their rise unleashes a host of human stories, including Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, who in the space of just nine years has become the first player to climb through five promotions from non-league to top flight with a club.
And Edwards, who started the season plotting promotion with fierce rivals Watford, who was only sacked after 10 games, and Mick Harford, a club legend from the former glory days and now chief recruiting officer. who was the manager when they escaped from the Football League. .
Harford hailed the match as the greatest in club history and suggested someone might want to make a movie of it. Well, they got Hollywood’s end despite an ominous start when Lockyer collapsed on the ground with no one near him.
Edwards herded his players into a group in the shade as he stirred and demanded concentration. His team had started strong. They had already had a Gabriel Osho goal ruled out for offside, and stayed ahead despite the setback, taking a deserved lead through Jordan Clark.
Elijah Adebayo chased a long pass down the left, passed Kyle McFadzean and threw a pass to Clark, who took a throw-in before beating Coventry keeper Ben Wilson.
Luton captain Tom Lockyer collapsed on the pitch and was later taken to hospital.
Gustavo Hamer leveled Coventry with a box-edge finish in the second half to dampen Luton’s spirits
Hamer (centre) was later substituted after picking up an injury at the end of the tense final play-off encounter against Luton
It was only his fourth goal of the season. Luton should have taken the lead when Carlton Morris and Adebayo created more problems for the Coventry centre-backs as they battled another high ball. He fell on Adebayo who nursed a side-footed volley over a group of bodies, including keeper Wilson, only to see his effort drift away from the empty net.
There was another goal ruled out as Luton continued to dominate. This time for the handball as Callum Doyle hooked the goal-line clearance against Adebayo’s arm. The rebound fell into the net but the Luton striker didn’t even celebrate. Instead, he raised his hands, aware that it wouldn’t count.
Coventry created very little but were a different proposition after a half-time change by boss Mark Robins who sent in Matt Godden, a move that helped his side further up the pitch. Top scorer Viktor Gyokeres grew more influential and tested a defensive unit showing signs of anxiety without Lockyer there to cajole and organise.
Wembley’s Sky Blue end found their voice and the equalizer came on the break as they defended a corner and Callum Doyle freed Gyokeres and he pushed Luton back before finding Gustavo Hamer with a pass brought back to the edge of the repair area.
Hamer met him for the first time, and his punchy footer flashed between Osho’s legs and past Ethan Horvath’s dive.
The momentum was firmly with Coventry but they lost it when they lost Hamer, injured and sent off in the 80th minute.
The contest exploded into overtime, where Clark was booked for diving by Michael Oliver. Clark claimed the close contact and replays appeared to show he might have been right, but VAR backed the officials on the pitch.
Fankaty Dabo (middle) needs to be consoled by his full-time teammates after missing the crucial penalty in sudden death
It was ecstasy for the full-time Luton players (right) and agony for the Coventry players (left) who will remain in the Championship
Normally there’s no VAR in the EFL but it’s on the line for those Wembley finals, and there was more activity in the replay bunker when Joe Taylor thought he had won it for Luton, pouncing on a Jonathan Panzo error to spark exuberant celebrations.
Edwards joined in, sprinting down the sideline. “What an idiot,” he said later, the ball had hit Taylor in the hand and referee Oliver ruled it out, sparking cheers at the other end of Wembley Stadium.
Although not for long. It was not to be for Coventry, who can be proud of their own remarkable comeback history, after years of poor ownership and 64 days at the bottom of the Championship, earlier this season.
“The opposite of their joy is our pain,” said boss Robins. “You certainly feel it, but once that wears off we have to think about what an accomplishment it is to be here. We need to galvanize and move forward. We need to get back here as soon as possible. Or better yet.
Coventry 3-4-2-1: Wilson 6.5; McNally 6.5, McFadzean 6, Doyle 7 (Panzo 115); Norton-Cuffy 7 (Dabo 91, 6), Gerbe 7, Kelly 7, Bidwell 6.5; Allen 6 (Godden 46, 7.5), Hamer 7.5 (Palmer 80 (Eccles 102, 6)); Gyokeres 7.
Subtitles: Moore, Panzo, Wilson-Esbrand
Goals: Hammer 68
Director: Marc Robins 6
Luton 3-5-2: Horvat 6; Osho 6 (Potts 112), Lockyer (Burke 12, 6.5), Bell 7; Drameh 6.5, Mpanzu 7 (Berry 98, 6), Nakamba 7.5, Clark 8.5, Doughty 6 (Onyedinma 84, 6.5); Morris 6.5, Adebayo 7 (Taylor 106, 6).
Subtitles: Shea, Campbell, Taylor
Goals: Clark 23
Director: Rob Edwards 6
Ref: Michael Olivier 6