Luton Town are ready to inject some loud realism into the Premier League

The Premier League would be well advised to prepare. Luton Town are coming over the hill and, with one last charge to make, could soon be on their way through the gates. This defiant and fiery little club have places to be, opponents to upset and are just one game away from making their long-awaited return to the top flight.

Luton is the uplifting story of English football’s last decade but it’s unclear where it all ends. Three promotions in six seasons have taken them from the fifth-tier National League to the Championship and now there’s the golden chance to make a once implausible leap. Win the play-off final at Wembley on Saturday the week, against Coventry City or Middlesbrough, and the Premier League will have to send an invite to their most unlikely guest yet.

“We are one game away from the Premier League,” Luton manager Rob Edwards said. “It sounds surreal, but we are. It’s a fact.”

The 2-0 defeat of visitors Sunderland last night in an anxious play-off semi-final second leg at Kenilworth Road was a fitting projection of what Luton has become. They trampled on their guests, urging them into gradual submission. There was physicality, intensity and a zeal that Sunderland could not match for the second time in four days. The narrow advantage Tony Mowbray’s side gained in a 2-1 win at the Stadium of Light on Saturday was ruthlessly stripped away by Luton’s will.

The eventual 3-2 aggregate win was deserved and a road to Wembley loudly celebrated.

It hasn’t been since 1992 – that pivotal year for English football – that Luton have been a top team. Thousands of people ignored pleas to stay off the pitch full-time and stormed the stands to revel in one of the finest nights in their 138-year history. Few would blame them for this moment after all the club has endured over the past 15 years.

Supporters remember the injustice of 2008 when the Football Association and Football League saw fit to peg Luton 30 points for financial irregularities, a punishment which led directly to their relegation to non-League football where they drifted for four long seasons. “Thirty points, who cares? We are Luton Town and we are going up,” they sang on a loop last night.

A banner displayed in the main stand is another nod to their recent history of financial ruin. It reads: “Football belongs to the fans, NOT the sheikhs, oligarchs, chancers and bankers.”

This post seems particularly relevant to where Luton could be heading. They are something close to an antidote to the ills of modern football, a shrewdly run operation that does not depend on the wealth of its benefactors.

Luton is unlike anything else in the Premier League, as is Kenilworth Road, a time-forgotten stadium in a working-class town about 50km north of London. Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium might be a little bigger in terms of capacity, but Luton’s ramshackle home, surrounded by roads and terraced houses, would be a very unique stage to host Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.

It is estimated that £10million will have to be spent just to bring the Kenilworth Road facilities up to a standard the Premier League deems adequate for broadcasters.

Luton’s infamous Kenilworth Road stadium before the game with Sunderland (Photo by Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

It is not until 2025-26 (at the earliest) that Luton can hope to move to a proposed new stadium near Power Court, but last night’s visit to Sunderland highlighted that there is still room for improvement. life and value in the old place.

The size of the place meant that just over 10,000 people could fit in, but they made Kenilworth Road unfriendly in the extreme. Ferocious, sometimes almost wild. They asked for Sunderland’s blood and, more often than not, they got it. Luton’s relentless pressing drew roars of appreciation from the first minute to the last. Blocked clearances were celebrated as goals. “It was really special,” Edwards said. “Seeing how happy people were at the end means a lot to me. They’ve been through a lot of dark times.

If Luton had strayed in the first leg this weekend, undone by the brilliance of Amad Diallo and others, the second leg was always a bit different. Luton stifled Sunderland’s creativity and tackled their physical weaknesses. It was a pragmatic bombardment, a gradual dismantling orchestrated by Edwards, deemed overtaken by Watford, neighbors and bitter rivals Luton, after just 10 games this season. Watford went through two other managers en route to finishing 11th, 17 points below third-placed Luton.

Set pieces were Luton’s trump card in the round and brought the two first-half goals that deflated Sunderland.

Centre-backs Gabriel Osho and Tom Lockyer both capitalized on the defense which painfully missed a presence usually offered by Danny Batth and Dan Ballard, the two Sunderland centre-backs who missed that injured equalizer. The home side might have scored more had it not been for the final clearances from the line and it was only that failure that presented the late opportunity to fray the nerves. Luton, however, need not have worried.

It was the night Sunderland ran out of road. They had baffled expectations by coming this far a year after promotion via the League One play-offs, shedding light on their inexperience and a long list of injuries. That first leg win promised even more, but last night was an entirely different proposition. Sunderland jumped into the bear pit only to emerge bloodied and beaten. The onslaught, exhausting and inflexible, proved too strong.

Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray, but for how long? (Photo by Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Sunderland can at least look to Luton for inspiration.

Twelve months ago they suffered after a 2-1 defeat in the Championship play-off semi-final against Huddersfield Town, but they recovered to go further and reach Wembley. A different manager, with Edwards replacing a Southampton-bound Nathan Jones during November’s World Cup break, but honed determination.

Sunderland could still be the same if Mowbray’s post-match comments were any early guide to the summer. Uninvited, he invited a question mark over his future within an hour of the loss. “Listen, who knows what my future holds,” said the man appointed at the end of August after last season’s promotion winner Alex Neil left for Stoke City. “Modern football clubs can do whatever they want.”

Mowbray would like to stay but a month after Sunderland were linked with 34-year-old Italy manager Francesco Farioli there is unease. The remaining 12 months on his contract could count for little if the change is unfairly sought from above.

Edwards knows all about it but it was his night. And the one in Luton.

Wembley – and perhaps the Premier League – are waiting.

(Top photo: Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

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