Luton Town’s success is a fairy tale, but beware the Premier’s big bad wolves 

WHAT A marvellous tale the rise of Luton Town is. Whether you have affection for the club or not, to climb from non-league football into the Premier League in around 14 years is a considerable achievement and the sort of romantic yarn the game had almost forgotten how to create. 

This is a club with one of the lowest wage bills in the Championship, with a sub-10,000 average gate, and a modest revenue generating platform that earned £ 17.7 million in 2022. Line that all up against Manchester United, Manchester City and the other big fish and Luton Town are definitely being cast in the role of David against a whole room full of Goliaths.

Luton were last in the top flight in 1992, the summer that saw the birth of the Premier. They had enjoyed a prolonged period in the first tier, developed a lot of players that went on to enjoy very fruitful careers and even won a trophy in 1988, beating Arsenal 3-2 in the Football League Cup final. When they drifted down the leagues and, after a harsh points deduction, into non-league football, it looked as though Luton would never see the bright lights again.

Kenilworth Road, their home ground, has long been on the threatened species list and the club has been trying for decades to move to a new stadium. At present, their capacity is restrictive for revenue growth and although the atmosphere is first class, the ground is something of a much-loved throwback. A new stadium, Power Court, is currently on the agenda, a 23,000 arena close to Luton railway station that should be completed by 2026 regardless of the status of the club. 

The real bonus of Premier football will be, inevitably, the extraordinary broadcasting money. Over three years, this could run to more than £ 170 million, but even failure is well rewarded in the elite division. Luton’s £ 17.7 million of earnings in 2022 could easily exceed £ 120 million in 2023-24. A good benchmark is Brentford, whose revenues rose from £ 15 million in 2020-21 to £ 141 million in their first Premier campaign.

Naturally, wage bills will increase but they are unlikely to account for 101% of income as they did in 2021-22 (2020-21 was even higher, 111%). Commercial income will surely increase, too, but without a price hike, matchday income cannot rise too much with the current structure of Kenilworth Road. Football Finance expert Kieran Maguire calculated that one season of Premier football will be the equivalent of 17 seasons of income combined, that’s how lucrative promotion can be.

If Luton can stay in the Premier for a few years, the financial benefits have the potential to place the club on a stronger financial footing. But there’s the rub, for staying there is as hard as getting there in the first place. However, the recent trend is not for instant ejection after one year. In 2022-23, for example, none of the teams promoted in 2022 went down, but this has happened only twice in the past decade. In 2021-22, Norwich and Watford, who had been promoted in 2021, both suffered relegation. Overall, 13 of the last 30 promoted teams have lasted one season.

Luton have shown, however, that they are well managed, pragmatic and realistic about their aspirations. They are only too aware their collapse was attributable to being poorly run in the past. In today’s football, small clubs – and Luton are just that – have to adopt smarter strategies to survive and this includes player trading, community interaction and youth development. Luton’s players trading profits in 2021 and 2022 were £ 1.1 million and £ 2.2 million respectively, so there is a very obvious upside in this revenue stream.

Nothing drives loyalty and passion like existential threats and Luton’s demise certainly generated a lot of affection for the club. Hence, the play-off victory at Wembley was greeted with waves of emotion for the Hatters. Their return to the top of the English game could have a good moral-boosting effect on a town that has had some hard times. Luton’s industrial decline has been compared to that suffered by some northern towns even though it is in close proximity to London and a short drive from affluent places in Hertfordshire.

With over a quarter of a million people and a growing airport, hosting a Premier League club should not be too much of a problem. Nevertheless, Luton Town have punched above their weight to get this far, but in recent times, clubs like Burnley and have demonstrated there is a place for small-to-medium sized football clubs. It may be a struggle when they kick-off later this year, but Luton Town and their fans, will, undoubtedly, enjoy being back among the crème de la crème of English football once more. 

Don’t label City the “best ever”, but they are absolutely top dogs in 2023

IT IS tempting in the modern game to forget about the past and proclaim the current champions as the best bunch of players on the planet ever to kick a ball. In recent years, Liverpool 2020, Manchester City 2019 and 2022, Arsenal 2004, Chelsea 2005 and Manchester United 1999 have all had premature garlands placed around their necks. You get the feeling the current City side, with their intense focus on three trophies, are about to receive the same treatment.

In the spirit of presentism, City are certainly the best ever team of 2022-23. They have overcome the challenge of Arsenal, avoided banana skins in the Champions League and eased their way to Wembley for the FA Cup final. They are favourites for the two forthcoming finals.

But there have been City teams that have ended with slightly more impressive league records and we have to remember that they have been beaten in the Premier four times. But even when they have lost (all by the odd goal), they have outplayed their opponents and averaged 68.3% possession. Their average for the entire Premier campaign so far is over 65%.

City claim they have one of the smallest squads, and it is true they consistently play fewer players during the league programme than most of their rivals. They have used 23 in 2022-23, while Arsenal have fielded 27, Liverpool 29, Manchester United 26 and Chelsea 32, to name but a few. City’s financial resources mean they can buy top quality and they rarely make mistakes in player recruitment. Their squad has been built mostly during the Guardiola era, starting with the likes of John Stones and Ilkay Gündogan in 2016-17. Over a billion euros has been spent constructing City’s team, while over € 600 million has been received in player sales. Their wealth means that they have top talent to sell, witness the transfers of Sterling, Zivchenko and Jesus.

Guardiola became only the second manager to win three titles in a row with the same club when City clinched the title following Arsenal’s collapse at Nottingham Forest. Sir Alex Ferguson was the first to achieve this remarkable feat in 2001 and repeated it in 2009. Contrary to football folklore, Herbert Chapman did not win three consecutive titles at either Huddersfield and Arsenal. Others, such as José Mourinho (Chelsea), Bob Jackson (Portsmouth), Stan Cullis (Wolves), Matt Busby (Manchester United) and Bob Paisley (Liverpool) have won two successive championships.

With two games remaining, City have won 28 games, of which just seven were by a one-goal margin. Line that up against Guardiola’s previous Premier wins with the club, when City won nine or 10 by a single goal, the suggestion is that City might be pulling away from their rivals a little. City have won 18 games by two or three goals, eight more than 2021-22. 

Comparing City’s record this season to other much celebrated sides of the past is also favourable; Arsenal’s “invincibles” may have been unbeaten, but they won three games by 1-0, 10 by 2-1 and one by 3-2. As for Chelsea in 2005, they lost once but won 1-0 11 times and 2-1 once. It is not unreasonable to consider City 2022-23 are a more attractive team than either of the two Londoners.

But this City squad, which has a valuation of just over € 1 billion, has a lower win rate than two of Guardiola’s title winners. Their current record is 77.78% but in 2018 and 2019, the win percentage was 84.21%, which along with Klopp’s Liverpool of 2020, is the highest rate of all time in the English top flight.

Despite having the goal machine that is Erling Haaland in their line-up, City have not scored quite as many as last season, although they could still match the 99 netted in 2021-22. While they have scored four or more in a game 10 times in 2022-23, a year ago their total was 12 times. Haaland’s arrival changed the way City played, perhaps explaining why their midfielders have not scored as many goals. Haaland has 36 (up to May 22) but Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Bernado Silva and Rodri have scored 23 goals fewer than 2021-22.

For all Arsenal’s consistency and table-topping leadership for most of the season, there was a certain amount of inevitability about City coming from behind to win the title. They should now finish with a comfortable margin, but it won’t be record-breaking. In 2017-18, Guardiola’s first title was won by 19 points, in 2021, there were 12 points between City and Manchester United. In 2019 and 2022, only one point separated them from Liverpool. 

Where do City go next? Soon they will need to replace some of their older players, but you could argue they are already starting to prepare for life without Kyle Walker, Gündogan, De Bruyne and Mahrez. City will, undoubtedly, strengthen their squad for 2023-24 with names like Jude Bellingham (Dortmund), Josko Gvardiol (Leipzig), Rafael Leao (Milan) and Joshua Kimmich (Bayern), already being linked with the club. Next season may be even tougher for City’s opponents.

Manchester City’s remaining fixtures

May 24: Brighton – Away

May 28: Brentford – Away

June 3: Manchester United – FA Cup final at Wembley

June 10: Internazionale – Champions League final in Istanbul.