Crises always require context. Almost 41 years to the day, Manchester City’s game at Luton Town resulted in a 3-1 loss that was to sum up much of their season. Luton survived in the old First Division, City did not.
No visit to Kenilworth Road can take place without a glance back through history, so untouched is this rickety venue by modern football’s excess and trappings. City remained in Division Two until 1985. Their subsequent twists and turns as a club are nothing in comparison to Luton’s surge from near oblivion to the top flight, but City once knew what it was like to scratch for relevance. As decades passed, so too did agendas.
The attendance on that December afternoon in 1982 was remarkably similar to this one in 2023; 11,013 versus 11,047. City arrived under pressure, their winless streak in the league stretching to four games, the longest under Pep Guardiola. This had given credence to the kind of thrilling title race Guardiola could do without. He is a man on a mission, typified by what he revealed was a 45-second team talk after City took the rare step of travelling to Bedfordshire on match day. Guardiola had never gone five without a win in his entire coaching career. As remains the case.
Guardiola was upbeat on the length of time City may or may not have to cope without the talismanic Erling Haaland. The scoring burden the Norwegian carries on behalf of others means any extended break will quite clearly be keenly felt. Opposition defenders quiver at the mere sight of Haaland. He also almost always plays.
Luton’s approach was of a side who sensed City vulnerability, partly through that Haaland factor and partly because of their visitors’ (relatively) troubled run. “He is one of the best strikers in the world, isn’t he,” said Luton’s manager, Rob Edwards. “So without him they are probably a different team who present a different challenge.” Not that anybody should weep for Pep. His available resources dwarf what Edwards – and much of this league – can deploy.
At half-time, Elijah Adebayo had soared and Guardiola ranted. The visiting manager complained bitterly to the fourth official, Craig Pawson, en route to the dressing room. Guardiola believed more than the allocated two minutes of stoppage time should have been played because Luton scored within that window. It felt a trivial argument. Nonetheless, and even for one so routinely excitable, Guardiola’s demeanour was telling. He feared ghosts of matches past.
Save bobbing and weaving from Phil Foden, City had lacked conviction during that opening period. A Foden shot within 90 seconds, batted away by the impressive Thomas Kaminski, was about as menacing as City got. Pretty patterns were undermined by a defensive lapse. Adebayo, a striker plucked from Walsall, met Andros Townsend’s cross to send Luton’s supporters into dreamland once more. Once he was finished with officialdom, Guardiola’s task was to ensure desperation did not creep into his team’s play.
A fabulous Bernardo Silva strike hauled City back into proceedings. Jack Grealish, who generally flattered to deceive, completed City’s comeback. Outcome mattered considerably more than performance. With a favourable run of matches to come, those three minutes could breathe precious life into City’s title defence.
Crisis? What crisis, shrugged Grealish. “We have the best manager in the world,” he said. “We have played brilliant teams. We lost one and drew three. It’s not the end of the world, people just like to pretend it is sometimes.”
Grealish will feel he is right to cite exaggeration. However, City’s problem is the momentum being carried by Liverpool, especially, Arsenal until they lost at Aston Villa and Unai Emery’s outstanding team themselves. City’s capability of producing spellbinding runs is well stated. What they cannot control is the strength of title opposition.
Strangely, Luton’s supporters were quiet between Grealish’s goal and the announcement of six added minutes. The crackling atmosphere at Kenilworth Road can be a huge advantage to Edwards and his team but they need unconditional backing. Goodness knows they have earned it. Edwards revealed that by the final whistle his players were “hurting”. They must channel that emotion; upcoming clashes with Bournemouth and Sheffield United are more pertinent in respect of Premier League survival.
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A couple of corners had provided hope of salvation but City had managed to keep Luton at arm’s length. The tiny pocket of away followers in the Oak Stand celebrated in a manner that belied the off-field gulf between the clubs. Guardiola was in deep conversation with Grealish. The message? How important it is to win.
Asa Hartford completed City’s ignominy here in 1982 with a late own goal. This was no occasion for red faces. City may yet look back on this as a pivotal day’s work. They remain very much in the hunt.