Ten minutes after Rob Edwards had been brought to a halt halfway around Wembley, celebrating furiously a goal that was shortly disallowed, the Luton manager was to be found victorious but calm as still water. His first action on winning the playoff final was to hug his opponent Mark Robins. Around this tender scene was pure chaos; his players haring about, embracing and hurling each other to the ground like so many 6ft-tall puppy dogs. Promotion, it’s a hell of a drug.
Luton Town are a Premier League club and international broadcast packages can now finally be cut probing the various tiny entrances to Kenilworth Road. For the Hatters there is joy, hope and – especially for the players – the chance to change their lives. For Coventry, whose disconsolate players stood motionless for 15 minutes after the end of a penalty shootout which featured 11 kicks scored and one ballooned horribly over the bar, there will currently – but not permanently – be sorrow.
This was a contest between great English conurbations – one a city, one a town – but both with long histories and significant industrial legacy, each also wearily familiar with having their names dropped in a story of national decline. For the places, read the football teams, too. The top-flight history of Coventry and Luton is long enough in the past to have acquired the edge of nostalgia, for a time when football was simpler, perhaps, but also when places that now rarely feature in the national conversation could actually make the weather.
So the match was clearly about more than money. That’s the way the Championship playoff final is framed, and what used to be the £120m game is now the £170m one, which is fortunate given the cost of living nowadays. But to feel the atmosphere on Wembley Way, the noise inside the national stadium and, more importantly, to watch the intensity with which these teams set about each other, this final was about pride, about identity, about putting yourself on the map.
For the first 40 minutes only a single pin was stuck into the Wembley turf and it was bright orange. It’s not often you have one half of Wembley filled with fans the same colour as the seats but Luton’s fluorescent tide spread out over the pitch, too. Edwards’s players did everything, everywhere, all at once.
They seemed to galvanise themselves in response to the sudden, terrifying collapse of their captain, Tom Lockyer, in the eighth minute. Luton deserved much more than just one first-half goal, even if it was excellent; cracked home by Jordan Clark after incandescent counterattacking wing-play from the 6ft 3in centre-forward Elijah Adebayo.
That was the first 40 minutes. But as is often the case when momentum starts to tick slowly in a new direction, there was a small intervention. Coventry’s Brooke Norton-Cuffy went on a barrelling run through the heart of Luton’s midfield. It came to nothing more than a squandered free-kick, but it was the first sign of a Sky Blue player willing to impose himself on the match and the first sense, too, that the team might get some joy from doing so. Gustavo Hamer drove Coventry’s first chance of the match over the bar just before the half-time whistle.
Coventry’s fans upped the ante in the second half; walking in a Mark Robins wonderland they were. Their manager had clearly turned the dial up a notch too, and his team began to click. That their equaliser should look symmetrical to the opener seemed appropriate. It was another direct counterattack down the left, with Viktor Gyökeres playing the Adebayo role this time; holding, edging, rolling his way to the edge of the box. Everyone thought the 21-goal Sweden striker would shoot; everyone bar Hamer who was busting a gut to meet him. The cutback was cool, the finish icy and incredible.
Whoever in the Coventry ultras had managed to smuggle a crate full of pyro into Wembley then had their moment and the air turned blue, in more ways than one. It looked like momentum was heading in one direction but, instead, whether due to fear, fatigue, a combination of both, or just a little bit of mutual respect, the rest of the match saw both teams held largely at arms’ length.
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Joe Taylor’s late strike, disallowed for handball, was an exception. But it would have counted as the cruellest blow in playoff history, given it came from an inexplicable concession of possession by Jonathan Panzo. In acknowledgment of the journey both sides have been on and of the status both share as proper English football clubs who deserve respect and attention, it seemed somewhat appropriate that they should fight each other to a standstill. But in the end, as ever, one team is obliged to win.