Luton Town and Manchester City will meet for the first time this century on Sunday at Kenilworth Road. The gulf in resources between the two clubs is vast – the Premier League newcomers’ entire squad is worth an estimated £75m, or three-quarters of Jack Grealish. Still, there are reasons for City to be fearful of this fixture – the champions are in a rare slump, winless in four games, while Luton have already pushed Arsenal and Liverpool to the limit at home this season.
You might expect City fans to have been firmly rooting for the underdogs in those games against their likely title rivals, but the reality is more complicated. Supporters of a certain age could never bring themselves to back Luton – thanks to a strange rivalry that began with a dramatic late goal 40 years ago. Raddy Antic’s 86th-minute strike on the final day of the 1982-83 season kept the Hatters in Division One and sent City down to the Second prompting the Luton manager, David Pleat, to jig deliriously across the Maine Road turf at full-time in an all-beige ensemble.
The game was a huge turning point in both clubs’ histories. Having largely been a top-flight mainstay in the postwar era, City were thrown into two decades of turbulence. Between 1983 and 2003 they changed division on 10 occasions. For Luton, though, their great escape began a golden era that culminated in League Cup glory in 1988, a 3-2 comeback win over Arsenal at Wembley. They also continued to pile the pain on City, winning three and drawing the other two of the team’s next five meetings.
That run included a League Cup victory at home in 1988, as the Hatters went about defending the trophy, making it back to the final, where they lost to Nottingham Forest. That fourth-round success remains Luton’s most recent victory over City; the two clubs’ fortunes were about to reverse, and then some. City ended their 15-year wait for a league win over their sometime rivals in September 1989, and enjoyed two top-five finishes in the early 90s as Luton circled the drain.
Luton slipped out of the top flight just before the Premier League era began, but Manchester City’s stability did not last. Still, their paths would not cross again until the 1998-99 season, when both clubs had tumbled into the third tier. City’s last trip to Kenilworth Road was a scrappy 1-1 draw in November 1998. The visitors, sporting the fluorescent kits they would make famous in that year’s playoff final, took the lead through Andy Morrison, a robust centre-back who would probably struggle as an inverted hybrid midfielder. Luton levelled late on through Gary Doherty, extending City’s winless league run at “the Kenny” to 12 games.
The draw kept Luton above their opponents in the table, with both teams lurking just outside the playoff places. They have never been so close again. City clawed their way out of the division and got back to the Premier League, while Luton bounced between the lower tiers before financial meltdown hit. In the summer of 2008, just as the Abu Dhabi United Group were arriving at the Etihad, Luton were handed two separate points deductions that left them starting the League Two season on -30.
Having been a thorn in their side at their lowest moments, Luton were lost in a different universe as Manchester City began to hunt down major trophies. While Sergio Agüero was delivering a last-gasp title, the Hatters were a non-league team, stuck in a rut of four straight Conference playoff failures. It was not until 2013-14 that they were able to scramble back into the Football League, celebrating the fifth-tier title while City were collecting their second Premier League crown.
Ten years and three promotions on, Luton are finally back, if not quite on an equal footing, then at least in the same league. Despite having not played City for a quarter of a century, Luton can perhaps still lay claim to being the current European champions’ bogey team. Incredibly, City have not won at Luton in the league since 1959 – and despite their astronomical success, a grudge still lingers.
Luton may not need history on their side to give Pep Guardiola’s struggling champions a proper test on Sunday, but if City find form and deliver a drubbing, there won’t be much sympathy from the away fans in attendance. The home supporters know that just being in the same division is cause for celebration – but would love to make City suffer again, for old time’s sake.