Championship play-off final: The fall and rise of Luton & Coventry – a tale of non-league, groundshares & points deductions

Coventry City and Luton Town find themselves one game away from the Premier League.

A League Two fixture as recently as 2018 – and after years of turmoil – the Sky Bet Championship play-off final provides both with a golden opportunity to return to the top-flight of English football for the first time in decades.

Here, we chart the fall and rise of the Sky Blues and the Hatters…

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Luton relegated, and relegated again

We start our journey in 1992.

The final season in English football before the inception of the Premier League. Coventry and Luton were both playing in Division One, and finished 17th and 18th respectively. Just two points apart, it was the Hatters who were relegated on the final day after defeat to Notts County.

That loss ended a decade in the top flight as Luton were relegated to the second tier – moving from Division One to… Division One – or the Premier League to the Championship, as they are now known.

In 1996 they then slipped into the third tier, their lowest position in 26 years.

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Coventry City
Luton Town

Saturday 27th May 4:00pm Kick off 4:45pm

Coventry drop, and the Hatters go further

Image: Coventry after their relegation from the Premier League in 2001

Neither enjoyed a good first full season of the new millennium. As Coventry were relegated from the Premier League for the first time since 1967, Luton dropped into the fourth tier of English football for the first time since 1968.

The Noughties: A brief Luton resurgence as Coventry plod along

While Luton rose during the 2000s, with promotions in 2002 and 2005 to reach the Championship again, Coventry merely ticked along in the second tier, from 2001 to 2011 they managed only three top-half finishes.

Ownership issues, administration and a drop to non-league

Image: Luton were relegated to non-league in 2009

Luton’s spell in the Championship would last just two seasons. They were relegated back to League One in 2007, and dropped to League Two a year later – when they were also deducted 10 points for going into administration at the same time.

The club began the 2008/09 League Two season on -30 points after being punished by the EFL and FA for financial irregularities committed by previous owners. They battled on valiantly and collected enough points to secure what should have been enough for a mid-table finish. But in the end they finished bottom and were relegated out of the league for the first time in their history.

Image: Luton won the EFL Trophy in 2009 on their way to relegation

They did, however, win the Football League Trophy that season at Wembley in front of 40,000 fans.

Things weren’t going much better at Coventry. In 2005 they moved from their home of 106 years in Highfield Road to the newly-built Ricoh Arena. Then in 2007, with debts mounting, they were purchased by controversial owners Sisu Capital.

Coventry slip further amid stadium issues

Image: Coventry were forced to groundshare at Northampton Town's Sixfields Stadium

In 2012, the Sky Blues ended up slipping into League One. Their first time in the third tier since 1964.

To make matters worse, following a dispute with the owners of the Ricoh Arena, they were forced to groundshare with Northampton Town for the 2013/14 season. A round trip of 70 miles from Coventry.

The club would return to the Ricoh the following season, where they would spend three more years in League One, before being relegated to League Two in 2018.

Luton battle to return to the Football League

Image: Luton celebrate winning the Conference Premier in 2014

In the meantime, Luton were fighting hard to get themselves out of the Conference Premier (now known as the National League) under the financial planning of the ‘2020’ group who had taken charge of the club.

Near-misses aplenty followed. Three tilts at the play-offs ended in failure, before they finally finished top of the league and won automatic promotion in 2014 after five years away.

Jones and Robins take over

Midway through the 2016/17 season, Luton appointed Nathan Jones as boss while the club were in League Two. It was his first senior role in management.

A year later, Coventry brought Mark Robins back for a second spell as manager. He was unable to prevent their relegation to League Two, but did pick up the Football League Trophy along the way in front of more than 40,000 fans at Wembley, just as Luton had done eight years earlier.

The pair collide in League Two

Coventry and Luton had met in the top three professional tiers, and both major cup competitions, but for the first time in their history, in 2017/18, the pair met in League Two.

It was Coventry who fared the better, winning 3-0 at Kenilworth Road, before drawing 2-2 in the reverse fixture at home.

That season, both would be promoted. Luton finished second under Nathan Jones, while Coventry advanced through the play-offs under Robins.

The rise continues with both promoted again

Image: Luton Town's Alan Sheehan (left) and manager Mick Harford (centre) celebrate with the League One trophy in 2019

The following season Luton were promoted again, although they had to do so without Jones as he departed with the club top of the table to join Stoke in the Championship.

Club legend Mick Harford took over to finish the job and steer them to the title. It was their first time back at that level in 12 years.

Image: Coventry were promoted from League One in 2020

A season later, Coventry were themselves promoted, returning to the second tier after eight years away, although Robins and his side were made to sweat. The club were top with 12 games to play in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic saw the season initially suspended, but they were deservedly awarded promotion automatically when the campaign was eventually curtailed a couple of months later.

Jones returns, and leaves again, but Luton progress continues

Image: Luton saw off Sunderland to make it to Wembley

Jones soon returned after his stint at Stoke failed to work out. He led Luton to 19th and 12th in the seasons that followed, before an unlikely run to the play-off semi-finals in 2021/22. They finished sixth, before losing to Huddersfield.

Midway through this campaign, Jones departed again as he went to the Premier League to join Southampton. Luton appointed Rob Edwards, who took them to third and now the play-off final.

Robins steers Coventry through more turmoil

Coventry’s return to the Championship has been far from straightforward. Blighted by stadium issues once more, the club were again forced to groundshare, this time with Birmingham at St Andrew’s, for their promotion campaign from League One and their first season back in the second tier.

They returned home to what is now known as the Coventry Building Society Arena in 2021, but even at the start of this season they were forced to postpone their first three home games as the pitch was deemed unplayable having been used for rugby sevens during last summer’s Commonwealth Games.

A couple of months later they were served an eviction notice from the new owners of their stadium, before eventually managing to secure an agreement to play there until the end of the season.

Things are looking up off the pitch, now. The Sisu era is over after the club were bought by local businessman Doug King.

The team, who were bottom in October and 14th as recently as February, lost just one of their last 17 games to climb into the play-offs, while victory over Middlesbrough saw them reach Wembley.

And now to Wembley

Image: Coventry beat Middlesbrough to reach the play-off final

Now, against all odds, the play-off final is between Coventry and Luton. After decades of hard times, both have the chance to reach the Premier League. The riches on offer would transform either club, and offer a brighter future which each fan base thoroughly deserves.

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