Sports

A Premier League Love Story Has Heartbreak Ahead

Within a few days of Luton Town’s promotion to the Premier League in May, the construction crews were moving in and the scaffolding was going up at its stadium, Kenilworth Road. The club’s first home game in English soccer’s top flight since its money-spinning, supercharged rebrand into the richest, most popular league in the world was not quite three months away. There was an alarming amount of work to do, and not nearly enough time to do it.

Luton’s stadium has for some time been something of a throwback in English soccer: defiantly cramped, unapologetically tumbledown, the kind of careworn, hostile, raw sort of place most teams have long since left behind in favor of something more modern, more comfortable, possibly just a little bland.

Kenilworth Road, though, was both a point of difference and a point of pride, a feature the club had come to regard as a source of strength, rather than weakness.

“I don’t think anyone likes coming to the Kenny,” defender Amari’i Bell said last season, using the ground’s affectionate nickname. “When we played Chelsea, I don’t think they enjoyed it. If you come here and you’re not in the right frame of mind, you can’t wait to leave.”

The Premier League, though, has commanded that the club dull the edge of that secret weapon, just a little. It has an image to maintain, after all, and that means ensuring all of its stadiums meet certain criteria.

Luton’s stadium is tucked so tightly into its neighborhood that one entrance cuts through a row of homes.Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters

Unsurprisingly, Kenilworth Road did not, and so Luton had to make the first substantive changes to the stadium in years. The work proved so extensive, in fact, that the team requested that its first home game — scheduled for a week from Saturday — be postponed because it couldn’t guarantee the most critical renovations would be completed in time.

There were new floodlights to install, old ones to improve. It needed a room for news conferences with seating for 100 journalists, positions for 50 television and data-analysis cameras, and studio space for the league’s broadcasters. The gantry, the high perch where play-by-play commentators call matches, had to be removed, clad in nonflammable material, and reinstalled.

One particular edict was relaxed — Luton will not start the season with undersoil heating installed beneath the field — but the preparations were still a colossal undertaking. Gary Sweet, the club’s chief executive, estimated that the cost had amounted to $15 million and rising, but Luton had little choice. The rules change when you make the Premier League.

Luton’s arrival in the richest league in the world, 30 years after it last appeared in the top flight, is the culmination to the sort of fairy tale that is central to English soccer’s self-identity. It has been only a decade since Luton was marooned in the sixth tier, mixing with part-time opponents, after spending years sailing closer and closer to oblivion.

Now here it is, awaiting Manchester City and Manchester United and Arsenal, in the promised land. One of its players, Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, has been present every step of the way; he will become the first player in history to feature for the same team in each of England’s top five divisions. Its chief executive, Sweet, is a lifelong fan.

The club has said it will pour its Premier League payday into the club’s infrastructure.Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters
High on the list of improvements needed to meet Premier League standards: new floodlights.Credit…Lee Smith/Action Images, via Reuters

It is the kind of story that defines England’s romantic vision of its national game, living and breathing proof of the power of its fabled pyramid, the porous superstructure that bonds the Premier League not only to the Football League, which manages the divisions just below it, but to everything below the professional levels of the sport: the National League, the Northern Premier League, the United Counties League.

The pyramid is supposed to be a model of social mobility, a pathway from the gutter to the stars. Luton is a case study in its continuing viability. It has made it, and in doing so it has demonstrated that every club — every player — has the right to dream, no matter where they might currently find themselves. Luton shows that anything is possible.

Until a certain point. Luton’s prize for promotion was, as is the case for every team to pass through the gilded doors of the world’s most lucrative domestic competition, almost unbelievably rich. The club will earn a minimum of $215 million even if it remains in the Premier League for only a single season. For Luton, that money is transformative.

The club plans, for example, to use a considerable proportion of it to finance a new stadium. Luton might love Kenilworth Road, might cherish its ragged edges, but it has long known it requires a new home if it is to have a stable future. A quarter of its Premier League income has been earmarked for that project, Sweet has said.

“We are consummate long-term planners,” he said. “We look at planning for the club five or 10 years ahead, actually, rather than five or 10 minutes, which a lot of people do. That’s the golden rule of what our success will be: having a sensible, long-term, financial, strategic plan.” Luton sees its time in the Premier League as a way to “build the foundations for the future.”

Victory in last season’s Championship playoff final sent Manager Rob Edwards and Luton Town to the Premier League. Staying there will be something else altogether.Credit…Matthew Childs/Action Images Via Reuters

It is hard to refute the idea that this is precisely where any team’s priorities should lie, certainly those outside of the game’s elite, a subset now grown so fat that it is effectively too big to fail.

After all, it is another central tenet of English soccer that clubs are not just businesses but social institutions, operated by boards and chief executives and suits of variable origin and quality but owned — on a spiritual level, if not a legal one — by the fans. Their primary interest is, or at least should be, existential: always having a club to support.

The problem is that spending money on infrastructure means not spending it on players. This has been another summer of excess for the majority of the teams in the Premier League, where the scale of the spending has at times bordered on the irrational, almost wanton.

Declan Rice is now the most expensive English player in history. Manchester City, which won the treble last season with five elite central defenders, added a sixth, Josko Gvardiol, for more than $100 million. Manchester United spent just as much on Rasmus Hojlund, a Danish striker with a grand total of 27 career goals. Liverpool has committed $110 million to two midfielders, and its owners are currently being accused of modern soccer’s greatest sin: parsimony.

Luton, by contrast, has performed the sporting equivalent of winning the lottery and immediately investing its winnings in low-yield, long-term bonds. It is not that the club has not spent. By its modest standards, it has: Seven new players have arrived, at a total cost of $20 million or so. Sweet has been at pains to point out that two of those fees have been club records.

The emphasis, though, has been on using the Premier League windfall as judiciously, as prudently, as possible, not sacrificing tomorrow for fleeting satisfaction today. The budget, Sweet has conceded, has been “somewhat restricted” by that choice, but the club does not believe such an approach automatically leads to failure.

Weeds grew on the steps inside Kenilworth Road this summer.Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters
With work on the stadium still not complete, Luton postponed its first home game.Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters

“We can be competitive,” he said. “We firmly believe that if a group of players are good enough to get you there, they’re generally good enough to keep you there.”

That is not quite how it has been received by the Premier League’s never-knowingly underemployed commentariat. Common consensus has it that Luton has effectively doomed itself to relegation — “100 percent,” one former player suggested on the talkSport radio station — by refusing to invest sufficiently, or even suitably, in its squad. Others have suggested that the club’s caution betrays a lack of ambition.

It is here, of course, that the reverence for the pyramid begins to look a little like a comforting delusion. There is, indeed, a common thread that binds the game’s lower reaches to the foothills of the Premier League, and a communal romance in witnessing a team traverse it. That ends as soon as the final step is taken. The promised land, it turns out, is all business. The rules change when you make it to the Premier League.

Luton can take its place among the elite, but it can never truly belong there, not unless it is prepared to risk its future in favor of its present. It might survive for a season, maybe two, standing by not only its players but its methods, investing in its infrastructure, acting as it should, but at some point it will be caught by sheer, brutal economic reality.

As Luton will soon discover, climb high enough, and the nature of the pyramid comes into focus: The sides are not so much steep as sheer cliffs, and off in the distance, the capstone has detached itself completely, separated from the rest of the game by thin air, a gulf that cannot be crossed.

Credit…Neil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

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