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Football only means what we want it to - Manchester City, Luton and Coventry

Updated: May 29, 2023

Somewhat sadistically, I can always appreciate the cruel irony that life has to offer. Last Wednesday (17th May 2023), Manchester City Football Club trounced Real Madrid 4-0 in their Champions League semi-final match, sending them to only their second-ever European final in the club’s history and providing them their best ever opportunity to sit at the very top of men’s football’s hierarchy since their founding in 1880. If they manage to defeat three-times Champions League winners Inter Milan in Istanbul on 10th June, it will be the culmination of a 15-year-long project by Man City’s owners - the Abu Dhabi United Group and the UAE’s Vice President, Mansour bin Zayed - to completely change the landscape of the most popular sport in the world.

On the same night, about 15 minutes and 115 miles separate, it was realised that Coventry City would play Luton Town in the Championship Play-Off final, a game that will see the winner promoted to the Premier League for the first time in 22 or 31 years, respectively.

Coventry City and Luton Town players celebrate their play-off semi-final winning goals.

The hilarity of this dichotomy dawned on me quite slowly. As me and my flatmate flicked between the two games, less interested in Man City’s demolition of European football’s most successful team and much more invested in Coventry digging out a turgid 1-0 win over Middlesborough, the reality of world football was being painted out in black and white (or, I suppose, sky blue). It’s long been stated that state investment in the top level of football is dragging the soul out of it, investing power in those teams who cannot be competed with financially and making these high-level matches a formality rather than a competition. This has been true for a while now in English and French football, as Manchester City win their fourth Premier League title in five years and Paris Saint-Germain (owned by Qatar) win their ninth in the past 11. The pan-European competitions, however, have stood firm in their commitment to footballing history. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, this year’s Champions League final is only the second Man City have reached, with the first being a dire 1-0 loss to Chelsea back in 2021 (PSG have also only reached one, an equally flaccid 1-0 loss to Bayern Munich in an empty stadium in 2020).

It’s been an interesting phenomenon to witness happen. As dominant as Manchester City have become in this past decade-and-a-half, it’s almost like there has been a metaphysical interaction to stop them becoming the team in European football. When they became the only-ever team to reach 100 points in English football’s top flight back in the 2017-18 season, they crashed out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, losing to an aggregate score of 5-1 against rivals Liverpool, who had accumulated a hilarious 25-points less than them in the league that season. The following season, when they amassed a second highest-ever English league point total of 98 and won both domestic cup competitions, they met their match in Europe at the hands of fellow Englishmen Tottenham Hotspur. When they finally did reach the final in 2021, they amassed a meagre seven shots in the entire game, with only one of them forcing Chelsea’s goalkeeper into a save. Time and time again, their European performances have not matched what we have come to expect. It’s almost like the universe is resisting the death of the competitive spirit it has instilled in this sport.

As City cruised towards their date with destiny last Wednesday, one of the most enticing Championship Play-Off finals in quite some time was being drawn up. When the full time whilst blew on Coventry City’s 1-0 defeat of Middlesborough, it was almost the complete opposite of Man City’s leisure drive past Real Madrid. At the start of this season, Coventry had four games postponed due to their pitch being in an unplayable and unsafe state. After 11 gameweeks, they had amassed just three points and sat in the relegation zone. This was the end of a decade-long stadium issue for the club, who have been through multiple rent disputes with the owners of the Coventry Building Society Arena, forcing them to play their home games at Northampton Town’s stadium back in 2013 and Birmingham City’s stadium from 2019-2021. The team’s meteoric rise to the play-off final is almost the exact opposite of Manchester City’s dominant run. Coventry are a historically well-performing side in English football, having played at the top level throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, as well as being FA Cup winners in 1986-87.

Their play-off final opponents, Luton Town, have been through a similar ringer. Their biggest successes came in the 1980s, after ironically beating Manchester City on the final day of the 1982-83 season to stay in the top flight of English football and relegate City themselves. This win took Luton to 18th in the table (non-relegation place) and pushed Man City to 20th (relegation). Wonderfully, Coventry City were the team that filled the 19th position. And so the poetic irony of the end of the current season takes a new turn, based in unfulfilled legacies and lost futures for all involved.

The bottom of the 1982-83 English First Division is a story in and of itself.

Luton won the League Cup in 1986-87, a silverware pinnacle for the side. Financial mismanagement, however, meant that when Man City were busy winning their first Premier League title under the ownership of the UAE in 2011-12, Luton were languishing in the fifth-tier of English football for the first time in the club’s history. They would spend five years at this level before being promoted in 2013-14. Nine spectacular seasons later, including back-to-back promotions in 2017-18 and 18-19, and Luton Town find themselves one game away from Premier League football. Their magnanimous rise to this season’s play-off final deserves nothing but admiration. Luton and Coventry played each other in the third division of English football as recently as 2019 (whilst City were losing their aforementioned Champions League quarter-final to Tottenham), and yet on Saturday they will play each other for the pleasure of getting to be in the same league as the Manc titans next season.

From my perspective, the irony in all of this is absolutely lovely. The moving finger writes and, having writ, moves on. For the billions spent, the hours put in on the training ground, the excuses made for the ways in which the UAE has made its money and the way in which it uses it, next season Manchester City will have to travel to either Coventry’s Building Society Arena, hopefully with a now-playable pitch, or Luton’s Kenilworth Road, a 10,000-seat eyesore that will require £10m of investment to even meet Premier League regulations and an away end that requires fans to enter through the terraced houses of its surrounding neighbours. Man City might win those games 10-0, imposing the might of their world-best players on whichever side is newly-promoted, but it won’t mean a thing compared to the meaning that being back in the Premier League will have for the fans of Luton or Coventry.

Luton's Kenilworth Road and its now infamous away entrance.

Inherently, this sport is meaningless. It’s 22 people kicking a ball around a pitch for 90 minutes. We all go home afterwards, we all eat our tea and we all go to work when we next have to. The only meaning it has is that which we thrust upon it. For Manchester City, winning the Premier League four times in five years has made it lose purpose. Winning the Champions League is their true desire as it would allow them to define themselves as football’s finest team. For their owners, it would create a new aspect to the soft power exercise that owning a football club now is. They could parade that Champions League trophy for the rest of their tenure, safe in the knowledge that ‘UAE’ and “Manchester City’ are synonymous in the way that ‘Manchester City’ and ‘best team in the world’ will be. It allows them to deflect from their despotism, from the human rights abuses and the slave labour that their country’s modern history is built upon.

But for Luton, for Coventry, having seen their clubs come close to not even existing as recently as five years ago, stepping out onto that pitch with Manchester City as equals means that they have already won. For all the oil and gas sold, for all the Erling Haaland’s and Pep Guardiola’s bought to be the face of Emirati investment, there is always the chance that an overplayed ball, a missed header or an unfortunate slip could result in the headline ‘Luton Town 2-1 Manchester City’ or ‘Coventry vanquish England’s Champions’. It may be beneficial for them to make football as routine as possible, make results inevitable and fill their cabinets with trophies won in finals not worth watching, but there will always be a Coventry/Luton play-off final to tune in to.

Sam Mandi-Ghomi is a co-founder and co-editor of Left Brain Media. You can find his other work here.

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