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Luton Town Is Back From The Brink

Luton Town players celebrating with Tom Lockyer shirt after winning the game during the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final between Coventry City and Luton Town at Wembley Stadium, London on Saturday 27th May 2023. (Photo by Ivan Yordanov/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Ivan Yordanov/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With due acknowledgement to all of the rest of sports, from Derrick White's game-winning putback in Celtics-Heat to Ty Dellandrea's escape from the Dallas Stars' pooch hut to Max Verstappen winning the Monaco Grand Prix by the width of Monaco, this is your moment of the weekend, because it unlocks a series of stories with the same theme: Competitive death is what you make it.

The guy in the bed is Tom Lockyer, team captain for Luton Town FC, the newest and by any measure most modest Premier League team maybe ever. He collapsed on the field 11 minutes into the Hatters' English Championship playoff final against Coventry City and even at this writing it isn't known whether he had a cardiac episode. But he seems fine enough here, because while he was busy being in peril, his teammates propelled themselves to a preposterous 6-5 shootout triumph that finished a 14-year journey from near-extinction. As in, "We're about out of money, and we're completely screwed."

Well, not completely, as it happens. True, it took 14 years and a lot of good luck in the face of the world's bad intentions, but Luton is now the nimblest newbie in a room full of established predators. All three teams promoted a year ago to Prem managed to stay up this year, so dreams can be not only be realized but embellished. It's just not the way to bet.

Despite the laws of competitive gravity that American franchises are indemnified from by the sheer weight of media money, Luton slowly but surely climbed back up the Jenga tower of English football leagues—six tiers in 10 years, a staggering level of reaper-cheating—and when Coventry's Fankaty Dabo took the one penalty out of 11 that didn't succeed, Luton was a big deal again. A charming, mom 'n' pop, pennyfarthing-in-F1 big deal.

"How big a deal?" you ask, and even if you don't. They will now receive the £170 million welcome-back fruit basket from the Premier League for replacing the the likes of the far more massive Leeds United and Leicester City, and £10 million of that is already committed to upgrading their hyperquaint 118-year-old shed at Kenilworth Road to permissible Prem standards—as in, better floodlights to allow more night games, broadcasting room for the TV folks who never had to visit before this, and a rebuild of the Bobbers Stand. In fact, the money isn't just committed, it's already working. It's not the new stadium the team has been fantasizing about for the past 68 years (shove that, John Fisher), but it does make for defiant sentences like this from club chairman Gary Sweet: "Like it or not, Kenilworth Road is real-life, proper old-school football, and it should be embraced or scorned upon at your peril."

This is reality's knee in the goolies to the folks who churned up the improbability of Ted Lasso, because it is a script that would have been returned to its creators with coffee stains and spit as additives. I mean, just the name The Hatters tells you what you need to know about the club; it makes "Green Bay Packers" seem like "Utah Jazz." And the logo has all the cartoony/fearsome touches of a rummage sale—"If you try to defeat us, we will strike you with a sheaf of wheat and send a beehive after you."

But that's not the logo of the day. It's Tom Lockyer laughing in his hospital bed and still in his game kit except for the shirt he had to sacrifice to make room for the wires monitoring his condition. He is no doubt defying his cardiologist by watching the biggest modern moment in club history, including the part where his teammates celebrate by waving his jersey at Wembley. Against that, Derrick White is just a guy who wasn't boxed out, Ty Dellandrea is just a guy who avoided a tripping penalty and Max Verstappen is … well, OK, Max Verstappen is definitely a badass. Just not as bad a badass as Tom Lockyer, at least for one day. He, too, is real-life, proper old-school football, and it should be embraced or scorned upon at your peril.

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