After a string of four FA Cup wins, and facing Premier League competition on the road, there was no way Luton Town could reach the fifth round. The only ones who did not believe that were the Conference Premier side’s players and many of its fans.
Instead, Luton provided a result that contributed to the beauty that is England’s national tournament. It is where clubs from the low ends of the English football pyramid can share a field for 90 minutes with top-flight sides. Luton, an 11-to-1 underdog by the bookies, was that low-end club, and when a late goal gave it a 1-0 win over Norwich City, the Hatters had achieved what a non-Football League side had not accomplished in 24 years.
Scott Rendell‘s conversion of a cross from J.J. O’Donnell in the 80th minute Saturday provided Luton with a moment of glory in an era that has seen much heartbreak. Financial problems caused to club to plummet from the Championship in 2007 to the Conference in 2009 after, ironically, it won the Football League Trophy.
It has been a painful time in the Conference for Luton because the club has been close to returning to the Football League in each season. The Hatters finished second in 2010 but lost in the promotion-playoff semifinals. That was followed by losses in the last two playoff finals.
“We need to use today,” said Luton manager Paul Buckle, referring to a push toward another playoff appearance. The Hatters are sixth in the Conference Premier, one point from a playoff position. “There’s been so much disappointment for such a long time, but we shouldn’t dwell on the past.”
The victory also meant a huge payday for Luton: £225,850 (about $367,000) for prize and television money, plus a 45-percent gate share from the 26,251 tickets. That will mean slightly more than £100,000 as Norwich, perhaps underestimating Luton’s status, priced adult tickets at the minimum £10.
The last time a non-Football League club defeated a top-flight team was in 1989, when Sutton United, from the Conference, took out Coventry City of the First Division.
Could Luton Town repeat another surprise? Do the Hatters shoot to keep going, perhaps getting paired with a Reading or Wigan? Or do they shoot for revenues, aim high, and hope to shock a Manchester United or Arsenal on the road to reach the final eight? We will see when Ball No. 1 is lifted during Sunday’s fifth-round draw.