Forty summers ago, a new order for the top division of English football was celebrated by a middle-aged man in a grey-brown suit dancing awkwardly on the pitch. Luton Town had just saved themselves from relegation to the second tier. Their impish manager, David Pleat, jived with joy at the 1-0 win as, around him, Manchester City’s players, doomed to relegation by the result, held back tears.
Over the next two decades, City went up and down five times, an ancient history so distanced from where the club now find themselves that tales of City’s erratic past can scarcely act any longer as relevant cautions against future complacency.
As City embark, as favourites, on a new Premier League season on Friday, chasing a sixth title in seven seasons, they aspire to unprecedented standards: The three biggest trophies available - in the game’s most watched domestic league, the FA Cup, the European Cup - are theirs to defend. "We climbed the highest mountain," said City manager Pep Guardiola. "The history speaks for itself."
For Luton Town, that happy salvation day in 1983 remains a treasured, vivid memory, part of a long, jagged line that connects today’s version of the club to deep plunges in the hierarchy and, this weekend, to a fairytale high.
Luton have been relegated six times since they clung to top division survival at City’s old Maine Road stadium. Ten years ago Luton were in the fifth tier of English football. On Saturday at Brighton, they play for the first time in a Premier League fixture, having been outside the elite for the entire 31 years since England’s highest division was rebranded with the name ‘Premier’.
As evidence of how fluid English football is, Luton’s journey back to the upper floor is impeccable. They will be rubbing shoulders with City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal on a tiny comparative budget.
The £5million they spent on the winger Ryan Giles, signed from Wolverhampton Wanderers, this summer is a club record. It is less than a 20th of what Arsenal paid for Declan Rice. Luton have been obliged to spend twice Giles' fee on renovations to broadcasting facilities at their Kenilworth Road stadium, an arena that looks very much like it did in 1983, where entry to one part of the grandstands is through a gate directly underneath residential flats in a converted terraced house.
Naturally, almost everybody expects Luton to last just a single season back in the top division.
Forecasts for Burnley, who kick-off the season at home to City, are less gloomy, partly because the club bounced straight back up after relegation in 2022 and seem so connected to the prevailing trends of modern English football.
Their admired young manager, Vincent Kompany, is well versed in Premier League success - he was a City player, and later a respected captain through four title-winning seasons. "Vinny is going to do really, really well," predicts Guardiola of a former colleague who is one of several on this season’s touchlines who openly acknowledge their coaching style draws on the City manager's.
Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, who has strengthened - in hiring Rice, Kai Havertz and Jurrien Timber - the spine of a side good enough to set the pace for much of the last title race, is another. Managers from Spain - Arsenal, City, Aston Villa and Bournemouth all have them - remain in vogue, as do strikers from Scandinavia, with Dane Rasmus Hojlund - new to United but ruled out of Monday’s opener against Wolves with injury - and Newcastle United’s Swede Alexander Isak competing to retain their clubs’ top-four status in the wake of Erling Haaland, the record-breaking Norwegian, rapidly becoming City’s figurehead.
There is a fluidity in the top tranche of clubs. Tottenham Hotspur, Champions League finalists four years ago, find themselves beginning a season without any European football in the diary for the first time since 2009. And, pending the likely move to Bayern Munich of Harry Kane, without their leading scorer for the last nine seasons.
They kick off against a Brentford side who two years ago were, like Luton, novices to the Premier League. Yet they finished just a point beneath Spurs’ eighth place in May.
Liverpool and Chelsea both slipped from their customary top-four category, and have given notice of their intention to regain status, Liverpool by adding the creative industry of Dominik Szoboszlai to their midfield, Chelsea by making Mauricio Pochettino the fifth different head coach to take charge of the first team in the space of a year.
Chelsea are reshuffling busily once again in the transfer window while straining, again, to find the right balance for their squad. They imagined they had found the appropriate centre-forward in Christopher Nkunku only for the Frenchman to sustain a knee problem that may exclude him from action for several months.
Chelsea go to Anfield on Sunday. It’s a match of imperfect heavyweights, of two teams in transition. But, this being the Premier League, the global audience will be vast and fully engaged.