As winter starts, slowly but surely, to turn to spring, the English football season begins to creak towards its business end.
As of February 2023, the Championship table is shaping up with just 12 points separating Middlesbrough in third and Swansea City in twelfth. And very much in the promotion hunt is Luton Town, a club that, in the space of three decades, has yo-yoed from the top division into non-league football and back to the brink of the big time once more.
The Hatters last played in the First Division, as it was known then, during the 1991/92 season – if they had just held on for one more year before getting relegated, they would have been one of the founding fathers of the new Premier League era.
Just 17 years after mixing it with the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, Luton were relegated into non-league football – where they would stay for five seasons.
Their subsequent recovery has been nothing short of remarkable, and if they could achieve promotion at the end of this 2022/23 campaign they would join a select band of clubs that have marched through the divisions from non-league to the Premier League.
As recently as 1977, Wigan Athletic wasn’t even a professional football club.
They were still playing non-league football at that point, but after success in the lower reaches of the game they eventually secured promotion to the Football League via an election vote in 1978.
The Latics would climb from the old Fourth Division (now known as League Two) to the Premier League in the space of just 23 years – thanks largely to the bankrolling of sportswear magnate Dave Whelan.
Whelan brought in a number of players to boost the lowly Latics’ fortunes, and one of them – Roberto Martinez – would go on to manage Belgium at the World Cup.
Wigan’s owner oversaw three promotions, the building of their current home (the DW Stadium) and even saw the Lancashire club famously lift the FA Cup in 2013.
By 2015, Whelan had stepped aside to allow his 23-year-old grandson, David, to take over, but a slide down the leagues saw Wigan return to the third tier that same year.
The Latics have since rallied and are now in the Championship – not bad for a club that was in non-league less than five decades ago.
Younger readers may not be aware that the MK Dons of today were once the ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon FC, who fought – literally on some occasions – their way from non-league to the Premier League.
A powerhouse of non-league football, Wimbledon were finally elected to the Football League in time for the 1977/78 season. By 1984, the combative Wombles had enjoyed successive promotions to the old Division Two.
The incredible happened in 1986 when Wimbledon were promoted to the top-flight – just nine years after entering the professional ranks. After five games of their debut season in Division One, they topped the table before finishing a remarkable sixth.
The greatest moment of the club’s history followed in 1988 when they won the FA Cup, defeating Liverpool in the final at Wembley Stadium.
Lucky number 7️⃣?
Not for Liverpool…😖
Wimbledon destroy Liverpool’s dream of the double after a 1-0 win over the Reds in the 1988 FA Cup Final.#ThanksMotty pic.twitter.com/NyQyfdoy0G
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) May 19, 2018
This was the peak of the Crazy Gang’s achievements, with the non-nonsense approach of the likes of midfield hardman turned Hollywood star Vinnie Jones, Lawrie Sanchez and John Fashanu turning Wimbledon into a team to be feared – even if they didn’t draw many plaudits, with striker turned pundit Gary Lineker commenting that the ‘best way to watch Wimbledon is on Ceefax.’
They would stick around in the Premier League until the year 2000, before years of downturn would eventually see the club enter administration, sold and ‘reborn’ as the MK Dons.
In London, the ascendance of AFC Wimbledon – the phoenix club founded in protest of the original Wimbledon’s relocation to Milton Keynes – captured the spirit of the Crazy Gang era.
Okay, full disclosure, Blackpool FC weren’t actually relegated to non-league football.
However, that was down to administration rather than performances out on the pitch. In the 1982/83 season, the Tangerines finished 21st in the old Division Four – putting them in the relegation places.
But in those days, the team that won the Conference could only get promoted to the professional ranks if they won a vote of membership. In 1983, Maidstone United were the hopeful non-league champions hoping to get the nod, however members voted not to elect them for promotion – securing Blackpool a stay of execution.
And they never looked back. They didn’t secure their place in League One until 1992, but after some toing and froing they were promoted to the Championship in 2007.
By 2010, they were winning the play-offs to secure promotion to the top-flight for the first time in nearly four decades. After beating Wigan 4-0 in their opening Premier League game, Blackpool had gone from the bottom of the English football pyramid to the top in the space of 27 long years.