PREVIEW: Luton Town v Oxford United
A superb run of results has seen Oxford United finish the season as one of the form teams in League One during the final stages of a campaign that had threatened to end so differently.
In the middle of February, a 4-2 loss at Accrington Stanley saw the U’s with serious relegation concerns, sitting third from bottom and looking like a drop back into League Two was a real possibility, with 14 defeats from 33 games.
Manager Karl Robinson was under increasing pressure, but the Oxford board stuck to their guns and that has started to pay off.
They stopped the rot with a 1-0 win at Blackpool and followed that up by beating Scunthorpe 2-1.
A 1-0 defeat at Gillingham and stalemate on the road at Rochdale followed but since then, the U’s have won six out of eight matches, going nine games in total without defeat, winning their last three away from home too.
That has seen them leap into mid-table, 13 points away from the bottom four and safety long since secured.
Away from home they have struggled this year, with just four victories, their first one coming at Blackpool in February, although that has led to four triumphs in five outings.
They have always been tough to beat though, with 11 draws in there too, the most in the division.
Robinson is now looking to try and bring some of the past glories back to the club, as he said: “We were 16th last season, we are currently in 12th, that is another step in the right direction and I think we have shown terrific resilience.
“Once our training ground was ready and once we had everyone fit; that was when we were under pressure because we had nothing to blame and we needed to perform.
“The players stood up to that brilliantly. I am very proud to be their manager and very proud to be manager of the club.
“I want to thank all the staff for their hard work and hopefully it comes across that we do love working here. We hope we can make this club as successful as it used to be.”
Team news: Luton are without Danny Hylton (knee), Alan Sheehan (Achilles) and Glen Rea (knee), while defender Dan Potts is a doubt.
Kazenga LuaLua should be fine after suffering cramp at Burton, with Alan McCormack available once more.
The U’s are without the suspended Ahmed Kashi while loanees Jordan Graham and Samir Carruthers are not involved having been told they can return to the parent clubs last week.
Top scorers: Hatters: James Collins (25). U’s: James Henry (15).
Milestones: Luton are one game away from going unbeaten at home this season. It will be only the third time they have managed that in their history, following up the 1926-27 ✅and 1968-69 campaigns.
Centre half Sonny Bradley will made his 50th appearance for Luton. The defender signed from Plymouth Argyle in the summer, although is yet to score for Town.
Man in the middle: Michael Salisbury - has taken 40 games this term, showing 118 yellow cards and four reds
Refereed the reverse fixture in October, where Luton won 2-1 thanks to Dan Potts’ stoppage time goal, sending off United’s Shandon Baptiste on 73 minutes.
Also took Hatters’ 1-0 win at Bradford City in March.
The previous season saw Salisbury in charge for Town’s 1-0 win at Grimsby, dismissing Jordan Cook in the first half, while he also had the whistle for the 2-0 win over Barnet.
Officiated Luton’s 0-0 draw at Notts County in League Two during October 2016, awarding the hosts a penalty in the final minute, saved by Christian Walton.
Assistants referees are Joe Clark and Declan Ford, with the fourth official Matthew Smith.
In charge: Karl Robinson – 38-year-old who spent his playing career at a host of non-league teamd, as he coached at the Liverpool youth academy and later worked as a coach at Blackburn Rovers.
Appointed MK Dons boss in May 2010, aged just 29, having previously been assistant to Paul Ince.
Led the Dons to the Championship, but couldn’t keep them up, leaving the club in October 2016.
Named Charlton Athletic manager a month later, staying at the Valley for almost 18 months, as he left by mutual consent on March 22, 2018, taking up the role as head coach at Oxford on the same day.
View from the opposition: Karl Robins talking to the club’s official website: “It’s what you want to be involved in: big games and a chance to test yourself.
“We tip our hats to Luton this season because to get promoted is difficult and we will show them respect when they walk out: they deserve that.
“But we want to put a show on for our fans too; it is a sell out in the away end and people talk about spoiling the party: it’s not about that, it’s about wanting to win for Oxford United.
“Luton have been brilliant and Mick Harford has been unbelievable and managed to motivate them all the way through. He has players who will flourish in the Championship, but we want to win and that is our main objective.”
One to watch: James Henry – attacker who started life with Reading, before loans at Nottingham Forest, Bournemouth, Norwich and Millwall, making his move to the Den permanent in July 2010.
Played over 100 times for the Lions heading to Wolves in October 2013 on loan, then for good in January 2014.
Had three years at Molineux and a temporary stint with Bolton, before joining Oxford in July 2017.
Notched 11 goals last season and had a purple patch this campaign between November and December, scoring eight times in nine games, to reach 11 before Christmas.
Tailed off since as although he bagged three in three during January, has scored just four goals in 2019, although did end a run of 15 matches without scoring in the 2-2 draw with Doncaster last weekend.
Friendly faces: Danny Hylton – Town striker had two seasons at Oxford, where he was a crowd favourite, scoring 30 goals in 101 games for the U’s.
Managed 14 as United reached League One in the 2015-16 campaign, but left the club with Johnny Mullins to sign for Luton that summer.
Has enjoyed a superb three years so far, scoring 58 goals in 118 games and winning two promotions.
Hatters goakeeping coach Kevin Dearden had a loan spell at Oxford in the 1989-90 season but didn’t feature for the first team, while Town’s youth academy and development manager Andy Awford was first team coach under Jim Smith in 2008.
Played for both: John Dreyer. Uncompromising defender who started his career at Wallingford Town, before moving to Oxford in January 1985.
Played over 50 games for the U’s, then moving to Kenilworth Road for a fee of £140,000 in June 1988.
Spent six years with the Hatters in the top flight, playing 250 times and scoring 15 goals, leaving for Stoke in 1994 and had spells at Bolton, Bradford, Cambridge and Stevenage, making over 500 appearances in total.
Managed Maidenhead and had spells as assistant at Rushden & Diamonds, Stevenage and Preston North End under Graham Westley, as he then went to Northampton as head of recruitment in January 2016.
Became assistant manager at Southport in October 2017, while was then Ware boss, resigning in September last year to concentrate on his family and business career.
We’ve got form: Luton have a fine record against Oxford United at Kenilworth Road in recent years, not losing at league contest to the U’s since 1987.
The run spans nine games and includes a stunning 7-4 triumph during the 1987-88 campaign, Mark Stein bagging a hat-trick and current boss Mick Harford netting twice.
They have lost League Cup and Checkatrade Trophy ties in that time, but when points are at stake, it’s six wins and three draws.
It hadn’t been that way in the early days, with Luton losing five out of their first seven meetings when matches started in 1970, Town winning that one 4-0 thanks to doubles from Matt Tees and Malcolm MacDonald.
In total, Luton have won nine, drawn three and lost seven matches, scoring 42 goals and conceding 29.
Last time out: Luton lost 3-2 to Oxford United in a thrilling Checkatrade Trophy semi-final at Kenilworth Road in March 2017.
The visitors were 2-0 up after 69 minutes, with Phil Edwards (10) and Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu’s own goal looking like it would be enough.
However, Isaac Vassell pulled one back three minutes later and Danny Hylton levelled with eight to go against his former club.
But just when it looked like extra time would be needed, Marvin Johnson won it with a fine strike inside the final five minutes.
Hatters: Matt Macey, James Justin (Scott Cuthbert 89), Jack Senior (Luke Gambin 46), Johnny Mullins, Alan Sheehan, Glen Rea, Jake Gray (Jack Marriott 80), Jordan Cook, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, Danny Hylton, Isaac Vassell.
Referee: Nigel Miller.