PREVIEW: Blackpool v Luton Town
Hatters head to Bloomfield Road this weekend
After being one of the teams tipped by the bookies to go straight back down to League One this term, Blackpool are making an pretty impressive fist of their first season back in the second tier since the 2014-15 campaign, comfortably closer to the top six than the bottom three.
Having reached the play-offs last year, a 3-0 success at Oxford seemed to have set up a comfortable passage to the final, and it eventually was, as the Tangerines drew 3-3 in the home leg.
They then saw off Lincoln City 2-1 at Wembley to make a return to the second tier and have already bettered their points tally from the last time they were in the Championship, where they won just four games all term, ending on 26 points, relegated by a long chalk.
Manager Neil Critchley was the man who led Blackpool back up the footballing echelon, with an outstanding run of form from February onwards, his first full season in charge after taking over at Bloomfield Road in March 2020, once Simon Grayson had been sacked.
Ahead of the campaign, the Tangerines brought in a number of players to bolster their squad, including raiding the Premier League for Manchester City's Daniel Grimshaw, Everton duo Josh Bowler and Callum Connolly, plus Leeds United's Oliver Casey.
Critchley also brought in Doncaster Rovers' Reece James, going to Northern Ireland for Linfield's Shayne Lavery and casting their net into non-league, signing Sonny Carey from King's Lynn, a player Town were said to be interested in as well.
He did add experience in Richard Keogh from Huddersfield, swooping for Nottingham Forest's Jordan Gabriel, as the loan market was utilised as well, Dujon Sterling (Chelsea), Ryan Wintle (Cardiff), Owen Dale (Crewe), plus Arsenal's Tyreece John-Jules all added to the squad.
Blackpool began proceedings with a decent 1-1 draw at Bristol City and then breezed past Middlesbrough in the Carabao Cup to reach the second round.
However, they suffered two home defeats to Cardiff and Coventry, before an excellent 2-2 away draw at promotion-chasing Bournemouth.
The Tangerines then went out of the cup at home to Sunderland, before defeat at Milwall made it five games without a win to sit third bottom of the the table.
Critchley's men finally registered a first victory of the season and in some style too, beating promotion favourites Fulham 1-0 on home soil, as another home reverse followed, beaten 3-0 by Huddesrfield, before the Tangerines dominance over Boro continued, securing the points with a 2-1 win at the Riverside.
That brought new reserves of confidence with Blackpool making it four wins from six, beating Barnsley and Blackburn as well.
They did lose at Nottingham Forest, but it didn't affect them greatly, going on a three game winning run, defeating Reading, Preston and picking up an excellent 1-0 victory at Sheffield United in October as they climbed to sixth in the table.
November has proved slightly taxing though, with a 1-0 defeat to Stoke, followed up by three draws with QPR, Swansea and West Bromwich Albion, not the worst results in the world against sides looking to feature at the higher end of the table.
They were beaten by Birmingham last weekend though, making it five without a win, taking just three points from 15 and scoring just two goals in that time, similar form to that of Luton.
Critchley isn't too concerned with the winless run though, telling the Blackpool Gazette: “We have played well in a lot of those games.
“We were good at Birmingham last week and should have taken something from it, and if we keep performing as we have been, I’ve no doubt we will pick up some good results.
“You have to take all the games in isolation, and if you’d offered people a point from those games it would probably be perceived as a good point.
“I always focus on how we are performing but also what we need to improve upon.
“The message to the players this week was that we are nearly there in becoming a really good team in this division but so are a lot of other teams.
“You can throw a blanket over a lot of teams in this division and there is very little between the teams in terms of points or performances.
“The margins are very, very fine and we came out on the wrong end last weekend. It is up to us to make sure we are on the right end this weekend against Luton.”
Team news: Luton are still without midfielder Luke Berry as he continues to recover from a knee injury that has seen him miss the last six weeks.
For the Tangerines, Richard Keogh is in contention after recovering from a calf injury, while goalkeeper Chris Maxwell is stepping up his return from a quad injury, with Matty Virtue pushing for a recall too.
Top scorers - Hatters: Elijah Adebayo (8). Tangerines: Shane Lavery (7).
Man in the middle: Peter Bankes - has taken 10 games this season, with five in the Premier League and two in the Europa Conference League, showing 68 yellows and one red.
Officiated 26 fixtures last term, the majority of them in the top flight, with 73 cautions and five dismissals.
Saturday will be his first Luton match since the 2-1 win at Fleetwood in League One in February 2019, while he coincidentally had the whistle for the 2-0 triumph at Blackpool back in December 2016 when Cameron McGeehan and Jack Marriott scored.
Prior to that, Bankes took the 2-1 defeat at home to Portsmouth and 2-0 defeat to Accrington Stanley in Luton's 2015-16 League Two season.
Also had the 2-0 defeat at Shrewsbury the year before, sending off Matt Robinson with seven minutes left, Jordan Clark scoring both of the hosts' goals that day in a team also including James Collins.
The referee's assistants are Wade Smith and Shaun Hudson, with the fourth official Christopher Sarginson.
In charge: Neil Critchley - 43-year-old had a playing career with Crewe Alexandra, although only featured once and then went to Leigh RMI.
After retiring, he moved to Liverpool, serving as U18s and U23s manager between 2013 and 2020, also named stand-in Reds boss for two first team cup fixtures with Jurgen Klopp and the senior squad away in FIFA Club World Cup action.
Became a head coach in his own right in March 2020, taking charge at Blackpool, leading the Tangerines to play-off final glory in his first full season.
Signed a four year extension in November and was named Manager of the Season at the annual North West Football awards recently, beating the likes of Manchester City's Pep Guardiola.
Managerial record: Nathan Jones has taken on Blackpool five times in his career so far, winning twice, 1-0 and 2-0.
He has also had two draws, with 3-3 and 0-0 encounters, just the one defeat, that a 3-2 reverse in the play-off semi-final first leg in May 2017.
For Neil Critchley, it is the first time he has come up against the Hatters and opposite number Jones.
View from the opposition: Neil Critchley talking to the Blackpool Gazette: “Luton sum up a lot of teams in this division, like we do.
“They are very difficult to play against. They are a high-energy team with athletic players and a good manager doing very well.
“I really like what Nathan Jones has done at Luton and they are establishing themselves as a Championship club.
“They have been through a sticky patch recently but I’ve watched them play and they are a very good side, like every side in this division.”
Friendly faces: Town first team coach Paul Hart joined Blackpool in 1973 a player after leaving Stockport County.
He spent five years with the Tangerines, turning out almost 150 times for the club, before a £300,000 move to Leeds United in 1978.
Town's head of coaching and player development Adrian Forbes joined Blackpool from Swansea in June 2006, having two years at Bloomfield Road, with 46 appearances, scoring once, then moving to Millwall.
Striker Elliot Lee, currently at Charlton Athletic, had a brief loan spell at Blackpool from West Ham in November 2015, playing four times for the Tangerines.
For the hosts, Stuart Moore joined Luton on loan from Reading in January 2017, playing 10 times, including against Blackpool in the League Two play-off semi-final, where his errors saw the Tangerines reach Wembley.
Went to Barrow on a free transfer from the Royals in July 2017 and had spells with Swindon, MK Dons, Wealdstone before moving to Bloomfield Road in February 2021.
Has only played twice though, with one appearance this season, the 2-1 win over Blackburn in October.
Played for both: Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall - The Leicester City midfielder went to Blackpool in January 2020, where he was watched on a number of occasions by boss Nathan Jones.
Scored four goals in 10 games, including on his debut in the 2-1 defeat at Wycombe, before the League One campaign was cancelled due to Covid-19.
The following season he went to Luton on loan, as he made 40 appearances, scoring three goals, winning the Ian Pearce Memorial Trophy, Junior Supporters Player of the Season, Internet Player of the Season and Players’ Player of the Season at the Luton Town Supporters' Trust awards evening.
Now back at the King Power Stadium and part of the first team squad, making his Premier League and Europa League debuts, off the bench as the Foxes drew 2-2 at Southampton on Wednesday night, his fifth top flight appearance.
One to watch: Shayne Lavery - Striker began at Glenavon before heading to Everton as he played five times for the Toffees U21s in the Checkatrade Trophy, scoring in the 3-2 defeat at Oldham Athletic.
Won his first international cap for Northern Ireland during his stint at Goodison Park, while had a loan spell at Falkirk in 2019.
After departing the Premier League side, Lavery headed to NIFL Premiership side Linfield in July 2019, spending two seasons at Windsor Park, scoring 44 goals in 77 matches including 30 last term.
Moved to Blackpool in the summer and netted on his debut in the 1-1 draw at Bristol City, then followed it up with a goal in the 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough.
Has netted seven in 15 outings, including three in three games twice, while also bagged his first international goal too, during Northern Ireland's 4-1 World Cup qualifying win at Latvia back in September.
We've got form: Luton have found it tough going at Blackpool over the years, starting with a 1-0 Division Two defeat in April 1898.
They won their next game 3-2, but victories were few and far between after that, as they went on a 10-game winless run from 1971 to 2003, including a 5-2 Division Two reverse in August 2002.
Finally, the Hatters triumphed, Steve Robinson scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win, which led to an upturn in form, Town winning three in a row, before a play-off semi-final defeat defeat in 2017, Mark Cullen notching a hat-trick.
In total, Luton have seven wins to their name from 27 trips, seven draws and 13 defeats, scoring 31 goals and conceding 44.
Last time out: Luton played out a goalless draw at Blackpool in their League One season back in September 2018.
Elliot Lee went closest for the visitors, twice denied by the diving Mark Howard, as James Shea tipped over Liam Feeney's curling attempt.
Hatters: James Shea, Jack Stacey, Dan Potts, Matty Pearson, Sonny Bradley, Glen Rea, Andrew Shinnie (James Justin 89), Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, Jorge Grant (Harry Cornick 73), Elliot Lee, James Collins.
Subs not used: Harry Isted, Jack Senior, Alan Sheehan, Arthur Read, Aaron Jarvis.