PREVIEW: Luton Town v Mansfield

Mansfield are finally showing the sort of form that made them one of the firmest favourites for promotion at the beginning of the season, writes Mike Simmonds.

A campaign of early highs and lows has now developed into one of real consistency as since the turn of December though they managed eight wins from 11 games in the Conference, shooting them into play-off contention, with the title still a realistic target.

Goals haven’t been a problem either as impressive wins at Stockport and Southport were followed by a 5-0 hammering of Dartford, before Barrow, fresh from beating Luton, were well and truly put to the sword 8-1.

That result earned manager Paul Cox a new car as chairman John Radford had promised the boss his £85,000 Aston Martin if the Stags could beat the 7-0 triumph from last year,

Where others might have faltered, Mansfield have grown in strength since the national media attention surrounding their FA Cup defeat to Liverpool as although losing 2-0 to Kidderminster next time out, four straight wins quickly put them back on track.

A 2-0 defeat to fellow promotion chasers Newport followed, but once again they have bounced back in style, defeating Cambridge United 3-1 and winning 1-0 at Hyde last time out, a performance that Cox rated as good the Barrow demolition.

The Stags were fairly quiet during the transfer window, snapping up left back James Jennings from Cambridge on a free transfer.

Both players and management at the One Call Stadium expressed their surprise that they are facing a potentially managerless Luton too after the news that Paul Buckle left the club on Tuesday afternoon.

Boss Cox told the Mansfield Chad: “Luton losing Paul Buckle came as a surprise to us all at this level. We have got to be thoroughly professional and not get sidetracked by what is going on down there. We must focus only on getting a good result.”

While defender Luke Jones added: “Luton having no manager can go either way. Sometimes players will go out wanting to impress whoever is coming in to make sure they are in his plans, but it can also cause uncertainty.

“Players can worry about who is coming in next and worry about things they shouldn’t be worrying about on the pitch.”

Team news: Hatters have a relatively clean bill of health as Jonathan Smith has recovered from his knock against Macclesfield, while Wayne Thomas can finally play after his international clearance arrived. That means just Danny Spiller and Garry Richards are on the injured list.

Mansfield manager Cox wants any players who are feeling the effects of a congested fixture schedule to let him know as he said: “We had a few tired bodies out there on Tuesday, especially late on. But it’s good to know we have lads who will run through a brick wall for this club.

“I now need the lads to be honest with me about their fitness. No one wants to step out and lose their place. But I need them to put their hands up for the sake of the side. Even during the 90 minutes I need them to raise a hand and say I am finished.”

Top BSBP scorer: Hatters – Andre Gray, Stuart Fleetwood (10). Stags – Matt Green (12).

Man in the middle: Kevin Johnson - has taken 15 games so far this season, showing 51 yellow cards and three reds.

One of the dismissals came in Luton’s 2-1 triumph at Forest Green as he sent off Paul Green for handball in the final minute, awarding a penalty that Scott Rendell tucked home.

He has also officiated Luton’s 2-0 win at Kidderminster back in August, plus the 3-1 home win over Woking.

Johnson has taken just one Stags game this year, the 4-1 defeat at Cambridge in October.

In charge: Paul Cox. As a player, he had spells at Notts County and Hull City before dropping into non-league where he turned out for Kettering Town, Halifax Town and Hucknall Town.

In 2003, Cox began his coaching career as assistant manager at Eastwood Town before taking charge in October 2006.

Led the club away from the Unibond Division One relegation zone and then guided them to two successive promotions and the third round of the FA Cup.

Resigned on May 5, 2011 and was unveiled as Stags boss later that month, signing a new two year deal in April last year.

View from the opposition: Paul Cox - “This has all the makings of a very good game.

“Both teams have aspirations of breaking into the play-off places and it looks like a really tasty fixture.

“It will be a hostile atmosphere down there which is part and parcel of the fixture. I embrace this kind of atmosphere. You want to play in front of big crowds every week and there is nothing to fear.

“Luton have a fabulous squad all the way through and we know it will be a tough game. We must make sure our players are grounded and level going into the game, having recovered right and prepared right.”

One to watch: Matt Green - bang in form striker, whose season has really kicked into gear since coming off the bench to score a last minute equaliser against Luton back in November,

Before then he had netted four goals in 14 games, but since that date, has added 10 more in just 16 matches, including a hat-trick in the 8-1 thrashing of Barrow

Now 26, he started life at Newport County, before a switch to Cardiff and then spells with Darlington, Oxford, Torquay and Cheltenham. Joined Mansfield on loan where he netted 29 league goals last season and completed a permanent move in the summer.

Friendly faces: Town striker Jon Shaw joined Mansfield on a free transfer back in January 2010 and scored three goals in 14 league appearances, before moving to Gateshead in the summer.

Former Town skipper George Pilkington played 172 times for Luton, scoring 12 times before moving to Mansfield on a free transfer in the summer, but the move hasn’t worked at all, as he has been restricted to just four appearances, his last way back in October.

Midfielder Jamie Hand also joined the Stags after leaving Hayes. He played 15 times for Town, netting twice while on loan, but has made just one substitute appearance for Mansfield, and had a short loan spell at Eastleigh this season.

Godfrey Poku is another who signed for Mansfield after leaving Luton in the summer, but he hasn’t even played for the Stags and is now out on loan at former club Southport.

Adam Murray spent a brief spell at Luton as he made seven appearances after joining from Oxford on a free transfer in August 2010. He went on loan to Mansfield in September 2010 and then made the move permanent in January and has now made almost 100 appearances, signing a new one-year deal as player assistant manager.

We’ve got form: Town have a fine record against the Stags at Kenilworth Road, having won six, drawn five and lost two of their 13 encounters.

They are unbeaten in the last four games, with Luton’s last defeat was during September 2002 in League Two when Town, with current assistant Carl Emberson in goal, lost 3-2 despite late strikes from Steve Howard and Kevin Nicholls.

Luton’s biggest win was 7-2 in the League Cup the 1989/90 season, which remains their highest ever League Cup success.

In league meetings, Town’s best effort is 4-1 which was in the first season in non-league when goals from George Pilkington (2), Kyle Perry (OG) and a Tom Craddock penalty were enough.

The heaviest was just 2-0 in the 1963-64 campaign when the clubs were in the old Division Three.

Last time out: Hatters were held to a 0-0 at Kenilworth Road last season. The visitors came closest to winning it as George Pilkington was forced into two fine goal-line clearances.

Hatters: Kevin Pilkington, Dan Gleeson, George Pilkington, Jake Howells, Janos Kovacs, Greg Taylor, Alex Lawless, Amari Morgan-Smith (Stuart Fleetwood 57), Danny Crow (Craig McAllister 67), Aaron O’Connor, Adam Watkins.

Subs not used: Mark Tyler, James Dance, Godfrey Poku.

Attendance: 5,261.

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