PLAY-OFF PREVIEW: Blackpool v Luton Town
A fine final few months to the season saw Blackpool make their way into the play-offs after they had looked like they would be missing out at one stage.
On March 4, the Tangerines were sitting in 11th place, five points away from Manfield in seventh, before a 3-1 victory over Morecambe started a much-needed run of five wins from six, which coupled with three draws previously, propelled the Bloomfield Road side on a nine game unbeaten run.
It shot Gary Bowyer’s side up to fourth place, climbing above Luton in the process, as they had lost just once in 15 League Two matches, before a 1-0 defeat at Kenilworth Road ended their impressive sequence.
A rare home loss to Grimsby followed, while Blackpool were in danger of letting their hard work slip away, when drawing at home to Accrington too.
However they recovered to finish with something of a flourish, triumphing 1-0 at Doncaster and defeating Cheltenham 3-0, as although they were beaten 1-0 by Notts County, they got the win over Leyton Orient required on the final day to ensure seventh spot.
The hosts’ home record has been impressive this term too, winning five of their last seven games in front of their own fans and losing just twice since the turn of the year to Mansfield and Grimsby.
The Tangerines chief has been quick to try and put the pressure on Luton ahead of the two-legged tie though, with Bowyer telling the Blackpool Gazette: “We’ve got every confidence in the players and the form they’ve shown, especially in the last 15 or so games.
“We’ve got a great opportunity now to play pressure-free because they’re the favourites.
“They’ve beaten us twice and finished fourth in the league. “It’s great, it’s exciting and it’s extended our season.
“We’ve enjoyed coming into work this week and preparing for the game. These are the games we want to be involved in.”
Bowyer also wants to make sure that whatever result on Sunday, his side are still in with a fighting chance going into return game at Kenilworth Road on Thursday evening.
He added: “I think it’s important going into the second game you’re still in the tie.
“I would imagine it will be tight. If you look at both teams’ draw columns, we’ve both got a fair number to throw about.
“I’m sure they’re looking forward to it but so are we. We’ve just got to concentrate on what we’re good at and go and deliver it.
“We just have to make sure we produce the performance and if we do that, the result should take care of itself.”
Team news: Luton striker Danny Hylton is back from suspension, although there are doubts over both James Justin and Alan Sheehan who have ankle injuries.
One of Jordan Cook and Johnny Mullins should be fit too, with the other is not expected to feature again this term, leaving just Cameron McGeehan and Danny Green as the absentees.
Striker Jamille Matt has returned to training this week for Blackpool, meaning Jim McAlister is the only player to miss out.
Milestones: Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu joined Isaac Vassell in completing his 50th appearance of the season during the 3-1 win over Morecambe last weekend.
The former West Ham man has now played 116 times for the Hatters, scoring seven goals.
Top scorers: Hatters: Danny Hylton (26). Tangerines: Kyle Vassell (13).
Man in the middle: Nigel Miller - official has taken 40 games this term, his last being Newport’s stunning 2-1 win over Notts County at the weekend that ensured League Two survival for the Exiles.
Has shown 87 yellows and eight reds so far, with one Luton match to his name so far, the 3-2 defeat to Oxford United in the Checkatrade Trophy semi-final.
Refereed Hatters twice last campaign, the 1-1 draw at home to Yeovil and also the 2-0 defeat to Peterborough in the FA Cup.
Has has taken Town five times in previous seasons, the 1-0 win at Crawley, 1-1 draw at Bury and also the 2-0 win over Stevenage in the 2014-15 season, plus goalless draws at Accrington in League Two in February 2009, and against Southend in the Championship in 2006.
Assistant referees are Craig Taylor and Matthew Bristol, with the fourth official Mark Brown.
In charge: Gary Bowyer, 45-year-old, who joined Hereford United in the 1989-90 season and then headed to Nottingham Forest, before leaving the City Ground without making a first team appearance.
Went to Rotherham United, where he spent two seasons, having to retire through injury in 1997.
Started his coaching career working part-time at Ilkeston and managed Carshalton, until appointed U17s coach at Derby County, remaining with the Rams for six years until a move to coach the U18s at Blackburn Rovers in 2004.
Became reserve team manager at Ewood Park in 2008, and was appointed as caretaker boss following the dismissal of Henning Berg in December 2012, keeping the position until the end of January.
Had another stint as caretaker boss in March 2013, after the sacking of Michael Appleton, while he was then appointed to the position permanently in May 2013.
Spent two years in charge of Rovers, being sacked in November 2015, and agreed a rolling one-year contract at Blackpool on June 1, 2016.
View from the opposition: Tom Aldred speaking to the club’s official website: “What we’ve achieved this season goes into a two to three match season.
“We’ve dealt with getting into the play-offs and now it’s about achieving what we want to do in the play-offs.
“We play Luton over two legs, it’s a tough tie, we all know that, we’ve had two tough games against them but we’re confident we can beat them home and away.”
Meanwhile, Sam Slocombe added: “It’s going to be a tight game, but when you’re in the play-offs you’re expecting tight games because you’re playing the other top teams in the league that haven’t gained promotion.
“We’re happy to be here and we’re happy to have that challenge put in front of us. Hopefully we can really focus on it and come through the other side.”
One to watch: Tom Aldred. Defender has been a huge hit with Blackpool this term, winning the John Schofield Memorial Trophy as the fans’ Player of the Season at the club’s recent awards night.
The 26-year-old started his career at Carlisle, before joining Watford and had loan spells with Stockport, Inverness, Colchester, Torquay and Barrow until heading to Accrington in January 2013.
Spent two years with Stanley until joining Blackpool in February 2015 and has now made 100 appearances for the Tangerines, scoring seven times.
Friendly faces: Tangerines striker Mark Cullen was snapped up by Blackpool in July 2015, as the Bloomfield Road club forked out £180,000 for his services.
Had played 83 times for the Hatters, scoring 24 goals, his most important strike, the last-minute equaliser at Cambridge United during Town’s Conference-winning season.
Finished as Blackpool’s top scorer in League One last term, with nine goals, and has the same amount this term too, with six of them coming in his last 12 matches.
Hatters assistant boss Paul Hart spent five years at Blackpool between 1973 and 1978 as a player, making almost 150 appearances for the club after joining from Stockport County, before being sold to Leeds United for £300,000.
Played for both: Elliot Lee - brother of Town midfielder Olly, who had an impressive two month loan spell with Luton from West Ham in 2015, catching the eye by scoring three goals in 11 appearances.
Headed to Blackpool the following season, playing just four times for the Tangerines, before a second spell with Colchester.
Left the Hammers in the summer after four years at Upton Park, scoring once in seven games and joined Barnsley, but has been restricted to just six substitute appearances this term.
We’ve got form: Luton had traditionally struggled at Bloomfield Road in the early days of their visits there, with games starting way back in 1898.
The Hatters have made the trip 26 times in total, winning seven, drawing seven and losing 12, scoring 30 goals and conceding 42.
However, Luton had gone a total of 32 years without victory at one stage, from 1971, when Don Givens scored the only goal in a 1-0 win, to 2003, a run spanning 10 games, as Steve Robinson’s strike settled a Division Two clash.
Recent visits have been fairly profitable though, with Luton winning on their last three trips, unbeaten since that goal from Robinson, while they have won the last six meetings between the two sides as well, last tasting defeat against the Tangerines some 13 years ago.
Last time out: Goals from Jack Marriott and Cameron McGeehan ensured Luton left Bloomfield Road with an excellent 2-0 win back in December.
Marriott took Danny Hylton’s pass in his stride to beat Sam Slocombe on 31 minutes, while McGeehan headed in James Justin’s cross moments after half time to reach double figures for the season.
Hatters: Christian Walton, Johnny Mullins, Scott Cuthbert, Glen Rea, Stephen O’Donnell, James Justin, Olly Lee, Cameron McGeehan (Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu 71), Alex Gilliead (Jonathan Smith 83), Danny Hylton, Jack Marriott (Isaac Vassell 75).
Subs not used: Craig King, Jack Senior, Jordan Cook, Josh McQuoid.
Referee: Peter Bankes