PREVIEW: Luton Town v Walsall
After staying up with one game to go last season, Walsall appear determined to ensure they are free of such tension this term.
The Saddlers struggled for large parts of the campaign, sacking boss Jon Whitney in March when they were 14th in the table, six points above the relegation zone, having lost four from five.
Former player Dean Keates left Wrexham to take over the vacancy, but didn’t have the best of starts, beaten in four of his first six games, but crucially a 1-0 win over Northampton and then 1-1 draw at Bradford was enough, just, to retain their League One status.
By contrast, this season has started a whole lot better, with the Saddlers beginning in absolutely supreme form.
They beat Plymouth 2-1 on the opening day, then drew 1-1 at Scunthorpe, before knocking Tranmere out of the Carabao Cup, winning 3-1 at Prenton Park.
It didn’t stop there either, Walsall winning their next three League One games against Gillingham, AFC Wimbledon and Rochdale to make it 13 points secured out of a possible 15.
A surprise penalty shootout defeat against Macclesfield saw Keates’ side out of the cup, but they did earn a hugely creditable 1-1 draw at Barnsley.
The seven game unbeaten league run was finally ended in unceremonious fashion, going down 4-1 at home to Doncaster.
Walsall bounced back immediately, back winning 2-1 at Oxford, although Accrington made it successive home defeats, with a 1-0 triumph at the Bescot Stadium.
A draw with Shrewsbury followed, but Walsall picked up 1-0 success at Bristol Rovers last time out, continuing their splendid away form which has seen them yet to taste defeat, winning four and drawing two.
On why they have been so impressive on their travels, Keates told the club’s official website: “I think when you are the away team you can play a little more compact, a bit more disciplined and then the home team has to come at you.
“That’s probably been the case at our place sometimes.
“But overall we have done well. I’m pleased with the way things are going.
“Things could be better, things could be a lot worse.
“I think maybe one or two times things have gone for us a bit more away from home.”
Keates hasn’t changed the club’s fortunes with a completely revamped squad either, as there were limited departures in the summer.
They were dealt a blow by the loss of star performer Erhun Oztumer to Bolton, while Simeon Jackson headed to St Mirren and Mark Gillespie joined Motherwell.
But the majority of the team stuck around, boosted by the arrivals of Morgan Ferrier from Boreham Wood, plus Andy Cook, Zeli Ismail, Chris Dunn and Isaiah Osbourne.
Keates used the loan window to sign Wolves duo Connor Johnson and Connor Ronan as well although they did lose teengate striker Mitch Candlin to Blackburn with a view to a permanent move.
Team news: Luton are virtually at full strength for the match, with Elliot Lee, Marek Stech and Lloyd Jones back in training once more. Danny Hylton returned at Barnsley last week, leaving just Luke Berry as the only confirmed absentee.
Top scorers: Hatters: Elliot Lee, James Collins (4). Saddlers: Andy Cook (5).
Man in the middle: Andy Woolmer - only his fourth game of the season with the whistle, as his other three have seen 11 yellow cards and two reds produced.
Took one Luton fixture last term, the 1-0 home win over Exeter in February, as he brandished 61 yellows and two reds in 23 games.
Has refereed Luton six times in his career, with a 1-1 draw against Wycombe and then 1-0 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy home reverse to Crawley in the 2013-14 campaign.
Four matches prior as well, Town drawing three times and losing 2-0 at home to Barnsley in the Championship in 2007.
Assistant referees are Andrew Fox and Paul Hodskinson, Jack Packman the fourth official.
In charge: Dean Keates – 40-year-old who had a successful playing career, winning promotion six times at three different clubs.
Actually came through the ranks at Walsall, making his professional debut in October 1996, with over 150 appearances, before heading to Hull in August 2002.
Had spells at Kidderminster and Lincoln, returning to the Saddlers once more in January 2006, staying for another season, moving to Peterborough in May 2007.
A short stint at Wycombe followed, before moving to Wrexham where he enjoyed five years, featuring in the play-off semi-final defeats to Luton during 2011 and 2012.
Released in May 2015 and moved to Rhyl, before finishing his playing days at Rushall Olympic, leaving to become Wrexham manager in October 2016 when Gary Mills was sacked.
Won 25 of his 71 matches in charge at the Racecourse Ground, returning for a third spell at his hometown club in March, replacing the sacked Jon Whitney.
View from the opposition: Boss Dean Keates talking to the club’s official website: “It (Kenilworth Road) was always one those places you wanted to play at. It’s that close, it’s that tight, and for me, when I played, I enjoyed that.
“I didn’t mind if people tried to intimidate me, you can use that to bring the best out of you.
“It will be a difficult game. Luton have good variation. They mix the play and try and play through you.
“They came up last year and they want to go up again so it’s going to be a good test.”
Played for both: Claude Gnakpa – The popular Frenchman joined Luton at the start of the 2008-09 campaign after leaving Peterborough United.
Scored his first goal in a 2-1 home defeat to Darlington, but earned his place in Town folklore by netting the winner in the club’s 3-2 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy victory over Scunthorpe United at Wembley in April 2009.
Went on to feature 136 times for the Hatters, scoring 27 times, as he was named in the Conference Premier team of the season for the 2009-10 season.
Netted 15 goals the following campaign as Luton lost in the play-offs to AFC Wimbledon, while he left in the summer of 2011, signing a one-year deal with Walsall.
Played 26 times for the Saddlers, scoring twice, finishing that season on loan at Inverness Caledonian Thistle where he played eight times, moving to Indian League side Salgaocar FC in 2013.
One to watch: Andy Cook. Striker, joined from Tranmere in the summer after a prolific season in which he scored 28 times for Rovers to seal promotion to the Football League.
Eye for a goal wherever he has been, with the 28-year-old notching 23 the year before and also reaching 20 for Barrow the previous campaign.
After starting with Carlisle, had numerous spells with Barrow, plus spending two years at Grimsby Town, before joining the Saddlers in the summer.
His time at Walsall has been a success so far, scoring five goals in his first 16 games for the club.
We’ve got form: Town are currently on a poor run of form at home against Walsall after dominating previously since the Saddlers first visited in 1898, that a Division Two clash that Luton enjoyed a thumping 6-0 win.
The Hatters won their first five meetings, scoring 20 goals to the visitors’ four as Walsall had to wait just over 30 years for a first win in Division Three South in 1929.
A stalemate then led to a another period of domination for Town, five wins and 29 years until the visitors left with three points once more.
The momentum is now behind the visitors though as since November 1997, they have won four out of six encounters, shutting out the Hatters for four games in a row until Kevin Nicholls’ penalty settled a League One clash in February 2005.
Overall, Town have won 14, drawn two and lost six of their 22 matches, scoring 43 and conceding 17, while keeping 11 clean sheets in that time also.
Last time out: Luton were beaten 1-0 at home by Walsall in their last meeting at Kenilworth Road, that a League One encounter in March 2008.
Stefan Moore scored the only goal of the game after just four minutes for the visitors, who had former Town defender Ian Roper in their ranks.
Hatters: Dean Brill, Richard Jackson, Chris Berry, S Davis (Alan Goodall 70), Drew Talbot, Matthew Spring, Keith Keane, Steven O’Leary, Dean Morgan (Calvin Andrew 58), Paul McVeigh (Sam Parkin 70), Paul Furlong.
Subs not used: Darren Currie, Ryan Charles.
Referee: Jarnail Singh.