PREVIEW: Cheltenham Town v Luton Town
It's been an all or nothing kind of season for Cheltenham so far as they strive to avoid another campaign spent looking nervously over their shoulders at the relegation trapdoor.
Last term’s finish of fourth bottom, just four points clear of the drop zone after bouncing back from the Conference at the first time of asking, will have been too close for comfort for experienced boss Gary Johnson.
At first glance, they certainly appear capable of achieving that this term, managing to convince influential midfielder Harry Pell to stay in the summer despite huge interest from Blackpool.
Johnson refreshed the squad too, bringing in Hibernian duo Brian Graham and Jordan Foster, plus keeper Scott Flinders, who recently penned a contract extension, and Jaanai Gordon as well.
The loan market was raided for three Bristol City players, including former Hatter Freddy Hinds, along with Aston Villa’s Jerell Sellars as well.
There were departures naturally, Billy Waters heading to Northampton Town, while ex-Luton players Asa Hall and Amari Morgan-Smith also moved on.
Cheltenham began poorly though with an opening day reverse at Morecambe, but got over that swiftly thanks to a surprise win at Oxford in the EFL Cup and then defeating Crawley.
That led to a run of six defeats in seven matches in all competitions, with one draw at Yeovil, until results started to pick up.
A 3-0 home win over Mansfield saw the Robins register in the victory column, Johnson’s men going on to secure three in a row, beating Swindon too.
However, the inconsistencies returned once more, Town going down 3-1 at Port Vale and losing at home to Grimsby, before beating Lincoln,
They earned only their third draw of the campaign at Wycombe in a 3-3 thriller, leaving the Robins with six victories and seven defeats from their 16 games to date, plus three draws, but more importantly already seven points above the bottom two.
Their home form has been promisin, the Robins managing to score 15 times in their eight games, winning five, which made last weekend’s 4-2 home defeat to National League side Maidstone in the FA Cup even more surprising.
Cheltenham had trailed 3-0 at one stage, but despite a better showing in the second period, couldn’t come back, and although they did rectify that with a 2-1 win at Newport County in the Checkatrade Trophy on Tuesday night, midfielder Carl Winchester knows his side must bounce back at the first attempt in the league.
He told the club’s official website: We are an honest group and we knew it wasn’t right last weekend.
“But we look forward to Saturday and it’s a great way to prove everyone wrong.
“I believe, and the lads believe, that we have a good enough squad to put it right.
“If we do what the gaffer tells us to do, because he is experienced enough with knowing how to cope with this, then we can bounce back.
“The gaffer has been there and done it. He knows the situation we are in and we believe in him.
“After a defeat like that you want another game to bounce back. We have to show people what we really can do. We are good enough to challenge in this league.”
Team news: Luton could welcome back Alan McCormack to the the bench, while Glen Rea is available after suspension, leaving just Johnny Mullins (ankle) as an absentee.
For Cheltenham, Nigel Atangana is a doubt with an ankle problem, while midfielder Joe Morrell is away with Wales U21s.
Kevin Dawson is suspended, Jaanai Gordon and Jordon Forster remain long-term injury casualties, but Danny Wright and Jordan Cranston are back in consideration.
Top scorers: Hatters – James Collins (9). Robins - Mohamed Eisa (8).
Man in the middle: Rob Lewis – experienced official has taken nine games this season, with 26 yellows and one red.
Refereed 16 games last term as well, showing 49 cautions and two dismissals, while had two Luton matches in the 2015-16 campaign, a 1-0 home win over Mansfield and 0-0 draw at Stevenage, sending off Paul Benson late on.
Officiated the Hatters on four other occasions, a 3-2 home defeat to Exeter in April 2015, 1-0 Conference win over Forest Green in August 2009, plus a 2-1 victory over Hartlepool and 2-0 loss at Southend during the 2007-08 League Two campaign
Referee assistants are Grant Taylor and Andrew Hendley, with the fourth official Kevin Morris.
In charge: Gary Johnson, 62-year-old who started his career at Watford and had spells in Sweden and England, before starting his managerial career at Newmarket Town in 1986.
Head to Cambridge where he had stints as reserve team boss and assistant in 1990, going on to manage the side between 1993-1995,
From the Abbey, went Kettering Town as manager and then became director of Watford youth academy, before he was appointed Latvia national boss in 1999, spending two years in charge.
Returned to England as Yeovil manager in June 2001, leaving for Bristol City in September 2005, where he was at the helm for almost five years.
Spent a short period at both Peterborough United and Northampton Town as he went back to former club Yeovil in January 2012.
Left the club in February 2015, quickly appointed Cheltenham boss the following month and despite the club dropping into the Conference, led them back to the Football League at the first attempt in the 2015-16 campaign.
View from the opposition: Gary Johnson speaking to the club’s official website - “The players need to be ready because Luton, in my opinion, are a League One club now and ready.
“They have bought well and we are going to need to be physically and mentally ready to get through these games.
“Last season we had a good couple of games against them. I know Nathan Jones well and he would have been irritated by those performances.
“We raised the bar then and we’ve got to do it again. We’ve got to believe that we can match these teams.”
Friendly faces: Hatters midfielder Lawson D’Ath spent a brief loan spell at Cheltenham from Reading between October 2012 and January 2013
Scored on his debut against Exeter in a 3-0 win, but only played three times in total for the Robins, before moving to the Grecians on a temporary basis.
Former Luton striker Freddie Hinds is currently on loan at Cheltenham from Championship side Bristol City.
Came through the youth ranks for the Hatters, making two Checkatrade Trophy appearances before an undisclosed move to Ashton Gate in January 2017.
The 18-year-old scored on his debut for the Robins against Plymouth in the EFL Cup and then joined the other Robins in September.
Yet to start in the league for Johnson’s side, coming off the bench eight times, but has two starts in the Checkatrade Trophy, scoring once.
Played for both: Lloyd Owusu - popular striker who joined Cheltenham on a free transfer from Yeovil Town in September 2008.
Scored eight goals in 26 games for the Robins, until he was allowed to join Brighton on loan in March 2009.
Headed to Adelaide United after his stint with the Seagulls, before moving to Luton in January 2011, netting on his debut against York City.
Went on to score seven goals in 15 games for the Hatters, but wasn’t offered a new deal in the summer and headed to AEP Paphos in Cyprus.
Spells at Barnet and Hayes & Yeading followed, before Owusu headed out to Australia playing for White City, Hakoah Sydney City East, Rydalmere Lions and also Stanmore Hawks.
One to watch: Mohamed Eisa - striker who spent his early career in non-league football with Dartford and Greenwich Borough, netting 57 goals in 100 appearances for the latter.
Signed for Cheltenham Town in July and had a great start to life at Whaddon Road, netting on his debut at Morecambe and then twice in the EFL Cup win over Oxford, before the winner against Crawley made it four in three,
Went six fixtures without scoring, before another four in three, including both in the 2-0 win at Chesterfield in September.
Not netted in his last eight, but is still the club’s top scorer with eight to his name from 21 games and has penned a contract extension until 2020.
We’ve got form: Luton have never emerged victorious on their trips to Cheltenham, with four draws and one defeat from their previous five visits.
They started with a 1-1 draw back in January 2002, when Steve Howard’s 73rd minute goal earned them a point, while a 2-2 result followed in April 2003, with Paul Hughes and Adrian Forbes on target.
Andy Lindegaard’s early strike saw Hatters beaten 1-0 in League One back in December 2007, before a 1-1 draw in January 2015, thanks to Shaun Whalley’s close range finish, followed by the same scoreline last campaign.
Last time out: Luton were held to yet another 1-1 draw last season at Cheltenham.
Danny Hylton put the visitors in front, beating keeper Russell Griffiths to fire into the empty net on 52 minutes, but Daniel O’Shaughnessy levelled just 12 minutes later to ensure a draw.
Hatters: Christian Walton, James Justin, Dan Potts, Scott Cuthbert, Alan Sheehan, Jordan Cook, Cameron McGeehan, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu (Alex Gilliead 83), Olly Lee, Danny Hylton, Jack Marriott (Jonathan Smith 76).
Subs not used: Craig King, Stephen O’Donnell, Akin Famewo, Jake Gray, Josh McQuoid.
Referee: Trevor Kettle.