Despite being the early pacesetters when League Two got into full swing, Notts County are going to have to make do with a play-off place this season.
Wycombe’s win over Chesterfield last weekend, coupled with the Magpies 2-1 defeat at Grimsby ended any automatic promotion hopes Kevin Nolan’s side had as they now need a victory over Luton to make totally sure of a second leg at home.
County had gone top of the pile in October after an impressive run of six straight victories and still looked to be on course for going up at the turn of the year, beating Port Vale 1-0 at home on New Year’s Day to sit second in the table and six points clear of fourth.
However, crucially, four league wins out of 14 put a huge dent in their hopes, as a 1-0 defeat to wouldbe champions Accrington on April 2 meant County trailed Wycombe by seven points with five games to go.
They made a real fight of it, reeling off three straight triumphs to look like they might take matters to the final weekend, until that loss at Blundell Park put paid to that.
Boss Nolan was still looking at the positives though as having been a play-off winner in his career already, he said: “There’s no better feeling than going up through the play-offs. I’ve done it twice before.
“We’ve worked hard to get there and we deserve to be there. No matter what happens from now, I’m proud of every one of them and what they’ve done as a team.
“We’ve brought an expectancy now to Notts County and that’s fantastic. We’ve just got to get over the final hurdle now.
“I’ve been there, I’ve done it, I’ve experienced it, I want it and I remember how much it meant to me.
“To do it now would be mad. I’m an emotional person and I can never ever take that away but it’s the sacrifice that comes with it.
“It’s so personal to me because of what I’ve had to endure over the last 18 months and people don’t see everything what goes on behind the scenes.
“And because of my sacrifice to get us here, it makes it all worth it when you get those results and that’s why I always thank the lads.”
County have already started to make plans for next season too, with midfielder Liam Walker having his contract terminated as he leaves to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Team news: Luton will be without Lawson D’Ath (knee) and Luke Berry (ankle) for the trip to Meadow Lane as the rest of the squad is fully fit.
Top scorers: Hatters – Danny Hylton (23). Magpies – Jorge Grant (18).
Milestones: Glen Rea will make his 50th appearance of the season for the Hatters if he is selected against County.
Meanwhile, striker Danny Hylton made it 50 goals for the club when scoring against Forest Green last week.
Man in the middle: Darren Handley – has taken 41 games this season at League One and Two level, showing 125 yellows and seven reds.
Officiated Luton twice, the 1-1 draw at Stevenage in February and 0-0 stalemate at Morecambe back in September.
The season before, he had Town once, the 4-0 win Yeovil.
Refereed two Hatters games in the 2015-16 campaign, the 1-1 draw against York, plus the 1-0 defeat to Stevenage at Kenilworth Road.
Prior to that, took Luton’s 1-1 draw at Cheltenham in January 2015 and had the whistle three times in their Conference winning season, a 7-0 hammering of Hereford, 1-1 draw at Chester and 2-0 defeat at Wrexham, sending off Alex Wall.
Also did the 5-1 defeat at Gateshead and 2-1 win at Hyde in the 2012-13 campaign, plus Luton’s 3-0 defeat to Forest Green Rovers in March 2012.
Graeme Fyvie and Ken Haycock are the referee’s assistants with fourth official Christopher Ward
In charge: Kevin Nolan - 35-year-old, who had an illustrious playing career that started out with Bolton Wanderers in 1997, playing over 300 times, before a £4m move to Newcastle in January 2009.
Made almost 100 appearances for the Magpies, heading to West Ham in 2011 where he played over 150 games, leaving by mutual consent in August 2015, to take up his first managerial role, as player boss at Leyton Orient in January 2016.
Relieved of his duties after just three months by the O’s, appointed as Notts County chief in January 2017, as the Magpies finished 16th last term.
Turned around their fortunes considerably this season, and signed a new three year deal back in September.
View from the opposition: Kevin Nolan talking to the Nottingham Evening Post: “It’s crazy because I said when we played Luton up at their place just before Christmas that if anyone finishes absolutely Luton they are going to win the league.
“We were obviously neck and neck with them and I said if it was us, I know we’ll be promoted.
“I think they’ve had a fantastic season and Nathan Jones has done a fantastic job.
“Hats off to them because it’s not easy to do what they’ve done with all the expectancy that Nathan’s had on his shoulders.
“But this game is going to be a day where we can enjoy it with the fans because the business end of the season starts now.
“I am really forward to what’s going to be hopefully a really good play-offs and we want to keep our splendid home record intact going into those games.”
One to watch: Jonathan Forte. Experienced striker is yet to reach double figures this season, but three goals in his last four games, including a double in the 2-1 win over Coventry means he is starting to hit some form.
Scored in patches as notched three in his first seven matches, before a 10 game drought and then another three in six during November and December.
An eight match barren run followed, until his brace against the Sky Blues, but has been preferred to the hugely experienced Jon Stead in recent games.
Now 31, has played for a whole host of clubs since starting life with Sheffield United, with his spell at Oldham probably the most prolific of his career, notching 18 goals in 65 matches during August 2014 to July 2016.
Friendly faces: Luton defender Alan Sheehan enjoyed a lengthy stint with Notts County over two spells.
The Irishman joined in June 2011, playing over 120 times, scoring 10 goals, before returning on loan in September 2015, making 15 appearances, netting twice, then heading to Luton in July 2016.
Striker Jake Jervis had a three month loan spell at Meadow Lane back in August 2010 from Birmingham City, as he made 14 appearance, although failed to score.
Town assistant boss Paul Hart was with County as player coach between 1987-88, playing 23 times, while in October 2014, he was appointed as acting academy manager.
He later became caretaker manager in March 2015, guiding the club to three draws in three games, before the appointment of Ricardo Moniz, which led to Hart’s departure in April.
Played for both: Alan White. Came through the ranks at Middlesbrough, signing for Luton in September 1997 for £40,000 and made over 80 appearances in three seasons for the Hatters.
Headed to Colchester, playing almost 150 games, as spells at Leyton Orient and Boston United followed, heading to Notts County in 2006 on a free where he played 39 games, becoming club captain.
Returned to Luton via Peterborough and Darlington in July 2009, as he made a further 20 appearances, making it a grand total of 114 games and four goals until his release in May 2010.
Spent the remainder of his career in non-league and is now assistant manager at Darlington who ply their trade in National League North.
We’ve got form: Hatters have enjoyed a very decent record at Meadow Lane over the years, playing 34 times, winning 13, drawing 12 and losing just nine matches.
Town haven’t found goals hard to come by either, scoring 51 and conceding 40, keeping 10 clean sheets too.
Hatters enjoyed four consecutive triumphs between 1994-1999, while their best win was a 4-0 success in the old Old Division Two back in 1976, with goals from Alan West, John Aston, Jimmy Husband and Steve Buckley.
They are currently on a run of two games without a victory though, having drawn and lost their previous two visits.
Last time out: Luton were indebted to a superb last-minute penalty save from Christian Walton to ensure they picked up a point at Notts County last season.
With the scores goalless going into stoppage time, Scott Cuthbert gave away a spot-kick that Vadaine Oliver took, with Walton flying to his right to keep it 0-0.
Hatters: Christian Walton, Stephen O’Donnell, Alan Sheehan, Scott Cuthbert, Johnny Mullins, Glen Rea, Cameron McGeehan (Isaac Vassell 89), Jordan Cook, Alex Gilliead (Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu 85), Danny Hylton, Jack Marriott (Olly Lee 74).
Subs not used: Craig King, Dan Potts, Jonathan Smith, Jake Gray, Craig Mackail-Smith.
Referee: Michael Salisbury.