PREVIEW: Luton Town v Middlesbrough
Hatters host Boro at Kenilworth Road this weekend
For Middlesbrough it has very much been a season of what might have been after they looked well capable of challenging for a play-off position at the midway point.
Three straight wins for Neil Warnock s side back in December, including a 1-0 success over Luton, took Boro into sixth spot before Christmas, with a 4-1 success at Birmingham ensuring they appeared set to mount a challenge in 2021.
Although they they lost at Sheffield Wednesday, a 3-1 win at Wycombe saw the Riverside club begin the new year well, as despite losing the return game at home to Birmingham, a victory against Nottingham Forest saw them remain firmly in play-off contention, three points off a top six berth and only five adrift of second place
A poor January and February began to scupper Boro's chances of really making a push though as they lost four our of five, taking one point from 15, including damaging home defeats to Blackburn and Rotherham.
Back-to-back wins over Huddersfield and Reading ended the poor run, while five wins from eight between February and March gave them a slither of hope, as they trailed Reading by five points in mid-March.
However, another downturn in form, four defeats from five once more ended those hopes as Boro gave themselves too much to do.
They did once again come out of that sequence with successive victories again over Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday in their last two matches, but are realistically looking at an eighth place finish at best.
It can be still considered a successful season though with Boro ending up in 17th last, just five points clear of relegation, Warnock arriving in June 2020 to lead the ex top flight club to safety
It appears that the experienced manager, who signed a new contract extension until the end of next season in March is already looking to next term now, with out-of-contract pair Ashley Fletcher and club record signing Britt Assombalonga not likely to play for him again this season according to BBC Radio Tees.
Warnock also admitted that his two right hand men, former Luton manager Kevin Blackwell and Ronnie Jepson will be out scouting rather than attending the Boro matches in a bid to aid his recruitment this summer.
Speaking to Teesside Live, he said: "Ronnie and Kevin will be going to games at the weekend so they won’t be with me, we have to look as much as we can over these last two weeks.
"There are two or three games in different countries that we’ll be covering as you’ve got to do really.
"It’s difficult because you have to see the full picture really I think with strikers."
Team news: Luton are still unsure over the fitness of Luke Berry as he has missed the last two matches, with Tom Lockyer (ankle), Tom Ince (ankle) and Danny Hylton all out too.
For Boro, right back Djed Spence is the only new injury concern, as Nathan Mendez-Laing is unlikely to feature.
Top scorers: Hatters - James Collins (13). Boro – Duncan Watmore (8).
Man in the middle: Jeremy Simpson - Fifth Luton game of the season for the Lancashire official as he most recently took the 1-0 win at Nottingham Forest in March.
Also had Town's 1-0 defeat at Blackburn and 3-0 win over Preston, plus the 2-0 home loss to Stoke City in October.
Has had 28 games so far showing 77 yellows and four reds, while last term he took the Hatters' 3-2 defeat to QPR.
That was his first Luton match for four years, having had the 3-2 League Two victory at home over Cambridge United in January 2015.
Also took Town twice in the Blue Square Premier during the 2011-12 season, the 0-0 draw at Gateshead and then 2-1 defeat to York City in the play-off final, controversially allowing Matty Blair's clearly offside goal to stand.
Assistant referees are Richard Wild and Wade Smith, with the fourth official James Linington
In charge: Neil Warnock - at 72, is easily one of, it not the most, experienced managers in the game.
Had a playing career for Chesterfield, Rotherham United, Hartlepool United, Scunthorpe United, Aldershot, Barnsley, York City and Crewe Alexandra, making over 300 appearances.
Finished at Crewe at the age of 30 to become a coach, taking up his first managerial role in 1981 with Northern Premier League side Gainsborough Trinity.
Following this he managed Burton Albion and Scarborough, winning the Football Conference with the latter in 1987.
Took over at Notts County, then in the Third Division, leading the Magpies to Division One, but was dismissed in 1993 as County were relegated, meaning they missed out on the Premier League.
Had a consultant role at Torquay and then went to Huddersfield Town in July 1993.
Lost the 1994 Football League Trophy Final, but won promotion from Division Two via the play-offs, although resigned to become Plymouth Argyle manager, winning promotion promotion to Division Two again.
Surprisingly sacked in February 1997, as he had brief spells in the hot seat at Oldham Athletic and Bury, becoming Sheffield United manager in December 1999.
Reached the semi-finals of the League Cup and FA Cup, but won promotion to the Premier League in 2006 after finishing runners-up in the Championship.
The Blades immediate relegation saw Warnock resign, as he was back in management in October 2007 as Crystal Palace boss, leaving in 2010.
Was soon in work once more, leading QPR to the top flight in April 2011, but was sacked in January 2012, although returned as Leeds manager a month later, dismissed in April 2013.
Headed back to Crystal Palace in August 2014 for just four months as he was soon reappointed QPR first team advisor and then tempted back into management by Rotherham United in February 2016, keeping the Millers in the Championship.
Was appointed to the helm at Cardiff in October of that year, guiding the Bluebirds to the Premier League in May 2018, although couldn't keep them up.
Left Cardiff in November 2019 after just over three years as manager, named Boro boss in June 2020 as he kept them up last term and has now agreed a new deal for next season.
Manager record: Hatters boss Nathan Jones has come up against Middlesbrough twice in his managerial career, once with Luton, the 1-0 defeat earlier in the season, the only time he has come up against Neil Warnock, also losing to Boro when at Stoke City back in April 2019.
Warnock himself has a good record against Luton with three wins, one draw and one defeat from his five matches.
He started with a 4-0 victory when Sheffield United chief back in the Championship in November 2015, the game at Kenilworth Road ending 1-1.
His only defeat to the Hatters was in the Carabao Cup second round clash last season that Luton won 3-0 thanks to an own goal, Alan Sheehan's wonderful free kick and Jake Jervis' one and only strike for Luton.
Friendly faces: Martin Cranie - Town defender joined Middlesbrough in January 2018 for an undisclosed free from Huddersfield Town.
Only made one start and eight sub appearances as he left in September of the same year, heading to Sheffield United as the Blades won promotion to the Premier League.
Released in the summer of 2019 and moved to Luton, as he has made 50 appearances so far, scoring twice.
Former Luton boss Kevin Blackwell is assistant manager to Neil Warnock at Boro.
Was Leeds chief between 2004-06, named Town chief in March 2007, as the club dropped into League One, but was sacked in January 2008 just weeks after Town entered administration.
Played for both: Ben Roberts – Goalkeeper who started out at Middlesbrough, as he spent seven years at the Riverside, playing in the 1997 FA Cup final defeat against Chelsea and winning an England U21 cap.
Was loaned to Luton in February 24, playing 14 times in Division Two, keeping one clean sheet.
Went to Charlton in 2000 and was back at Kenilworth Road on loan from the Addicks in August 2002 as he made a further five appearances with two clean sheets to feature 19 times in total.
Went to Brighton in 2003 for two seasons, finishing his career at Derry City and then Yeovil.
Retired in 2010 and became Yeovil goalkeeper coach, while had five years in that role at Charlton and has done the job with Premier League Brighton since 2015.
One to watch: Yannick Bolasie - 31-year-old winger who started out with Rushden & Diamonds and then went to Hillingdon Borough before a move to Maltese side Floriana FC in August 2007.
Came back England to sign for Plymouth in August 2008, with loan spells at Rushden and Barnet before a move to Bristol City in June 2011.
Really made his name when joining Crystal Palace in August 2011 as he played almost 150 times for the Eagles, earning a £25m move to Everton in 2016.
Injuries have hampered the DR Congo international since, making just 32 appearances for the Toffees with two goals.
Loaned to Aston Villa, Anderlecht and Sporting Lisbon over the four years at Goodison Park, as he joined Bristol City on loan in January this year, scoring three goals in 13 outings so far.
We've got form: Town have enjoyed some good form against Middlesbrough during their matches on home soil over the years.
The first meeting was just the Hatters' 15th game in their history, a 3-0 home defeat in front of 4,000 supporters for an FA Cup first round clash in January 1892.
Town then drew their first league contest, a Division Two clash 1-1, before matches resumed in the 1950s, as Luton won their first six, including a 6-1 victory in 1960.
Three successive defeats followed in the early 1970s before Steve Foster settled a Division One clash in 1989.
Luton also enjoyed a 5-1 victory in October 1994 when Dwight Marshall (2), David Preece, John Hartson and an goal were on target as Luton unbeaten in four against their visitors, with no defeat since 1974
In total, they have played 15 times, picking up eight wins, three draws and four defeats, scoring 30 goals and conceding 20.
Last time out: Luton played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in their last meeting with Middlesbrough last term, a first match back in the Championship for the Hatters in over a decade.
The hosts fell behind to Ashley Fletcher's seventh minute opener before Sonny Bradley's stunning long range volley and Martin Cranie's header put Town 2-1 ahead.
Britt Assombalonga netted following an error by Simon Sluga as Lewis Wing scored on 68 minutes to make it 3-2 to the visitors.
Assombalonga then missed a penalty, as James Collins scored with five minutes to go and rescue a point.
Hatters: Simon Sluga, Martin Cranie, Dan Potts, Sonny Bradley, Matty Pearson, Ryan Tunnicliffe , Callum McManaman (George Moncur 74), Andrew Shinnie (Harry Cornick 69), Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, Elliot Lee (Jacon Butterfield 60), James Collins.
Subs not used: James Shea, Brendan Galloway, Lloyd Jones, Luke Berry.
Referee: Oliver Langford.