PREVIEW: Sunderland v Luton Town
As expected, Sunderland are proving one of the major players in the League One promotion race this season.
Back-to-back relegations from the Premier League and Championship means the Black Cats are one of the biggest clubs to ever ply their trade in their third tier.
A change of manager in the summer saw St Mirren boss Jack Ross tasked with leading them back to somewhere near where they really should be and from the start, it’s looked like he can do just that.
Ross got up and running quickly, winning four out of his first five league games, a 1-1 draw at Kenilworth Road, the only dropped points.
They did have minor blip in September, with a single victory in five, suffering a first defeat when beaten 2-1 at Burton Albion, before October and November were a completely different story.
The Black Cats won eight games in a row in all competitions and although eventually held by Wycombe and Walsall, saw off promotion rivals Barnsley 4-2.
They stretched the unbeaten sequence to 16 matches, before surprisingly going out of the FA Cup on home soil to Walsall, also losing their league run when beaten 3-1 at leaders Portsmouth in December.
However a good Christmas saw Sunderland take eight points from the 12 on offer, as they are still to lose on home soil in the league this term.
One of the stars of the fine start is 15-goal striker Josh Maja, although the 20-year-old’s future remains somewhat in the balance after being advised to turn down a new deal last week.
However, Ross was unfazed by the news, telling the Sunderland Echo: “For me, I say all the time, I take less notice of it because I have so much going on.
“His performances levels in games have remained the same and our communication level is consistent.
“It would be remiss of me to deny the possibility of any scenario because you just don’t know what might unfold over the next few weeks.”
Despite Maja being linked with the exit door, Ross has already used the window to bolster his squad with former Manchester United academy star Jimmy Dunne joining on loan from Burnley until the end of the season.
The Republic of Ireland under-21 international central defender’s arrival has coincided with forward Jerome Sinclair’s stint from Watford concluding, as he has headed back to the Hornets.
Team news: Luton goalkeeper Marek Stech is missing with a groin injury, Harry Cornick (ankle) is a doubt, although Dan Potts is fit after recovering from his groin problem.
Glen Rea remains out for the season after suffering knee ligament damage, while Jorge Grant has returned to Nottingham Forest, but midfielder George Thorne should be in the squad after signing from Derby County.
For Sunderland, Bryan Oviedo and Adam Matthews have returned to full training, along with long-term absentee Ethan Robson and 35-year-old Glenn Loovens.
Top scorers: Hatters – Elliot Lee, James Collins (10). Black Cats – Josh Maja (15).
Man in the middle: Premier League referee Lee Probert will take charge of Saturday’s clash.
This term, he has taken 10 games in the top flight, with 16 matches total, showing 55 yellows and four reds.
His last Luton game was back in February 2013, the 3-0 home defeat to Millwall in the FA Cup fifth round.
Probert has refereed Luton earlier in his career too, officiating the Hatters twice in the 2005-06 Championship campaign, a 1-1 home draw with Wolves and 1-0 defeat at Southampton, sending off the hosts Rory Delap in the final minute.
The year before he had the whistle for the 1-1 League One draw at home to Tranmere while was also in charge for Town’s 2-0 Division Two win over Notts County in December 20003
In charge: Jack Ross - had spells both north and south of the border during his playing days, with stints at Clyde, Falkirk, St Mirren, Hamilton Academical and Dunfermline Athletic, plus Hartlepool United until he retired in 2011 due to a knee injury.
Became assistant manager at Dumbarton, and was coach of the Hearts U20s team in July 2014, before his first managerial role, appointed Alloa Athletic boss in December 2015.
Less than 12 months later, he was named St Mirren chief, leading them to the 2017–18 Scottish Championship title and named PFA Scotland Manager of the Year.
His feats were noticed by Sunderland though, as he left his role to become the Black Cats manager in May 2018.
View from the opposition: Sunderland boss Jack Ross, talking to the Sunderland Echo about Luton losing manager Nathan Jones, said: “Nathan leaving changes far less than leaving a team that hasn’t been successful.
“The way they have played this season has brought about success and I don’t envisage too many changes to that.
“They will keep playing in a certain way. I think if there was a new manager coming in there might be some changes.
“They will come expecting to perform in a positive manner like they have all season.
“We know the importance of the game and we have been good, by and large, at home this season.
“How much influence Nathan had on the group is impossible for me to say. Saturday won’t be the acid test for that.
“Football is the industry that rolls on and somebody else will come in. All we can influence is how we approach the game tactically and mentally.”
Friendly faces: Town attacker Kazenga LuaLua joined Sunderland on a free transfer after being released by Brighton in January 2018.
He didn’t start a league game during his six months at the Stadium of Light though, with just six substitute appearances, leaving at the end of last season and joining Luton in September.
Interim boss Mick Harford was born in Sunderland, and is a boyhood Mackems fan.
He got the chance to play for the club he supported in March 1993, when they brought him from Chelsea for £250,000.
His time at Roker Park was brief, scoring twice in 11 games, before a £200,000 move to Coventry City in July 1993.
Played for both: Andy Dibble – Welsh goalkeeper who began his career at Cardiff City, before moving to Luton Town for £125,000 in July 1984.
Twice went out on loan, firstly to Sunderland in 1986, where he played 12 games, then Huddersfield Town in 1987.
However, when back at the Hatters, he had arguably the finest moment of his career, saving a Nigel Winterburn penalty in the 1988 League Cup Final at Wembley, as Luton beat Arsenal 3-2 to win their first major trophy.
Joined Manchester City for £240,000 in July 1988, with several loan spells, including heading back to Luton in September 1997 to play another one time, a 5-2 home defeat to Wrexham, as he finished his Town career having made 39 appearances.
Spent three years with Wrexham between 2002-2005, as he finished his career at Accrington Stanley, where he became goalkeeping coach.
Took up the same position at Coventry, Peterborough United and then Rotherham United, becoming joint caretaker of the Millers in October 2016.
Left the club in January 2017 to become Cardiff City goalkeeping coach, a position he still holds.
One to watch: Josh Maja - striker was originally at Fulham before joining the academy at Sunderland, signing his first professional deal in May 2016.
Made his debut for the U23s in the Checkatrade Trophy in September 2016, netting one goal in five appearances that season.
Notched just once in 17 Championship matches last term as the Black Cats were relegated, but this campaign has seen a massive upturn in form.
Four goals in his first five games, including hitting the net at Kenilworth Road saw him up and running, as Maja also bagged two the 4-1 win over Rochdale.
The forward remains in fine form, with three in his last five games, making it 15 for the season.
We’ve got form: Roker Park and the Stadium of Light have been miserable hunting grounds for the Hatters over the years.
Their first trip was an FA Cup clash in February 1907 that Town lost 1-0, a sign of things to come.
Luton did pick up 2-1 Division One triumph 2-1 in 1956, but less said about the 7-1 Division Two hammering in 1960 the better.
The 70s were a good time for the Hatters, as they won twice, in 1972 and 1973, Barry Butlin securing the latter result with a 1-0 success.
However, since then, Luton gone 16 games and 46 years without a win, with four draws and 12 defeats, losing the last four in a row.
Overall, Luton have won three times, drawing seven and losing 19 of their 29 visits, scoring 19 goals, shut out on 15 of their trips, conceding 55 goals and keeping just three clean sheets, the last coming back in 1971.
Last time out: Luton fell to a 2-1 defeat at Sunderland on their last visit, that a Championship contest back in December 2006, when the Black Cats were managed by Roy Keane.
Dean Morgan had put the visitors ahead after just five minutes, but Daryl Murphy swiftly equalised, with the visiting defence appealing for handball.
The hosts the won it early in the second half, David Connolly scoring the winner on 53 minutes.
Hatters: Dean Kiely, Kevin Foley, Leon Barnett, Lewis Emanuel, Markus Heikkinen, Steve Robinson, Carlos Edwards, Ahmet Brkovic, David Bell, Dean Morgan (Warren Feeney 76), Rowan Vine (Adam Boyd 76).
Subs not used: Marlon Beresford, Russell Perrett, Richard Langley.
Referee: Andy Penn.