By Gerry PrewettAfter an 8th placed finish last season Luton Town were hopeful of a serious promotion challenge this time around, looking to secure an automatic spot.
Currently without a Manager and in 14th place their hopes are perilous. By way of contrast Bristol Rovers are sitting in 4th place a full 10 points ahead of their Bedfordshire opponents for Saturday’s game at the Mem.
The Hatters struggled right from the start of the season and it wasn’t until a 5 September 3-1 victory at Cambridge that they achieved the first maximum points haul of the season. September proved to be a successful month for Town as they recorded 4 wins from the 5 League games played.
On Monday it was keeper Mark Tyler who almost single handedly held promotion hopefuls Portsmouth to their sixth goalless draw of the season. The 38-year-old custodian made point-blank saves to deny Gareth Evans and Marc McNulty besides a double save from Kyle Bennett and McNulty to earn his first clean sheet since 21 November.
Temporary Manager Andy Awford said after the game, "I'm delighted with the spirit and character of the players. They deserved that point today and they deserved that clean sheet. I'm delighted for everybody. We've conceded too many goals of late, haven't we? That's no secret. We needed to shore things up. We've been trying to do that and still be an attacking threat. Today, I think we were.”
After the poor 2-0 Boxing Day defeat to Wycombe, the 43-year-old made five changes and they at showed great determination to secure a first shut out in seven matches. "We weren't negative, we haven't settled for a point. I came here to win but we certainly came here not to lose. We've achieved that goal.”
"You've got to grind results out sometimes. All the best teams do that. When they're not playing so well they grind results out and take a point away from home. We were hoping we might be able to nick it on the counter."
Having previously Managed the South Coast team Awford observed, "I'm delighted with the point. It's a tough place to come and no one knows more than me what a difficult place it can be to play in. As an opposition, I thought the lads stood up to it really well. They showed bags of character, bags of resilience and they fully deserved their point today. It was a good point."
One person at Fratton Park who thought Pompey had made the breakthrough was their PA announcer. During the first half Pompey's Ben Davies hit a free-kick into the side-netting, causing celebration from fans from certain angles of Fratton Park. Before many realised the error of their ways, the PA system announced the goal over the tannoy system, much to the amusement of the 17,668 fans in attendance.
It was Awford’s first return to Fratton Park since his sacking as manager in April, "It was weird doing an overnight stay for a Portsmouth game when I live 20 minutes up the road. That was quite a different thing. We're all professional, we all know the law of the jungle. It wasn't just another game for me. It's a different squad that Paul [Cook – Portsmouth boss] has got there, it's a different staff, so it's not me players there anymore, so it's totally different.”
"If I'd have only left a couple of weeks ago it would have been a bit different but there's been a lot of time gone on and I wish them well, it's a fantastic club, is Portsmouth."
If the Bookmakers are to be believed David James is set to be appointed as the new manager shortly. He attended the club’s training ground on Wednesday and is closing in on his first managerial role in the English game. The 45-year-old has been coaching with the Hatters over the past 18 months and recently completed his UEFA A License coaching qualification.
The former England goalkeeper, who is also a boyhood Luton Town supporter, has already enjoyed a taste of management in the Indian Super League with Kerala Blasters, where he has player-manager. He led the club to become runners-up in the end of season play offs.
James was also in attendance on Boxing Day as Luton suffered a 2-0 defeat against Wycombe Wanderers. He has been the odds-on favourite for the role for a few days now as well. John Still was recently sacked after some indifferent performances and results over the past year.
Rovers have a long history of games against Luton Town going right back to the inaugural Division Three Season. Rovers won both those games, 2-1 at Kenilworth Road on New Years Day 1921 and 5-0 at Eastville on 29 March. In fact, despite meeting every season it wasn’t until 26 September 1925 that the Hatters recorded their first victory over the Pirates, a 1-0 win in Bedfordshire at the 11th attempt.
Without doubt the most notable match between the teams occurred on 13 April 1936 and it was certainly an unlucky day for Rovers. Town’s Joe Payne notched up a record 10 goals that day as his team recorded a 12-0 win over the hapless Rovers. Payne later recalled that one of those goals even went in off his backside! The teams had met 3 days before at Eastville and fought out a 2-2 draw, but there was no Joe Payne in the Hatters line-up. The previous January Rovers had gone down 6-2 at Kenilworth Road.
In the game at Kenilworth Road on 19th February 2000 Phil Gray gave the home team a 1-0 lead on 13 minutes, but goals by Jason Roberts (27 and 90 mins) and Jamie Cureton (38 and 58 mins) secured a memorable 4-1 win.
Rovers last League games, prior to Rovers early season away win, against the Bedfordshire team took place in 2007/08 season, when Rickie Lambert scored a stunning volley at Kenilworth Road as part of a double to give Rovers a 2-1 victory. The Boxing Day fixture at the Mem finished 1-1, with that man Rickie Lambert scoring a penalty and a David Edwards goal for the away team.
There hasn't been much to separate them down the years, but the Hatters do slightly have the upper hand, winning 35 games, losing 30 with the other 25 drawn. Luton have faced Rovers in the West Country 44 times and have struggled to get results, winning 8 games, losing 21 and drawing 15, scoring 53 goals and conceding 85.
One player who still believes the promotion dream is alive is Scottish defender Stephen O'Donnell "To be honest, I can't speak for everyone, but I'm still aiming for automatic," the 23-year-old said, "We have the squad, the players if there are injuries and managed to draw away to Pompey. It's a hard place to go and we showed the character that we have, but we need to show it on a regular basis."
Talking about his decision to try furthering his career in English football he went on to say, "I came down here to cement the number two position, right back, and I've not really managed to do that. Hopefully, whether a new manager comes in, or whether it's Andy, I do continue to work hard, which I've done. I hope no manager can level that at me and I'll see where it takes me.”
"Hopefully that will be with Luton further up the league. That's my aim, that's why I came here, to get Luton promoted. Until we can't get promoted automatically or in the play-offs, we'll keep fighting for that.”
"We have to wait and see, regarding the new manager and see how to kick on. They'll come in, somebody might not have you, that's football. They might love you and fingers crossed it's the latter."