A week ahead of the return of the Premier League, the English domestic football calendar gets moving this weekend with a full slate of EFL fixtures (as well as the Community Shield, for those who want to pretend that is anything other than a glorified pre-season friendly). First up in the Championship, we have the return of second-tier football to Luton’s Kenilworth Road. The Hatters take on a Middlesbrough side taking their first steps in the Jonathan Woodgate era; the former Boro, Leeds, Newcastle and Real Madrid centre-half is a novice manager, and tonight’s game will offer a chance to see how he has changed things from the disappointing 2018/19 season under Tony Pulis.
Luton, for their part, are also under new management. Caretaker boss Mick Harford continued the fine work of Nathan Jones after the latter’s departure to Stoke City, but the club cast a wide net in their search for a permanent boss, resulting in them catching former Wigan forward Graeme Jones. It’s a first senior management role for the journeyman striker, but a spell working under Roberto Martinez first at Everton, and then with the Belgian national side, makes him an intriguing appointment. Either the new boss will harness the undoubted benefits of his recent experience, or he’ll end up not even being the best Jones to have managed Luton Town recently. Either way, the journey should be worth watching.
Optimism a big driver for the Hatters
While the ambition of any club in the Championship will inevitably be to win promotion to the Premier League, Luton fans can be forgiven if they allow themselves a period of celebration just to be back in this division. Older readers may remember their sides of the 1980s; they won the League Cup in 1988, but missed out on European football thanks to the existing ban on English sides in UEFA competition. After the club’s relegation in 1992, things just kept getting worse, with Luton experiencing periods of administration and, at one point, falling out of the league completely. Getting back to where they are now is no small achievement.
Of course, opening the campaign in a live televised match on their home pitch is an even greater incentive to pick up three points. If they can manage that, then fans will begin to dream about this season delivering even greater rewards. However, they’ll have their work cut out for them tonight; at the moment, the squad is limited, and with the sale of right-back James Justin to Leicester they’ll need to rely heavily on teamwork. Middlesbrough, with Britt Assombalonga among a collection of effective forward players, will test the Luton defence and although the bookies have them as favourites, backing the Draw at Coral (9/4) seems a more realistic shout.
Emotion, unfamiliarity and caution all to play a part
The opening day – or weekend – of a league campaign is often hard to judge when it comes to prediction. Sides may have just been through pre-season, but the first league game is always the first chance to see how a newly-assembled squad handles the challenge of playing a game that actually matters. No-one wants to lose their first game, and because the instinctive understanding that fortifies a team has not yet been built, there is always an element of soft-pedalling involved as they seek to play themselves into form. So, unless there is an obvious mismatch between the sides, opening-day games can be niggly stalemates.
Given the relative newness of the two managers, the unfamiliarity between a side who spent 2016/17 playing in the Premier League and one which was in League Two at the time, and the desire not to get a new season off to a bad start, this is unlikely to be a pulsating, end-to-end attacking clash. Paddy Power have odds of 8/11 on there being fewer than 2.5 goals in the game, and those seem like pretty decent odds for a match both sides would be happy to draw 1-1.
Who will score the first goal of the season?
For a game as statistically rich as football, the first weekend of a season is always an interesting one. Players can put down a marker, teams can show in a competitive game that their title or promotion ambitions are genuine. Also, individuals can become the answer to a quiz question: “Who scored the first goal of x season in y league?”. Tonight, we could get the answer to that one (presuming the game doesn’t end in a goalless draw, which is always a possibility).
This game is tricky to call when it comes to picking the first scorer. While there is plenty of talent on both sides, none of the players involved could rightly be described as a “goal machine”. Luton’s main striker is Danny Hylton, whose eight goals in 25 league games last season hardly mark him out as the reincarnation of a Brian Stein or John Hartson.
For Middlesbrough, the attacking duo of Britt Assombalonga and Rudy Gestede has always promised more than it delivers, regardless of the latter’s gifts as a target man. Nonetheless, Assombalonga’s physical gifts – when on form – make him someone who could yet break out and have a big season in front of goal. Unibet’s price of 5/1 on him to break the deadlock here – third favourite behind Luton pair Hylton and James Collins – seems like a decent call for punters.
Bets of the Day
Draw (Coral, 9/4); Britt Assombalonga to score first (Unibet, 5/1); Fewer than 2.5 goals (Paddy Power, 8/11)