Ruddock 83, Gray 87
A stirring comeback in the final seven minutes saw the Hatters record a crucial 2-1 win at Dartford to keep them 13 points clear at the top of the table with six games to go.
Trailing to a first half header from home striker Mikel Suarez the Town looked out of ideas, but the dismissal of Darts midfielder Kenny Clark with eight minutes left turned the game in the Hatters’ favour.
Substitute Pelly Ruddock rifled home a sublime equaliser within a minute before leading goalscorer Andre Gray completed the turnaround with a bullet header with just three minutes left to seal a priceless win in the Town’s pursuit of the title.
The Town began showing one change to the side that lost at Halifax with Jake Howells replacing Ruddock in midfield.
In front of almost 2,000 travelling fans the Hatters began on the front foot from the off. Matt Robinson shot wide on eight minutes.
Five minutes later the Town came mighty close to taking the lead when Gray sped clear of the home defence only to see his low shot saved by the legs of Alan Julian in the Darts goal. The ball spun high into the night’s sky but was headed wide by Howells with the goal gaping.
As the Town continued to press, Fraser Franks saw a header from a left-wing corner from Alex Lawless blocked on 15 minutes before Dartford began to fight back.
The home side came close themselves on 19 minutes when the Hatters failed to deal with a right-wing cross from Lee Noble, and after Max Cornhill missed his kick, Elliot Bradbrook volleyed inches wide of the target from 12 yards.
On 22 minutes the Darts weren’t far away once more; this time Steve McNulty was in the right place at the right time to steer Cornhill’s poke at goal away from danger.
Dartford had done well to negate the Hatters’ attacking play but the Town worked the ball centrally to Cameron McGeehan on the half-hour only for the Norwich loanee to rifle a shot just wide from the edge of the box.
All of a sudden the Town rediscovered their threat in the final third and Paul Benson was mighty unlucky to see his deft header from a dangerous left-wing cross from Howells come back off the inside of the post on 31 minutes.
However, the Hatters were hit by a sucker punch three minutes later when the Darts took the lead. A left-wing corner from Noble was met by a powerful header from Suarez and his effort flew past the exposed Mark Tyler.
Ahead, the Darts weren’t far away from doubling their lead two minutes later when Danny Harris skied a great opportunity high over Tyler’s crossbar from 10 yards.
The home side came even closer to making it 2-0 on 39 minutes when Cornhill bundled an effort wide of the target following a right-wing corner and that spurred the Town onto upping the ante before the break.
McGeehan failed to get a header on target on 41 minutes before the home defence’s Tyrone Sterling cleared brilliantly inside his own six-yard box to prevent Howells’ devilish from finding Benson.
As time ticked towards the half-time break, a similar block inside the box then denied Gray from poking home in the Town’s final chance of the first half.
Unhappy at the Town’s failure to create any chances in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, John Still introduced Mark Cullen and Ruddock from the bench within two minutes of one another in an attempt to find an equaliser.
The Town came close to finding one on 58 minutes when a long ball into the Dartford box dropped into Gray’s path but the striker’s low left-foot shot across goal rolled agonisingly wide of the post.
Back came Dartford; Tyler stopping a low shot from centre-half Cornhill a minute later before the Town stopper sprawled himself to smother a shot from Sterling after the defender’s mazy run forward.
Still made his third and final change with a quarter of the game left, sending on Luke Rooney in the place of Howells and the Town almost crafted a chance when Lawless headed across goal into McGeehan’s path but his header was claimed by Julian.
The Hatters, whilst enjoying the lion’s share of possession, failed to seriously test Julian as time ticked away.
With 12 minutes to go the Town were helped in their quest to find a late leveller when home midfielder Clark was shown a straight red card for a nasty foul on Lawless.
Three minutes later the Town took advantage by equaliser in sensational style through Ruddock. McNulty broke up play as Dartford looked to break and the ball fell at the feet of Ruddock and he unleashed an unstoppable strike from the edge of the box that flew into the top corner.
Level, and with a man advantage, it was all the Town and the Hatters came within a whisker of making it 2-1 on 86 minutes when Rooney’s shot on the turn was deflected on to the crossbar.
But the Hatters hordes didn’t have long to wait to celebrate when a minute later they got the winner. Dartford failed to clear their lines and Ronnie Henry’s right wing cross was met by the thumping head of Gray whose effort whizzed past Julian. It was his 27th goal of the season.
Four added minutes followed but by then Dartford’s challenge had weakened and the Hatters held to record a second successive Tuesday night victory having trailed.
It’s so close now…get down to Kenilworth Road on Saturday for the visit of Aldershot.
Town: Tyler; Henry, Griffiths, McNulty, Franks; Lawless, Robinson (sub Ruddock 57), McGeehan, Howells (sub Rooney 68); Gray, Benson (sub Cullen 55). Subs not used: Charles, Justham.
Attendance: 2,869, including a magnificent 1,828 backing the Hatters.