Luton Town 2
Wilkinson 2, Howells 66
Oxford United 0
The Town made it four matches unbeaten and kept a fourth consecutive clean sheet to continue their rise up the League 2 table in a comfortable win over Oxford United.
The Hatters made the perfect start when birthday boy Luke Wilkinson headed in Jake Howells’ cross after just 80 seconds on his 24th birthday.
Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu almost doubled the Town’s advantage moments later, but it wasn’t until the second half that the Hatters made the game safe when Howells tucked home a rebound after his penalty was saved by Oxford keeper Sam Long.
That goal was enough to knock the stuffing out of an Oxford side who had missed a series of opportunities to equalise, and it enabled the Hatters to see out the victory which moved them up to 10th place in the table and level on points with the team in the final Play-Off place.
With a sickness bug and injury robbing the Town of a number of players, John Still was forced into four changes with winger Shaun Whalley making his first league start for the Town since October last year, and midfielder Nathan Doyle given his debut in central midfield. Howells and Jonathan Smith were also recalled after overcome injury.
A 9,000-plus crowd ramped up the atmosphere in the two clubs’ first meeting since February 2009 and the Town gave their followers the perfect start by taking the lead with their first chance. Howells curled in a lovely free-kick from the right and Wilkinson rose majestically to plant a towering header beyond Long. Kenilworth Road rejoiced.
The frenetic start continued, and the Hatters spurned a glorious chance to double their lead just 30 seconds later when Ruddock sliced a shot wide after Whalley had helped the ball on from the penalty spot.
That missed could have proved costly as Oxford slowly but surely worked their way back into the game. Highly-rated young midfielder Callum O’Dowda tested Mark Tyler with a low shot from distance on 15 minutes as the U’s began to show signs of recovery from their disastrous start.
The Hatters almost gifted United a goal on 27 minutes when Alex Lacey – playing at right-back in the absence of both Curtley Williams and Paul Connolly – allowed Brian Howard to steal in on his blind side but, to the defender’s relief, the Oxford man’s shot was blocked.
United continued to press. Tyrone Barnett almost set-up Danny Hylton but he mis-kicked moments later before Brian Howard saw a free-kick clip the Hatters wall.
However, as half-time approached, back came the Town. Mark Cullen tested Long with a fierce drive from an acute angle, but Oxford then threatened on 37 minutes when O’Dowda’s well-hit effort whistled over Tyler’s crossbar.
After the break it was the visitors who started strongly and Tyler came to the Hatters’ rescue on 57 minutes with a superb save to keep out Barnett’s deflected shot from the edge of the box. A moment later, however, Barnett spurned an even better chance when he headed O’Dowda’s perfect left-wing cross from six yards.
The miss proved costly for United as on 66 minutes the Town made it 2-0. Johnny Mullins’ inexplicable handball handed Howells the chance to score from the spot and although Howells’ effort was saved by Long, diving to his right, the Hatters man was first to the loose ball to poke home.
It was the first time the Town had scored twice in a game at Kenilworth Road and, with a two-goal cushion, the Hatters kept Oxford at arms’ length as they watched the visitors play in front of them.
Half chances came and went for both sides but in truth at 2-0 it was game over. However, Tyler had the final say with another save when this time in the right place at the right time to catch Barnett’s header from inside the penalty area in the dying moments.
It meant the Town kept yet another clean sheet to make it 382 minutes since conceding. Up to 10th in the table and within touching distance of the Play-Offs…as Terry Harris said afterwards “the train is off and running.”
TOWN: Tyler; Lacey, Griffiths, McNulty, Wilkinson; Doyle (sub Drury 67), Smith (sub Stevenson 72), Ruddock Mpanzu; Howells, Whalley (sub Lafayette 51), Cullen. Subs: Guttridge, Robinson, Walker, Justham.