LUTON TOWN 1
EXETER CITY 1
Att: 7,657 (415 away)
The Hatters came from behind to take a point from this afternoon’s clash with fellow promotion chasers Exeter City at Kenilworth Road, with top scorer Danny Hylton heading in his 23rd goal of the season a couple of minutes after the game-changing arrival of new dad Ollie Palmer.
Jake Taylor had given the Grecians the lead just before the hour, but in the 67th minute Town boss Nathan Jones threw on sub Palmer – who became father for the first time on Thursday to son, Vinny Donald – and within seconds he had created the equaliser for Hylton.
Palmer had had just seven hours’ sleep since Monday with partner Caitlin going into a 46-hour labour almost as soon as she picked him up following his return home from the midweek trip to Carlisle at 5am on Wednesday.
The sleep-deprived on-loan Leyton Orient striker brought the game to life, however, with a shot cleared off the line, another hitting the bar and then a great right-wing cross for Hylton to net – all within the first two minutes of his arrival in place of Luke Gambin.
Following the midweek draw at Carlisle, Jones made three changes with Jack Senior returning at left-back in place of Dan Potts, who suffered concussion on Tuesday night, while midfielder Jonathan Smith and striker Jack Marriott came back into the side in place of Olly Lee and Isaac Vassell.
The Hatters started positively, with some good interplay around the box leading to a penalty shout when Marriott went down under a challenge by Exeter skipper Jordan Moore-Taylor.
Referee Trevor Kettle waved play on, but Moore-Taylor stayed down injured and – after a chance for Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu went begging – he had to be replaced with what looked like a cut to the head.
In the 15th minute Kettle penalised Troy Brown for a foul on Marriott out wide on the left, and Jordan Cook whipped in a great free-kick towards Glen Rea at the far post, but an Exeter head managed to divert danger away.
Town were playing some decent stuff and Hylton controlled a lovely ball down the left from Senior, taking him past his man inside the box, but Brown got back to block as the leading scorer pulled the trigger.
The Grecians reminded the home defence of the threat that has carried them from the foot of the table just before Christmas to play-off contention, with Reuben Reid getting the wrong side of Rea to the right of the Town area, but Matt Macey made a solid near-post save.
Smith had the Hatters’ next opportunity on 27 minutes, at the end of a good move involving Marriott, Mpanzu and Stephen O’Donnell, but his volley at full stretch proved too high.
Just after the half-hour, Cook curled a 30-yard free-kick inches wide after Mpanzu was fouled, before a smart save from goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik kept Exeter on terms when Marriott met O’Donnell’s first-time cross with a glancing header, Hylton firing the loose ball over.
The Hatters were well on top and another chance came in the 40th minute when Cook threaded an eye-of-a-needle ball through to O’Donnell, who delivered another dangerous cross to the near post that flashed just in front of the sliding Marriott and into Olejnik’s grateful arms.
Exeter had the half’s final chance when Reid’s glancing header from Lloyd James’ deep free-kick drifted wide of the far post, and they also had the first two of the second – Sheehan blocking Reid’s initial shot before the City striker blasted the rebound high into the Oak Road End on 47 minutes.
Five minutes later they went closer still, Brown heading an Ollie Watkins cross against the bar from close range.
That was a let-off for the Hatters, who responded immediately with a thunderous volley from Mpanzu from fully 25 yards that Olejnik beat away in the centre of the Grecians’ goal.
Jones soon introduced Vassell for Marriott, and he was soon looking to get on the end of a cross from Gambin, who had jinked his way to the left-byline and stood up a terrific delivery that the City defence managed to smuggle away.
It was the visitors who took a 59th-minute lead, however, when Jack Stacey raced down the right and cut back for Taylor to fire low across Macey into the bottom corner.
Skipper Sheehan’s shoulder had popped out in the build-up to the goal, but the Irishman showed great determination to stay on the pitch and attempt to lead the comeback.
It was getting nearer in the 64th minute Gambin when got to the left byline again to deliver another dangerous cross, Olejnik punched clear and Cook cracked a volley goalwards that a defender deflected wide for a corner,
Then Jones brought Palmer on for Gambin and the striker almost scored with his first touch in the 67th minute, but Luke Croll got back to clear off the line before the on-loan Leyton Orient man grazed the top of the crossbar with his follow-up effort.
A minute later, however, the Town substitute impacted the game in the best way possible, doing brilliantly on the right to whip in a wonderful outswinging cross that Hylton met with a powerful header beyond Olejnik for the equaliser.
Palmer had another go on 71 minutes, heading Cook’s corner goalward but Olejnik was in the right place once again, then O’Donnell got in on the right once more at the end of a lovely move involving Hylton and Mpanzu, but his low cross was cleared at the near post.
Olly Lee came on for Cook in the 81st minute as Jones made his last change, and from the restart Hylton thought he’d given his side the lead, latching onto Vassell’s flick-on and rounding Olejnik to roll the ball over the line, but the assistant referee’s flag was raised for offside.
Macey had to be alert in the 85th minute to turn Watkins’ low cross-shot behind with his feet, and it was to be the last sense of danger before the Town drove forward looking for a winner.
They had plenty of territory, but it wouldn’t come – Olejnik denying Palmer again as he drove into the area in the last minute of four added on – and they had to settle for a second draw in a row.
TOWN: Macey, O’Donnell, Rea, Sheehan ©, Senior, Mpanzu, Cook (Lee 81), Smith, Gambin (Palmer 67), Hylton, Marriott (Vassell 55). Subs: Moore (GK), D’Ath, Palmer, Justin, Famewo
Yellows: Sheehan, Senior
EXETER: Olejnik, Woodman, James, Harley, Wheeler, Watkins, Moore-Taylor (Croll 6), Taylor (Oakley 86), Stacey, Reid (Tillson 74), Brown. Subs: Grant, Hamon, Ampadu, Sweeney
REFEREE: Trevor Kettle