LUTON TOWN 3
HARTLEPOOL UNITED 0
Att: 6,965 (90 away)
The Hatters rose to the challenge of a Valentine’s night visit from Hartlepool United with a 3-0 victory that maintained the pressure on the automatic promotion places in Sky Bet League Two.
Danny Hylton opened the scoring on five minutes with his 18th goal of the season, before Luke Gambin opened his Town account eight minutes later and substitute Ollie Palmer did likewise late on to make sure of the three points.
Nathan Jones’ lads remain fourth, three points behind Carlisle, but have moved closer to leaders Doncaster and second-placed Plymouth – the Town’s next two opponents who both lost tonight – after making it three straight home wins and ten goals scored in all competitions over the past week.
Jones made three changes to the starting line-up from Saturday’s 2-1 home win over Crawley.
Johnny Mullins returned to the heart of defence after serving his four-game ban, with captain Scott Cuthbert dropping to the bench. Alan Sheehan was handed the captain's armband as January signings Gambin and Lawson D'Ath came into midfield, with Jonathan Smith and Jordan Cook missing out.
The Hatters had the lead in the fifth minute, and it was that man Hylton – who had already had two sighters in the first couple of minutes – who was on target yet again.
It started with a long, drilled pass from goalkeeper Matt Macey to Isaac Vassell, who laid the ball off to Gambin. The ex-Barnet man looked up and saw Hylton peel off the shoulder of his marker, then picked him out with a delightful ball that the striker chested down and slipped past Joe Fryer for 1-0.
It was almost two five minutes later when Sheehan’s free-kick from the right edge of the box, after Gambin had been brought down, brought a smart save at his near post from Fryer, before Hylton headed the resulting corner over the bar.
Vassell was next to try his luck after some incisive build-up play down the left with Jack Senior, but the second goal wasn’t long in coming - and it was Gambin who registered his first goal for the club.
Sheehan clipped a lovely ball down the left and Gambin, making his fourth start for the Town, took advantage of some hesitancy between the visiting centre-halves to latch onto the loose ball and strike it crisply past Fryer into the bottom corner from just inside the box.
D’Ath was impressing every time he got the ball and, after Vassell just failed to connect with one delightful right-wing cross from the ex-Northampton wideman, he set Hylton free again to rifle another 20-yard effort at goal, this time straight at the Monkey Hangers’ keeper.
Hartlepool’s first attempt on goal – in fact, the first time they’d been in the Town penalty area – came on 28 minutes when Lewis Alessandra, on as an early sub for injured centre-half Matthew Bates, headed Nathan Thomas’ right-wing corner inches wide of the far post.
Just after the half-hour, Hylton looked to get on the end of a good cross from right-back O’Donnell, then – from the resulting corner – Glen Rea headed goalwards and was only denied his third goal of the season by a visiting defender blocking on the line.
The game meandered towards half-time with the Town dominant, but not managing to rediscover the cutting edge of the opening quarter-of-an-hour, and it was the visitors who started the second half on the front foot, Thomas firing wide when off-balance and Rea having to hack a left-wing corner away from the far post.
In the 53rd minute D’Ath tried to spark a bit of life back into the game with an effort from distance, then Hylton skipped past two defenders in the box and took aim from 12 yards, but his attempted curler was too high for the top corner.
Vassell raced onto a Hylton through ball on 58 minutes, but Fryer got down low to parry the striker’s left-foot shot, and just after the hour, Hartlepool reminded the Town they were still in the game when Michael Woods fired narrowly over Macey’s crossbar.
Visiting manager Dave Jones then introduced top scorer Padraig Amond from the bench and within seconds, O’Donnell had to be alert to produce a last-ditch tackle to deny Thomas a clear run at goal, then Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu – making his 100th appearance for the Town – had to clear behind for a second corner in quick succession as the men from the north-east looked for a way back.
Hatters boss Jones made a double substitution on 73 minutes, taking off strike pairing Hylton and Vassell and bringing Jack Marriott and Palmer on in their place, but it was Hartlepool who had the next effort on goal, Thomas swinging his left boot and testing Macey from 20 yards.
The Hatters made sure of victory with nine minutes of normal time remaining, however, and it was Palmer whose persistence on the right wing, in harrying possession out of Scott Harrison, earned the fortune that came his way when an attempted cut-back to Marriott was deflected back to his feet.
The Leyton Orient loanee did the rest from close range, tucking the ball past Fryer at his near post and racing towards the Town fans in G Block to celebrate.
He was almost celebrating again four minutes later when he won the ball on the left by-line, right in front of those same applauding supporters, and blasted a low shot that Fryer this time dropped down to keep out.
In the final minute of normal time Rea glanced a header wide from Sheehan’s deep free-kick, then – a minute into injury-time – Marriott forced another good save out of Fryer with a stinging 20-yarder.
Three was enough, however, on a night that started convincingly and finished comfortably, albeit without catching Carlisle.
It’s six wins and one defeat in nine in all competitions, and next up are league leaders Doncaster on Saturday to kick-off a massive week for the Town.
TOWN: Macey, O'Donnell, Mullins, Sheehan (c), Senior, Rea, D'Ath (Smith 66), Mpanzu, Gambin, Hylton (Palmer 73), Vassell (Marriott 73). Subs: Cuthbert, Gray, Justin, Moore (GK)
HARTLEPOOL: Fryer, Featherstone (c), Bates (Alessandra 14), Thomas, Walker, Oats, Woods, Nelson (Amond 61), Harrison, Richardson, Kavanagh. Subs: Bartlett (GK), Hawkins, Rooney, Martin, Hawkes
Yellows: Thomas, Richardson
REFEREE: John Brooks